#17 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Based on my reading of the production of Variety Lights, co-director Alberto Lattuada was in charge of the technical aspects of production, but co-director Federico Fellini was everything else. Knowing what I know of Fellini’s later career walking into this first viewing of Fellini’s first credited directing job, it’s easy to see some of the dual contradictions that would pepper his later work in embryonic form here. There’s the complicated relationship with women, first and foremost, along with a carnivalesque atmosphere populated by a cadre of interesting and distinctive characters. This being that first foray, though, there’s a lack of command of story that sees ideas picked up and dropped swiftly in quick succession, keeping the overall feel more staccato than it should have been. I’ve certainly seen worse first efforts, though.
The story follows Checco, a long-time veteran of the small stages throughout Italy, providing small comic performances (called avanspettacoli)in live shows before features in movie houses (which was a thing, apparently). He talks big about his greatness with his long-term fiancée, Melina (played by Fellini’s real wife Giulietta Masina), backing him up along the way, but he gets fewer laughs than he’d ever care to admit from the audience. One night, in a packed house, sits Liliana, a young woman with great legs and big dreams of making it in showbusiness. Caught between the loyal, hardworking woman Melina and the younger, more attractive Liliana, Checco choses Liliana, a relationship based on utility rather than love and affection, and he ends up unhappy for it. She makes it, becoming a showgirl through his meager connections, but he, despite his big dreams of starting his own variety show, ends up right back where he started, with Melina who ends up taking him back with a smile (after a few fights along the way).
This movie is brilliant…in parts. When Lilian has her big breakout performance in a small town where he skirt accidentally fell off during a dance, showing her legs to the crowd and the theater manager, knowing a good thing when he sees it, forces Checco off stage and Lilian back on, she gains the attention of a prominent local lawyer who invites the entire troupe up to his eight bedroom house for dinner and a night to stay. The parade up takes longer than anyone expected, and the train of walking performers feels like the sort of carnivalesque procession that would become a Fellini mainstay, and it just naturally happens. The dinner is a display of the grotesque (as every player stuffs their face greedily and without end and a later event as the lawyer tries to take advantage of the drunk and incapacitated Lilian) but countered by Checco’s underlying sense of hurt and justice. He wants Lilian for his own, so he’s defending her honor because he both believes that the lawyer shouldn’t be taking advantage but also because he wishes it was he doing it himself. At the heart of this big sequence seems to be the question of the relationship of traveling performers and a permanent home, as reflected in an earlier line of dialogue from Melina to Lilian about how Lilian should go back home while she still has one, something Melina wishes she had for herself. Suddenly, Lilian could have an even better home and Melina is happy for her, and it’s an interesting question for these characters to be exploring, but then they get kicked out, go to Rome, and the question never really comes up again.
The breakup between Checco and Melina is handled in a handful of shots as they walk away from the palatial estate with Checco choosing to act as Lilian’s pillow with her head on his shoulder instead of looking back when Melina stops to help her father who has fallen (and I hadn’t known was her father until she called him “father”). This is either fantastic cinematic storytelling or the ensuing permanence of the break wasn’t really sold in the shot which didn’t feel that permanent at the time. I’m not quite sure. But, break they do with Checco spending all of his time in Rome with Lilian as he tries to introduce her to people he says he knows but really doesn’t. Despite his protestations of his fame, he’s never been more than a third-tier comic, and Lilian can’t do much more than use him as far as he will go. When Checco gets a break and meets an old friend who does work for a well-connected producer, Lilian begins to peel away from Checco, leaving him behind as she dashes off to parties.
Checco’s dream of starting his new act dominates a large section of the final third of the film, and I would be happier with it if the movie had felt like that’s what it was working towards. That first half, dominated by questions of domicile life that the performers can’t have doesn’t really flow that well into the second half quest for fame. They’re both parts of what it might be to be a travelling performer, but I don’t think they’re connected as well thematically and cinematically as they could be. They feel more like two different stories involving the same characters rather than a single story with two large parts.
Anyway, unable to convince his former fellow performers in the old troupe to join him with no pay, he brings together some homeless artists, begs for money from Melina, who gives it to him, and hires some help to put on a great show with Lilian at the center, but Lilian has been using Checco as much as he used her. She got her break, becoming a showgirl, and she doesn’t need Checco anymore. Checco has nothing, and he ends up with Melina on the next train out of Rome.
Another hole in the film is Melina’s decision to take Checco back. It just happens. In one scene, she’s tearfully ran off having just given Checco all of her money for his show, demanding that he never see her again, and in the next she’s happily sitting next to him on a train as they get ready to go to the next tiny Italian town that might throw them a few lira. It feels like there’s a cut scene where Melina gracefully accepts Checco back, happy to have her flawed man back.
I was ready to like this movie more than I did. By the halfway point, I was convinced that I loved it and that it was an underrated gem from Fellini’s early filmography, but that second half just doesn’t work as well as the first and it doesn’t really flow from the first all that well. That was disappointing, but there is still so much to enjoy in the film. Giulietta Masina was a wonderful performer, with her open face and winning smile, and watching her as Melina, it’s obvious why Federico loved her. Peppino De Filippo plays Checco as a pompous gasbag and sad sack well. Alberto Lattuada’s wife, Carla del Poggio, plays Lilian, and she’s certainly pretty, though she doesn’t have that much to do in the role. Her big moment is when she frustratingly throws Ceccho out of her room when he barges in (with a trumpet player and sharpshooter) as she tries to sleep, and it’s a fine little scene.
There’s certainly promise here, but there are also rough edges that needed sanding down.