In Search of Fellini is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium, its deep history and the joy it conjures in those who truly love the moving picture.
Opening with a dream-sequence that serves as a statement of purpose, In Search of Fellini is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium, its deep history and the joy it conjures in those who truly love the moving picture. The sequence also establishes that this is more reality-adjacent than real. The viewer who decides to submit to the film’s immediately apparent charms will be rewarded with a delightful coming of age story that carefully dips into the fantasy that lies at the heart of cinema.
In Search of Fellini follows the story of Lucy (Ksenia Solo), a 20-year-old who has never really experienced adult life because of the overbearing parenting style of her snakebit-by-the-world mother Claire (Maria Bello). After a voiceover-prologue that establishes Claire’s backstory and Lucy’s origins, the film quickly fasts forward to the early ‘90s, when Claire is diagnosed with advanced and aggressive cancer and Lucy is 20. Claire discusses her ailment with her sister and intends to keep it a secret from Lucy, but Lucy finds out anyhow. This commences a classic coming of age narrative.
Lucy endeavors to find a job, but has no skills. She is interested in film, though, and parlays that into an application that leads to an interview…at a local porn distributor, where her complete lack of gumption and worldliness sets up a funny scene that ultimately ends with her in tears. A few blocks from the failed interview, she quite literally stumbles upon a Fellini film festival. While Lucy grew up voraciously consuming films, she only ever watched sappy ‘50s-era Hollywood productions; this is her first taste of European art cinema. After watching La Strada on the big screen, she has an epiphany.
What ensues is a sort of vision quest. Lucy leaves the security of her Ohio neighborhood to fly to Italy to meet Fellini. This is all set up with increasingly funny phone conversations between Lucy and Fellini’s office manager. To make this story work, In Search of Fellini requires the viewer to play along: how Lucy, a young woman who has never left the area code in which she was born, has the money, travel knowledge and passport required to fly to Italy in the early ‘90s is never broached. Just go with it: the film is an homage to cinema and plot-centric quibbles simply miss the point.
The film is at its best in Italy, with glittery, chaotic baroque set pieces in glamorous night clubs, quiet and solitary scenes of exceeding humanity and serendipitous moments of near-fantastical magic. In other words, this is a lot like a Fellini film. The Italian master’s are not the only films referenced here; there are hundreds of Easter eggs scattered throughout crowded sets, including winks to the entire Pixar catalog. Director Taron Lexton is clearly having a good time crafting his tour-de-cinema.
Camera maneuvers gesture to the film’s magical-realist nature as the lens often floats into spaces or levitates above scenes. The dialogue is replete with clever puns that call attention to the fact that the film could be realistic, but is also fantastical. There is a playfulness between the diegesis and the fourth wall; some of the actors seem to be in on the joke that they are acting in a movie, while others (Lucy, especially) are not. This is, of course, one of the same tensions Fellini himself was so clever at manipulating for dramatic and comedic effect.
Ultimately, In Search of Fellini does not try to be a Fellini film—Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty seems to have killed that sub-genre. Instead, what Lexton does here is revel in the pure ecstatic pleasure that lies at the heart of film fandom—he conjures a nostalgia for that moment each of us discovered the master auteur who converted us to cinephilia. While it is certainly a cliché to discuss the magic of the movies, In Search of Fellini treads the line between hackneyed and worthwhile with aplomb and offers up a welcome reminder that cinema is an imaginative and transforming enterprise, for both its producers and its consumers.