12:15PM, Saturday May 2
Randwick Ritz

Director: Marie-Dominique Montel and Christopher Jones
Country: France
Year: 2014
Runtime: 55 minutes
Rating: UC15+

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Novelist, biographer, filmmaker and critic John Baxter returns to Australia to present a program dedicated to the memory of the Italian master Federico Fellini whose 100th anniversary takes place in 2020. Baxter will join ABC Radio film critic Jason Di Rosso in conversation, bringing us a vivid portrait of the filmmaker, his life and work. Much will be drawn from Baxter’s friendship with Fellini, an acquaintance developed during the course of preparing the most recent and only authorized biography of the director published in English. The conversation will be followed by the Australian premiere of Fellini vs Visconti: Italian Standoff, a remarkable documentary by Marie-Dominique Montel and Christopher Jones devoted to the decades-long feud between Fellini and his artistic rival Luchino Visconti. John Baxter will also introduce Fellini’s 1957 classic Nights of Cabiria at Cinema Reborn screenings in Sydney and Melbourne.

Fellini vs Visconti: Italian Standoff screens as part of Celebrating Frederico Fellini, a series which also includes Nights of Cabiria.

Cinema Reborn is grateful for the support of the Instituto Italiano Di Cultura in the presentation of our Tribute to Federico Fellini.

An extract from Filmstruck: A Life in the Movies by John Baxter, a privately printed book, Paris, 2020.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.

Looking for Fefé

On a chill morning in February 1990, I sat with my new French fiancée in her tiny studio on Place Dauphine, a triangle of swept sand and bare chestnut trees within sight of Notre Dame and the Louvre.  With an eye to its shape and position at the very groin of the city, André Breton, pope of the Surrealists, had named it le sexe de Paris. From her window, one could see the office on Quai des Orfevres once occupied, - had he existed – by Commissaire Jules Maigret. Anyone hoping to make his literary mark here had his work cut out for him.

For the moment, that person was me. Three months ago, I’d been happily at home in Los Angeles. Then romance arrived in the person of Marie Dominique, and I found myself in Paris, and severely overmatched.

“I can’t do here what I was doing in LA,” I told her. “No screenplay work here. And there are already more than enough journalists covering the French film scene.”

“Mmm,” she said.

“And though I could probably get some radio work from the BBC in London, the money is so poor….”


We watched the wind blow a few early tourists across the little park. They looked as desolate as I had begun to feel.

“Perhaps,” she said, ashing her first cigarette of the day – like most Frenchwomen, she could make this gesture look as if drawn by Matisse – “you could write a book?”

It had been years since I published anything ambitious. Screenwriting, journalism, teaching  – the small change of literature – had kept me comfortable, but also, I had to admit, unadventurous.

“I suppose, What sort of book?”

“About...” The cigarette again. If anyone ever asked me why I moved here... “the cinema?”

“Mmmm….”  Now  I was doing it. Should I take up smoking too?

I tried to concentrate. Was there even a market for film books? Occasionally I was sent one for review but I turned most down rather than face the slog through two hundred pages of – generally – tedium.


A few months before, I’d read a life of director Luchino Visconti. The film press thought it said too little about his films, but I liked its concentration on Visconti as a person. I finished it feeling  I had met this torrentially talented but infuriating man.

Another Italian film personality played a role in Visconti’s story; someone with none of his aristocracy or education, but blessed with a quality of the irrational that was unique. Rafael Sabatini began his novel Scaramouche by writing of his swashbuckling hero “He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” Well, this man had that sense in spades.

“What about Fellini?” I said.

"Oh?” Marie Dominique raised her eyebrows. “You don’t think....an American? But….Fellini. Yes. well, why not?” She looked out the window, as into a crystal ball. The sky had the hard grey of a dead TV tube. “Where was he born?"

"Somewhere along the Adriatic, I think. Rimini?"

She crushed out her butt in the chipped Lalique cendrier. Smoke blended with her perfume in a way that made me feel urgently that we should go back to bed.

"It might snow," she said. "We should not leave today."

I blinked. "Leave?"

“For Rimini, évidemment.”  

The storm that followed us across France waited to dump its snow just as we reached the Alps. Toilng up Mont Blanc, dwarfed by labouring sixteen-wheelers, we let ourselves be swallowed by the eleven-kilometre tunnel that sloped into Switzerland.  At the other end, in the chic ski resort of Courchavel, a motel with the chilly ambiance of a cancer clinic granted us a room. Looking for dinner, we trudged into town. Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes crawled by in the slush, snow chains clanking, while, inside, diamonds winked from sleeves draped in mink.

All next day we scooted down mountain passes, racing sleek green torrents and careering through wooden villages, their houses warped and stained grey by weather, then across the marshy plains of Romagna  - until, in the late afternoon, Rimini materialised out of the sea mist.

Shut tight for the winter, the town was a metaphor for desolation. The Adriatic, flat and grey as a zinc roof, lapped flaccidly at a beach lined with wooden huts bolted tight. Shutters masked the facade of the Grand Hotel, and cats skulked around the town’s stone-flagged squares.

But everywhere, one saw Fellini. In Amarcord, he and his friends spied on meaty German frauen undressing in those beach huts. Fellini even dreamed of such a woman carrying him like a baby into one of them. Here they gaped as the mountainous La Saraghina, The Sardine Woman, shook her vast body.  On the hotel terrace, they mimed dancing with the town vamp, the alluring Gradisca - who, in one of its wide beds, had preserved the town’s reputation for hospitality by offering herself to a bored visiting prince with the politeness that earned her nickname:  "Principe, gradisca - Highness, help yourself.”

But Fellini was not just his films, and traces of the man were elusive. Even the place where he was born. Eventually Marie-Dominique  - she spoke Italian, naturellement - asked at a tiny photo shop.

"The Americans bombed all those houses in the war," the owner said. "This was a big rail junction."

Unexpectedly, he told his eight year old son to mind the shop, led us down the street and around the corner to a small apartment block. A buzz brought a woman to the second-storey window, her head bound in a scarf.

He called up "Some people from Australia want to know where Federico was born.”

"Gone,” she said. “Bombed. It was up the street."  She waved the head of a vacuum cleaner. "Don’t they do housework in Australia?  Tell them to come back this afternoon."

As she shut the window, the man pointed to the name on the doorbell. Maddalena Fellini Fabbri. “This is Federico's sister."

We met her that afternoon, a tall, commanding woman with the same wide shoulders and tapering ankles as her brother.

"A book about Fefé?" she said, with unexpected acerbity. "Why? He's a pain in the arse."

"But a great director, surely.”

"I suppose.” She brightened. “I'm in the movies too, you know.  I was just in a film. Directed by Tonino Guerra."

"…who wrote And the Ship Sails On - and Ginger and Fred."

"...and L'Avventura for Antonioni and Nostalghia for Tarkovsky," she said crossly. "My brother’s not the only director in the world, you know."

She shoved a cassette into her VCR. "I shouldn't be showing you this…"

But try and stop me, was the silent sub-text.

It was a Roman talk show. All the guests, including Maddalena, were relatives of more famous people.

"Has your brother seen your film?" the host asked.

Maddalena looked grim. "You'll have to ask him."

"Well, we're going to do just that." The host reached for his desk phone. "We have him on the line now. Did you see La Domenica Specialmente, maestro?"

Even through the phone, Fellini's light, almost feminine voice was unmistakable.

"Ah, not yet. Sadly. I walked past the cinema, but the times were not good. Then, when I went back, the program had changed."

"I sent you a cassette, Federico," Maddalena interrupted.

Fellini didn't falter. "Yes, that's true, cara Maddalena. And I mean to sit down tonight and watch it right through. Unfortunately, I leave tomorrow…"

Back in her flat, Maddalena ejected the cassette.

"You see what he's like. I don't talk to him anymore. I'll give you his number in Rome, if you like. But really, you're better off talking to Giulietta. That's what I do."

"And what do you think of his films?"

She shrugged. "Some are good. But most are ridiculous. These grotesque people he invents.…."

The doorbell rang.

"Ah, some friends. For coffee. Scusi."

As we left, the friends filed in. First, a dowager dressed for a society wedding of forty years ago, in a wide hat with a black veil, and yellowing kid gloves tight across bony knuckles to hide her liver spots. Behind her, a priest, fifty but hoping to pass for thirty, corseted, with a blonde perm, lacquered nails and a touch of rouge.  Lastly, an overweight femme fatale, doughy breasts spilling out of a sequined gown, already eyeing the plate of cream cakes.

Over their shoulders, the family photo of Fellini stared down from the wall with that trademark look of ironic amusement.

"You see?” I could hear him saying. “Did I exaggerate?"

A year later, I took the overnight train to Rome, ready now to call the number given by Maddalena. Perhaps I should have rung before leaving Paris, but it felt right to roll the dice only once.

In twelve months of research and interviews, I'd learned Fellini's habits. How he and Giulietta lived in the same building on via Margutta, but in separate apartments. How he slept little, and rose before dawn to work.

Was 8am too early to phone? “De l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace,” said Danton, who, in 1789, would have been my next door neighbour.

I punched in the numbers.


It was the voice of an old lady. Not Giulietta. Nor a secretary. Who? A wrong number?

"Er....can I speak to Signor Fellini?"

A long pause. Then, in awkward English, "Who is this?"

"He doesn't know me. His sister gave me his number," I waffled. "I’m Australian…writing a book…"


Another pause. Then Fellini came on the line, and, in that familiar fluting voice,  politely brushed me off.

"Ah, yes. I like to see you but am very busy. I begin a new film. Also I am sick…the hospital…an operation. And it is the holidays…”

I refused to give up without a fight.  Everyone to whom I’d spoken had said, on parting, “...and do please give him my regards.” Now I enlisted them in my fight. “Your many friends in Paris and London asked to be remembered to you. Alain Cuny, Marika Rivera, Dominique Delouche, Magali Noel,  Freddie Jones...”

But I could feel him slipping away.

“I don’t know...perhaps...call my secretary....”

Then just the hollow buzz of a dead line.

Well, maybe it wasn't going to happen. It had always been a long shot. Half fearing that it might end like this, I’d set up other interviews. By late morning, I was up in the hills, talking to Gerald Morin. Solemn, thin, with long pale hands and a small beard, he still looked like the Jesuit he'd been before becoming Fellini's secretary, assistant and – as the atheist Fellini liked to say – confessor.

"I rang Fellini this morning," I said. "A little old lady answered. Who's that?"

Morin looked embarrassed at having to betray even so small a secret. The Jesuit die bites deep.

"Oh, it's Fellini. If you call before his secretary arrives, he puts on that voice." A rueful shake of the head.

I left him just after eleven. Far below, the Rome of the Coliseum and Piazza Navona wallowed in phlegm-coloured smog. Up here, the air was clear enough to see that there was nothing to see, except a Hilton Hotel.  I crossed the road,  past the line of taxis, doors open, drivers dozing under copies of La Stampa, and through an air-conditioned lobby to the desk of a concierge with the look of a Machiavelli.

"A place around here to eat?"  He made a face. "There are none, really. You should go down to Prati." He drew a slip of paper towards him and wrote some names. “All of these are good.”

I woke a cabby, who grudgingly folded his paper and drove for twenty minutes before stopping at a corner, on a narrow street crowded with restaurants.

"This one, Da Bruni…" He pointed to the first name on the list. "…is here…” He waved at the street in front of us. “....but I cannot…"  

The street, it seemed, was one-way. I'd have to walk.

I got out. On every corner, waiters were setting out tables and umbrellas. But it was barely noon. A breeze blew. The sun was warm.  And I felt like a walk.

Da Bruni looked nothing special.  No tables outside. No menus displayed. I pushed open the door and went in. Few Romans ate this early, and the place was empty, except for two men at a table by the wall.

One of them was Fellini.

My first reaction was disbelief. Surely he just looked like Fellini. But as I watched, he rose to go to the men's room, and the silhouette - the wide shoulders and delicate feet, the car coat, the tweed hat, the scarf draped over his shoulders - was unmistakable.

Dizzy with excitement, I waylaid him on his return.

"Sorry to bother you… rang this morning… just talking to Gerald Morin… concierge… cab...incredible coincidence…"

His pouchy eyes regarded me without surprise - as if such things happened all the time. Which they did, I found later. A disciple of Carl Gustav Jung, Fellini had been through Jungian analysis, and embraced Jung’s belief that coincidences didn't exist. Rather, they were examples of "synchronicity" - glimpses of the collective consciousness that ruled all our lives.

I watched him mentally change gears, perceiving me anew, no longer an incoherent stranger but somebody whom the universe desired him to know.

"Ah, yes," he nodded. "The Australian. And you know Maddalena? Bene, bene. Allora...” His look around the restaurant encompassed the existence of other commitments, but in a way that somehow made us intimates; conspirators. You know how it is, my new and valued confrere. I do not need to explain. “Can we meet tomorrow? I am always …"

"…at the Café Canova. Piazza del Popolo. Yes, I know."

He nodded, unsurprised that I was aware of his habits. Just more synchronicity.

"Allora, domani, mio amico..."

He shuffled back to his table. I stared after him.

Mio amico?

The next day, he looked up with a smile as I crossed the piazza. Before the first espresso, he had begun to dictate. “You must talk to Liliana, my secretary. She knows all my secrets. Liliana Betti. Here is her phone. And Marcello....But I think he is in Paris...oh, you are living there? Bene, bene...”  Synchronicity again.

Any biographical subject can stop a project dead simply by advising friends not to talk. With Fellini, the reverse was the case. People actually rang me, volunteering to help.  Fabio Diottolavi, one of his innumereable acolytes, showed me around Cinecittà.  Uncomplaining, a crew opened Stage 5 – the Fellini stage – and lit its vast emptiness, revealing without apology the corroded and rusted metalwork, the splintered wooden floors. Meeting  my eyes, they shrugged, as Fellini would have done. There is no shame. It is what it is. You understand, for you are one of us. From among enough statues to furnish a thousand palaces, they unearthed and dusted off a golden effigy of Christ – the very figure carried by helicopter across Rome at the opening of La Dolce Vita. In what other way could they help? For Il maestro, nothing was too much trouble.

Over expressos in cafes along the Via Veneto and in the lanes of Trastavere, I met more such people. They were scattered around Rome, waiting  for the day when a notice would appear in  Corriere della Sera. “Signor Fellini is making a new film and will be happy to meet anyone who wants to meet him.” Only then would they come to life, hungry for those few days or weeks close to him. I felt it myself, sitting in the Canova as he spun his nets of fantasies and lies.

Where was he actually born? There were so many stories...

“Oh, caro John, who knows?” He looked up as a 707 outward bound from Fiumicino scored a white line across the polluted blue. “Perhaps I was born in a plane...”  And yet another reality arrived in the world.

In 1993, a few months after my biography appeared, Fellini secretly entered a Zurich clinic for heart surgery. He didn’t survive. At 73, the man was dead, but that was just a detail. For someone who managed his life according to psychics,  clairvoyants, astrologers and the teachings of Jung, there were only beginnings.

Fellini rarely submitted to formal portraiture but he relented for French photogapher Eric Fayolle.

“How are you going to show me?” Fellini asked. “Young? Old?”

For Fayolle, there could be only one answer.

“Immortal,” he said.

Fellini nodded in satisfaction. “Bene, bene.”

Immortal indeed.

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.