An Italian master of cinema

Kezich chronicles Federico Fellini's life through the lens of friendship.

The life of Federico Fellini, the internationally renowned Italian director known for his early avant-garde style, has captivated the attention of dozens of published biographers, each attempting to give unique factual accounts and analysis of the Italian master's life. But few writers are able to approach Fellini with the privilege of intimate experience and friendship.

Tullio Kezich, the film critic from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera who penned Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, first met Fellini at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. The two remained fast friends until Fellini's death in 1993.

As a professional associate and a personal confidant, Kezich fills the pages of this biography with uncommon detail and artistry, presenting a chronicle that weaves life with film, fact with fantasy, in a style reminiscent of the great director's avant-garde style.

Kezich measures Fellini's life not in years, but in films (for those of us in need of more Caesarean units, a timeline is provided as an appendix). He gives the greatest time and space to the most pivotal and influential works of Fellini's career, among them "I Vitelloni" (1953), "La Strada" (1954), "Le Notti di Cabiria" (1957), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963), and "Ginger e Fred" (1986).

The other aspects of Fellini's life - friendships, ailments, affairs - are all set in orbit about these cinematic milestones.

Yet Kezich's most interesting tales arise from the period of Fellini's life almost entirely devoid of film.

Born in Rimini, Italy, to a sensible, disciplinarian mother who was determined that her sons would become priests or lawyers (one ended up a film director and the other a lyric tenor), Fellini had little early contact with film and no formal training.

Experience and human stories, those familiar lay teachers, are what Kezich highlights as the forces that drove the late-blooming Fellini - "a not particularly cultured man who had little interest in school, but who attentively read a lot of newspapers every day." Fellini did not conclusively settle upon a vocation in film until age 32.

Though Fellini's artistic influences came from a time of fascism and war, Fellini remained almost entirely apolitical, joining Mussolini's film company instead of the dictator's army, and later abandoning projects, such as Rossellini's "Europa '51," that attempted to transmit a conscious message.

That some of his movies appear to address political themes, such as the rebuilding of Italy, is the byproduct of being an absolute modernist, Kezich says, and indicative of "the political and social resentment of someone who has evidently forbidden himself from making any serious statements."

Fellini was a comedian and satirist first, whose ticket out of Rimini was his cartoonist's hand.

By age 20, he was publishing hundreds of cartoons, articles, and a column - "Will You Listen to What I Have to Say?" - in magazines such as 420 of Florence and Marc'Aurelio of Rome.

Newspaper journalism led him to radio, and through the medium of radio, to script-writing. Script writing led him to screenwriting, and screenwriting led to direction.

Kezich's biography does not miss a single detail of the series of complicated transitions that map Fellini's journey into cinematic infamy.

He is so determined to paint a complete picture, in fact, that he oftentimes leaves the protagonist in order to devote many pages to developing the other characters that buttressed, and sometimes entered, Fellini's creative empire: Bianca, the object of his first childhood affections who achieved almost mythical stature in his newspaper columns; Giulietta Masina, his wife, frequent leading lady, and constant partner, despite a litany of affairs; Roberto Rossellini, whom Fellini called both his greatest teacher and a man who taught him nothing; Aldo Fabrizi, first actor-collaborator and later estranged friend; and Luchino Visconti, a competitor and later a colleague.

Stylistically, the biography never leaves the cinema.

"There's hardly any gap between the Fellini shooting the movie and the Fellini playingthe Fellini shooting the movie," Kezich explains in the book.

Even departures from the main story of Fellini appear to the reader as a series of vignettes generously inserted to supplement the narrative.

But while Fellini may have gotten lost in his own work, Kezich does not. Whether this is, in fact, a weakness or strength of the biography depends on the reader.

Kezich provides a dynamic spectrum of Fellini's various love-hate relationships with fans, critics, and professional colleagues, but approaches it all at arm's length - omitting himself, the confidant and friend, from the cast of characters.

For the aficionado of Fellini's works, this narrative of his life provides a sea of subtle, precious anecdotes. To those yet unacquainted with the Italian master, the book is an introduction not only to the man's life, but his art, also.

It's a captivating read for anyone with a little flair for the inventive, or a little sense of entertainment history.

Karoun Demirjian is an intern at the Monitor.

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