Hollins Professor R.H.W. Dillard Talks Centennial Of Legendary Italian Director Federico Fellini

R.H.W. Dillard

Cinephiles around the globe are no doubt celebrating the centennial of famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. The year 2020 marks a century since the birth of one of cinema’s most quirky, creative, and surreal auteurs—Fellini directed more than a dozen projects across a career that spanned nearly five decadesand this month will see the release of Essential Fellini, a new 15-disc Criterion Collection box set of Fellini classics, including Academy Award-winners La Strada, Amarcord, and, perhaps the original hyper-meta film-within-a-film, 8 ½.

Fellini films also have quite a history at Hollins University. The Italian director is a favorite of Professor of English, Creative Writing, and Film R. H. W. Dillard, award-winning author and editor of The Hollins Critic.

“He’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and he does it with such clarity in his heart,” said Dillard about the enduring popularity of Fellini’s cinematic universe, which was so unique it gave rise to the term “Felliniesque.” (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita also spawned the word “paparazzi” from one of the movie’s characters, an obnoxiously persistent photographer named Paparazzo.) “Fellini’s humanity draws us back to him, as well as his art,” said Dillard about the director’s gifts. “There are lots of artistically competent filmmakers, but Fellini I’m drawn back to again and again. It’s a cliché, but his films have this heart to them.”

To Dillard’s point, Fellini had a gift for depicting all his characters, even some of his most despicable or grotesque, with a kind of forgivability and gentleness. There are no true antagonists or villains in many of Fellini’s films, only flawed but usually likeable and endearing characters against the currents of the larger world. “Amore per tutti (love for all),” one of Fellini’s characters famously declares in the director’s 1965 film Juliet of the Spirits, a movie about a suburban woman who begins seeing visions while grappling with the abandonment of her husband. “Love for all” seems to perfectly sum up the director’s attitude toward not just his own characters but indeed to the larger, messier tapestry that is humanity. In Amarcord, a film about growing up in Fascist Italy under Mussolini, even Fellini’s depiction of the Fascists and their supporters reveals that, for the most part, they are just people, too: neighbors and townsfolk, a high school math teacher, a clerk at a cigarette shop, or—in the case of the semi-autobiographical central character Titta—a freeloading uncle who rats out his own brother-in-law.

Fellini On Set
“One hundred years after his birth, Federico Fellini still stands apart as a giant of the cinema.” – The Criterion Collection

“He was an artist determined to reveal his full vision as vividly and completely as possible, to discover the universal in the particular,” wrote Dillard in a 1994 essay published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture shortly after the Italian auteur had passed away. “Fellini was an artist who depended upon individual and particular vision and expression rather than politically codified generalities and stereotypes.”

Dillard’s connection to both Fellini and Hollins runs deep. In addition to offering a course on Fellini for many decades at the university (he’s actually teaching Fellini this semester, in honor of the maestro’s 100th, in his Film as a Narrative Art class), Dillard said that Hollins is where he saw his first Fellini film. Ever. “When I was an undergrad at Roanoke College, La Strada was showing at Hollins,” said Dillard, recalling the classic film that fetched Fellini his first Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film (Fellini would go on to win three more awards in this category, a record). “That was also the first time I ever set foot on the Hollins campus. Eight years later, I came back to work here, and I’ve been teaching Fellini ever since. So I’ve always connected the two.”

That screening at Hollins sparked a decades-long Fellini fascination for Dillard. In a situation somewhat reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillard’s dedication to Fellini cinema even caused him to brave a crowded theater during the H3N2/Hong Kong flu pandemic in the 1960s. “When Hollins was the first college in America to close down with the Hong Kong flu—and the national news reported it—my friend [and film professor] Tom Atkins was teaching 8 ½ in his film class in Babcock,” Dillard recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna miss 8 ½,’ because back then that was the only way I could see it. And the room was full of people with blankets, all of them were sick. I watched the movie and loved every moment. And I caught the flu for it.” (Dillard is quick to caution current Hollins students not to follow in his footsteps.)

As for Fellini’s future in the pantheon of the world’s great filmmakers, Dillard has no doubt of the Italian director’s place. “I think he’s made it—he’s never going away,” said Dillard. “Post-World War II cinema is one of the great periods of art, like Elizabethan/Jacobean drama in English, and that doesn’t go away. Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni, they’re all gonna last. And thanks to technology, we can see them in Blu-Ray.” Speaking of which, Dillard added that he’s already preordered his copy of the Criterion Collection’s Fellini Essential box set (due out November 24). With a smile, Dillard said he’s just waiting for it to arrive so he can watch Fellini’s masterpieces all over again.