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Fellini’s Dreams

On the 100th birthday of the great Italian filmmaker, an oversized “Book of Dreams.”

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Nighttime Rome shimmers in milky black and white. A ravishing blonde is sashaying through the deafening waters of a huge fountain. Winged seahorses and over-muscular sea gods of travertine marble rise above her in a glorious composition, but she’s oblivious to all but her own sensual dance.

Seeing the Trevi Fountain in Rome today means elbowing through hordes of selfie sticks, flower pushers, pickpockets and kids selling endless blinking, buzzing junk. On this night, there’s no one around except for a dapper Italian tabloid journalist who’s been trotting like a lost puppy after this American movie star day and night. She beckons him into the fountain, draws him close, and anoints his head with a sprinkle of water. Just as their lips are about to touch, she says, “Listen!” The fountain is suddenly silent. Dawn has broken without their noticing. Storekeepers are out, and the dream has evaporated.

Released in 1960, filmmaker Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (“The Sweet Life”) was instantaneously iconic. Three hours of dreamlike story strands show beautiful people living it up and wandering through a world with little meaning or morality that nonetheless — with Fellini’s exquisitely light touch — has moments of beauty and kindness. The film added to the cultural lexicon, from the image of Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg in the fountain and a statue of Christ soaring over Rome dangling from a helicopter to expressions like paparazzi, the plural of Paparazzo, the stop-at-nothing tabloid photographer in the film, and the title. There’s even a Dolce Vita Italian restaurant in Midlothian.

In the following decades, Fellini’s films came more and more to resemble a series of dreams, or nightmares, spilling into one another. From the year of “La Dolce Vita” until 1990, three years before his death, the director kept a dream journal that resulted in a sea of texts and felt-tipped technicolor drawings. He was an avid drawer and had put food on the table during the lean years of World War II by selling caricatures to American soldiers in Rome.

Rizzoli Publications has brought out a new, oversized edition of Fellini’s “The Book of Dreams” for the maestro’s 100th birthday this year. Weighing more than 7 pounds, it’s an appropriately theatrical book with color reproductions of every page. A full English translation, critical essays and an index of films and characters allow the reader to rummage through the director’s subconscious with ease.

Looking up Ekberg, the muse in the fountain, you find that she returns to Fellini in a dream a year after the film, offering to help him escape from a new independent film company, Federiz, that was going nowhere, in real life:

Anita, gigantic and gorgeous, appears in the dark rooms of Federiz. Alarmed, she says to me, “You have to fly away, Federico!” She tries to lift me up to her so that together we can escape the desolation that reigns in those offices. But I’m tired, I’m afraid. … Something white and soft hangs from her arms, a dead dove. ... The air vibrates everywhere as if a colossal airplane were about to take off. …

Personalities such as Orson Welles, Henry Kissinger, Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, the pope and a slew of family and actors populate what often feels like an experimental graphic novel. The dream master himself, Sigmund Freud, appears once, only to be arrested and taken to an asylum while Carl Jung looks on triumphantly.

Fellini began the journal at the urging of psychoanalyst Ernst Bernhard, a Jewish student of Jung’s who had fled Nazi Germany to Rome, and Bernhard makes frequent dream cameos. In the very first, he says: “Signor Fellini, shall we get some real work done?”

In 1965, Fellini dreamed Bernhard was dead:

It seems like he’s been dead for a long time, nothing has putrefied, nothing’s wet, everything’s dry, dusty, incredibly old. The professor’s spirit rises evanescent extremely tall from the cadaver, shaking my hand with great strength as if to show me that the soul is immortal and stronger than anything.

A month later, Bernhard really was dead.
Unsurprisingly, colossal naked goddesses parade through the pages, usually towering over timid, insectoid men in suits. Bizarre sexual situations abound. Other recurring fascinations are airplanes, skyscrapers and blimps erupting into explosions of color.

But it is Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, who makes the most appearances: He loses her in a panic, they travel to the moon together, he begs her to wake him up from a nightmare. … From 1961:

Suddenly she lets her head fall backwards and on her throat and neck a sentence written in a radial pattern in block letters appears, as if it were engraved or stitched on her skin. … The meaning of the phrase gave me a sense of joyous stupor. …

He can’t remember the sentence.

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