By Evan Rail, New York Times, June 7, 2013.
Opening with the tiniest click, the door swung wide to reveal the furnishings of a classic Old World grand hotel suite. On the far wall, the late-afternoon light of the Italian coastline filtered through gauzy curtains, striking the worn velvet seat of an old Empire settee and filling the room with a funereal glow.
In the next room, a padded headboard spanned the bed where the room’s regular resident, the great Italian director Federico Fellini, must have slept next to his wife, the actress Giulietta Masina. And here, in one corner, was the very telephone that Fellini must have been holding when he collapsed in this room just before his death.
Or so it seemed. In fact, my guide pointed out, the telephone (and most of the other décor of the Grand Hotel Rimini) had been replaced since Fellini’s death almost 20 years earlier in 1993. Much like a scene from one of Fellini’s movies, what seemed authentic and real had turned out to be a flight of the imagination.
“Cinecittà is the real place, from many points of view,” said Paolo Fabbri, a Rimini-born professor of semiotics (and a former director of the currently closed Fellini Foundation), referring to the gigantic Cinecittà movie studios near Rome. “Fellini’s imagination was really directed by dreams.”
Dreamlike as the director’s vision might have been, my search was for the real Fellini. For several days last February, I visited the director’s hometown on Italy’s northeastern coast, in search of places that inspired scenes in his movies, and ones that were significant in his own life.
Fellini was born in Rimini in 1920, and lived there until just before World War II; one challenge for the Fellini-obsessed traveler is that much of the town from the director’s time had been destroyed during the war. A second challenge was that Fellini had romanticized the settings in the two movies that are most commonly associated with Rimini, “Amarcord” (1973) and the ultra-charming “I Vitelloni” (1953), so those places aren’t always easily recognizable on the ground.
Moreover, despite the 20th anniversary of Fellini’s death this year, the city often seems to overlook the director despite, or perhaps because of, his international renown, and simply finding significant spots takes some sleuth work.
“For Rimini, Fellini is more a problem than a resource,” Mr. Fabbri said. “We don’t know how to do something that is worthy of this great character.”
To prepare for my trip, I loaded up on Fellini’s movies and armed myself with the director’s 1976 book of interviews and articles, “Fellini on Fellini.” He spends the first 40 pages writing about his hometown, talking about characters from his movies (the vamp Gradisca in “Amarcord,” it turns out, was quite real) and noting that, above all, “I don’t like going back to Rimini.”
Jaded travelers might say the same thing today, considering the town an unremarkable beach resort on the Adriatic coast, about an hour and a half southeast of Bologna. In one direction are bland hotels as far as the eye can see. In the other direction: even more bland hotels. At first glance, you could be almost anywhere — until you come to the director’s haunt, the Grand Hotel.
“When I read descriptions in novels that did not quite raise my imagination to the heights I thought they should, I would pull out the Grand Hotel,” wrote Fellini, recalling his childhood. “The Grand Hotel became Istanbul, Baghdad, Hollywood.”
Walking into the hotel’s imposing grounds from the park named after the director, I could imagine it standing in for just about any romantic setting. Outside, ivy-covered palms and curlicued fountains led to the lobby with high ceilings and chandeliers. Inside, a bar opened onto a broad terrace that overlooked the beach, just like the terrace where the elegant couples had danced the night away in “Amarcord” and “I Vitelloni.”
It seemed like the kind of hotel for a great director. My own small room had a balcony with a view of the sea and a pier like the one where the motorcyclist Scureza had raced up and down in “Amarcord.”
Elsewhere I found more evidence of cinematic Rimini. In the historic center on the Piazza Tre Martiri, the city’s main square, I bowed my head and entered a tiny chapel, reminiscent of the one where the farm animals were brought to be blessed in “Amarcord.” (In true Fellini fashion, the importance of the scene to the Italian schoolboy Titta and his friends were the posteriors of the ladies in attendance, which Fellini recalled in his book as “the biggest and finest bums in all of Romagna.”) I wandered into the brick courtyard of the city library, a former elementary school, not unlike the school where Titta, Ovo and Ciccio sneaked off and smoked cigarettes in the bathroom.
During my winter visit, I was even caught in a surprise snowstorm just like the sudden blizzard that engulfs Rimini in “Amarcord.” Walking into the Piazza Cavour one night with friends, I had trouble seeing the ice-covered fountain through the gusts of snow.
Ostensibly the setting for one of the most memorable scenes in cinema, this was where Titta, Ciccio and their pals had a big snowball fight in “Amarcord.” I scooped up a handful of snow, formed a ball and threw it right where La Gradisca should have been standing. In a few moments, I thought, the enigmatic peacock from the film would land, dreamlike, on the snowy Pigna fountain before me.
The only difference? Unlike the fountain in the movie, the bottom columns on the real fountain on the Piazza Cavour were plain. The movie’s version had columns decorated with chevrons and coils. Like much of Fellini’s Rimini, the real place had been changed, ever so slightly, when it was recreated for filming.
The director’s real life was in evidence as well. And in tracking it down, a city far removed from a boring resort town revealed itself. I had read that Fellini used to return to his hometown at night, meeting his childhood friend Luigi (Titta) Benzi to talk all night in a favorite square before taking an early train back to Rome. One night I found the square, the Piazzetta Teatini, not far from the great Malatesta Temple, a glowing white basilica named for the medieval lords of the region.
In contrast to the church’s grandeur, the Piazzetta Teatini was overlooked and overgrown, a spot of splotchy grass and a few benches that seemed like the perfect place for the city’s favorite son to hide out at the height of his fame. After taking a blurry snapshot, I stepped into the nearby Ristorante Teatini for an excellent meal of squid-ink passatelli (like a local take on spaetzle) and a glass of famoso, a floral white wine from the region. The next morning, I walked along the Corso d’Augusto, the old town’s main shopping strip, and stumbled across one of Fellini’s childhood homes. “The first house I remember properly belonged to a man called Ripa. It is still there, on the Corso,” he wrote, describing a courtyard he remembered as full of cattle and donkeys.
There were plenty of signs for law offices on the facade, but the building’s connection to Fellini went unmentioned. Nor was there a sign on the corner shop where Fellini had started his career as a professional artist, which would eventually lead to his meeting with Roberto Rossellini, and his career in film, after his move to Rome. “We drew caricatures and portraits of ladies, whom we visited at home,” he wrote.
Fellini kept drawing for most of his life, filling notebooks with expressive, cartoonlike images of his dreams, many of which would be rated at least PG-13 by today’s standards, and which were collected into a facsimile edition, “Il Libro dei Sogni,” by the Italian publisher Rizzoli. In the surprisingly good city museum, I found a temporary display of the original notebooks and a late-period photograph of Fellini. It felt a bit like an afterthought.
The sensation of Fellini being overlooked continued when I found the unmarked house on the Via Clementini, “where I knew my first love,” Fellini wrote. “In the house opposite lived a family of southerners, the Sorianis,” he went on.
“Bianchina was a dark little girl. I could see her from my bedroom,” he recalled, admiring the womanly way she filled out her Fascist youth uniform.
Although there were no markers on any of Fellini’s childhood homes, it was clear that some effort was being made to remember him, beyond the half-dozen restaurants and gelato parlors named after his films. In the Borgo San Giuliano, a charming old neighborhood of fishermen’s houses, murals depict scenes from movies like “La Strada.” And the old Fulgor cinema where Fellini had seen his first movies, and where he had drawn caricatures of movie stars in exchange for tickets from the owner, is undergoing a metamorphosis into a museum of cinema.
Still, it seemed like something was missing. In his hometown, where was Fellini himself?
On my last day, I followed a map several miles out of the old city, toward the Fiera convention center that helps fill Rimini’s thousand-plus hotels during the off-season. I traipsed through neighborhoods of modern villas near to the Parco XXV Aprile, crossed a long pedestrian bridge over the Marecchia river, then walked along a main road until I came to a sign saying “cimitero.” “One fascinating place, in Rimini, was the cemetery,” Fellini wrote, echoing my own thoughts on this sunny morning. “Never had I seen anywhere less gloomy.” At the entrance, I bought five red tulips to place on Fellini’s grave, leaving them under a memorial that resembled a ship’s prow.
After a moment to pay my respects, I started the long walk back to the city center. A few minutes later, an old man in work clothes passed me on an ancient bicycle. It was impossible to see clearly, and soon he was obscured by the giant tombs of old Rimini families, but for a second I was certain he was carrying the tulips I’d left on Fellini’s grave — perhaps, I imagined, as a present for a voluptuous girlfriend. Whether real or imagined, I was sure the Maestro would have approved.