Federico Fellini could not have written the script better for the long-delayed Italian premiere of his newest -- and 16th -- full-length film, "Ginger and Fred."
The parade of illustrious guests entered the Teatro Sistina last night from a fleet of black limousines, through a downpour punctuated by the flash of paparazzi cameras. The names read like the pantheon of Italian cinema and society: bejeweled and furred actresses in their lacquered hairdos, heavily overcoated actors and directors, police-escorted politicians, business tycoons and other establishment nabobs. The crowd that converged on the theater could have been characters out of the director's 1972 cine'ma ve'rite' classic, "Fellini's Roma."
Directors -- and their flashy escorts -- ranged from the wildly bespectacled Lina Wertmuller to Francesco Rossi and the Taviani brothers; the on-camera talent included such masters of Italian cinema as Monica Vitti, Stefania Sandrelli and Alberto Sordi. Even that old Greek trooper from "Never on Sunday," Melina Mercouri, now the Greek minister of culture, was there, as were four cabinet ministers from Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's coalition government.
But the splashy stars were overshadowed at the premiere by the television that covered it. Television, much to the industry's chagrin, is the main target of this latest Fellini screen circus.
The film's message, pure and simple, is that television -- and its advertising -- is a disaster in the modern world, concerned with vapid advertising messages that seem to contradict the reality around us and simplistic, trivial shows that defy common intelligence and destroy imagination and fantasy.
The vehicle for this latest Fellini commentary -- and what early critics are terming his most successful film since the autobiographical "Amarcord" in 1973 -- is the story of two aging stage hoofers from the 1950s: Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni playing the film's Amerilia and Pippo. After 30 years offstage, they are brought together in Rome for a TV variety show seeking to recreate, for nostalgia's sake, their old act imitating the dancing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire -- hence the title, "Ginger and Fred."
Brought to a modernesque, Rome suburban hotel the night before the television spectacular, the two one-time performers, who have been out of touch with each other since their dance routine broke up, meet in the Fellini-esque chaos of the hotel, where freak acts of the show have been gathered prior to their sound-stage performance. Like visitors from another planet, Masina and Mastroianni wander through the television age at the hotel and later at the studio where they are to recreate their long-dead dancing act. They are confronted everywhere by blaring television sets that mesmerize the people around them, the repeated jingles of inane advertising spots and the circus of dwarfs, weirdos, transvestites, geriatric admirals and buffoons that have been gathered together to be on the same show.
The opening of Fellini's latest opus was deemed such a cultural event that RAI, the government-controlled television network, covered it live for the evening news. And, as if oblivious to the satiric subject of the 66-year-old Fellini's latest film, RAI proceeded to turn the opening into just the sort of fatuous television variety show that the film parodies with such biting, brilliant success.
While a packed house at the Sistina theater was forced to wait for more than an hour before seeing the film, RAI TV host Gianni Mina, with an assist from an announcer named Elisabeta Gardini, proceeded to interview -- on live television -- Fellini, his wife and the film's leading lady Masina and Mastroianni (by studio link with Paris, where Mastroianni was working on another film) about the movie.
Their polite, if joking, commentaries not being enough, Mina went on to do a series of long-winded interviews with actors and directors in the audience all on the subject of what they really liked -- or disliked -- about television, clearly hoping to preempt Fellini's version of announcers such as Mina.
Asked flat out by Mina whether the film was going to be anti-television, Fellini politely demurred, saying, "I'm not against anything. Actually, this film is for humanity, for human values, for real communication and sentiment."
In an interview in the Paris daily Le Monde, shortly after the world preview of the film in Paris last week (which he did not attend), Fellini was more to the point, stating, "What I represent in the film is both close to reality and the same time inferior to it in the sense that it is so totally absurd, degrading, that it is possible, after all, that the spectators will see in 'Ginger and Fred' only a documentary, a reportage about what they face every day."
And then the film itself was screened, punctuated by bursts of applause and shouts of bravo. It provided all the answers that the on-camera interviewees had been too polite to tell Mina outright.