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The Unknown Planet 

A new documentary revisits the life and art of cinematic womanizer Fellini

Everyone in their right mind loves Donald Sutherland. The spry 67-year-old boasts one of the most respectable acting résumés this side of Christopher Lee, so when he turns up in the documentary Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, he speaks with authority. Looking a bit dazed but generally enthusiastic, he waxes on about auteur filmmaker Federico Fellini and their trying experiences making Fellini's Casanova (1976, long unavailable in this country). Sutherland's mixed emotions (calling Fellini "a martinet, a tyrant") in the documentary are intriguing, but speaking recently at a Q&A, the actor added a rather startling and revelatory new grace note.

"He made me feel very beautiful, and I would do anything for him," Sutherland said of Fellini. "It was a love relationship, it was literally. And I was infatuated with him, I was head over heels in love with him. And the filmmaking became the sexual relationship, became the sexual intercourse in between the two of us. And when that was taken away, there was an awkwardness that I couldn't overcome."

Fellini, you bastard!

Apparently that's how it goes with visionaries, and this 2001 film by documentarian Damian Pettigrew helps explain how a squat little madman could transform a lofty 6'4" Canuck into a heartsick girl. It reveals Fellini through his own copious words, through some of his visions and through the sentiments of those who knew him, including figures less well-known on these shores such as Italo Calvino, screenwriter Tullio Pinelli and cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno. What emerges is what is already known -- Fellini was a compulsive artist obsessed with women -- but the portrait allows for some unique angles. One comes away from it acutely aware of a man who spent his life grappling with the very concept of women, whom he deemed collectively to be "the unknown planet."

Bursting with disturbingly tight close-ups of Fellini from Pettigrew's ten hours of interviews conducted mere months before the maestro died in 1993, this project literally puts you in the man's face, and vice-versa. Distinct from some artists who become more obscure as they roll along, Fellini here just keeps crystallizing his primary points: that being available is the key to his work ("I don't think the word 'improvisation' has any place in the creative process"); that spontaneity is "the secret of life."

He also comes clean about needing to control women -- and possibly his crew, one member of which declaims, "You surrender yourself, bound hand and foot, to someone who's out to destroy you!"

Fellini himself simply says of his tug-of-war process, "I need an enemy."

Whatever the method, the man developed one of the most unique voices in cinema's first century, and here we visit him on the sets of both Amarcord and Satyricon. These clips aren't outrageously exciting, but should immediately arouse fanatics, who may also enjoy Pettigrew's long dolly shots across vistas from some of Fellini's films, which have changed somewhat over the course of time.

Short segments of 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita also come into play, but cineastes may find themselves most delighted by the appearance of a scene cut from Casanova, featuring Sutherland and a black man kissing in a gondola. Inherent "controversy" aside, I was most amused that Sutherland's prosthetic nose (and chin) predate Nicole Kidman's award-winning plastic schnoz by over a quarter-century.

There isn't much here to learn about Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, who shows up only briefly to flash her charming smile in stock footage. The same goes for Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's top leading man. But those who do speak in new interviews, including Sutherland, just about steal the show.

Not surprisingly, Roberto Benigni (who appeared in Fellini's last film, La Voce Della Luna) jiggles around like he just swapped his blood for caffeine. Only somewhat intelligible (not that I can throw down in Italian), his primary insight is that, "the camera resembles life!" Thank you, Pinocchio.

Most fun of all is Terence Stamp, who had already worked with luminaries such as Ken Loach, Joseph Losey, John Schlesinger and William Wyler by the time he arrived on Fellini's set for the "Toby Dammit" segment of the Edgar Allen Poe collection, Histoires Extraordinaires. Sitting calmly in what appears to be a cold room in a sedate English flat, Stamp goes nutty when recalling taking his first direction from Fellini -- who obviously wasn't planning on giving him any. When asked, Fellini cut loose with hedonistic descriptions of the wild "horgy" Stamp's character was to have attended the night before, and the actor's recounting is a scream.

That said, this project is not the last word on Fellini, nor does it replace the director's bizarre self-portraits in Intervista or the TV special A Director's Notebook. It even irritates a bit, as none of the speakers are identified until the end. That said, though, fans will love it, and the uninitiated may find in it cause to start picking up a few more Criterion DVDs.

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