Fellini’s Book of Dreams

Fellini Illustration from The Book of Dreams

What is The Book of Dreams?

The so-called Book of Dreams is really two ledgers, in which Federico Fellini, urged by the Jungian analyst Ernst Bernhard, jotted down and illustrated his own nocturnal fantasies over the space of thirty years. The first volume (approximately 245 pages) goes from November 30, 1960 to August 2, 1968, while the second (154 pages) goes from February 1973 until the end of 1982: a span of 22 years, which is supplemented by other scattered pages and several notes dated 1990. Long before he ventured into the oneiric universe with the cognitive tools recommended by Bernhard, however, Fellini was well aware of the importance of dreams. Indeed, he often asked his friends to tell him their dreams and urged them not to waste what he called “the night work,” at least as important, if not more so, than the thoughts and activities of one’s waking hours. Having seen for himself that a dream could only be remembered for a few minutes upon awakening, the director kept a notebook on his bedside table where he jotted down his visions and feelings as soon as he opened his eyes.

All These Ladies

All These Ladies

As far as eros is concerned, The Book of Dreams is a catalogue of the fair sex as long as Leporello’s in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. There may not be 1003, but there are many, and they come in “all sizes and ages,” the type by now commonly known as “Felliniesque” predominating: the voluptuous, experienced lady, characterized in the dreams by uninhibited behavior bordering on an adolescent-style pornography not always, perhaps, exactly tasteful (but can taste even be factored into the equation of dreams?). Taken as a whole, women have a consolatory function in the director’s imagination; they appear to him in the most magical of moments and cluster around him, teasing him and then yielding to him, distracting him from darker thoughts. This being their function, they never really affect him deeply. The guiltiness that Fellini feels towards Giulietta concerns all these ladies, to paraphrase the title of one of Bergman’s films: that is to say, the women who, over time, have aroused Fellini’s restless yearnings, triggering his infatuations and his cravings. In the dreams some of these figures appear more frequently than others, superimposed on one another: like the dark-haired, passionate L., or the blonde, ‘monumental’ A., nicknamed “la Paciocca”; the lively N., the attractive O., as well as the exuberant Sandra Milo, this last an unofficial muse of Fellini’s. Last but not least, “Anitona” Ekberg, whom, if the truth be told, the director actually lost touch with for over twenty years. An indiscreet researcher could study this bevy of beauties and have no trouble at all finding out who all the initials in the dreams really stand for, and when their generally ephemeral relationships with our first-person narrator started, and ended. It seems safe to say, however, that as the physical attraction wore off over time, all that was left of these assorted affairs and encounters was the burden of a replenished guilt complex, and that moments of sheer sexual bliss were thin on the ground indeed. Not to mention when the dream imagines Giulietta and one of the other ladies particularly hard to give up both in the same bed, the futile aspiration being to reconcile the one love of Fellini’s life with the most reliable representative of that extra-marital harem he commanded, in the spirit of 8 1/2.

Biography of Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini was born in Rimini on January 20, 1920, the son of Ida Barbini from Rome and Urbano, a traveling salesman born in Gambettola. While still in high school, the future filmmaker began to make a name for himself as a caricaturist: to promote the films, the manager of the Fulgor movie theater commissioned Fellini to do portraits of the stars. In early 1938 he started drawing for the Domenica del Corriere, which printed several of his cartoons, as well as a weekly Florentine humor magazine, 420.

Having moved to Rome in January 1939 supposedly to study law, Fellini joined the staff of the Marc’Aurelio, a satirical periodical with a large circulation, and gained popularity drawing hundreds of cartoons signed Federico. He became familiar with the world of burlesque, writing monologues for the comedian Aldo Fabrizi and collaborating on variety programs for the radio. Here he met the young actress Giulietta Masina (1921-1994), whom he married on October 30, 1943. Their only child would die one month after his birth.

Helping out on film scripts for Fabrizi and others, the young man from Rimini soon began to shine as a screenwriter. He had a hand in Roma città aperta and Paisà immediately afterwards; it was the start of a very fruitful friendship with Roberto Rossellini. He also associated with the playwright Tullio Pinelli, with whom he formed a lasting bond. Together, in fact, they became two of the screenwriters most in demand at the time, working for various directors, such as Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada. The latter tapped Fellini to direct “Variety Lights” (1950) with him; they produced it themselves and wound up deep in debt.

The first film Fellini directed on his own (“The White Sheik,” 1952) also fared badly, but he had a hit in “I Vitelloni” (1953), which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and defnitively launched Alberto Sordi. He followed this up with “La Strada” (1954), starring Giulietta Masina; it won an Oscar, just the first of a series of films that would consecrate Fellini as one of the masters of the cinematic form.

His best-known titles include “Nights of Cabiria” (1957, another Oscar), “La Dolce Vita” (1960, Palme d’Or at Cannes), “8½” (1963, Oscar-winner), “Fellini Satyricon” (1969), “Fellini’s Roma” (1972), “Amarcord” (1973, yet another Oscar), “Casanova” (1976), “Orchestra Rehearsal” (1979), “Ginger and Fred” (1985), “Fellini’s Intervista” (1987, the 40th Anniversary Prize at Cannes, Grand Prize at Moscow), and “The Voice of the Moon” (1990). Fellini’s career was indeed strewn with tributes and awards, including the Legion of Honor (1984) and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale (1990). Four of Fellini’s films won Oscars in the foreign language film category, and Fellini himself was nominated for twelve Oscars – eight for writing and four for directing. He received an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards ceremony held in March 1993, just a few months before his death on October 31, 1993.

Alter Ego, Friends and Rivals

Even the simple way of portraying or caricaturizing an individual may be revealing as Fellini’s means of evoking, interpreting or even exorcizing conditions of his work or emotional life. You’d need a “Who’s Who?” To identify all those dream characters who could be called the second leads of those from the director’s real life. First of all, there are the figures connected to the actual creation of his films, which makes up the underlying thread of The Book of Dreams. For example, the close friend/enemy Clemente Fracassi, prince and organizer, whome Federico places in a quite transparent dream in which he and Fracassi escort Valeria Ciangottini, the young girl Mastroianni speaks with at the end of “La Dolce Vita,” to a brothel. There may well be remorse in this dream, if unfounded and hence unnecessary, for ensnaring a young girl who is the symbol of chastity in the corrupt world of the cinema, of whose representatives there is indeed a continuous parade from dream to dream: the decrepit Gigetto Giacosi (incarnated by Mario Conocchia in “8½.”), the production manager Lamberto Pippia, the assistant Liliana Betti, and the director’s brother Riccardo, with the worry of his wanting to be a director himself. There is also the editor Leo Cattozzo, who was cast to play “the man with the sack” in an episode cut from “Nights of Cabiria.” Obviously the brothers Mastroianni put in frequent appearances: Fellini’s alter ego Marcello and Ruggero, nicknamed Roger, the trusty film editor. And many others that in a film credits we would call guest appearances. In the words of Arthur Schnitzler, a friend of Freud’s with the habit of writing down dreams himself, “After a while, the people we have lost wander through our sleep, more freely even than the living.” This is just what happens in The Book of Dreams, where the much-loved composer Nino Rota and Fellini’s “guru” Bernhard continue to appear after their deaths, and the boxer Primo Carnera, just a short time after his own death, arrives in a wheelchair and announces he’s “recovering,” while repeat performances by those back from dead involve Dino Buzzati, Ennio Flaiano, “completely paralyzed,” cameraman Gianni Di Venanzo, and the obligatory Roberto Rossellini. And the poetical recollections of Pasolini, which allow Fellini to rekindle a friendship gone cold after a series of misunderstandings, is one of the most moving moments in The Book of Dreams.

Amarcord Rimini and Family

It has been observed that Fellini never truly returned to Rimini, if only because he’d never left. The Book of Dreams is proof that he always carried his place of birth around with him, even though Federico made no more than sporadic appearances in the city, and never shot a yard of footage in Rimini, preferring to evoke it in the shape of a nameless town on other locations. For “I Vitelloni,” the director assembled a collage of Florence, Viterbo, Rome, and the Kursaal at Fiumicino; for “Amarcord” he reconstructed the milieu inside the studios at Cinecittà, and for “The Voice of the Moon” he resorted to the Empire Studios (formerly Dinocittà). While writing the script for Viaggio d’Amore, the film he never made about the anxious journey to reach his father’s deathbed in 1956, he planned to shift the scene to Fano. Urbano Fellini: Federico often saw his father in his dreams, and even felt him weighing down on him, physically. Occasionally he identified with him: “No doubt about it: it’s got to be me, or maybe my father” And these pages resonate with the family tensions over the prolonged absences of the head of the family, since this traveling salesman’s business trips must have included their share of pleasure as well, as in the tragicomic encounter with the night club dancer that appears in “La Dolce Vita.” Indeed, a recurring motif in the most incongruous of circumstances is the phone call from afar: Fellini’s mother, ever anxious and plaintive, always about to give her son a piece of bad news. What sometimes happens, however, is that the figures of Giulietta and Ida Fellini are superimposed on each other, as in the childhood memory of a bicycle ride with his mother to his grandmother’s house in the country. A quite conflictual relationship, moreover, was that with Fellini’s younger brother, especially when Riccardo decided to become a filmmaker himself and use the Fellini name; a development that met with a wall of rejection on his older brother’s part that was neurotic and out of proportion. The imaginary landing in Rimini to accompany Totò to the theater where his admirers are waiting to fete the great comedian is another highlight of Fellini’s dream life. And if it cannot be said of Fellini that all dreams lead to Rimini, it is true that there are many that seem to land ideally on the beaches of the Adriatic.


If we take only the most famous ones into account, the public figures evoked in The Book of Dreams come to over a hundred. A word of caution, however: those figures are not exactly who they say they are. The dreamer is a kind of director of the soul, who, after the manner of the neorealists, convokes this or that person of his or her acquaintance to embody his fantasies, in a perfect appearance of reality. Other imaginary encounters involve world-famous personalitise with whom the dreamer feels an affinity and engages in stimulating conversations: luminaries ranging from Carl Gustav Jung to Bernhard, from Pablo Picasso to Georges Simenon, from Giorgio Strehler to Orson Welles, from Salvador Dalì to Jorge Luis Borges, from Eduardo to Totò and Vittorio De Sica, not to mention Karl Marx and Garibaldi. The complete list would be long indeed; what is striking about the drawings is that in all of them, with no exception, Fellini captures a likeness to the subject and, in a few brilliant strokes, also manages to convey his or her personality. There is much feeling in a pair of sketches of his ex-rival and, in the end, friend, Luchino Visconti, disabled by a stroke. As a representative of economic power there is a cameo of Gianni Agnelli kidnapped by the modern-day bandit Renato Vallanzasca, but the popes don’t fail to put in an appearance: the much-loved Pope John XXIII, the hardly friendly Paul VI, who persecuted “La Dolce Vita” when he was still Giovanbattista Montini, cardinal of Milan; there is also Nobel Prize-winning Dario Fo. Then there are the politicians: John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Aldo Moro, Bettino Craxi; Luciano Lama, fired on by the Red Brigades, and Aldo Palazzeschi. The producers are here as well: Dino De Laurentiis, with Silvana Mangano; Carlo Ponti with Sophia Loren; Franco Cristaldi with Claudia Cardinale; Andrea and Angelo Rizzoli; and Alberto Grimaldi. Above all, Fellini’s lifelong friendships fill the dreams with the faces of Leopoldo Trieste, Pietro Germi, Fellini’s spiritual father Angelo Arpa, Sergio Zavoli, Tonino Guerra, Oreste Del Buono, the editor Daniel Keel, and the magician Gustavo Adolfo Rol; but there are also those of the friendships that didn’t last: Aldo Fabrizi, Alberto Sordi, Ennio Flaiano, Piero Gherardi, and Danilo Donati.

Dreaming and Filming

With a truly precocious insight into the affinity between dreaming and filmmaking, the director as a young boy had named the four corners of his bed at his grandmother’s house after the movie theaters in Rimini: the Fulgor, Savoia, Sultano, and Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro. Fellini’s dream life then became a permanent part of his fantasies: Vuoi sognar con me? (broadcast in April 1941) was a radio program about which one commentator wrote in Radiocorriere: “Dreams are the cinema of the poor.” Over and over in Fellini’s radio scripts of the time, the characters find an escape route in dreams. Not to mention an odd fantasy whose title tells it all: Di notte le cose parlano (At night things talk). As far as cinema is concerned, although Fellini never made a film entirely composed of dreams, as his revered friend Akira Kurosawa did in “Dreams” (1990), in his own work Fellini often treats reality as a sort of dream sequence, as in, for example, the Kafkaesque setting of the episode Agenzia matrimoniale. It is also telling that 8 1/2 starts with the veritable nightmare of the traffic jam, and the whole film plays on the riddle “am I dreaming, or is this really happening?” “The Temptation of Dr. Antonio” is based on the obsession of the sex-phobic censor who sees the diva Anita descend from a billboard in flesh and blood; “Juliet of the Spirits” interweaves a wife’s fantasies with the ordinary tensions of married life; “Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna” was to be a long imaginary journey through death; “Fellini Satyricon” recreates the world of ancient Rome, revisited in a dream mode; and “Casanova” ends on the scene of the elderly seducer who, upon saying “I’ve done a...”, is rejuvenated and moved off into the icy Venetian lagoon. Finally the last project Fellini filmed was a series of three television commercials for the Banca di Roma, straight out of The Book of Dreams, such as Paolo Villaggio trapped at the wheel in the collapse of a tunnel, facing a growling lion ripping into its dinner on the train tracks as the train approaches. All of which confirms the fact that if you take the dreams out of the great artist’s oeuvre, you have removed their most genuine and most personal element.


Women take up an inordinate amount of space in Fellini’s waking and sleeping hours, serving as perennial objects of desire, on the one hand, and as Goethe’s ‘ewigweibliche’ on the other. And as the emblem par excellence of the eternal feminine, Giulietta stands out from the other more or less ephemeral female figures, thanks to Fellini’s imperative to have her at his side, to form a union that never even neared the breaking point, lasting instead up to the golden fiftieth – exactly one day before Fellini died. It must be said that the characters played by Giulietta (Gelsomina, Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, and Ginger) are the ones that represent the filmmaker’s only attempts to explore the female psyche: when he halts, astonished and grateful, on the threshold of an ‘alien’ personality, one that is submissive and overpowering by turns, recognizing and portraying a woman’s prerogatives even as he envies them, without ever fully understanding them. Indeed, although he fell completely under her sway the first time they met, it took Fellini half a century to familiarize himself with his wife’s true nature, and in “Ginger and Fred” he confidently proclaims her superiority over her fragile partner, and the consequent surrender of the male to the victorious female. If we try to read between the lines and interpret the relationship between the two spouses, in the opening pages of the Book we are struck, above all, by the recurring warning signals over Masina’s health – and even survival. In these dream scenes of a marriage we find her dying in the “awards room” (the room in the apartment in via Archimede where the couple kept the countless awards and medals they had received); we discover she is irrationally jealous of Sophia Loren (whom the director admired but never courted, although he happily concedes a couple of erotic dreams in the diva’s embrace). We see Masina gravely ill, dead in her coffin, even, like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio; or alternatively: departing, never to return; at the bottom of the sea; pinned by a lion in Fregene; accused of killing José de Villalonga; surprised with a man presumed to be her lover; under the influence of alcohol; or caught in the act of giving birth to a shark. But also, more comically, transformed into a wizard, underlining the childlike and fairy-tale nature of the characters she played.

Hellish Nights

Recent studies have shown that in most people’s experience, 64% of their dreams have an unpleasant content, 18% are pleasant, and just 1% are of an openly sexual nature. The Book of Dreams is no exception to the rule: death is a constant presence in the dreams, and if not death, then risk, danger, and unease. And although Fellini died eight years before 9/11, the images that have made history, and the history of television, of the planes plowing into the sides of the Twin Towers, could aptly illustrate the apocalyptic vision of this work, which has its roots in the obliterated cityscapes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horror of mass murder, which has stunted the growth of two or three generations, springs from the pages of Fellini’s book in the form of an unbroken series of disasters. Heaving seas and floods (“tsunami” had not yet come into common parlance, but the effect was the same), train accidents, plane crashes like that of Mastorna, the collapse of a giant glass tower (probably inspired, as the year was 1974, by the blockbuster disaster movie, John Guillermin’s “The Towering Inferno”); as well as the soundless crumbling of a gothic tower, the explosion of a number of dirigibles in flight, and the alarm over threatened explosions of atomic bombs – all crowd these pages in a crescendo of death and destruction. Of the illustrations, (many of which have a pictorial quality that the art critics should be called on to appraise) one highlight is the scene where Federico faces his fellow filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, at the moment of the macroexplosion in “Zabriskie Point” (1970). And although Fellini was pleased with his reputation as a film director who never went to the movies, he surely must have seen and absorbed the final reel of this unusual film. It’s no coincidence that he dreams he is linked in a stoic brotherhood spanning the generations (which he illustrates) with another filmmaker so very unlike him but equally revered.

Self Portrait Drawings

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