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LSU Arts & Sciences Professors Team up for Fellini Project

Students study filmmaker Federico Fellini and travel to Italy for film project

Multilingual Kevin Bongiorni, Ubaye Valley Professor of French Studies at LSU, routinely teaches a course on Italian language, film and culture. For some time, he has had the wish that he could take his LSU students enrolled in that class to Italy so they could experience first-hand the richness of this culture. His dream was to spend spring break touring the places that he talked about in the classroom with his students. Particularly, he wanted to focus on one of Italy’s most famous filmmakers, Federico Fellini.

In this dream course, students would see Fellini’s films in the first part of the semester, visit the actual locations and experience the atmosphere where Fellini lived and worked during the brief spring break and then return to LSU to produce a creative work that reflected what they had learned from the classroom lectures, the films and the trip.

He shared this beautiful dream with Patricia Suchy, one of his colleagues in the LSU Film & Media Arts program.

"When I mentioned the idea to Trish," Bongiorni recalled, "her reaction was simple. She just said, ‘Let’s do it!’"

Thus began a partnership that brought the dream to life. These two LSU Arts & Sciences faculty from different departments, in the true spirit of academic interdisciplinary initiative, developed a two-course sequence. Bongiorni’s Fellini seminar was listed as Italian 4100, and Suchy’s was listed as Film & Media Arts 4001 – both courses offered at the advanced, upperclass level. Suchy worked during the fall 2008 semester to put together the spring break trip itinerary that was to be an integral part of the project, lining up visits to a number of Fellini’s most famous haunts in Rimini and Rome and contacting the Fellini Foundation to set up special events for the LSU students.

(Excerpt from project commentary by Brad Johnson, et al., undergraduates in Italian 4100 and FMA 4001)

"In our next shot, our camera imitates the ‘peacock landing’ shot from Fellini's "Amarcord." In the shot, we tilt the camera down from the top, revealing the sinner, then tilt the camera up from the sinner, revealing the church. In "Amarcord," the camera seems to honor/look up to the peacock, yet look down on the children playing in the snow. In "Amarcord," these camera movements serve to almost treat the peacock as royalty and counteractively treat the snow-playing voyeurs as subjects. Here, the church is idolized and Drew is its subject. He marches up 122 steps to reach the church and drops to his knees, then bows his head to the ground, having his moment of clarity. However, this moment of honest enlightenment is juxtaposed by the voice of someone at the church offering salvation for a fee, the way a vendor offers a hot dog in Times Square. This wink at whether or not religion is honorable is evident in many Fellini films, such as the Pope fashion show in "Roma," or the rice kneeling punishment in "8 ½" that made the Catholic Church look like fascists."

Bongiorni spent the first half of the spring semester teaching his course, which focused on the cultural and artistic influences that shaped Fellini’s work, and screening several of Fellini’s classic films. In her course, Suchy taught a hands-on workshop that featured video and film techniques, especially those inspired by Fellini’s work, to the same students attending Bongiorni’s classes.

The two enterprising faculty and two graduate students – Joey Watson of LSU and Tanya Rawal, an LSU Arts & Sciences alumna who is now a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside – then accompanied 17 undergraduates to Italy during spring break, March 31 through April 10. One of the objectives of the trip was to allow students to film their own creative work in a cultural environment similar to that of Fellini and write a commentary as the end products of the two courses.

To give the students an opportunity to collaborate on these efforts, Bongiorni and Suchy had the students divide into teams. While the students directed their own efforts, they still had their professors and the graduate students on hand to lend support and advice.

The group first spent three nights in Rimini, the beach resort city where Fellini was born. While in Rimini, the group stayed in the Gradisca Hotel, which was just down the beach from the Grand Hotel, featured in some of Fellini’s most famous films. The group was escorted by Cesira Crocesi, a faculty member from the University of Perugia, who has ties with the Fondazione Federico Fellini (the Fellini Foundation). They visited a number of sites, including the Fulgor Theatre, which is featured in Fellini’s film "Amarcord," the Fellini Foundation and the Cineteca Comunale, where they participated – along with the cineteca’s director Gianfranco Miro Gori and Fellini’s niece, Francesca Fellini – in a spirited debate regarding Fellini’s ambivalent relationship, in his films and his personal life, with his hometown.

Rimini had a particularly strong impact on one of the students. J. J. Alcantara, a senior in the group, recalled, "Traveling to Rimini was very surreal, not only because it was Fellini's hometown but also because we got a chance to experience some of his influences. There was one instance in particular I cannot forget. In Fellini's movie ‘I vitelloni,’ there was a scene where the boys in the movie were dancing outside the Grand Hotel covered in fog and wind, and in our first night in Rimini, a fog covered the little coastal city, and everyone almost instantly thought of the scene from ‘I vitelloni.’"

Bongiorni also found another benefit to being in Rimini in the spring. The usually crowded beach was almost deserted during their stay. He had hoped that the students would be able to film their projects in the same places and under similar conditions to those Fellini used, so Bongiorni was thrilled by the relative quiet.

"In several of Fellini’s films, he uses wind and the empty beach as a symbol of loneliness and isolation. Rimini in spring was quiet, and we were delighted that the students had access to the beach while it was empty to use it as Fellini did," Bongiorni explained.

After leaving Rimini, the group took a train to Rome, where they spent the final six nights of their trip. While in Rome, they visited a number of sites that have significance in studying Fellini’s work: the Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Forum, Vatican City, St. Peter’s basilica and, perhaps most obviously in relation to Fellini’s films, Trevi Fountain. They also toured Cinecittà, the film studio where Fellini shot most of his works. The tour of Cinecittà was especially noteworthy because the facility is rarely open to visitors, but the staff there made a rare exception for the LSU group.

When the group visited Trevi Fountain, Watson asked one of the officials at the site about the best time to film and was told that after midnight was his best option. Watson, who, with Rawal, took on the assignment of creating a documentary of the trip and the students’ work in progress – a kind of film about film – and who occasionally helped students find appropriate locations, intended to set up at the fountain with the group.

"I was interested in the Trevi Fountain scene in ‘La Dolce Vita,’" Watson said. "We went out around 2 a.m. to see if we could film at the fountain for our own projects, and a film crew was already there. The members of the crew were very gracious when they found out what we were doing and even allowed us to use the other half of their set."

This encounter gave the group another insight into the way Fellini filmed "La Dolce Vita."

"When we got there, the other film crew was waiting for the water to shut off so they could film. It took at least 45 minutes." Watson said. "There is no way the scene that Fellini used in his film was shot at the actual fountain. We found out that he shot that part of the film in the studio [Cinecittà]."

When the group returned to LSU, they still had work to do, such as editing the film they shot in Italy, focusing their projects and submitting the reports to accompany their creative work. As the sidebar excerpt of this article indicates, the students’ works exhibit the depth and intensity of their understanding of Fellini, his work and the culture in which he created his films.

Beyond this depth of understanding, the students also found the experience of the combined courses to be valuable. Several of them benefitted even after the semester ended. One was accepted to film school, largely based on the work she helped to produce during the semester, and others had their work accepted at conferences and festivals.

"I’m pretty excited to have the opportunity to present my group’s film at the Foreign Language Film Conference in Carbondale, Ill., and at the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages conference in San Diego," Alcantara said. "It’ll be my first opportunity to present at academic conferences, and I hope the experts in the field enjoy the final product of our semester-long project."

Alcantara summed up the way the students who participated felt about the Fellini Project. "Studying such an innovative filmmaker as Federico Fellini and having the opportunity to create a film using his style was one of the best class experiences I’ve had – and being able to go to Rimini and Rome in Italy wasn’t such a bad thing either," he said. "Drs. Suchy and Bongiorni were well-versed in the subject and definitely propelled us to immerse ourselves in Fellini’s life and films. The project and the trip will probably be my most memorable experience at LSU."

Bongiorni and Suchy, with typical verve and energy, continue to work with Watson to complete the documentary from the trip.

"This project was ideal," Suchy commented, "melding craft, learning, discovery and practice. The planning was intense, but the final experience was well worth it."

Brenda Macon | Associate director of the LSU College of Arts & Sciences
October 2009