Director: Federico Fellini & Alberto Lattuada
Writer: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, & Ennio Flaiano
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
by Jon Cvack
After penning the script for Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Il Miracolo (1948), and penning nearly a dozen produced feature screenplays in total, Fellini teamed up with Alberto Lattuada at the age of 30 to co-direct his first feature Variety Lights. Immediately we witness what would become his magical realism style, with the story centering around a traveling theater troupe, led by Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Filip) and his wife or girlfriend (I was unsure) Melina Amour (played by Fellini’s actual wife and classic collaborator Giulietta Masina). While traveling on a train, Checco meets the drop dead gorgeous Liliana ‘Lily’ Antonelli (Carla Del Poggio) and develops an infatuation, working his angle of being a theatrical director in order to get her to join the troupe. Excited, she accepts immediately.
We get a taste of the ragtag crew, with very little talent to boot. We get a sense that each performer has failed to move up the ranks, sticking with the troupe more out of necessity than choice. Lily lands in the dance troupe, standing out as the most beautiful and therefore the most threatening. The others are all a bit overweight, out of sync, or not that talented. Del Poggio has a timeless beauty, where even in today’s environment, she would rocket up to A-list level. It was a brilliant casting decision, allowing the audience to commiserate with Checco’s obsession, much to the frustration of Melina, who’s aware of everything Checco’s doing. In a heartbreaking scene, as the troop is forced to walk to the next town, we see Lily place her tired head upon Checco’s shoulder, who accepts excitedly, while Melina is forced to help the older and decrepit glasseater who’s fading fast. She looks over as their walking ahead, expecting Checco to help, and witnessing where the relationship is going. Tears gather up in her eyes as she knows there’s no way she could ever compete with such beauty.
The troupe ends up at a local aristocrat’s mega mansion, under the impression that he wants to help them out and see their performance, though clearly has an equally unwavering desire for Lily. In a hilarious comedy bit, Checco does everything in his power to prevent the owner’s seduction, eventually sabotaging their stay at the mansion, forcing everyone to leave in order to avoid losing Lily.
With Checco’s urging, Lily soon takes over the show, and her humble personality is replaced with ceaseless demands and ego. We’re not sure if Checco ever gets further than his obsessive and pathetic pursuit of Lily. She begins to go on dates with other wealthy men, forcing Checco into a position of such disgraceful subservience that we’re left cringing as he attempts to invite himself out on one of her dates, getting left behind, and forced to hang out in the middle of the streets all night.
Checco isn’t a bad person, so much as a child in a man’s body who’s unable to control his urges. We mostly feel bad for Melina, who’s fully aware of Checco’s determination. Even when she goes off to start her own company, and Checco petitions for her help in getting his own program restarted after everyone abandoned him - though solely to offer Lily a solid role, competitive with her larger offers - Melina acquiesces. She’s willing to help him out, as her love and loyalty are so strong, and Checco remains oblivious. Thus, when Lily finally leaves the theater altogether to get married to a young and attractive aristocrat, Checco is left with little after all his efforts. Similar to how the film began, he’s on the train, heading to the next town. He’s back to Melina who we resent has gone back to him, and yet kind of understand. And then another beautiful woman enters, sits near him, and he starts up his routine all over again.
Checco is one of Fellini’s great characters, as we can all understand the power of beauty and those carnal desires that extend beyond logic. I remember reading a neuroscientists explain why men are so easily able to abandon any sense of right or wrong when sex enters the picture. Pardoning my superficial understanding, the frontal lobe’s ability to keep our behaviors in check is a relatively recent brain development in humans. By comparison, the sex drive isn’t connected to this modern gatekeeping ability. Thus, even when some men know it’s wrong they literally cannot control themselves. Checco reflects this flawlessly. We see an old man who should know better, making a complete fool of himself, all for a girl that is far beyond his age, which we know has no realistic chance of ever ending well. It’s a thrill to watch. And for Fellini’s first picture, this is one of the better debuts from a first time director.
BELOW: Most of the videos are in Italian, but this one gives you a taste of Fellini's magical realist style
Thoughts on films, old and new
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