When the Maestro Went Missing: A Movie Guesses What Federico Fellini Did While AWOL in L.A.

When the Maestro Went Missing: A Movie Guesses What Federico Fellini Did While AWOL in L.A.
Italian film director Federico Fellini, 1965
(Courtesy Library of Congress / World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin)

Remember "Agatha," the 1979 Vanessa Redgrave movie that speculated what happened to Agatha Christie when she went missing in 1926? Now Federico Fellini is about to get the same mystery treatment. The Brazilian “Elite Squad” star Wagner Moura has been cast as the maestro in an independent movie that speculates what befell him when he went AWOL on his first visit to Los Angeles. Invited to the Academy Award ceremony as a Best Original Screenplay nominee for “La Strada” in March 1957, Fellini did a 48-hour disappearing act and made it to the RKO Pantages Theater only in the nick of time.

A long-gestating project written by “Homeland” consulting producer Henry Bromell and to be directed by him, “Fellini Black and White” speculates that Fellini discovered the L.A. surf and jazz scenes and fell in love with a veterinarian. According to Variety, William H. Macy has been cast as Fellini’s publicist, Terrence Howard as a friendly jazz musician, and Peter Dinklage as the vet’s lover. (Why a vet?)

There’s no word yet who will play “La Strada” star Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s long-suffering wife) or the pop star Ricky Nelson, who get together during the director’s unexplained absence. There’s no word either if there are any scenes of the libidinous Fellini cruising the Sunset Strip or sampling the local produce. 

As a creator of carnivalesque fantasies and the most iconic of the larger-than-life European art house directors who wowed the American cognoscenti in the 1950s and 1960s, Fellini has obviously become fair game for impersonation. On paper, “Fellini Black and White” sounds infinitely more grounded than “Nine,” Rob Marshall’s ambitious 2009 adaptation of the 1982 musical about Fellini and the women in his life, itself inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½.”

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Fergie, and Sophia Loren, and handsomely rendered, “Nine” was intermittently insightful, sexy, exuberant, and melancholy. It just wasn’t a movie the public wanted, returning only $73 million worldwide on its $80 million budget. The lower-key “Fellini Black and White” may prove more profitable.

Fellini didn’t go back to Italy empty handed from his Hollywood jaunt. Although Albert Lamorisse won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Red Balloon” in 1957, “La Strade” (a 1954 movie released in the US in 1956) won the Best Foreign Language Film award.