Nearing the end of a legendary career steering Italian neorealism towards something much more idiosyncratic and personal, Fellini made a movie that feels mostly for and about himself and his circle of friends and colleagues. Intervista, released in 1987, is filled with inside jokes, private obsessions and long discursive scenes that mimic documentary while eschewing narrative focus. And yet it’s a Fellini film from top to bottom, so it’s also bursting with warmth, bawdiness, gentle humor and some truly transcendent moments. If the director’s entire career were a single felliniesque film, this one represents the closing scenes, when the fever-dream takes over, the music swirls and a procession marches on-screen, combining all the emotion and technical virtuosity in an absurd spectacle that doesn’t make a lot of sense but lingers in the mind long afterwards.

To say that Intervista is conceived as a film-within-a-film-within-a-film might be giving too much credit for intentionality in what feels like an improvised fantasia of curious situations and scenes. It would be more accurate to call it a kaleidoscopic homage to the culture and history of Cinecittà, Rome’s celebrated (and now defunct) film studios, first constructed by the fascist regime, where Fellini made the majority of his films. Taking place over the course of 24 hours, the sound stages and studio lots provide the backdrop and setting for most of the action, spanning the director’s present-day schemes as well as recollections of his youthful introduction to the magic of cinema. At any one moment, it’s difficult to tell where in that timeline a given scene might fall, and whether the mode is fiction or mockumentary, but it doesn’t really matter. It all overlaps and interleaves in a fascinating and disorienting peek inside the creative process of one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.

The premise involves a Japanese television crew seeking to interview Fellini as he prepares to shoot a (fictional) adaptation of the Kafka novel, Amerika. Even as dawn breaks, Cinecittà is bustling with activity, and the Assistant Director, Mauricio Mein (playing himself), is already haranguing underlings and speechifying for the cameras. Extravagant (staged) commercials are being filmed as Fellini wanders about, besieged with questions and good-naturedly deflecting decisions until he’s inspired to cast a young reporter (Sergio Rubini) in the role of his younger self in a re-enactment of his own first trip to Cinecittà to interview a movie star. The narrative shifts to a behind-the-scenes version of that day, replete with extras and crew members staging a trolley ride that phases between its 1940s setting and the present-day simulation, with no apparent concern for transitions or coherence. The real subject of the sequence is not so much the storyline that forms the connective tissue, but time itself. Fellini’s mind, it seems, perceives the past and the present as adjacent frames in a single reel of film.

This temporal hopscotch through mirror galleries of unreality characterizes not just the rest of the film but much of Fellini’s late career. We’re also treated to a procession of familiar recurring images and elements, like the alluring gazes of buxom women, men upon scaffolds, overlapping shouted dialogue, elderly fascists and a jukebox-like medley of many of the late Nino Rota’s most effervescent tunes, curated for the score by Nicola Piovani. Blissfully absent is any sense of sentimentality or mawkishness. If Fellini knew he was on the cusp of bidding farewell to the art form that had been his lifeline and identity for so many decades, he didn’t let any regret bleed into the film, which crackles with improvisational vigor.

One sequence in particular offers a valedictory commentary on the passage of time and the fading of beauty. Marcello Mastroianni, an icon from some of Fellini’s most celebrated classics of the ’60s, appears in a cameo dressed as Mandrake the Magician, inspiring Fellini to take him to visit the suburban manor of another faded icon, Anita Ekberg. The two aging actors, who became world famous for their roles in La Dolce Vita nearly 30 years earlier, greet one another cautiously, taking in the ravages of time visible on both of their faces. In Ekberg’s sunny living room, crowded with Fellini and his boisterous crew, Mastroianni waves his wand to summon a bedsheet movie screen from a puff of smoke. A black and white scene from La Dolce Vita begins to play in silence: Anita and Marcello, dancing in the underground club, then frolicking in the Trevi Fountain. The actors gaze at their younger selves when they were both impossibly gorgeous and vital. Like us, they watch in rapt fascination, tears in their eyes, enchanted and dismayed at what they once were and everything they’ve lost. It’s a perfect scene in an imperfect movie, alone worth the price of admission. In the penultimate film of a storied career in an art form that he mastered like few others before or since, Fellini offers a poignant and haunting mediation on all that cinema gives, and all that time takes away.

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