In America, the 1960s were the golden age of the foreign film. Film directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, and Alain Resnais were considered “superstars,” and would-be hipsters young and old (especially young) flocked to their movies. All of that changed in the decades that followed. Many of the later films of Antonioni, Godard, Bergman, Resnais, et al. were never even released in the United States.
So it was with Italian director, Federico Fellini. In the 1960s, he directed some of the foreign film’s greatest hits – La Dolce Vita, 8½, Juliet of the Spirits, and Fellini Satyricon – but his final completed film, 1990’s La Voce della Luna (“The Voice of the Moon”), never found an American distributor, notwithstanding that it starred Robert Benigni who had already appeared in some American movies. Even after the huge critical and popular success of Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), La Voce della Luna remained undistributed.
There are reasons for this. Even though La Voce della Luna is superior to many of Fellini’s later movies (e.g., And the Ship Sailed On), it is one of his darkest films. At this point in his artistic life, Fellini appeared to see no way out, not the celebration of earthly pleasure (eroticism) as in Juliet of the Spirits – certainly not religion. This is the closest Fellini ever came to pure nihilism. Benigni gives a restrained (yes, you heard me right, restrained!) performance as a schizophrenic poet wandering through our mad modern world – much as the hero of Fellini Satyricon wandered through the world of Ancient Rome. Occasionally, he is joined by a fellow “madman” (Paolo Villaggio), but neither of the “madmen” are sentimentalized the way Giulieta Massina was sentimentalized in La Strada. They are essentially lonely, tormented souls.
The image of a world gone to hell is crystallized in the film’s most memorable sequence, a frenzied crowd dancing at night to a Michael Jackson song (“The Way You Make Me Feel”) in an open town square. The scene is played for irony. The dancers are so frenetic, they see no difference between the schizophrenic Benigni character and themselves – he blends right in. The disco music can be read as a symbol of the modern consumer capitalism that Fellini loathed.
Yet Fellini’s use of the Michael Jackson song in this sequence lends itself to another kinder reading. As Fellini surely knew, Jackson was also a “mad poet” who, unlike the schizophrenic poet hero of La Voce della Luna, achieved popularity and commercial success, but, like the Benigni character, remained fundamentally isolated. So, in the midst of the scene’s chaos, one isolated man-child (Jackson) sings while another (Benigni) dances.
In the end, I don’t think Fellini saw any significant difference between his madmen, himself, and the rest of the world. In La Voce della Luna, he regards us all compassionately as idiots and autists, yearning for an unattainable moon.