How Strange to be Named Federico (Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico--2013) is Ettore Scola’s final film, a documentary about the life of Frederico Fellini emphasizing his own friendship with the great director. It is composed of recreated and dramatized scenes as well as clips from Fellini’s work. It’s a fanciful homage that in its conflation of life with art summons up Fellini’s films themselves as well as James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. An aged narrator leads us from one event to another, introducing us to Fellini when as a young man he joined the staff of the satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio before the start of the second world war. We move through Fellini’s unsuccessful attempts to write for the stage, his collaborations and work with other directors, and finally to the making of his own films. The narrator tells us that Fellini sought to combat his insomnia late at night by driving through the streets of Rome along with Scola, stopping to gaze at and comment on interesting scenes and people as they encountered them—street painters, prostitutes, and so on. Often, they would offer these people rides. Characters based on some of these people found their way into the films.
I did not know that Fellini drew sketches, lampoonish cartoons, of characters he was planning for his films—this makes sense, given his work for the magazine that specialized in humor and cartoons. The film shows many of his sketches and drawings. We visit the studio where he made his films. This film has a gentle edge of satire, but is admiring in tone. Impressionistic and dreamlike—like many of Fellini’s films—Scola’s documentary may not give a literally factual account of the director’s life (though the facts cited seem to be accurate) so much as an imaginative and emotionally evocative portrait. The last ten minutes, a powerful, imagistic pastiche of scenes and objects and people associated with Fellini’s work, are truly wonderful. I take it that the final view of Scola sitting on the beach, gazing at the setting sun (in imitation of a sketch Fellini drew of himself) makes clear that he knew this would be his final film. Scola downplays his own film career in this documentary, keeping the focus on Fellini.