An Interview with Federico Fellini
The Master speaks on life, art, and Carlos Castaneda
Interview by Toni Maraini
Translated by A. K. Bierman
* Tell me about a film you never started, the one about Carlos Castaneda.
It’s a very complicated story.
I first looked for Castaneda through his publishers. I talked with the publisher, who gave me the address of Castaneda’s agent, a Ned Brown in New York. The publisher told me it would be easy for Brown to give me Castaneda’s address. Once a year a Mexican boy brought the publisher manuscripts. Ned Brown told me he had never met Castaneda.
Persisting in my search, I was told that Castaneda was in an insane asylum, even that he was dead. Someone else said he’d met him and that he was alive, that he had seen him at a lecture Castaneda gave. Then, in Rome, there was a Mrs. Ioghi who put me in contact with him. And I finally met Castaneda.
Castaneda’s personality is quite different from what you might imagine. He seemed like a Sicilian — a cordial, easygoing, smiling Sicilian host. Brown skin, black eyes, a very white smile. He has the effusiveness of a Latin, a Mediterranean. He’s Peruvian, not Mexican.
* Are you sure it was really him?
What are you trying to say? Of course; he was surrounded by other people. Mrs. Ioghi knew him.
This likable gentleman, who had seen all my films, told me that one day with Don Juan, thirty or forty years ago, he had seen my film, La Strada — which was made in 1952. Don Juan had told him, “You will have to meet the director of this film.” He said that Don Juan had prophesied this meeting. That’s what Castaneda told me. I told you that he came to find me, here, in this living rom, seated right here.
From the beginning I was fascinated by his book The Teachings of Don Juan, a book about esoteric, parapsychological ventures. Then I was fascinated by the overall idea: that of a scientific man, an anthropologist, who starts with a speculative, scientific purpose, a man who keeps his feet on the ground, watches where he’s going and literally looks at the ground, in fields, in vegetable gardens, in glades, toward the hills — where mushrooms grow. This man of science then finds himself, after initiation, following a path that brings him into contact with some ancient Toltecs.
I like the route supplied by a scientific, rational curiosity, a route that he took with a rational attention and which, at the same time, led him toward the mysterious world, a world we define in a vague way as “irrational.”
* This relation between science and a supernatural world seems especially interesting. In this connection, you talked about your experience with LSD, your belief in Jung’s psychoanalysis, and your friendship with Roll, the most famous Italian clairvoyant.
Yes, this seems to me the end point of true science. The more it advances, protected by its parameters, its mode of inquiry, its certainties, and its doubts, also its distrust, the closer it comes to something that is “the mystery.” And, therefore, it approaches a religious vision of the phenomenon it’s investigating.
The one thing that fascinated and also somewhat alienated me — an Italian, a Latin, a Mediterranean, conditioned by a Catholic education — was Castaneda’s and Don Juan’s particular vision of the world. I saw something unhuman there. Independently of Don Juan, who is charming in a literary way and whom we are made to see as an old sage, I couldn’t help being invaded at times by a feeling of strangeness. As if I were confronted with a vision of a world dictated by a quartz! Or a green lizard!
What I found fascinating was that you felt transported to a point of view never before imagined, never suspected, that truly had you breathing outside yourself, outside of your humanity, and that for an instant gave you an unfamiliar shiver of belonging to other elements, to elements of the vegetable world, animal world, even the mineral world. A feeling, that is, of silences, of extraterrestrial, extra-planetary colors. This was what seduced my propensity for the fantastic, the visionary, the unknown, the enigmatic.
In Don Juan’s vision of the world, there was no comfort, nothing of what so many other texts can give you or that other esoteric authors like Rudolph Steiner or the Templars give. In short, Castaneda’s stories, unlike so many other esoteric or initiatory texts that try to tell you about other dimensions, offered a vision lacking any psychological comfort. This was what made them terrible and fascinating for me. Yet I seemed to find myself in an asphyxiated world.
* You told me once that from the moment you arrived in Los Angeles, where Castaneda was waiting for you, some strange events began.
Phenomena and wonders popped up. When he came to my hotel, he brought along some women. I never saw him again, but after that I found strange messages in my room and objects moved around. I think it was black magic. His women, but not Castaneda, went with me to Tulun, and the same things happened there.
* You felt threatened, and Castaneda disappeared.
It’s been some years — that was in 1986 — and I still haven’t been able to figure out what really happened. Maybe Castaneda was sorry to have brought me there and worked out a series of phenomena that discouraged me from making my film. Or maybe his associates didn’t want me to make a film and did these things. Anyway, it was all too strange, so I decided not to make the film.
Castaneda’s books brought back some feelings that I had experienced as a boy…. It’s difficult to define…. Maybe madness can resemble this kind of astral, icy cold, solitary silence. I put one boyhood experience in The Voice from the Moon, when Benigni tells his grandmother that he became a poplar tree. It happened when I was a boy and spent the summer with my grandmother, Francesca, my father’s mother, in the country at Gambettola.
* The name of this place, Gambettola, could come from a fable, some sort of Pinocchio adventure….
Yes! It was also called “the forest,” because there was a large forest nearby. There, I had a few experiences that I remembered only thirty or forty years later. They came back in a more hallucinatory or more revivified way because I was reading some parapsychological texts. In short, they were experiences of special feelings. First was the episode of the poplar tree.
I was able to translate sounds into colors, an experience that happened to me afterward. I could chromatize sounds. It’s a faculty that can surprise us, but which seems natural to me, given that life is a single thing, a totality that we have learned to divide, file, separate, tying different sensations together in different ways.
Here I was seated under that poplar at Gambettola, and I heard the ox lowing in the stable. At the same time, I saw coming out of the stable’s wall something fibrillating, like an enormous tongue, a mat, a carpet, a flying carpet moving slowly in the air.
I was sitting with my back to the stall, but I could see everything around me and behind me, 360 degrees. And this wave dissolved, passing through me, like a huge fan of very tiny, microscopic rubies that shimmered in the sun. Then it disappeared.
This phenomenon of translating sounds into colors, the chromatic equivalent of sound, stayed with me for many years. I could tell you about other such episodes that happened when I was a child, and also when I was twenty and had come to Rome.
But let’s go back to what happened under the poplar. At a certain moment, while I was playing, I seemed to see myself up above, very high, I seemed to be swinging there, and to hear a light wind in my hair. Then I felt — it’s difficult for me to describe it — that I was solidly planted in the ground. And that little boy I saw — which was me — now had his legs sunk in the ground, so far that I felt I had roots. And the whole body was covered by a kind of hot, thick blood that rose, rose, rose up to the head because of the sound that I was making (“whooo”) while I was playing. I heard this sound with a different organ, magnificent, more….
* Like a mantra!
It was a mantra, yes, like “ommm.” And then this feeling of rapture, of lightness, of lightness and power, power in the roots and lightness above in the branches shaking in the sky. I had become the poplar!
* These are the great intuitions and feelings, the great visionary wisdom of childhood that one has to tell later as fantasies.
Let’s say they need to assume the form of fables. The fable is always the more human, and also the more faithful, way of recounting.
November 1999 | Bright Lights FilmJournal, Issue 26
Interview copyright © 1994, 1995, 1999 by Toni Maraini
Translation copyright © 1994, 1995, 1999 by A. K. Bierman
This interview originally appeared in issue 12 (1994) and issue 14 (1995) of our discontinued print edition.
Toni Maraini is a poet who has written a two-volume work on the poets of Provencal. She has also taught art at Rabat University in Tunisia. Her novel L’anno 1424 — the year of the premiere of La Danse Macabre at the cemetery of the Most Sainted Innocents in Paris — has been translated into English.
A. K. Bierman is a philosopher, playwright, and ex-naval aviator. A frequent translator of Italian literature, he has written Philosophy of Urban Existence, Life, and Morals, and a musical based on the life of Walt Whitman.