Eight decades on, ‘40s Italian cinema is now largely remembered through a neo-realist lens, prioritizing the scrappy, groundbreaking work of filmmakers intent on casting a creative eye to their defeated country’s ruins. Yet this selective view, while aimed at artistically fallow ground, tends to overlook the Italian popular cinema of the war years, a mix of patriotic thrillers, frivolous parlor comedies (known as “Telefoni Bianchi”) and high-toned, expressionistic Calligrafismo dramas. Wiped away after the war ended, and Allied bombs put the sprawling Cinecitta studios out of commission for several years, these styles laid the groundwork for neo-realism, which largely served as a reaction to the artificiality presented by such escapist entertainments.

Yet despite his tendency to be placed alongside other foundational movement figures at the birth of the genre, it was actually this earlier studio system that gave Federico Fellini his start. While his reputation was formed during a stint as Rossellini’s favored co-writer, his first credit was for 1942’s Knights of the Desert, a film whose leads were later executed by anti-fascist Partisans, which Fellini co-wrote with Mussolini’s cinephile son Vittorio. While he’d soon start keeping more respectable company, the director’s approach always remained at least partially aligned with that of these earlier mass media relics, finding in their effusive populism a genuine connection to the carnivalesque chaos of routine life. The true Fellini style would come about only when he had fused these two currents, the fantastical couched in the down-to-earth, allowing each side to play off the other.

His debut behind the camera, while an ostensibly realistic rendering of a traveling performance troupe struggling to get by during the lean post-war years, Variety Lights (or, Luci del varietà) already signals an eye drawn toward the fantastic. Co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, who went on to helm such classics as Anna and Mafioso, it bears the imprint of both creators, with an even mixture of spectacle and social commentary. This actually provides it a more balanced construction than Fellini’s solo follow-up The White Sheik, which like many of his late-career works, leans too far into theatrical whimsy, losing the balance between melodramatic performance and everyday behavior.

This concept is already present in Variety Lights, in which internal longings can be expressed and validated only on the stage, even as the emotions cultivated for the show bleed back messily behind the scenes. A tale of a woman spontaneously packing her bags to pursue her dreams of stardom on the road, it’s not quite the old story of running off to join the circus, which might have been even more appropriate considering the director’s later fixations. Yet it’s close enough. The woman is Lily (Carla Del Poggio), an upstart with big dreams who’s longer on persistence than she is on talent, and who uses her persistence and beauty to gain a toehold in the troupe. Her appearance excites and incites the band’s leader Checco (Peppino De Filippo), a would-be impresario with similar designs on stardom, always ready to bet it all on the next big possibility.

Checco is also a shameless dog whose ill-advised romantic adventures disrupt the harmony of his ensemble, but this grasping desperation serves less as a mere character flaw than a summation of his sloppy, striving personality. The group eventually fractures – not for the first time, it’s suggested – and he tries to take Lily solo, starting a new act of vagabonds and misfits with her at its center. This goes as well as one might expect. Their paths diverge, with him back to the same old grind, her on to bigger and brighter things. It’s a familiar backstage story of ascension and decline, although really he’s just stuck in the same position he always was, a mid-level hustler who’ll never elevate above his mediocre station. The fact that the film depicts this as a relatable and sympathetic condition is what provides its emotional center.

Perhaps most significantly, Variety Lights introduces Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and eventual life-long collaborator, here playing the role of Melina, Checco’s much-abused mistress. The heart of the movie despite a less-than-ample amount of screen time, she remains pinned between the two other leads, disgusted by Checco’s behavior yet unable to fully cut ties. Toward the end of the film, we get a chance to see her act, which centers around celebrity impressions that hinge on elaborate outfits and props, a paltry show that incites the hecklers in the audience.

Yet after she dons the guise of Garibaldi, the audience is swayed over to her side, less by the force of her performance than the sentimental, patriotic jolt of a familiar revolutionary hero presented before them. For a few minutes, everyone in the room is united, in a reciprocal spectacle that acknowledges the deficiencies of both performer and audience. What might have been a mocking moment of collective weakness is instead elevated into a moving invocation of a humbled nation’s attempts to get back on its feet, even as the future seems uncertain. It’s this sort of unstinting acknowledgment of inherent human frailty, paired with the drive toward perseverance, that helped cement Fellini as one of the defining filmmakers of his period, a status that would only grow as a new era dawned.

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