A Man for All Seasons
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Federico Fellini, 1974, Italy, Janus Films
With references to his work in recent films by Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, and Gus Van Sant, Federico Fellini is, perhaps, making a comeback. On its face that would seem to be a ludicrous statement: due to tireless self-promotion and on the strength of a wholly unique body of work, Fellini is still one of the most famous names in the history of cinema. And yet, since his death in 1993 Fellini’s importance has been downgraded to relatively minor status (the same can be said for recently departed Antonioni and Bergman). Despite the fact that Fellini was one of the leading European art cinema imports of the Fifties and Sixties, his influence has waned in the United States, where he has been derided by some of the best and the brightest—Kael, Farber, and Thomson all hate him—culminating in an increasing intellectual backlash against the director and his artistic celebrity.
The growing antipathy may be universal—David Lynch spoke of his outrage upon seeing Fellini getting booed at Cannes for the screening of his last movie, The Voice of the Moon. Yet Fellini seems to particularly rankle a tough, rational strain of the American sensibility. Romantic, mystical, tender, and grotesque among a plethora of contradictory qualities, Fellini’s cinema has consistently resisted categorization—is he a showman, an ironist, a bleeding heart?—along with any solid claim to either high art (he’s one of the few canonical directors who can revel in a fart joke) or, from 8 ½ onward, audience-pleasing accessibility. Even Orson Welles paid Fellini a backhanded compliment by calling him a small-town boy ceaselessly agog at the big city—compared to the sophisticates, as he would have it, Fellini is just a creative bumpkin, more naively intuitive than intellectually deep.
Welles’s description is superficially proven accurate by Amarcord, Fellini’s 1973 cinematic return to his seaside hometown of Rimini—we’re back in the artist’s formative womb—after the study of Italy’s capital in Roma just a year earlier. Rimini figures in a number of Fellini’s films, most notably in 1953’s I vitelloni, his quasi-neorealist breakthrough. The Fellini of 1973 was a fully formed auteur whose approach toward the same autobiographical subject matter, that of small-town life and adolescent sexuality, had remarkably changed. But matured? Well, that’s an interesting question, because though Amarcord is on one hand a work of characters as caricatures, body-obsessed ribald humor, and nostalgic whimsy (a mood buttressed by longtime collaborator Nino Rota’s beautiful carnivalesque score), it’s also the most deceiving of Fellini’s later films, a bittersweet remembrance of the vanished world of pre-WWII Italy serving as a Trojan horse for a disarming, understated critique of the fascist mentality. Where Fellini’s maturity seems to have regressed, his sensibility has actually flowered into something complex and multifaceted. It’s appropriate in this regard that Amarcord has at least two major narrators: the town lawyer (Luigi Rossi), whose academic, pedantic telling of Rimini’s history directly to the camera is openly ridiculed by off-screen vandals (Fellini himself?); and Titta (Bruno Zanin), the young high school student whose voice-over lead-ins that open several of the film’s picaresque episodes are constantly undermined by an authorial commentary skeptical and questioning beyond this hero’s few and unwise years.
Fellini’s Rimini unsurprisingly revolves around the director’s main obsession: women. The ritual that opens the film, the town’s annual bonfire celebrating the coming of spring, is initiated by the local glamour queen, redheaded hairdresser Gradisca (Magali Noël), whose fiery sexuality (“I feel spring all over me already,” she provocatively oozes) symbolically sparks the torch that she uses to set the pile of wooden debris aflame. Like spring, Gradisca (“whatever you desire”) and her fellow female citizens unleash the barely controllable urges of all around them, and in typical Fellini fashion, these vixens are unabashed cartoons in behavior and presence. Volpina, the town nymphomaniac and prostitute, turns up every once in a while like a stray, horny tomcat, teary-eyed, frazzled and practically clawing at herself from insatiable lust. One of Titta’s mercilessly mocked schoolteachers, statuesque and well-endowed, is similarly compared to a lion, while the town tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi), whose gargantuan breasts might be the biggest pair in movie history (Russ Meyer’s oeuvre excluded), presents herself as a mountain of a woman to be conquered by our hero. Indeed, Titta’s bizarre encounter with this voluptuous woman is depicted as a sort of strength test. Titta proves his manhood by repeatedly lifting the tobacconist, arousing them both, but the woman’s intimidating sexuality (expressed by one of Fellini’s signature expressionistic lighting schemes, in which her shadow exaggeratedly dwarfs Titta) and the boy’s sexual inexperience (confronted with her suffocating breasts, he blows on them) conspire to bring the tryst to a quick end. Leaving in humiliation and dissatisfaction, Titta’s failure to lift the store’s gate is the rim-shot punchline to his unprepared lovemaking skills. In the end, women devour Titta, elude his grasp, or—in the case of one of the film’s few unsexualized females, his mother—are lost to death.
If Titta’s unprepared for the true demands of passion, it’s because he and his chums are more familiar with these women in fantasy than reality. Gradisca becomes the prize of a car race in one of Titta’s daydreams (while his real attempt to rub against her in an empty movie theater is met with a withering put-down); tubby friend Ciccio (Fernando de Felice) imagines winning the affections of snobby object of affection Aldina (Donatella Gambini) and having his wedding presided over by the giant head of Mussolini; the whole group masturbates in a rocking automobile while name-checking the physical attributes of the town’s beauties; Biscein (Gennaro Ombra), food vendor and honorary adolescent, lies about stumbling upon a visiting emir’s harem at the town’s grand hotel. All this would resemble nothing stronger than “boys will be boys” schoolyard nostalgia and legends if it weren’t for the thick layer of sardonic criticism Fellini applies to them. Few directors are associated with the power of fantasy more strongly than Fellini, whose very name has become an adjective for the bizarre, excessive, and indulgent, but a film like Amarcord should be exhibit A in demonstrating how the director’s relationship to the fantastic was not merely that of a naïve artist’s to idealistic notions of creative fancy. For Fellini, spectacle is the ultimate act of externalized fantasy—whether in the form of officially sanctioned art such as the cinema, spectacles within everyday life such as parties, or the spectacle of life itself—but in Amarcord spectacle degenerates into the collective expression of Rimini’s power-worshipping mindlessness.
At crucial intervals the playful and entertaining juvenilia of Amarcord slides into fascist spectacle, with parades of jolly, black-clad idiots marching in time, giving the fascist salute, and shouting inanities like, “All I can say is Mussolini’s got two balls this big!”—the carnal chaos aroused by women must be met by the phallic authority of the father. Upon the release of Amarcord, Fellini made clear his disdain for the fascist corruption of spectacle as “the ridiculous conditioning, the theatricality, the infantilism, the subjection to a puppetlike power, to a ridiculous myth . . . The pretext of being together is always a leveling process. People stay together only to commit stupid acts. And when they are alone, there is bewilderment, solitude, or the ridiculous dream of the Orient, of Fred Astaire, or the myth of luxury and American ostentation. It is only ritual which keeps them together. Since no character has a real sense of individual responsibility, or has only petty dreams, no one has the strength not to take part in the ritual, to remain at home outside of it.” The seemingly adorable adolescent mentality and hijinks of Rimini’s citizens—as well as the failure of the Church and the school system to command any sort of respect because of their hypocrisy, or engage their charges’ imaginations because of their cowed resignation to by-the-book teaching—exact a price.
Despite the harshness of the above quote, however, watching Amarcord again is to realize how subtly, at least by Fellini’s standards, this message is conveyed. Aside from the overblown pomp and circumstance of the fascist parade (in which the leaders arrive in an appropriately obscuring veil of smoke), Titta’s father's cruel questioning by party officials for his role in blasting the “Internationale” from a record player in the town square, and the people's celebration of another phallic symbol, the enormous steamship S.S. Rex, sailing in a plastic ocean, as “the greatest thing the regime ever built,” the majority of Amarcord shows Italy’s fascist era as slipping by as an undercurrent rather than an epochal moment in history (as always, time in Fellini's films is fragmentary but also fully accounted for as an unstoppable, if circular, progression). Even when Gradisca’s marriage to a fascist higher-up ironically brings the movie to a seasonal, cyclical close, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Fellini’s wide-eyed affection for his characters ends and an incisive understanding of the roots of delusional groupthink begins.
If Amarcord is often fondly recalled as Fellini’s love letter to his hometown through invented childhood memories—and thus a film that has served as a prototype for countless gauzy magical realist depictions of small-town Europe—it’s partly due to audiences’ wishing away of the darkness that seeps in from the edges of this evocation of provincial life as comic strip, but also partly due to Fellini’s use of the film as a temporary comic interlude during the blackest period of his work. Though it follows in the footsteps of the nostalgic The Clowns and Roma (and even uses the self-deprecating “mockumentary” template of Fellini: A Director’s Notebook and those other two films), Amarcord is less aesthetically challenging than 1969’s Satyricon, the strangest, bleakest, and most challenging of his films, and not nearly as relentlessly devastating a commentary on “eternal adolescence” as would be Casanova, the grandiose companion piece to Amarcord released three years later to universal disdain. Here Satyricon’s scrolling tracking shots of characters arranged in tableaux staring into the camera and returning the spectator’s gaze occur far less frequently, nor are they as confrontational and conspicuous, melding almost imperceptibly into the film’s far more typically unobtrusive long shot style, picking out actions from a wide range of actions among an ensemble cast; while set design, costuming, and actors’ gestures barely begin to compete with Casanova’s hallucinatory and distancing artificiality, which mocks its protagonist’s hubristically soulless fantasy life. Amarcord is a work of caricature, but compared to the aliens and automatons of Satyricon and Casanova, it is a work of identifiable human beings, and a humanistic one at that.
One might dare to ask: between Satyricon and Casanova, had Fellini gone soft? What with it being Fellini’s last real critical and commercial success (it garnered Fellini’s fourth Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, though to be fair, the Academy actually rewarded deserving films back then) it’s certainly tempting to dismiss Amarcord as a film that connected with audiences at the expense of continuing the harsher aesthetic investigations of Fellini’s riskiest and most fecund period. While at certain moments Amarcord feels cheap—Titta’s family’s dinner table dysfunction does nothing new with the cliché of hysterical Italian home life; Gradisca’s pathetic posing for a prince she attempts to seduce is one of the rare cruelly mocking scenes in all of Fellini’s work—there are far more that rank among the finest examples of Fellini’s ability to evoke wonder and melancholy without resorting to sentimentality. The episode involving Titta’s uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), a mentally ill patient of an insane asylum, effectively navigates the multiple emotional registers Fellini often compartmentalizes throughout Amarcord by combining familial warmth, gross-out humor, pathos (Teo’s repeated cry of “I want a woman!” while refusing to come down from a tree reinforces the film’s theme of stunted sexual frustration), and absurdity (after futile efforts to drag down Teo, a dwarf nun offers Teo an unheard chastisement and succeeds where the others fail). Even more ineffable is the episode in which the entire town gets lost in a silent fog. It’s Amarcord’s heaviest symbol, but Fellini refuses to oversell it, calmly rendering the once familiar spaces of Rimini a disorienting shadow play of now fake-looking, jagged trees eerily suggestive of the world beyond, an idea possibly lifted from the unrealized project The Voyage of G. Mastorna, in which the deceased title character walks through landscapes recognizable and yet not—“If death is like this,” Titta’s grandfather (Giuseppe Ianigro) muses, “I don’t think much of it.” Death and dreams: the fog also inspires fantasy, as Titta and his classmates peer into the grand hotel and form an imaginary dancehall and band outside, ethereally rocking to Rota’s light jazz motif. “Where are you, my love?” Titta asks, eyes closed, to his absent partner.
These scenes demonstrate a sensibility unique to Fellini, who cut his artistic teeth on neorealism and the circus: a feel for the inexplicable correspondences between the rational and the irrational—the former manifested in Amarcord’s sympathetic but also severe portrayal of its escapist townspeople, the latter in virtually everything else about the film that resists purely intellectual understanding. It’s this sensibility that’s sorely missing in the recent revival of simplified Felliniesque imagery in American cinema, from Big Fish to The Life Aquatic to I’m Not There. Intrusions of fantasy into reality, self-reflexive nods to moviemaking, constant streams of freakish countenances falling into the frame of a celebrity-addled star’s point of view—it’s not any one of these devices, so easily bungled, but an attitude toward life at once sharp and dirty, celebratory and lamenting, that makes the Felliniesque the Felliniesque.