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`Ginger & Fred' -- closer to dusk than dawn

THEIR names are Amelia and Pippo, but they call themselves Ginger and Fred in their vaudeville act. Not that they expect anyone to confuse them with Rogers and Astaire -- they know they aren't in the same league. But an American-style name lends class to a team, they figure. And class means everything when you're a pair of small-time hoofers with more enthusiasm than charisma.

At the start of ``Ginger & Fred,'' the latest Federico Fellini film, these two have long retired from the stage -- she to concentrate on her family, he to cope with problems of morale, morality, and even sanity. What brings them together again and starts the plot rolling is a TV special, where they're invited to be guest performers. Seizing the chance for a last shot at the limelight, they limber up and strut out their steps one more time, not sure whether this is a good idea but game enough to give it a try.

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The condition of Amelia and Pippo when we meet them (she a widow, he a failure, both of them has-beens) is a clue to the film's mood. This is an autumnal kind of picture, bathed in a half-light that's closer to dusk than dawn.

True, the aging heroes aren't its only subject: Fellini is just as interested in satirizing the TV medium with scene after scene of the sardonic, society-as-circus imagery that's his most famous trademark. But the gradually fading lives of Amelia and Pippo give the movie its tone, suggesting that Fellini might possibly be meditating on his own career -- a robust one, to be sure, but one that many observers feel has seen better days.

More than 30 years have passed since Fellini set up shop as one of the world's great filmmakers. For a while, it looked as if his progress would be unstoppable -- fueled not only by a teeming visual imagination, but by a unique capacity for self-renewal. No sooner had he mastered Italian neo-realism in ``I Vitelloni'' and poeticized it in ``La Strada'' than he established a new kind of social epic in ``La Dolce Vita'' and devised a new approach to filmic illusion and reality in ``8.''

The juggernaut started to slow down, though, after a decade or so. Ingenuity became self-indulgence in ``Fellini-Satyricon'and ``Casanova''; the beauties of ``Amarcord'' were fitful rather than sustained; and the cultural microcosms of recent works like ``City of Women'' and ``The Orchestra Rehearsal'' have seemed like pale shadows of past achievements.

Fellini remains a major figure on the international film scene. But he's no longer a leader regarded with awe; and when he puts out a so-so picture like his last one, ``And the Ship Sails On,'' it gets a so-so response instead of the universal attention that would have zoomed its way a dozen years ago. This is his resemblance -- metaphorical if not actual -- to Amelia and Pippo. They are not Ginger and Fred; and in a way, he's no longer the Fellini he once was.

What prevents ``Ginger & Fred'' from bogging down in self-absorption is Fellini's characteristic humor, mordant but irrepressible, and the good sense he used in casting the picture. At first glance, there's no surprise in his choice of Marcello Mastroianni as Pippo, since this fine actor played Fellini's alter ego in such key works as ``La Dolce Vita'' and ``8.''

Ditto for the choice of Giulietta Masina, who starred in such Fellini classics as ``Nights of Cabiria'' and ``Juliet of the Spirits'' and is the director's wife, to boot. But it's revealing to note that these two have never played opposite each other before in a Fellini film or anywhere else. These ``obvious choices,'' in other words, haven't been so obvious -- as a team at least -- until now.

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Of the two, it's Masina who makes the picture the gentle-sad comedy it is. Mastroianni keeps his characterization ironic and mopey, even vulgar at times. Masina, by contrast, has an unfailing energy and dignity that uplift the entire film whenever she takes the screen. The message seems to be twofold: that Fellini still has plenty of these admirable qualities on tap, and that his wife/leading lady still serves as a major inspiration to his career.

That's a nice message to have about Fellini, and it's even nicer to receive it via the charms of Giulietta Masina, whose talent has scarcely faded since the glory days of ``The White Sheikh'' and her other long-ago collaborations with her husband. ``Ginger & Fred'' is as much a tribute to her as it is a show-biz fable, an anti-TV diatribe, and an inward look by a famously introspective director.

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