The Voice of the Moon was Fellini’s final film and it is a composition that only Fellini could make. By 1990, his touch was unmistakable: whirring set pieces with hundreds of costumed, gyrating extras, a general lack of a plot (or even a script in this case!), lead actors with joyful, expressive faces and eyes and themes centered on men torn between desiring women for sex and needing women to care for them. The Voice of the Moon also has other signature Fellini moves, such as the magical realism that first appeared as fantastical daydreams in and the protagonist-pulled-on-a-grand-tour-of-the-weird that he first tested in La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits.

Though undeniably a Federico Fellini film, The Voice of the Moon is not very good. It is better than Fellini’s piles of drivel from the ‘80s, certainly, but a viewer cannot help but postulate about artistic longevity and the poison chalice of enormous success when comparing The Voice of the Moon to the above mentioned La Dolce Vita or the even earlier La Strada. Did Fellini burn out? Did he lose touch with reality? How long can one live in mansions and party on yachts before losing the pulse of broader society? Scorsese is proof that septuagenarian filmmakers in their fifth decade on the job can still produce films with both artistic merit and genuine entertainment value, but it is also exceedingly rare for an artist to have a career spanning such a period. This is the central issue that pops into the mind while watching The Voice of the Moon; because it is so obviously a film made by Fellini – and so obviously not even in the same universe quality-wise as – the viewer is bound to consider what happened to the fabled Italian maestro.

The Voice of the Moon is an episodic film that more or less avoids having a plot at all, making it difficult to summarize. It is based on an Italian novel by Ermanno Cavazzoni and loosely follows the peregrinations of a recently released mental patient, Ivo Salvini (Roberto Benigni), as he traipses through an unnamed Italian city over the course of a few days. He encounters a ragged panoply of misfits, nonconformists and old men too out of touch to participate in mass society. Ivo also unwittingly stumbles across the very face of conformity, including a beauty pageant and a pop-up discotheque in a defunct warehouse; the opening shot introducing the dancing club is one of the most spectacular in the entire second half of the Fellini oeuvre. These are two sides of Italian – and Western more generally – society and two aspects of Fellini himself: the hip, current group participating in the latest craze and those left behind by popular culture, still stuck on trends from decades ago. The Voice of the Moon does not quite stoop to the level of compare-and-contrast between these disparate experiences, but it seems clear that Fellini does want to champion the nonconformists and those left behind. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the aged Fellini was basically reduced to a still-breathing fossil proclaiming that the old ways were better, but it is still sad to see the man who was the personification of the cultural cutting edge in 1962 brought so low.

Even as early as Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini was slipping into a new way of making movies, abandoning the spectacle-laden yet still plot-forward character studies of his middle period and moving ever farther from his early neorealist works. Increasingly as he aged, Fellini anticipated the blockbuster era of the ‘80s by essentially (to paraphrase Peter Biskind’s scathing disavowal of Hollywood films from the ‘80s in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) reducing films to a few movie moments connected by frenetic action, special effects and an awesome score to keep the viewer engaged. Except Fellini rarely included any of those other elements aside from a few baroque set pieces to string the viewer along from fleeting “movie moment” to fleeting “movie moment.” Just as he was too out of touch to be attuned to the cultural currents of the late ‘80s, Fellini was also incapable of channeling the blockbuster spirit that was reaching maturity in the same decade. The Voice of the Moon is a blockbuster in utero, nascent and only partially formed. It is as vacuous as The Empire Strikes Back without the cool space lasers to make the viewer not notice the lack of ideas.

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