By an odd coincidence, 1990 saw the release of two films called Voice of the Moon, one of which saw the beginning of a directorial career, the other saw the end of it. The first was a short documentary by Richard Stanley about his travels in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the second was the final film by Federico Fellini. Whereas Stanley’s career proceeded in modest leaps and terrible stumbles, Fellini had been in a slow decline for at least a decade. He was no longer a bankable name, but he was still held in high enough regard to mount one last big production spectacular.
This, then, is Fellini’s Voice of the Moon, released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Arrow Home Video. It stars Roberto Benigni, now best-known for his divisive Oscar-winner Life is Beautiful, but then only really known outside Italy for his wired supporting roles in Jim Jarmusch films. I have to admit that, even as a Jarmusch fan, I was very worried about what version of Benigni was going to turn up here. The information that he was playing Ivo, a character recently released from a lunatic asylum, only compounded my fears. In fact, he’s very good here, giving a sad-clown performance in the melancholy, understated manner of Sleepy Hollow-era Johnny Depp. Only once, when he’s telling a warehouse full of dancers that he loves them all, did I get traumatic flashbacks to his Oscar acceptance speech.
The warehouse rave is less unexpected than you might think. Fellini’s films had always been satirical of hedonism and pop culture. The problem is, as he got older that strain of his work started to feel less like the work of a modern-day Hogarth and more like a grouchy old man grumbling at the outside world.. Broadsides against feminism (City of Women) and television (Fred & Ginger) lacked the nuance and critical understanding that he brought to bear on celebrity and the media in La Dolce Vita. Tellingly, the most acclaimed work from his last decade probably remains And the Ship Sailed On, an allegory for pre-World War I Europe that allowed him the pleasure of one last pop at his parents’ generation.
There are moments like this in Voice of the Moon. Fellini is clearly aware that the kids are having raves in warehouses, and that they like the music of that American fella Michael Jackson, but he’s not a keen enough observer of the scene to realise that a warehouse full of people dancing to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ looks quite odd. But Voice of the Moon benefits from Fellini taking a broader line of attack than he did in Fred & Ginger or City of Women. His target is nothing less than the entire, callous, shamefully un-magical nature of modern society, and some of the images he uses to put this message across are as good as anything from his golden age. In Fellini’s modern Italy, even the work of da Vinci is rendered empty and meaningless, just a poster to improve the view in front of a power station.
Rallied against this noise, shallowness and bustle, we have Ivo and Gonella, the latter played by a wonderfully weary Paolo Villaggio. They are both mad, but they have a trace memory of their former lives that allows them to blend into a society that’s slowly losing its mind anyway. Moreover, Fellini’s narrative overwhelmingly takes the side of the mad over the sane. One early run of scenes involves Ivo transport himself back into his childhood home, then get lost in a fantasy sequence based on a dream he had in infancy, then get dropped off in the middle of a strange fairytale where a woman leads him to a sleeping beauty. The scenes flow one into the other without any kind of conventional film grammar that might tell the audience whether this is reality or fantasy.
In the end, the film’s scattergun morass of satirical points and refusal to let the audience anchor themselves in any kind of objective real world becomes exhausting. There is a deep irony in the final film by Fellini, that poet of the bustling metropolis, ending with a plea for stillness and peace in modern life. It’s certainly never boring, though. The sheer range of characters and ideas it encompasses should keep most viewers busy even if they wish Fellini could slow down and take a closer look. There is also a beguiling fairy-tale thread that holds the whole thing together; the sleeping beauty allusion, a lost slipper which Ivo must return to its owner, the folklore surrounding reflections of the moon, which the film begins and ends with. Just try not to think about Benigni’s future career when his mother says she always thought of him as Pinocchio.
An extra worth noting: there’s an enjoyable hour-long documentary here produced for Italian television following a presenter working as a kind of embedded journalist in Fellini’s production; filling out the crowd scenes, improvising dialogue, etc. Benigni off-camera seems to be indulging all the manic comedy tics he kept in check for Fellini’s film, and the rough 1990s videotape is shown up by the Blu-Ray presentation. Even so, it’s a fascinating look at the man at work. The fact that it has such an unusual structure is evidence of what high regard he was still held in; a simple making-of just wouldn’t do.