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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Circuses and a Dose of Fantasy Helped Shape Fellini's Life : I, FELLINI by Charlotte Chandler ; Random House $25, 377 pages

October 26, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

For years, Federico Fellini gave increasingly fantasized accounts of having run away as a child to join the circus. In fact the escape lasted no more than an afternoon; a family friend spotted the 7-year-old and dragged him home. His mother sent him to bed without supper, subsequently coming in with a laden tray.

Circuses, fantasy, escape and a child's hope that a woman would bring him a good dinner at the end of it all were the pulse of Fellini's life and career. He started under the neo-realist patronage of Roberto Rossellini, for whom he helped write "Open City," but his bent lay elsewhere. Not in the streets--in "La Strada," these were simply a circus ring for the wistful clown he created in Giulietta Masina's Gelsumina.

When he was little, Fellini staged puppet shows in his bedroom. All his filmmaking life he eschewed real locations, preferring instead to make his worlds on the sound stages of Cinecitta: a child's puppet theater grown big. "The puppets I knew as a child live among my strongest memories and seem closer to me now than the people who populated my young life," he tells Charlotte Chandler in the course of conversations that went on intermittently over the last 14 years of his life and are collected, with a memoir by Chandler, in "I, Fellini."

"Even as a child I drew pictures not of a person but of the picture in my mind of the person," Fellini says. His memory of his brief circus foray away from his bedroom puppets and back to them, is the memory of an image. But what an image: In Fellini's moon-soil, seeds of reality sprouted a vegetation never before imagined and never afterward forgotten.

"Before I was taken away, I had made connections that would last all my life. A circus bond had been forged: I had talked with a clown, I had washed a zebra . . . a sick zebra who seemed very sad. I was told he wasn't feeling well because someone had fed him a chocolate bar. From that day on, I never forgot how a zebra felt."

The village girl seeking her pop-mag hero in "The White Sheik," Gelsumina and Cabiria, the helicoptered cross flying over "La Dolce Vita's" carnal Rome: All these are something different from the zebra per se or even the actual feeling of touching a zebra. They are what touching a zebra ignites later on inside a child alone with his puppets.

Fellini's talk is extracted from many conversations, meals and walks in the course of what was in any event a flirtatious friendship. (Chandler, whose photograph appears several times among the illustrations, is somewhat flirtatious about it herself.) It ranges over his childhood, his career, his intensely personal approach to making films--all of them are about him, he says--his theories about men, women and sex, and his loving 50-year marriage to Masina, despite quarrels and his frequent though rigorously unspecified infidelities.

*

There is a lot of rambling, a lot of tediously hazy introspection and a good deal of repetition. We read in Chandler's memoir a certain amount of what we have already read in the conversations, though she gives a colorful portrait of her subject at talk and lunch--he loved to eat--and a poignant account of the simultaneous final illnesses of Fellini and his wife. She died a few months after he did.

There are splendid moments throughout, though. At his first meeting with Anita Ekberg: "You are my imagination come to life," the Italian exclaimed. "I do not go to bed with you," replied the Swede. There was his wish that Nadia Gray wear white underwear under a black dress for her striptease. It seemed sexy to him, but she told him that no woman would feel sexy that way, and he gave in. Later, after criticism of "Juliet of the Spirits," he would regret not listening to Masina's indignant advice about feminine psychology.

There are comic complaints about interviewers. They stay for hours, remain impassive despite his efforts to amuse them, insist on long follow-ups and then, often as not, nothing appears. "Where do all the interviewers go that vanish? Why do people who interview me leave my office and go join the Foreign Legion?" Part of the problem was that he regarded an interview, like his films, as a work of the imagination.

Less comic was his struggle with producers. After "La Dolce Vita," he could get money, but only for what the producers had in mind. After "8 1/2" and "Juliet of the Spirits," they had less and less in mind; certainly not for the kind of experiments he was interested in. His fame grew steadily; his power--to make films--slipped away. His last works were three commercials for the Bank of Rome.

At least it was Rome. His passion and Masina's for the city was all but mystical, and it was returned. After she had her purse snatched, Fellini got a visit from a man in the color-uncoordinated garb of the Roman milieu. A few days later the purse was returned, and then a letter: "Excuse us, Gelsumina."

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