The Great Screenwriters: Part 25 – Tullio Pinelli

For a man who could justifiably be described as “Fellini’s Screenwriter”, as he helped to co-write such classics as La Strada, La Dolce Vita and , Tullio Pinelli is surprisingly little-known, even among cineastes. However, like most writers that is probably exactly how he would have wanted it. Pinelli began life as a lawyer and even when he became a professional playwright and screenwriter he retained some of the air of detachment and clinical observation that characterize many of the best lawyers. He was the dry and witty yin to Fellini’s flamboyant and extroverted yang, but together the two men helped to create some of the greatest and most extravagant cinema ever made.

Perhaps the first thing that should be emphasised about Pinelli is that he was not so much “Fellini’s Screenwriter”, or his sole screenwriter, as he was a part of a team of writers with whom Fellini conceived of and wrote so many of his early classics, foremost among whom was Ennio Flaiano, who also co-wrote many Fellini classics. The fact was that, especially early in his career, the charismatic and brilliant Fellini loved to surround himself with a number of writers and co-writers, with whom he could develop ideas and storylines. This “team writing” approach is entirely commonplace in television, especially American television, but it remains unusual in cinema, especially European cinema, and it might just be one of the secrets of Fellini’s initial success. This communal, even collegiate approach surely contributed to the array of memorable characters that Fellini depicted on screen, particularly in La Strada, a story about a circus that perhaps required a “circus” (albeit a small one) of writers truly to bring it to life. And it is surely undeniable that when Fellini largely abandoned this collective approach to writing later in his career to concentrate on personal, more obviously autobiographical tales, which were largely solely written by Fellini himself or by the director and perhaps one principal co-writer, something of the teeming, almost overwhelming energy of his early films was lost. 

Early Life and Surviving WWII

As for Tullio Pinelli himself, he was born in Turin in 1908 into a relatively well-to-do family, at least one of whom, his great-uncle Ferdinando Pinelli, had been one of the great heroes of the Italian struggle for unification in the second half of the 19th century. Tullio, however, as he later admitted, was no warrior and instead pursued the simpler, steadier life of being a civil lawyer. However, it was not an undramatic life, for two reasons. To begin with, the first third of Pinelli’s long life (he lived until he was a hundred) coincided with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and his Fascisti, which inevitably cast a shadow over all of Italian life, as depicted in so many of the masterpieces of Italian cinema, notably Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista), a 1970 film based on the classic Alberto Moravia novel. Then, to compound that, Pinelli spent most of his time outside court pursuing his dream of becoming a playwright, which, at a time in Italy when almost all artists were regarded with suspicion, must have meant a life fraught with anxiety.

Fortunately, Pinelli survived both Mussolini and the ensuing World War, and like the rest of his countrymen and women sought to rediscover himself afterward, when he was nearly 40. Then came the chance encounter that changed his life, which, even allowing for the inevitable dramatic exaggeration of a would-be dramatist, was extraordinary. He claimed that he met the great Federico at a newspaper kiosk in Rome, when the two men, impoverished as almost all Italians were at the time, were reading different pages of the same newspaper. As Pinelli put it afterward (a tale recorded by another Tullio, the great Fellini scholar Tullio Kezich), “Meeting each other was a creative lightning bolt. We spoke the same language from the start.” Significantly, that “language” was laced with imagery, as the aspiring playwright became a nascent screenwriter almost on the spot. They excitedly “spitballed” about a fantastical and fantasy-type story in which an office worker flew out of his office window. Although nothing came of it immediately, that sequence would eventually be sublimated into the opening scene of , in which Marcello Mastroianni’s film director dreams of escaping from a traffic jam by flying out of his car window.

In post-war Rome, of course, the neorealism of De Sica and Rossellini was all the rage, largely because it was the only kind of cinema that could realistically be made in Italy’s ruined post-war economy. The fantasy that would become Fellini’s trademark would have to wait, at least for a while, and so, despite the “lightning bolt” of their first meeting, Pinelli’s first screenwriting credits (usually among a number of other screenwriters) came on fairly undistinguished crime movies, such as 1947’s The Opium Den (La fumeriad’oppio).

Pinelli and Fellini

As Italy slowly rebuilt itself after World War Two, Pinelli himself had to wait another six years before finally working with Fellini on a film. That was not one of Fellini’s stone-cold classics, but I Vitelloni (1953), his third film as director. I Vitelloni translates loosely as “The Bullocks”, or “The Young Cows”, and it was the story of five young Italian men from a small town, focusing on the important transition points in their lives. Of course, Italy itself was in enormous transition and the men’s comic and dramatic exploits were a small-scale version of the momentous events transforming the country, notably the massive re-industrialization that was required after Allied bombing during World War Two had destroyed much of Italy’s infrastructure. 

I Vitelloni is regarded by Fellini fans and scholars, such as Woody Allen and Tullio Kezich, as a key turning-point in his own development as a director, but from a writing point of view it is most notable for being the first product of the “Fellini dream team” of Pinelli, Flaiano and Fellini himself. Indeed, when the film was eventually released in America, several years later, it secured the three men an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing in 1958. Nevertheless, I Vitelloni was really only the outlier, the harbinger, of the incredible artistic and commercial success that would flow from Fellini’s next film, his fourth, La Strada (1954).

La Strada (The Road) is not only one of the best films ever made but one of the most important

It was Fellini’s first fully realised film and set him on the path to becoming, alongside Ingmar Bergman, one of the twin poles of European post-war cinema – the wild Italian fantasist to the dour Scandinavian realist. It is the story of Gelsomina, a young woman who was beautifully played by Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and artistic muse; the couple suffered a series of miscarriages and other medical catastrophes early on in their marriage, which rendered them childless and instead made them pour all their artistic and romantic energy into filmmaking. 

Gelsomina’s story was no less tragic than that of Masina herself, as she is forced to replace her older sister as a performer in a travelling circus, working alongside a supposed “strongman”, played by Anthony Quinn, who may be physically powerful but is emotionally weak. Effectively, Gelsomina is sold into slavery by her own mother, but she transcends her appalling origin story to become a far more successful entertainer than her employer/owner, using traditional theatrical mime and Charlie Chaplin-style silent comedy (Masina was often called “the female Charlie Chaplin”) to win both the adoration and, more importantly, the money of audiences. However, the strongman foolishly starts to resent the “fool” and, unable to control his own physical power and emotional rage, eventually abandons her, only to regret it years later when he eventually learns of her tragic fate. 

was the making of Fellini, Masina and the film’s other screenwriters, Pinelli and Flaiano. Alongside Fellini, they won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957. As a result, Fellini and his co-writers, including Pinelli, could finally make the kind of films that they had always dreamt of making. These were films that were simultaneously autobiographical and fantastical, in which office workers could fly out of office windows, as Fellini and Pinelli had first imagined more than a decade earlier when they met at that Roman news kiosk.

The Golden Age of Fellini

What followed was one of the great golden ages of any director, in which Fellini made most of the films for which he is still revered today, the majority of which were co-scripted with Pinelli and Flaiano. First, there was Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria) (1957), which astonishingly won the second Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The story of a prostitute (again played by Masina) who dreams of finding love, it might just have possessed the greatest collection of talent ever to work on a single screenplay, as Fellini, Pinelli and Flaiano were complemented by the young Pier Paolo Pasolini (who would also work uncredited as a writer on La Dolce Vita and contribute dialogue to ). It was said of Fellini’s movies at the time that the writing credits were even more impressive than the acting credits, which, with stars such as Masina and Antony Quinn, were impressive enough.

The twin, crowning glories of the Fellini golden age, which his co-writers contributed so much to, would come a few years later at the start of the 1960s, with La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963). Both starred Marcello Mastroianni, who effectively became the male muse who replaced Masina’s female muse in Fellini’s films. First as a paparazzo, or celebrity photographer (from which the term paparazzi comes), and then as a thinly veiled version of Fellini himself, a film director who suffers crippling panic attacks when he tries to make a big-budget sci-fi movie, Mastroianni became the on-screen face of Fellini (although, by Fellini’s own admission, a far more handsome and photogenic face than Fellini’s own). 

However, for all the fantastical imagery of both films – in particular the Trevi fountain sequence in La Dolce Vita and the extraordinary opening helicopter sequence in – both films had as their bedrock supremely well-written scripts that meticulously examined ideas of contemporary masculinity, sexuality and creativity. As with any co-write, it may now be impossible (more than a half-century on) to determine exactly which lines which writer wrote, but the fact that Pinelli, along with Flaiano, contributed to all of these masterpieces surely demonstrates beyond doubt their credentials as great screenwriters.

The End of an Era

Pinelli and Flaiano co-wrote Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti) (1965) with Fellini, but ultimately it marked the end of their remarkable run together. After the succession of collaborative, co-written films made over nearly a decade, Fellini, consciously or otherwise, set off in a very different artistic direction. His primary focus was no longer on external characters, such as circus clowns or prostitutes or photographers, but on himself, as the great creator, who no longer wanted or needed a team of like-minded co-writers with which to develop his screenplays. The results were mixed: at times brilliant, such as on the explicitly autobiographical Amarcord (1973); at times confusing, if not incoherent, especially on the increasing number of films that bore Fellini’s own name in the title, such as Fellini: A Director’s Notebook and Fellini Satyricon (both 1969). These overtly “Fellini-esque” films undoubtedly have their admirers, especially among Fellini’s fellow film-makers, but they never captured the wide, indeed almost universal, audiences of La Strada, La Dolce Vita and . In the end, it must be concluded that even the great creator Fellini lost something when he abandoned, or at least stopped working, with his great co-creators, such as Pinelli. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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