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For its new summer exhibition, TIFF Bell Lightbox turned to a subject bound to intrigue and delight many curious visitors: the colorful world of Italian cinema Maestro Federico Fellini. Following a 2009 premiere at Paris’ Jeu de Paume, Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions will be on display in its only North American venue at TIFF Bell Lightbox from June 30th to September 18th, 2011, making it a particularly rare treat. The exhibition, organized by TIFF Bell Lightbox Artistic Director Noah Cowan, feels like a natural step forward following the success of the Tim Burton showcase from the previous winter: while maintaining a focus on highly creative, imagination-driven artists, it subtly shifts from the mainstream popularity of Burton’s work to themes more rooted in historical trends and classic arthouse cinema.

The key areas explored in Spectacular Obsessions are photography, celebrity culture, cinema and how all of them were magnified and intermingled by Fellini throughout his career. His 1960 film La Dolce Vita serves as the most relevant document of the era being evoked: it famously elevated the term “paparazzi” into everyday vocabulary while leading viewers into a memorable whirlwind of star worship, sex and excess in contemporary Italy. While the breadth of Fellini’s career is addressed, from his early days as a cartoonist and screenwriter to later films like City of Women (1980), Ginger and Fred (1986) and The Voice of the Moon (1990), it is that great, fruitful stretch in the late 1950s and early 1960s from which came Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ (1963) that is the primary point of reference for the exhibit.

Fellini: A peek inside

Fellini: A peek inside

After being greeted by an interactive wall mural in which La Dolce Vita ‘s hordes of photojournalists flash their cameras at passersby, visitors will emerge into a refreshingly open space. Designed by Barr Gilmore, the exhibit organizes the 400-plus assorted treasures around a central “street” modeled after Rome’s Via Veneto. The street itself is depicted in a wall-sized photo of a lively nightlife scene taken by celebrated photographer Marcello Geppetti. Imaginative touches enhance the space: chic neon signs symbolizing some of Fellini’s personal obsessions (a smiling clown’s face for the circus, the symbol of Venus for women, a white cross for Catholicism and so forth) point the way to different themed areas. Perhaps most interesting (and noticeable) is the considerable amount of scaffolding used to shape the various rooms and spaces, which Gilmore wanted to use to recreate the restoration projects that are constantly seen throughout Rome. The metal posts and plywood also bring to mind the film sets that Fellini used so often at Cinecittà Studios; the towering, absurd spaceship set memorably featured in 8 ½ and the artificial nature of the cinema that the director increasingly exposed in a playful manner as his career progressed.

Fellini: Via Veneto reimagined

Fellini: Via Veneto reimagined

A generous portion of the exhibition is devoted to the rise of the paparazzi, which emerged as a more aggressive, in-your-face breed of photojournalist than had previously existed in the media. Geppetti’s work is specifically given welcome attention, allowing many to discover this talented and influential photographer through his images of such famous names as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Brigitte Bardot and The Beatles. Also on display are photos taken on the set of La Dolce Vita by Fellini’s then-camera operator Arturo Zavattini, considered some of the first examples of the candid on-set photography style that would become a regular facet of promotional material for films.

The mythos of Fellini is ever-present throughout the exhibit, emerging in the shape of some wonderful pieces. Many of his legendary collaborators are properly represented, among them actor Marcello Mastroianni, composer Nino Rota and, of course, actress Giulietta Masina, his beloved wife. Seven beautiful vintage posters for such films as The White Sheik (1952), La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria and Roma (1972) are included, all of them stunning pieces of graphic art. The fantastical side of Fellini’s imagination can be seen in production designer Dante Ferretti’s moon prop made for the Maestro’s final work, The Voice of the Moon , and several detailed, eye-popping illustrations based on his dreams ““ all capped by the massive Book of Dreams, presented within a glass showcase like a grimoire filled with dark, strange spells.

Fellini: Moto Guzzi

Fellini: Moto Guzzi

Several more genuine prizes abound, most notably a whole wall of magazines sporting Swedish La Dolce Vita icon Anita Ekberg on their covers and a red 1953 Moto Guzzi motorcycle. Beyond this splendid exhibition, visitors will be even further indulged by two accompanying film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox. One of them is Days of Glory: Masterworks of Italian Neorealism (July 28th-August 28th), highlighting such important directors as Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The other, Fellini/Felliniesque: “Dream” Double Bills (June 30th-August 26th), echoes a strategy used for the recent Tim Burton retrospective by pairing Fellini works with others by different filmmakers. The twist here is that the selections were made by respected film folks like directors Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, screenwriter James Schamus, actress and filmmaker Isabella Rossellini and critic Molly Haskell, all of whom providing some truly fascinating double bills that invite viewers to compare and contrast Fellini with Argento, Chaplin, Fassbinder, Gilliam and more.

With the organization of all of these inspiring events, TIFF has created a stunning incentive to dive into the richness of Italy’s illustrious legacy in the visual arts. Be it the enlightening discovery of Geppetti and Zavattini’s photographs, appreciation of the neorealist touchstones or pure enjoyment of Fellini’s fun, lively works, these attractions will no doubt spark countless valuable cultural experiences over the next few months.

Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions will run from June 30th to September 18th, 2011. Tickets are $12 for regular admission; $9.25 for students and seniors; $8.25 for children and youths. Further details on the exhibition and film programs can be found at http://www.tiff.net/fellini.