Study Explores LSD Influence on Fellini’s Films

What role did LSD play on the work of one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time?
Courtesy The Times UK

A recently published analysis charts a course between the films of Federico Fellini and his well-documented experimentation with psychedelics. 

The analysis, published in July in the journal Drug, Science, Policy and Law, notes in the abstract that “LSD has been used by artists, scientists, and intellectuals, amongst others, to stimulate their creative insights,” and that Fellini, the auteur behind acclaimed films such as 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, “used LSD when it was still legal under the guidance of his psychoanalyst during a phase of personal and creative crisis.”

“This article proposes a phenomenological analysis of how his filmmaking and his creativity was enhanced after using LSD in such controlled therapeutic settings, according to four main domains: (a) time, (b) space, (c) body and others and (d) perception of the self. In particular, time flows irregularly and is punctuated by disorienting flashbacks, colours become supernaturally brilliant and detached from objects, sounds pop up independently from any visible source, and human bodies become often deformed, grotesque and caricatural. The boundaries between dream- and reality-worlds also collapses,” the authors of the analysis wrote.

Fellini’s use of LSD was not uncommon, with the authors noting that a “significant cohort of artists and intellectuals, many belonging to the ‘via Margutta’ group in Rome used psychedelics.”

Fellini Satyricon. 1969. Italy. Directed by Federico Fellini. Courtesy United Artists/Photofest

They received LSD treatment under the supervision of Emilio Servadio, described as “one of the fathers of Italian psychoanalysis.”

“In the summer of 1964 Federico Fellini was treated with a single dose of LSD by Dr Servadio one of most prominent Italian psychoanalysts. Together with Fellini, Dr Servadio and a nurse attended the session. Fellini’s words were also recorded with a magnetophone. In a later interview he explained that this single with LSD experience had a significant effect with his perception of colours,” the authors explained.

The researchers applied a qualitative analysis on “the impact that LSD had on Fellini’s work is based on the phenomenological method,” and “compared Fellini’s movies completed before and after his LSD experience in Summer 1964.”

“After the use of LSD, it is clear from our analysis that Fellini’s films drastically changed and became more distinctive – so distinctive and original that an adjective was coined to describe them felliniesque,” the authors concluded. “The world depicted in his post-LSD movies includes major changes in the perception of space, time and others. These changes become conspicuous mainly through the use of colours and sounds, which became perceptual epiphanies independent from ‘real’ objects in the world … Through a detailed assessment of the experiential changes occurring in Fellini’s pre- and post-LSD films, our analysis can shed light into the psychotropic properties of this compound, including its psychotomimetic, psychedelic and psycholitic properties, and contribute with a sound methodological approach to the progress of the debate on ‘psychedelic renaissance’ we are witnessing in the present time.”

Thirty years after his death, Fellini’s work continues to invite scholarly analysis, while continuing to inspire other filmmakers. 

In an essay for Harper’s magazine in 2021, Martin Scorcese recounted Fellini’s influence, and friendship.

“I knew Federico, well enough to call him a friend. We met for the first time in 1970, when I went to Italy with a group of short films I’d selected for a presentation in a film festival. I contacted Fellini’s office, and I was given about half an hour of his time. He was so warm, so cordial. I told him that on my first trip to Rome, I’d saved him and the Sistine Chapel for the last day. He laughed. ‘You see, Federico,’ his assistant said, ‘you’ve become a boring monument!’ I assured him that boring was the one thing he’d never be. I remember that I also asked him where I could find good lasagna, and he recommended a wonderful restaurant—Fellini knew all the best restaurants everywhere,” Scorcese wrote.

He added: “Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly. I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.”

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