Very few directors ever go out on a high note with their final film. Robert Bresson, Sergio Leone, Luis Buñuel did, and of course Jean Vigo did with L’Atalante, which has the energy of a first film because it was his first and only feature and remains perhaps the most achingly romantic film ever made. Frederico Fellini, however, didn’t have that pleasure with his pretty much disastrous final film, The Voice of the Moon.
It plays like a strung-out greatest hits compilation from his earlier and far superior films, but despite everything that is wrong with it, it does have a few fleeting moments that showcase the master’s genius. Even when the film fails really miserably (which happened more than once), Fellini’s films always have those moments of genius, but The Voice of the Moon may be his biggest failure. It was such a disaster when it played Cannes that it was dismissed completely by American film critics and ended up never receiving a release over there or, it seems, in the UK. Supposedly Miramax and Scorsese meant to release it at some point, but we all know what Harvey Weinstein was more interested in doing now.
Fellini may not be known for his narrative cohesiveness, but this film carries vague narrative structure to the extreme. It’s very loosely based on Ermanno Cavazzoni’s 1987 novel, Il poema dei lunatici (The Lunatics’ Poem), but Fellini never finished a script for the film. Instead, he got the film’s actors to improvise the majority of the dialogue and action, and unless you’re Christopher Guest that never works. Roberto Benigni stars as the main character, Ivo Salvini, who has been released from a mental hospital and wanders into a Felliniesque dreamscape. This is Benigni before the Life is Beautiful backlash, but he was still a big Italian star, so the film did OK over there.
Despite the fact that the film never adds up, it does have an extraordinary sequence in a discotheque from hell that plays to the backbeat of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Some have suggested an influence of the subsequent waltz sequence on the spellbinding waltz in Grand Central station in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Although Fellini is one of Gilliam’s two or three primary influences, I highly doubt that he had time to see this, because they were more or less in production around the same time. It’s probably just two greats coming up with the same concept.
It’s one of those films that was more fun to read as a plot description and dreaming about than to actually see: you end up horribly disappointed, because the film you imagined in your head is a far superior and more magical experience. It did have one fan at the time at Cahiers du Cinéma, Thierry Jousse, who saw connections to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle—but you know the French, they always come up with this lofty intellectual stuff. Fellini seems to be a man whose imagination was slowly deteriorating, as in the world Philip K. Dick depicts in his novel UBIK, and because of that it’s hard to maintain any interest despite some spectacular moments.
Arrow’s release for the UK and the US is a restoration produced exclusively for this reissue. I’m happy that it’s out there for people to see, despite my serious reservations about the film. Besides, the disc also includes a rarely seen making-of documentary and a booklet with new writing on the film by Pasquale Lannone. It may be a film that I come back to in a decade and find to be a total masterwork, but at the moment, it saddens me to say that it was a pretty wretched curtain call for one of cinema’s greats.