Fellini’s Folly

One of the defining moments of the 1960s was Federico Fellini's movie La Dolce Vita, with its famous opening scene: A helicopter sweeps over the city of Rome, hauling a statue of Jesus on a rope. Women sunbathing on a rooftop look up and exchange sexual banter with the men in the helicopter. It was the perfect symbol for the modern world: God is being carted off-out of the city and out of our lives-and modern culture cares only about the good life, la dolce vita. One bikini-clad sunbather glances up and remarks casually, "Oh, it's Jesus," and waves. That says it all: Religion is irrelevant; eat, drink, and be sexy. But if this was Fellini in the sixties, what's he doing now, in the nineties? In a recent interview with People magazine, we see him facing the emptiness of the view of life he helped create. As a youngster, Fellini told People, he was drawn to movies as an escape from a regimented childhood in pre-war Italy. In his Catholic grade school, students were made to kneel on rough kernels of dried corn. On weekends he was required to don a child-sized Fascist uniform and marched around the town square. His only relief was watching American movies: Popeye, Felix the Cat. "To people of my generation," Fellini told People, "the picture show was really another dimension: sensual, whimsical . . . a place where little boys like me could laugh and feel free." When he grew up, it was this "other dimension" where Fellini wanted to live-a world of imagination where he was free to create whatever he liked. "Movie directors think they are like God," he says-speaking perhaps of himself. But today Fellini feels a little less divine. He's more than 70 years old and beginning to face his mortality. His head is nearly bald; he tires easily. As he grows too old to create imaginary worlds on celluloid, he has to face the real world. And for that world, he has few answers. Fellini's life is a vivid illustration of the bankruptcy of the existentialist humanism that flourished in the sixties-where the self is god. Humanism teaches that there are no objective truths, no eternal verities, no binding moral laws. The subjective self creates its own rules and its own world. That's what Fellini tried to do in a visual way on the movie screen. But there's a point for everyone where the real world impinges on the subjective worlds we create. For Fellini that point is his own mortality. His latest film, Intervista, is autobiographical, reliving his earlier career. In it, Fellini seems to be trying to hold on to his youth. "Cinema offers us a time that stands still," he says hopefully. But in the real world, time never stands still. It carries us inexorably to a day of reckoning, when we will give an account of our lives to God. Fellini may have symbolically carted Jesus off with a helicopter and tried to create his own reality through movies. But today the film reel is winding down, the theater doors are closing. Even humanists can't live in an imaginary world forever.


Chuck Colson


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