Vancouver Italian Film Festival: The Simpsons' Nancy Cartwright finds her way to Fellini’s La Strada

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      It would no doubt do Il Maestro proud. Coming to the Vancouver Italian Film Festival next Saturday (January 6), In Search of Fellini quotes lovingly from the canon of the legendary filmmaker while making a swoony phantasmagoria out of its largely true-life tale of screenwriter Nancy Cartwright’s 1985 pilgrimage to Italy.

      If the name rings a bell it’s because Cartwright would eventually find success playing a 10-year-old miscreant called Bart Simpson. Only a few years earlier, however, she was a moderately successful voice actor studying under the famed acting coach Milton Katselas. For reasons best known to him, he advised his young student to screen Fellini’s heartbreaking 1954 Oscar winner, La Strada.

      “I think that he could see that I was very clownlike,” Cartwright suggests, calling the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles. “I was studying people like Judy Holliday; I appreciated people like Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, so this was a way, I think, for Milton to have me look at a quality that I have to communicate a certain kind of pathos through humour.”

      Whatever his intentions, Katselas’s instincts were phenomenal. Cartwright’s subsequent obsession with La Strada would take her to Italy and lend the experiences and material for a one-woman stage show written with long-time collaborator Peter Kjenaas in 1995. With some liberties to the story and a voluptuous style courtesy of first-time director Taron Lexton, those adventures have now provided Cartwright with her debut as a producer.

      The film is an obvious fit for a festival that has traditionally mixed contemporary with classic titles—including, this year, both La Strada and Fellini’s wild 1980 epic City of Women. Eagle-eyed fans will spot the callbacks to the latter film in In Search of Fellini, along with The Nights of Cabiria, Fellini’s Casanova, La Dolce Vita, and a great deal more.

      A playful cameo by Cartwright herself is charged with meaning, meanwhile, not least of all because she’s seen to give some magical advice to her younger self, here renamed Lucy and played with immensely naifish charm by Orphan Black’s Ksenia Solo (who also stars in opening gala film Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle on January 5).

      Cartwright initially planned on playing her own mother but was concerned, among other reasons, “that people might think about Bart Simpson when I’m on-screen”. The role went to Maria Bello, so Cartwright wrote herself into the film at Lexton’s insistence, basing her character of Cosima on a man she met in a park days after losing her luggage and finding herself lost and exhausted in Milan. And here’s where it gets crazy.

      “There was a guy there in a Swedish naval uniform: he was about 75 years old, had maybe four teeth, sounded like Mickey Mouse. His name was Cosmo; he spoke seven languages, and it turns out that he had been in some orgy scene in Satyricon,” she says, pausing to laugh. “I mean, of all the people to meet! Spiritually, he was in great shape but poor as a church mouse and feeding bread to the birds, and here I am talking to this guy. So surreal, and quite Fellini-esque.”

      But there’s more. There’s a reason Cartwright’s acting partner in her brief but crucial scene looks familiar. “That’s Bruno Zanin,” she says with a sigh. “The young man who starred in Amarcord. We found that he was living about three miles away from where we were shooting in Venice, so they pulled him out of retirement and had him play my husband.”

      Cartwright laughs again. “It was such a charmed project, I’m telling you…”

      The Vancouver Italian Film Festival runs at the Vancity Theatre from January 5 to 11. More info is at

      In Search of Fellini