THE REAL WORLD has finally caught up with Federico Fellini. In "Ginger and Fred," his 18th movie, the Italian director takes a satirical poke at a contemporary culture addled by the tyrannical tube. But in television's realm of the senseless, even those famous Fellini grotesques seem less remarkable than they used to.

The satire soaks through the story of the one-night comeback of Amelia and Pippo, a provincial dancing duo who, as "Ginger and Fred," made their fame imitating Astaire and Rogers. Thirty years after their last performance together, these hoofers and former lovers are reunited for a garish TV extravaganza staged at the chaotic Tele-City studio complex.

After hours of callous treatment and bewildering sights, Amelia and Pippo finally recreate their act. But as "Ginger" sweetly shepherds faltering "Fred" through the old routine before a mindlessly cheering crowd, the studio's power fails, snuffing the noise and neon, and Fellini shows us a moment of gentleness and wisdom, as Amelia and Pippo rediscover the grace that was once theirs.

In his delirious vision of the Danteesque studio (La Dolce Video?), Fellini saturates every inch of screenspace. He sees television as thoughtlessly cannibalizing the past -- the television studio is filled with other lookalikes, including Kafka, Proust and Gable -- and preying on our endless vanity and thirst for the sensational. The other stars of the TV freak show include a transvestite whose claim to fame is his/her connubial visits to convicts, an inventor of edible underpants and a woman who was shattered senseless by withdrawal from television.

Fellini clearly disapproves of the disregard for history and age shown by TV and the times. The Rome of history and beauty is obliterated by billboards and sirens, and there's no escaping the screens, watching from train stations, buses and hotel rooms.

The noisy, colorful film centers around a winning performance by adorable, bright-eyed Giulietta Masina, Fellini's real-life wife, who flutters charmingly through her paces as Amelia. Marcello Mastroianni, who has played Fellini's alter ego in three movies, plays Fred, resignedly gone to seed and cynicism.