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Why Fellini Never Made His Masterpiece, 'The Journey of G. Mastorna'

By Marcus Perryman | Indiewire October 4, 2013 at 10:29AM

The following is an excerpt from "The Journey of G. Mastorna: The Film Fellini Didn't Make," which was recently released in an English translation by Berghahn Books.
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Federico Fellini.
Federico Fellini.

The following is an excerpt from "The Journey of G. Mastorna: The Film Fellini Didn't Make," which was released in an English translation by Berghahn Books in August. The book contains an annotated screenplay for this longtime passion project of the Italian filmmaker, which revolved around a musician killed in a plane crash who navigates the afterlife. This introduction, written by translator Marcus Perryman and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, outlines the history of the unfinished project.

In 1965 Federico Fellini signed a contract with the producer Dino De Laurentiis to make a science fiction film based on Fredric Brown's "What Mad Universe." For all that this might have interested Fellini after his pretend spaceship and red-herring escape scenario in "8½," he quickly changed his mind; instead of "What Mad Universe" he began writing an original script of his own, "Il viaggio di G. Mastorna," based on an idea by Dino Buzzati, whose collaboration he sought and secured. He sent De Laurentiis a long letter which amounted to a first draft of the script.

There followed over seven thousand words in which Fellini narrates the action of the film, describes its main characters and indicates its mood and spirit, collecting some of the episodes under headings. For example, under THE LANDSCAPE OF FEELINGS, SENSATION AND THOUGHT he writes: "The Region of thought with its cultural leaders; the fantastic Classical world of secondary school, the pagan world, Greek gods, Homer’s heroes. His guide in this world is his old schoolmaster, a materialist, follower of Carducci, atheist."

Fellini signs off repeating his perplexity about the ending. It's not hard to guess what De Laurentiis made of this uncertainty. Fifteen years earlier, he had sent back a script on Ulysses to Orson Welles, because it lacked commercial appeal. But De Laurentiis had backed out of "8½," yielding to Angelo Rizzoli one of Fellini's greatest successes, and the mistake still smarted. Despite the hiccup of "Giulietta degli spiriti," Fellini was still a filmmaker De Laurentiis could bet, if not bank, on.

Several months later, with help from Brunello Rondi and the contribution of Dino Buzzati, the script had grown to over thirty-three thousand words. A few scenes had been dropped, many added, and the ending had been put in place, introduced by one of the few cinematic instructions in the script, a voice-over.

Much has been made of Fellini's scripts, or lack of them. His co-scriptwriter and lifelong friend Tullio Pinelli has said that, contrary to popular belief, Fellini stuck closely to them.

Evidently, Fellini didn't think scripts were for actors. For him they were accurate descriptions of the scenes that would be shot, verbal storyboards, giving the rhythm and architecture of a film; they didn't need to indicate anything about the mechanics of shooting (camera movement, lighting, depth, and so on) or give the  actors  their  lines. This is reflected in the "Mastorna" script, which only indicates 'Exterior' or 'Interior,' and a generic location, without further shooting guidelines. The dialogues are sometimes perfunctory, at other times utterly critical. However, they often have the feel of interleaved monologues, two people talking at cross purposes, part, of course, of the nightmare world being portrayed. Buzzati wanted the dialogue to fizzle; instead it simmers.

If Fellini had made the film in or around 1966, as he originally intended, apart from some inevitable serendipity on the set, it would have substantially followed the script in this book, if not always the dialogue.

This article is related to: Federico Fellini, The Journey of G. Mastorna, Books, Italian