… in honor of Federico Fellini’s birthday, which is today.
Sometimes from this tumult an image of perfect beauty will emerge, as when in the midst of a rare snowfall, the count’s peacock escapes and spreads its dazzling tail feathers in the blizzard. Such an image is so inexplicable and irreproducible that all the heart can do is ache with gratitude, and all the young man can know is that he will live forever, love all the women, drink all the wine, make all the movies and become Fellini.
Evelyn Waugh wrote, “My theme is memory, that winged host.” Fellini’s theme is memory, too, and Amarcord (“I Remember”), episodic, cumulative, mysterious and hilarious, shows the year in the life of a small seaside Italian town, during the rise of Mussolini. You might think that fascism would be a tragedy, and we know in real life that it was, for millions of people. But in Fellini’s memory it is all rather silly, adolescent, ridiculous. People marching around in uniforms, trying to control the eccentricities of the Italian character. Good luck with that. Fellini’s response is a big juicy raspberry in the face. Each episode here is self-contained: There is the “Grand Hotel sequence”, the “Bonfire sequence”, the “Man Up a Tree” sequence, but through the self-contained episodes, we sink into the life of these people. If people are villainous, then they are so in an absurd manner, easily made fun of, easily dismantled.
Childhood can be resilient and the symbols we create as children, in order to survive and make sense of the world, last a lifetime. What we remember is often sensoral, fragments: smells or snatches of music, the way someone’s teeth looked, or the shine of light on someone’s hair. It is the details that stick, that persist. There is the Teacher with the Big Boobs who Looks Like a Lion. There is the Headmaster with a red beard, who looks like Ron Moody as Fagin, and glares imperiously at his students as they all wreak havoc in his classroom. There is Confession, where you chat with a priest about your problems, wipe the slate clean. Until next week. The cycle continues. Nothing is forever. Nothing is too serious. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. Even when it isn’t.
Amarcord is what things look like when you “look back”. (Or, it’s what things look like when Federico Fellini looks back, and we all would be so lucky if memory was as joyful as this.) The connecting threads are only in the fact that such episodes make up a life, and not only that, but make up Art. Fellini is an artist, and here he says, “This is what it was like for me as a kid. Here is how I remember it.”
Spring is heralded by the air-borne “puffballs”, and the entire town shows up to build a bonfire and burn a ceremonious witch made of rags.
An inmate from a local insane asylum stands in a tree shouting “I WANT A WOMAN” for 6 hours. A dwarf nurse has to climb up a ladder to bring him down.
The Grand Hotel, like a giant marble wedding cake, is now vacant, but once filled with guests and music and dancing. The townspeople can still remember what it was like, in its glory days.
A sheikh’s harem is locked in a room at the majestic Grand Hotel, and throw down knotted sheets for an admirer below. He plays a pipe for them in their chamber, and they rise up out of bed collectively, like snakes coming up out of a basket. Did this really happen? It doesn’t matter. It’s a story people like to tell.
An ocean liner comes to town and the entire population of the village take out rowboats and fishing boats to watch its magnificent approach.
A tart named Volpina happily services the entire town. That’s what she’s there for.
Il Duce rolls into the village and a giant replica of his head made of flowers is placed in the town square. A young smitten boy imagines the flower Il Duce officiating at his wedding to his unrequited crush.
A priest hears confessions and seems particularly interested in whether or not the teenage boys touch themselves. They say, “Yes, a little bit”, in order to get absolved and go out to sin again.
A woman called Gradisca, dressed all in red, works in a beauty shop but really lives in a movie in her own mind (a Fellini movie, really), searching for her Gary Cooper. The townspeople do not ridicule her for her dreams, but instead, participate, treating her like a movie star in their midst, a symbol of their best and most cherished hopes.
The patriarch of the family is pulled out of his bed in the middle of the night and pulled into the police station and tortured. He is a suspected Communist. His wife sponges him off at home later, weeping.
Schoolboys misbehave in entertaining ways, tormenting their poor hard-working teachers. They mispronounce their Greek on purpose. They sneak out of class. They make raspberry noises. They accuse the fat boy in class of farting. They rig up a long paper tube so that urine can flow from the back of the class to a puddle in the front. They put frogs down a girl’s back. The teachers are all rather silly, but they try, desperately, to keep control of the situation. It is a losing proposition.
A thick fog transforms the Mediterranean village into something ominous and unknown, out of a fairy tale. A truck drives by in the fog, with people loaded up in the back. Where are they going? A child in a hood comes across a white bull.
A snowfall comes, and a giant maze of hardened snow is carved out in the village square. A peacock escapes and stands in the snow, unfurling its beautiful tail. What is the meaning? See Ebert’s thoughts above. Perhaps the meaning is that beauty is its own reward. But you have to make sure that you are paying attention, and looking out for it. Otherwise you might miss it.
It is a village of friendly eccentrics. Fascism is imposed from above and despite the fact that schoolchildren are made to perform drills with rifles, the individuality is not erased. It couldn’t be, not with this cast of wackos.
A group of boys dance with imaginary partners in the middle of the fog, lost in dreams of love, romance, and being grown up.
A local professor shows up on occasion, talking to the camera, giving us a history lesson about the area. Sometimes he whispers, so as not to attract attention. People offscreen make fart noises at him as he pontificates about the Roman ruins. He endures the abuse with a tired roll of the eyes. He’s used to it.
It is a village drenched in sexual possibility. Of course, it is (mainly) from the point of view of an adolescent boy, so this makes sense. Women’s breasts and buttocks undulate across the screen, and the local tobacco shop owner has a rack you would go to war to protect. Our young hero is nearly smothered by that rack in a slapstick sex scene, with what looks like a de Chirico print looking over the action.
Some people, through their own charisma and self-belief which surrounds them like a halo of light, act as repositories for the dreams of the rest of us. Movie stars can do this, and so can Gradisca.
Gradisca represents hope, beauty, love, romance, and magic. She knows it. Her name isn’t even Gradisca, which means “Whatever you desire”. Her real name is Ninola, but “Gradisca” is what she is called, and it suits her. She embodies it. Men ogle at her, and she winks and smiles, making their day, and making her own, because you cannot be Whatever You Desire without the participation of an audience. She is surrounded by an armor of self-belief, but that armor is penetrable, it lets in the light, it lets in the air.
The same springtime puffballs come at the end of the film, but they float over a melancholy slipshod country wedding, where the magical Gradisca sits at a long table in a field, in her wedding dress, crying and pretending to be happy.
Where will those who idolized her, who were drawn to her like moths to the flame, turn to now? Who will represent their best and most cherished hopes for them? It certainly won’t be Il Duce, although you can see the attempts made to replace the individual dreams with the dreams of the fascist collective.
One teacher spikes her thermos of coffee beneath her desk, and lectures on to her bored amused class in a quavering voice about Giotto, who, she informs them, “invented perspective.” She makes the class sing-song along with her, “PER … SPEC … TIVE.” The class obliges, chanting with their dotty teacher, “PER … SPEC … TIVE …” Memory, as something experiential, does not provide “perspective”, more often than not. Perhaps perspective is overrated. Perhaps no matter how much distance you achieve, you cannot see the whole picture. And why would you want to? The truth comes in the remembered fragments, even of things that didn’t happen, stories passed down through generations. Perhaps “perspective” is just a word you chant in a classroom to make your drunk teacher smile.
Per – spec – tive is in the eye of the beholder.
The ending of Amarcord is absurd and bittersweet, with an accordion-player serenading the guests from a nearby empty field, and Gradisca being led weeping to her wedding car, by her new husband, ablaze in his Fascist military duds.
Because, you see, she believed her dreams, too. They weren’t just dreams to her. They were a reason for living, I suppose. They surrounded her in magic and possibility. Dreams are not flimsy. They are the “substance of things hoped for”.