Interpreting Fellini through Jung

Still from 8 1/2, Federico Fellini

Undergrad paper in Theory of Personality Course, Mount Holyoke College, 2004


            The psychological analysis of a person is an extremely difficult task especially when direct physical contact does not exist between an observer and the person observed. This task becomes even more difficult when the analyzed person is an artist; a person involved in the creation of his/her own reality. Nevertheless, it is an interesting task and even more so when a person analyzed is Federico Fellini. Fellini is a controversial artistic and public figure of the second half of 20thcentury, full of mystery, who flipped between myth and reality, who had also created a theatrical show out of his own life.  

            Fellini’s work and personality represent an endless puzzle consisting of and influenced by different phases, creative processes and experimentations. This paper will focus on several psychological variables directly associated with Fellini such as dream/unconscious material expressed/used in his works as well as in his working style and neurosis. For the purpose of analyzing Fellini in this paper, some relevant first-hand materials (such as Fellini’s diary and his commentaries in two documentary films) are used as well as additional mediated material (such as some of his biographies as well as discussion of his films). As is widely known, Fellini was deeply influenced by Jung’s theories, therefore it is even more interesting to analyze some of these variables by using Jung’s understanding of human psyche and its underlying elements.

Brief background information

Federico Fellini was born on January 20th, 1920 in small Italian town of Rimini. However, for most of his life Fellini had spent in Rome, where he moved in 1939, and where nearly all of his greatest films were shot. Before coming to cinema Fellini had worked as portraitist, caricaturist, and designer (Ankeny, 2005). Even later while directing his films Fellini used to make sketches as a direct preparation for his films, to maximize visual expression of his ideas. According to Fellini, his drawings were important elements of his work in terms of transitioning his inner emotions onto the objective surface (Gal,2003). He also used to draw visual representations of his dreams soon after awakening and even encompassed some of their details in his films (Gal,2003). This suggests that Fellini also had some personal resemblance with Jung who similarly used to draw his dreams soon after awakening as is noted in his memoirs.  

Fellini’s most productive phase of life encompassed the time between the early 1950s to the early 1970s when most of his masterpieces were created (Ankeney, 2003). This period can be identified with Erikson’s seventh psychosocial phase — Generativity Versus Stagnation when individual’s life is full of ideas and aspirations to achieve (Hall, 1998) “psychosocial aspects of  personality enrichment” (p.204). This was the time when “La Strada,” “La Dolce Vita,” “8 ½,” and other of Fellini’s landmark films were created. This was also the time when Fellini has closely experienced psychoanalysis after his encounter with the Roman psychoanalyst Ernest Bernhard (Bondanella, 2002) and viewed Jung’s concepts of personality as (Bondanella, 2002) “the sight of the unknown landscapes, like the discovery of a new way of looking at life” (p.94).     

After this fruitful period, from the 1980s until near the end of his life (he died on October 31, 1993 in Rome) Fellini had experienced a creativity crisis and the overall opinion was that he had largely decreased his output as well as the quality of his films (Edwards, 2005). One of his later interviews summarizes his problem as a “starting neurosis” of the film – (Maraini, 1994) “this attitude of total aversion, like someone who puts off the moment when he’ll have to look at the mirror, an image he wants to disown. It’s worsened in these last years” (p.3). 


            When reading Fellini’s diary or his interviews it is hard to escape the feeling of artificiality, which is also greatly expressed in his very theatrical films. Fellini’s words as well as his work indicate an incredibly rich imagination, a variety of symbols, faces, details, and mental concepts based on the deep knowledge of the human psyche and human history. Two main points are frequently mentioned by the people who worked and lived with him. One is that his films were two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional fantasies inside Fellini (Gal, 2003). A second point emphasized by Martin Scorsese was that Fellini’s individual world was an intense collection of wonders, historical and mockery, small and big, general and individual, ambitious and psychological, faceless and bold (Piccini, 2002). 

            As Fellini had himself mentioned many times, his works (sketches or films) are the closest possible to life expression of his dreams mediated through his individual concepts and imagery (Piccini, 2002). A parallel can be found in Jungian archetypes and his view of the human psych as a pool for the collective unconscious. According to Jung, archetypes are primordial symbols/concepts inherited from past generations. They constitute main components of the collective unconscious and are represented in human religions, myths, and dreams (Hall, Lindzey, Campbell, 1998). One example of the links between archetypal images and Fellini’s dreams can be drawn from the latter’s memories of dreams of himself flying. As he said later, at an older age he was no longer able to (Fellini,1993). Thus (Fellini,1993) “The implication was clear. Once I had known how to do it and had been in total control of my own power. But now I was deprived” (p.2). In Jungian perspective, dreams associated with flying represent archetype/symbol of freedom from restrictions as well as transcendence (Bhattacharaya, 1999). Even though this explanation of Fellini’s dreams might seem obvious without mentioning Jung, his theory gives a clear idea of Fellini’s subconscious feeling of futility and a loss of inspiration experienced during his later years and expressed in his dream.

A different connection between Jung and Fellini can be found in the former’s view of the dynamics inside the system of personality. According to the Jungian principle of Compensation, if a person is repressing his unconsciousness, then in the time, when his/her consciousness will be somehow repressed, the repressed component of the human personality will be immediately activated. The most common example of a liberated unconsciousness is a dream (Hall et al., 1998). One can only guess to what extent Fellini has repressed his unconsciousness in his real life but certainly the intensity, richness, and complexity of his dreams and the meaning he had attached to them can illustrate the principle of Compensation, a power of Fellini’s collective as well as individual unconscious as the main source of his inspiration. Interestingly, Fellini had favored Jung over Freud because (Bondanella, 2002) “Jungian psychoanalysis defined the dream not as symptom of a disease that required a cure, but rather as a link to archetypal images shared by all humanity” (p.94).

            A quite different source that links Fellini and Jung is the understanding of neurosis (or Conflict according to Jung’s terminology) by both of them and the role that both of them ascribed to neurosis in human life (creative process for Fellini). As one can judge by his phrases and interviews, neurosis accompanied most of Fellini’s artistic experience. In 1969 he declared that (Maraini, 1994) “a film is like an illness that is expelled from the body” (p.1), on other occasion Fellini said that (Fellini, 1994) “The neurotic attack, as long as it is not too serious, can be compared to a kind of providence, as Jung teaches. It obliges us to make contact with remote and unknown parts of ourselves. For an artist the pathological aspect of neurosis reveals itself as a kind of hidden treasure”(p.76). For this artist the whole creative process consisted of the realization of his own innermost emotions and it seems that neurosis has characterized Fellini when the artistic and visual expression of these emotions (which also could have been partly unconscious and thus expressed in his dreams) fell short of their first-hand experience. 

            According to Jung, neurosis (or as he called it, Conflict) primarily accompanies the process of repression of ego or unconscious and can be eliminated only through the principle of Compensation (Hall, et al., 1998) briefly discussed above. Jung views human personality as a mechanism which is in equilibrium only when successfully balancing (Hall, et al., 1998) “between contrasting elements that prevents the psyche from becoming neurotically unbalanced” (p.95). To him, personality must be normally viewed in the context of conflicting and opposing inner forces which are similar to contradictions, tensions and conflicts of the real life (Hall, et al.,1998). Neurosis appears when people (Jung, 1989) “content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life” and “If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears” (p.140). Jung saw human development and the process of self-realization as main aspects of a positive and successful human life as well as the only way to cope with neurosis (Jung, 1989).

             Fellini’s case is also linked to Jung’s notion of Self-realization. Self-realization is (Hall et al., 1998) “the goal of psychic development … [when] the dynamics of personality move toward a perfect equilibrium of forces” (p.100). This notion is primarily connected to the most important concept of Jung’s theory – the Individuation process which explains personal development as (Hall et al., 1998) “an unfolding of the original undifferentiated wholeness with which humans are born. The ultimate goal of this unfolding is the realization of selfhood” (p.106).    

            Looking at Fellini through Jung’s lenses one can see that he was an artist whose whole life was a conflicting experience between unconscious elements of his psyche, their visual representations on the surface and the discrepancies between these two categories. As Fellini was a remarkable perfectionist unconcerned with technical details or obstacles to the expression of his inner self (Gal, 2003) he was striving to complete his Individuation process and, thus, come to a full consensus with the different parts of himself. Full of psychic energy during his middle age, the artist was deprived of it later in his life. Obviously, Fellini’s process of Individuation was not always successful and was even painful (as one can sense from his quote about losing his ability to fly (Fellini,1993)) but his most renown masterpieces are also direct successful results of this process which have unambiguously contributed to the whole of humanity. 


Federico Fellini represents a complex and ambiguous personality full of mysteries and puzzles. His work seems to be an attempt to visually express the strong collective and individual unconscious (expressed through dreams) in its clashes with the conscious ego in real life. By using Jung’s terminology one can talk about the permanent process of Individuation which had led Fellini to a sometimes painful but rewarding search for his artistic identity and style needed for unfolding and achieving of his individual integrity.     

His life and work resemble famous artists of antiquity who had created their own legends, and had blended legends of their own lives with their works, producing an intoxicating mixture of myth and truth, dream and reality. This complex mixture cannot be fully understood, analyzed or explained. One might choose different psychological concepts to gain at least partial insight into the personality of these extremely talented but equally complicated people, but still, this analysis might fell very short of reality. However, as Jung said before Fellini (Jung, 1989) “In the end, man is an event which cannot judge itself, but, for better or worse, is left to the judgment of others” (p.113). 


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