Fellini Purists Won't Like it, but "Nine" Entertains
By Skip Sheffield
“Nine” is a dirty old man’s dream- quite literally.
For this reason, opinion of this Rob Marshall musical extravaganza tends to divide along gender lines, though there are some guys who really hate it.
That group would be the Fellini purists, who feel everything the master Italian writer-director did is sacred and untouchable.
I’m not that way at all, and I freely admit I admire female pulchritude.
“Nine” is chock full of fabulous females of every description, representing the various types fancied by Federico Fellini, who was also a world-class womanizer. That fact no one can deny. The miracle is that he stayed married to the same woman, actress Guilietta Masina, for 50 years.
Fellini insisted his works were not autobiographical, but even a casual student of his art recognizes some of the important female figures in his life in the acclaimed 1961 film “8 ½,” which is the basis for the 1982 Broadway musical “Nine” on which screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella based this script.
I had the privilege of meeting Minghella in person and spending some time several years ago in Fort Lauderdale when he was promoting his film, “Breaking and Entering.”
Like Fellini, Minghella was proud of his Italian heritage and it shows in this otherwise Americanized movie by the director of “Chicago.” Alas Minghella died March 18, 2008, and this was among his last scripts.
“Be Italian!” is the exuberant theme song for the musical, but curiously Rob Marshall cast an Englishman, Daniel Day-Lewis, as Fellini alter ego Guido Contini.
That said, Day-Lewis handles the role quite well, though his singing voice is no great shakes. What is formidable about Day-Lewis is his dramatic ability, and Guido Contini is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, when he isn’t almost catatonic with depression.
With so many beautiful women in his life, why should Contini be so depressed? The simple answer is that Contini’s art is more important than anything else in his life, and at this moment he just can’t make it.
“Nine” is about artistic blockage when it’s not about Contini’s philandering escapades.
It’s about Catholic guilt too, instilled by the church and by his devout mother, played ironically by voluptuous Sophia Loren. Hey why not? Loren was a real-life inspiration to Fellini, who cast her in several films.
Playing Luisa Contini, the longest-suffering, most patient and forgiving wife a man could ever conceive, is French actress Marion Cotilliard, emoting up a storm even when she is not speaking a word. But when she sings “Take it All” watch out, she will break your heart.
On the other hand is brazen sexpot Carla, played with joyful abandon by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. Ay Caramba! Cruz’s writhing, rope-dancing, acrobatic production number is nothing short of scorching, yet this is another fine dramatic performance as a woman ultimately scorned.
Yes, each of Guido’s women gets a production number. For Kate Hudson, as spunky American press agent Stephanie, “It’s Cinema Italiano.” For Fergie (Stacey Richardson) it’s a phantasmagoric number set at the beach, combining religious imagery with boys’ sexual desire.
Even Dame Jodi Dench gets her moment in the spotlight (“Follies Bergere,” no less), as does Nicole Kidman as Guido’s latest designated blond goddess, Claudia.
“A film is a dream,” broods Guido, in a beginning scene. “You kill it sometimes.”
Did Rob Marshall kill Fellini?
Nah, no more than Arthur Kopit did when he wrote the book, nor Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics, or Tommy Tune, who directed the 1982 Broadway production of “Nine.”
It won five Tony Awards.