Bacchanal: food, film and Fellini

The Joseph D. Carrier Gallery at the Columbus Centre is currently hosting a unique opportunity to view “Food in Federico Fellini’s Drawings”. The exhibit provides a true feast for film, food and Fellini fanciers. On display are 20 prints of drawings by Fellini (at various stages of his life) that provide proof positive of the deep ties that food – preparing, serving, and eating – have had on Fellini and his creative juices. Some of the images are from Fellini’s famous Libro Dei Sogni (Book of Dreams) which is currently housed at the Rimini City Museum. Rimini is Fellini’s hometown and the inspiration for his masterwork Amarcord (“I remember”). The exhibit is on until Friday, January 11. Admission is free.

The exhibition is introduced with the way too fun and very telling anecdote from Fellini collaborator Tonino Guerra, who recounts this:

“I’ve no idea how it happened, but wherever Federico put his fork down by the side of his bowl of spaghetti, a drop of sauce would always splash onto his tie. Eyes popping out of her head, Giulietta would start shouting at him. But something worse happened as well. One morning we were about to leave Bar Canova in Piazza del Popolo when a waiter placed a basket of bread rolls filled with mortadella on the counter. ‘You can’t not eat mortadella,’ Federico told me. ‘I’m full.’ ‘Me too, but mortadella is the taste of our childhood.’ ‘Buy one for us to share then.’ And that’s just what he did. When I tried to break the roll in two, a piece of fat flew into the air and fell onto Fellini’s back. We went straight to his house to give the maid the jacket, but Giulietta was there. She threw herself on the couch shouting, ‘You’ve got to be the very first man in the world who’s managed to get grease on his back!’ Federico sat down ruefully next to her and said in a low voice, ‘But there’s always a feeling of satisfaction to be the first do something.’” *

The tale is all the sweeter as, in my mind, Guerra is more closely associated with his work with the more intellectually obscure and rigorous filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and the Russian master of obscura Andrei Tarkovski. It’s heartening that he can be so light and insightful with these details of Fellini the man.

Memories from the public opening: Thursday, November 18, 2018

Being not only a fan of Fellini and all activities at the Columbus Centre but a grandfather to boot, I was thrilled that there are still “gallery openings” that start at 5 p.m. The opening and the exhibit were made possible by many worthy individuals and institutions. Primary among them was the Agriculture of Emilia-Romagna Region in Italy, whose Ontario chapter is most appropriately enough called Amarcord-Association of Emilia Romagna in Ontario. On hand were Counsellor Simona Casselli from Italy, and Corrado Olmi, our emcee, from the Ontario chapter. Counsellor Caselli brought an abundance of excellent wines from the region and Signor Olmi brought his family. His young son Davide rivalled his dad in his ability to work the room.

Talks were given by Rita DeMontis (lifestyle and food editor at the Toronto Sun) and U of T Professor Paolo Granata, whose talk was titled “Food And Media: From Warhol to Instagram”. Ms. DeMontis gave a particularly fun, moving and Amarcord-esque talk on the Italian immigrant experience as it relates to food and Toronto. Details like, “Every child’s grandmother makes ‘the best’ tomato sauce,” and the quiet scandals surrounding Italian grammar school kids bringing zabaglione (a wine-based! Italian dessert treat) in their lunchbags put a personal, moving and very Toronto spin on things.

Prof. Granata brought with him not only his wit and zeal, but a quiet coterie of admirers. Early on in the evening I spoke with a woman who had secured a standing table across from where the speakers would present. In addition to the table, she had stock-piled a plate of the complimentary prosciutto, cheeses, bread sticks, bread and fruit, so that she could hold her position and NOT move until after the professor’s talk. Extreme perhaps, but once Prof. Granata ramped up, her hype was completely validated. That said, the title of the talk was a bit inaccurate; it was more like from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Instagram with stops at DaVinci’s Last Supper, Dutch still life, ‘food porn’ …and more! The professor covered everything without taxing the patience of those eager to get back to the open bar and the dwindling food.

Parallel to this, and in some ways more interesting, was the humble pasta-making stand set up by the Casa Artusi (one of the other sponsors of the evening). Pelligrino Artusi (Forlimoppoli August 4, 1820 – Florence, March 30, 1911) was an Italian businessman and writer best known as the author of the cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well). He devoted the latter part of his tempestuous life to the science of cooking, and the philosophy of eating well and simply. He also, via his food books (much more that just “cook” books), organized something resembling a national cuisine for a unified Italy. A risorgimento of cuisine. He had direct influence on the like minded Frenchman August Escoffier, the Russian Maksim Syrnikov and American Julia Child. To this day in Artusi’s birthplace, annual awards are given out to the best homemakers. These homemakers and pasta makers are lovingly called “Mariettas” (named for Artusi’s long time collaborator) who are lauded for their culinary skill, technique and practicality. The festival also gives out another prize, the Pellegrino Artusi Prize which is awarded to the person who gives the ‘most original contribution to the relationship between man and food.’ What an honour!

The onsite “Marietta” took great calm and care in setting up her place at the exhibition – tools set out, dough prepared, and board flour-dusted early on.
Click on any photo to enlarge

I can only imagine the rapidity with which she worked, as I stepped away for what I perceived to be a few minutes and the pasta making presentation was FINITO.  Upon my return, she was engaged in a skill I’ve always seen as the hallmark of a true culinary professional – the use of the dreaded Saran Wrap! A pull and tear and the remaining pasta and unused dough were wrapped up snugly! How many home chefs have tangled with this confounding wrap? How much of the stuff has stuck together, to be balled up and thrown away? Truly an under-explored art and litmus test for the serious cook.

More on Fellini and food

So wrapped up in the fundamental character-defining nature of food, Fellini is second only to French director Claude Chabrol in his ability to casually integrate food into the fabric of his films and add depth to his characters vis à vis how they relate to food.

We think of “Eat Marcello, eat” from La Dolce Vita– the scene where Marcello Mastroianni’s fiancée, Emma, tries to force-feed him a banana. His rabid rejection of the banana, “I DON’T WANT A BANANA!” represents not only general annoyance with Emma, but a refusal of domesticity, stability and predictability, all of which precipitates his wild fall from grace for the remainder of the film. In La Strada we watch Anthony Quinn eat, nay ‘inhale’, an ice cream cone. A telling moment of the character’s brute simplicity and how he can lay waste to sweet simple things for his own benefit. The same film also yields the subtle and resonant contrast of Gelsomina (played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife) and Zompano (Quinn) visiting a country home on their itinerant clown tour of the country.

Side by side, Gelsomina eats a dish of pasta with no sauce, while Zompano lays into a plate of pasta with a healthy dollop of tomato sauce. More subtle and amusing is in one of the many comical and complex family dinner sequences in Amarcord. Lalo (the freeloading brother of Miranda, the matron) detects and savours, a ‘touch of sage’ in the soup as his brother-in-law (Aurelio) slowly fumes while his wife basks in the splendour of her brother’s ‘delicate palate’. On the other extreme, who can forget the image from Fellini’s Satyricon of the cook at Trimalchio’s Feast sweating and rotating the pig on a spit. The stream of rendered fat echoes the profuse sweat of the cook. This is cuisine at its basest and Fellini was there.

One of the orchestrators of the exhibit mentioned Fellini as the best filmmaker to represent Italy and its cuisine; an interesting factor behind the exhibit. What other filmmaker could truly bear the mantle of ‘Mr. Italy’ for this purpose? Fellini mentor Roberto Rossellini is far too global a figure to be the pin-up boy. Luchino Visconti, whose noble heritage hearkens back to the dawn of unified Italy (and before), feels as much Austrian (a real cold streak runs through his work) as he is Italian. Antonioni (my favourite) is too aligned with an intellectual tradition that does not seem as at home with the earthier elements of Italy, like food and eating, to be the rep for such an exhibition. So yes, Fellini’s  identity as Italian and his global recognition as such makes him the man to rep Team Italy. Some may recall that when Fellini was fêted by the New York Film Fest in the 60’s, as he arrived in the U.S. his handlers approached to say, “Federico, welcome to New York. Anything, anything you want to see, please let us know…” to which Fellini replied, “I’d like to see Rome.”

Nationalism has never been more shameless, sweet or sincere. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco and Fellini’s heart could never be lodged away from his beloved homeland. A place that defined him and that he defined for the world beyond its borders.

The art

The prints on display are best suited to those who are somewhat familiar with Fellini and his cinematic output. We should remember that his background was that of cartoonist/caricaturist. In fact, in the aftermath of World War II he, ever the hustler/artist, made his way through Allied-occupied Italy offering up caricatures to soldiers and citizens for cash. Eventually this talent, vision and drive, led him to Roberto Rossellini, who engaged his visual and narrative street savvy to add a certain something to his first masterwork (and Italian Neo-Realism defining film) Citta Aperta (Open City). The rest is cinematic history. We should also remember that ‘cartoon’ in Italian renaissance parlance meant ‘preparatory drawing for a piece of art, such as a painting’, i.e. before DaVinci nailed The Last Supper he sketched an outline on the wall that would ultimately hold the fresco. This was the cartoon. For Fellini, sketches of the faces, bodies and poses of his people were often stage one of the creation of his films.

In the prints of the drawings on display at the Columbus Centre, we see a titanic force, gathering his vision for future creation. We see a storyteller and embellisher (Fellini always prided himself on his ability to lie) corralling his thoughts for future reference and self examination. One of the most amusing pieces on display is his “Spaghetti with Jung”. Fellini Jung pasta cartoon.Fellini, dream obsessed as he was, was a primo candidate for Jungian therapy, and he did indeed give much attention to Jungian analysis. He was also a long-standing friend of Ernst Bernhard, the founder of analytical psychology in Italy. Fellini relayed a dream to an analyst wherein, Fellini claimed, “I have a dream where I take a spoon and with it, dig out my right eye….” The Jungian take on this was, “Well, you see things from only one perspective.” For Fellini the creator, that perceived detriment became a virtue. His singular and persistent vision of how he saw things (not always how the world was) provided a whole different form of infinite variety and perhaps an alternative truth. An interesting contrast is the Impressionist artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, advising his son Jean Renoir (as important a filmmaker as Fellini) “Always draw from nature; nature is infinite… if you draw from your imagination you will only see things one way.” There is truth in that, but Fellini’s singular tunnel vision invites and allows a bottomless pit of delight and interpretation for his appreciative audience.

The Fellini print of Jung himself and a mysterious but prominent red-haired guy captures an intriguing and whimsical psychological moment. All are eating from the same bowl; in fact, the same strand of spaghetti and … well, that’s kinda it. Draw your own conclusions. But, as my wife pointed out, it bears resemblance to a similar moment in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, where our two titular protagonists share the same strand of spaghetti. Round and round we go. Fellini never met with Jung but did coax his grandson into letting him roam around chez Jung.

Visiting Picasso with Giulietta cartoon by FelliniClash of the titans: there’s another amusing image of Fellini and Giulietta visiting Picasso. Husband and wife show scepticism, and some surprise, at the predictable and probable bombast of their host. There’s also a little comic strip about getting the legendary everyman comic Toto to a performance on time. All this and so much more. Like a Fellini film, the exhibit is a parade of characters of every age, shape and size, where even the most grotesque are embraced with the love that Fellini had for all participants in his perpetual circus.

Catch it now, it will enhance the delight of Fellini’s existing fan base and inspire the uninitiated to take the plunge into the infinitely small but boisterous universe of Fellini’s films. The Columbus Centre is located at 901 Lawrence Avenue West (Lawrence and Dufferin), ironically enough kitty-corner from a new condo structure called La Dolce Vita. How sweet it is.

– Ambrose Roche
Photos by Ambrose Roche, with additional photos courtesy the Carrier Gallery and Wikipedia commons

A Tavola con Fellini*The quote from Tonino Guerra in the opening of the article is taken from Guerra’s preface to “A tavola con Fellini – Ricette da Oscar della sorella Maddalena” (At table with Fellini – Oscar-worthy recipes by his sister Maddalena). Let’s hope that’s available in translation. 

Info from the Joseph D. Carrier Gallery on the exhibit.

This article can be found in GOING OUT in the section What We’re Seeing.
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