November 18, 2011 — One recent evening in David Gies' living room, University of Virginia graduate students wielding Virginia Film Festival wine glasses and cheese-covered crostinis debated a film scene depicting an ecclesiastical fashion show.
The students, from U.Va.'s School of Law and its Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, converge weekly to discuss the films of Federico Fellini as part of a seminar in practical ethics and cinema, co-taught by Gies, a Spanish professor in the College, and law professor Daniel Ortiz.
This semester marks the ninth year that Gies and Ortiz have collaborated on the non-credit course, but the first time the professors, who usually delve into Spanish films, have approached the study of ethics through the lens of Italian cinema. The course took on a front-loaded, one-semester structure this year, a departure from its previous two-semester span which the professors said helped students better conceptualize Fellini's work as a whole.
Each week, students watched films such as "La Strada," "Nights of Calibria," "La Dolce Vita," "8-1/2" and "Amarcord" at the Robertson Media Center. After each film, the class met for 90 minutes in the evenings to discuss their impressions over food and drink in the comfort of Gies' home.
Fellini, an Italian director considered one of the great film pioneers of the 20th century, grapples with themes such as the role of the artist, the meaning of art and the influence of Roman Catholic clergy in society. Ortiz said he and Gies hoped that by examining non-traditional ethical issues surrounding these themes, they could help students become ethical thinkers.
Gies noted Fellini's centrality to the evolution of cinema; he originated many techniques that have grown into clichés, and essentially invented the postmodern period. "Fellini’s images have impacted so many film directors that followed him, so we thought this would be a really interesting subject," he said.
The Law School offers this seminar, along with about a dozen others each year, as part of a program that intends to "bridge the gap between ethics – in the narrow professional sense – and the broader ethical concerns that test society, relationships and institutions," according to the U.Va. Law School Foundation. The seminars originated from a seed gift by the Charles E. Culpeper Foundations in 1997, along with a $500,000 challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, matched by alumni, to launch the program, the Law School Foundation said. The Parsons Foundation sponsored the program for many years, and a $750,000 gift from Brian M. Powers, a member of the Law School campaign executive committee and 1974 graduate of the University, extended the life of the program.
A 12-student enrollment cap, split equally between law and Arts & Sciences students, and the informal setting encourage both a sense of community and lively discussion among the students and professors. "Because there's no academic pressure and none of the students are trying to one-up each other, they're not afraid to speak," Gies said. "The insights are extraordinary."
Julide Etem, a graduate student of Italian who completed her undergraduate degree in studio art and Italian at U.Va., discussed the different portrayals of the ideal women in Fellini's films, and said she feels Fellini harbored an obsession for women without an understanding of them. "That is why he kept making these films – he just wanted to get closer," she said.
Ortiz meditated on Fellini's parallel depictions of artists, women and the church on parade as a way to critique the artifice of social roles, including his own. "He's very caught up with the idea of artistic responsibility, but seems very worried that he's becoming a whore," he said.
By examining Fellini's films chronologically, the students gained a more personal perspective on him as a director. Nate Bilhartz, a first-year master's student in English, said the experience of watching films from a single director consecutively was "really an opportunity to watch one of the major artists of the 20th century develop"; he said it helped him see how the director's focus, style and preoccupations changed.
The students said they enjoyed the openness of the discussions, as moderated by Gies and Ortiz, and gained understanding from them. Casey Eriksen, a graduate student in the Spanish department, said, "Viewing films and discussing them each week introduced me to many aspects of Fellini's work that I previously didn't consider before taking the course."
Some students have already used what they have learned from this seminar elsewhere in their academic and professional lives.
Etem developed a sample syllabus for a course based on Fellini for an assignment in her "Filmmaking By the Book" Italian course. She said she valued the interdisciplinary backgrounds and perspectives of the students in the class, which helped her create and present a lecture about Fellini to undergraduates in her role as a language assistant for the Italian section of Shea House, one of U.Va.'s language immersion houses.
Gies and Ortiz agreed that engaging with this enthusiastic group of students from different schools and departments has been particularly rewarding.
"It's been just a joy. We had such a good time this semester," Gies said. They look forward to applying to teach a continuation of the Fellini course again next fall.