Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Amarcord (Film Essay)


I don’t go into churches except to look at art or to film in them. For faith, you can go to a woman. Maybe that is more religious in any event.


Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) was the last film by the Italian director to achieve wide distribution in the United States. I saw the picture when I was in college at the Cooper Cinerama on Highway 12. A tender and scrupulous youth, I was offended by the movie’s pervasive vulgarity. I recall the sequences showing snow falling on the Italian village where the movie is set and the artificial texture of fallen snow, particularly in the scenes showing the drifts shoveled into a labyrinth of trenches in the town square. "It’s obvious that Italians know nothing about snow," I sniffed after leaving the theater. The only other sequence in the film that I recall from that first viewing is the episode in which the towns people go out to sea in small boats to watch an giant cruise vessel, the Rex, passing in the night. For some reason, that scene affected me deeply and, when I think of Amarcord, I recall the falling snow and the great vessel looming over the plastic and tinfoil waves.

When I first saw the movie, I believed that the film was set in a fictional Italian village named "Amarcord". Fellini, in fact, made similar claims when the movie was released. But, in fact, it is generally understood now that "Amarcord" is a corruption of "mi ricorde" – or "I remember" – written as pronounced in the Rimini dialect that Fellini spoke when he was a child. (A correlate in English would be naming a film "Ira Call".)

Amarcord is a transitional film. After beginning his film work in a neo-realist vein, Fellini’s work evolved toward flamboyantly autobiographical movies: his two most famous films La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ feature performance by Marcello Mastrioanni acting as an idealized version of the director – indeed, 8 ½ is about the film makers inability to make his ninth film. Juliet of the Spirits, although it derives to some degree from Fellini’s interest in the paranormal, seems primarily to chronicle the director’s love for his wife Giulietta Masina as well as his own compulsive infidelity. Fellini’s Satyricon was an attempt at making a big-budget Hollywood-style film nonetheless inflected by the director’s characteristic obsessions – the picture is not wholly successful. Amarcord is a film based on Fellini’s recollections of his hometown, an exercise in nostalgia, but one that is curiously depersonalized – Fellini presents the entire community and doesn’t focus on any single figure that we might identify as a youthful version of the director. In fact, Fellini seems to go out of his way to broaden the film’s perspective so that it is impossible to read the movie as autobiographical. Perhaps, the reason for this reticence on Fellini’s behalf is the fact that he had previously made a highly acclaimed and very closely autobiographical realistic film about his youth, Il Vitelloni (1956). In order to avoid repeating material in the earlier film, Fellini adopts a larger and more abstract view of his hometown.

Fellini’s films after Amarcord are thoughtful and abstract – the pictures can not be interpreted as realistic in any way and, often, seem to be phantasmagoric and highly stylized. These pictures are also personal but not explicitly autobiographical. In returning to the subject matter of his first truly successful, and personal, film, the town of Rimini as depicted in Il Vitelloni, Fellini reworks his past into a network of symbols, a kind of mythos.

Amarcord was a great international success (and Academy Award winner) and hailed as a return to form by the 53 year old director. But it was also the last of his films to achieve status as an undisputed masterpiece. The movies he made after Amarcord are more difficult, problematic, and idiosyncratic. But the roots of that bold stylistic idiosyncrasy can be seen in Amarcord, a film without a protagonist and without plot.



In 1964, Fellini was a passenger on an international flight that landed in New York in a blizzard. The experience terrified Fellini and became the source of his screenplay Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna (The Journey of G. Mastorna), probably the most famous unfinished film in Italian cinema. Fellini’s script involved a musician who has died in a plane crash. The dead man doesn’t know that he has been killed and navigates an eerie afterlife that is similar to our world but different, as well, in conspicuous ways. Fellini thought that this film would be his masterpiece, cast Mastrioanni in the leading role and, even, shot a couple reels of footage. Then, the director’s cameraman unexpectedly died and a magician with whom Fellini was consulting – this was during his Juliet of the Spirits paranormal phase – told the director that if he completed the picture it would be the last film that he would ever make. In 1967, Fellini took ill and was hospitalized – he was thought to be suffering from a lung ailment, pleurisy. In the hospital, Fellini worsened. Finally, he was told that he was dying. The Pope sent him a telegram and Fellini resigned himself to his fate. (He was given a bottle of Lourdes water daily and was tended by nuns – in his memoir, Fellini characteristically focuses on the ministrations of women, that is, the nuns with whom he alternately fought and flirted.)

As it happened, an old classmate from Rimini was visiting Rome. This classmate was the smartest person that Fellini knew and had become a physician – he had been nicknamed by his High School classmates "Bargarone" ("the Dung Beetle"). The Dung Bettle visited Fellini’s bedside and the dying man was happy to hear Italian spoken in the Rimini dialect that had been his tongue when he was a boy. Fellini pleaded with Dung Beetle to take over his care. Bargarone (his real name was Sega) reluctantly accepted the task and discovered that the director’s condition had been misdiagnosed. Fellini gradually recovered.

During his illness, Fellini had remarkably clear visions of his childhood in Rimini. Many things that he had forgotten revived in the 47- year old director’s imagination. Upon his release from Fellini wrote a memoir about his hospitalization and his vivid memories of Rimini, a small village on the Adriatic coast. Fellini’s 1967 memoir is the source of Amarcord, a film that he directed after completing his Satyricon, a movie that he was contractually obligated to produce. (Between 1967 and Amarcord, shot in 1972, Fellini also made two highly regarded documentaries for Italian television – The Clowns and Roma, the latter a film that features stylized reconstructions of Fellini’s initial experiences in Rome after he had left Rimini in 1939 and immigrated to the capitol city.)




The False Memory Syndrome

During screenings of Amarcord in Rimini, audiences raucously called out the real names of fictional characters portrayed in the film. Men remembered encounters with Gradisa or Vulpone. Women remembered doing fascist exercises in the town’s plaze. Middle-aged citizens expressed shame at boyhood pranks nostalgically presented in the movie. And, everyone, without exception recalled taking to the sea in light, flimsy boats to observe the great ocean liner Rex as it crossed the seas beyond the harbor at Rimini.

But there is a problem. The Rex never sailed past Rimini. That ship was famous for plying the Mediterranean sea on the opposite coast of Italy – it sailed from Genoa to New York City On one occasion only did the Rex pass by Rimini and this was during black-out, just before the ship was sunk in the harbor at Trieste – the place where the great vessel still remains drowned in the sea. The power of Fellini’s film caused people who lived in Rimini to form false memories – they recalled as events in their own lives episodes that existed in reality only in Fellini’s film. In fact, it’s unclear whose memories are presented in Amarcord – Fellini wrote the film with his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra. The scriptwriter was raised in a village six or seven miles inland from Rimini. Italian critics noted that the name of the film should be Romagna dialect for "we remember," since obviously important parts of the film are Tonino Guerra’s recollections.

The protagonist in Amarcord is Titta, modeled on Luigi Benzi, a successful lawyer in Rimini when the film was produced. Fellini pleaded with Titta to play the part of the father of the film’s hero. Titta refused prompting Fellini to shrug and say: "Okay, you bum, stay in Rimini and keep defending chicken thieves." Titta, a famous local lothario noted that he had just married his second wife and that Rome was famous for its "array of sexual delights" to the extent that his new wife forbade him to venture to the capital. Titta was supposed to play the hero’s anti-fascist father. This is a pure invention – as a boy, the athletic and aggressive Titta was the leader of the local fascist youth and, later, an enthusiastic member of the party. (The elderly Titta who pontificates in supplementary materials to the DVD remains proud of the Fascist past – "in Italy," he says, "simply everyone was a Fascist.")

Fellini’s relationship to Rimini was problematic. Not one foot of film was shot in the city. Instead, Fellini made the entire move in the familiar setting of Sound Stage 5 at Cinecitta, the place where he kept his famiglia - that is, the twenty or thirty grips, lighting men, electricians, and camera technicians with whom he made all of his films. During the shooting of Amarcord, Fellin repeatedly admonished "Pepino" Rotunno his camera-man to make certain that the images, particularly the great cardboard wall of the Rex, didn’t look real. "It’s not too real looking, is it," Fellini would ask Rotunno. "Not at all Federico," Rotunno would apply.

Before he made Amarcord, Titta purchased his childhood friend a house "by the river" in Rimini. Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s long-suffering spouse, thought that Titta, a womanizer, was a bad influence on her husband. "Now, Titta is playing your pimp," she said angrily. As a result of her jealousy, Fellini didn’t spend a single night in the house Titta bought for him and, indeed, let it go to ruin. It was obvious that Titta perceived the cottage as a Maison d’ assignation – thus, Giuletta’s indignation was probably valid. Fellini would return to Rimini every couple months, but usually in the middle of the night. He would meet Titta and wander the silent streets of the town until dawn and, then, leave. The civic boosters in Rimini were angry at Fellini and felt that he was openly dismissive of the village where he had been born. In October 1993, the rift was settled – or, at least, efforts were made to close the gap. Rimini decreed a Federico Fellini Day and invited the great director to town. Fellini was not well – he had undergone open-heart surgery, a few months earlier, in June. The director was assigned Room 122 in the Grand Hotel at the harbor, a palatial structure similar to the place shown in the movie. At the ceremony, Fellini was given the keys to the city and, also, keys to a house overlooking the harbor. Unfortunately, Fellini never took possession of his second house in Rimini, the home overlooking the harbor. He suffered an aneurysm in Room 122 at the Rimini Grand Hotel. He was transported to Rome and, later, died in a hospital in that city. The Cardinal of Rome presided at Fellini’s laying-in-state – although the Catholic Church had often denounced the director, the Roman Cardinal pronounced an eloquent eulogy over his body: "Fellini" he said, was like Dante, "the great poet of the Italian soul."

Fellini is buried in Rimini. Thousands of people attended his funeral in that city. Images show the town’s plaza crowded with people, all of them waving white handkerchiefs in farewell. Fellini’s casket was carried around the plaza and, finally, set down in front of the Fulgor, the movie theater where he had spent so many hours in his youth. The director is buried under a tombstone in Rimini that is shaped like the prow of a ship, a reference to the Rex in Amarcord and the luxury cruiser in his film And the Ship Sailed On (1983).



The SS. Rex was successfully launched in 1933 at Genoa. The ship won the much-coveted Blue Riband award in 1934 and 1935 – this award was granted the luxury vessel making the swiftest trans-Atlantic crossing. (Rex crossed the Atlantic in 1934 in four days and 13 hours.) The ship was designed as an Art Deco place, the so-called "Riviera Afloat".

The maiden voyage of the Rex in 1931 was a catastrophe. Mussolini personally christened the boat and it set sail to great acclaim only to break-down at Gibralter. The great vessel was towed back to Genoa where it was repaired for a second launch in 1933. The end of the ship was equally inauspicious. After Genoa was heavily bombed in 1943, the Germans, who controlled the ship at that point, sailed the vessel around the boot of Italy into the Adriatic Sea. It was planned to harbor the ship at Trieste. On September 8, 1944, the RAF launched an air-assault on the Rex. The ship was hit by 59 rockets and listed to the side. The next day, a second wave of air attacks destroyed the luxury liner. It remained blocking part of the Yugoslavian access to Trieste harbor until 1947 when the wreckage of the vessel was cut apart. At least, a third of the ship still lies underwater at Trieste.


Big Women

After La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s films reflect the director’s preoccupation with archetypal images of the feminine. This inclination arises in part from Fellini’s interest in the supernatural, the paranormal, and Jungian psychoanalysis.

Before La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s pictures were satirical and influenced by the Neo-Realist movement. (Fellini wrote the script for Rosselini’s Roma, Citta ApertaRome Open City.) Trained as a cartoonist, there is no doubt that Fellini’s early films trafficked in broad caricatures. In fact, if Fellini had not become a director of feature length live-action films, I think it likely that he would have been a world-class producer of animated pictures.) Notwithstanding, the cartoon-like elements in Fellini’s early pictures, the director’s presentation of the world was largely realistic and, even, documentary in some respects. This changed with La Dolce Vita, a sprawling Dantesque epic film that seems to be the work of a disenchanted Christian moralist. Fellini’s 1961 picture is a chronicle of decadence and immorality – in the film’s famous prologue, a huge statue of Jesus is carried by helicopter over the ancient Roman aqueducts while bikini-clad models gawk and the papparazi snap photographs. The old morality has collapsed with nothing to take its place – the film’s liberal humanist, the kindly Steiner, a scholar of Sanskrit, kills himself and his two children in the film’s last half-hour. A beautiful young girl, clearly a symbol of purity and grace, stands on the other side of a river, inaccessible to the hero who yearns to join her – as he stands gazing at this girl, drunken carousers stagger onto the beach to look at sea monster. By the end of La Dolce Vita, Fellini has abandoned realism and satire for a kind of allegorical symbolism.

Beginning after La Dolce Vita, and during the production of 8 ½, Fellini’s interest in the supernatural nudged him into a study of Jungian psychology. Rome’s leading Jungian analyst was a man named Ernst Bernhard. Fellini called him accidentally, as the story goes, while attempting to reach a "beautiful young woman". The wrong number turned out to be propitious. Fellini became close friends with Bernhard. He traveled to Jung’s home in Bollingen and toured the psychoanalyst’s famous tower. In fact, it seems likely that Jung’s son showed Fellini his father’s Red Book, the Liber Novus on which the psychoanalysist had labored all of his life and that was not published until 2009. Under the influence of Bernhard, Fellini kept a dream journal, subjected his dreams to Jungian analysis, and closely attended to coincidences and other evidences of "synchronicity;" at this time in his life, he surrounded himself with soothsayers, prophets, astrologers, and all manner of quacks and charlatans. He took LSD in 1965 to explore the archetypes in his imagination.

In the late sixties, Fellini came under attack by the Italian Marxists. The Marxists had long wished to recruit the director to their banner, but he remained mostly apolitical – he seems to have been a life-long Christian Democrat. When the Italian Marxists published a manifesto denouncing his work as "bourgeois," Fellini responded in an open letter, announcing that he could not be a Marxist because he was not a materialist and because "I do not believe in objectivity." At the same time, Fellini made it clear that he was an atheist. "My films are Christian in that they address the silence of God as it falls upon mankind," he wrote.

The lyrical, plot-less Amarcord, which is more a dream than a story, is probably best understood in terms of Jungian archetypes. In some ways, the film resembles an account of the Jungian puer (youth or hero) in his quest to achieve individuation. The picture’s unique power results from the fact that the puer’s adventures are transmitted to the viewer through the recollections of a senex – that is, the wise old man that the filmmaker has become. Although critics have labored to persuade their readers that the film is about Fascism or the sociology of small-town Italy, any realistic description of the film must admit that the movie is primarily about sex. In Amarcord, Fellini remembers his youth as the dominion of Venus, the realm of the great Mothers. The picture begins with a colossal female figure being burned, the hag or "Old Witch of Winter", and ends with the marriage of Gradisca, the universal object of desire, a projection of male fantasy whose name literally means "Whatever you desire" to a Fascist officer – a scene that seems to complete the suppression of the powerful female figures that the film presents. (Many psychoanalysts, notably Klaus Theleweit and Wilhelm Reich, view Fascism as primarily a pathology of male sexuality – a view that Fellini seems to endorse).

Almost all of the film bracketed by the Witch of Winter’s burning and Gradisca’s nuptials concerns the image of the female and sex. The local nymphomaniac, Volpina, slinks about the streets and the men are enthused at the new whores brought to town to populate the local brothel. Titta’s confessions involve masturbation, specifically fantasies about fat-bottomed peasant women on their bicycles, Gradisca, and the voluptuous lady tobacconist. An image of Mussolini seems to bless a wedding. Biscein fantasizes about a harem containing 28 women, a number associated with the female lunar calendar. The lounge lizards at the Grand Hotel play gigolo to visiting women but are mama’s boys. Gradisco surrenders herself to Fascist official on behalf of the town and the poor, crazy Uncle Teo climbs a tree to bellow that he wants a woman. The tobacconist exposes herself to Titta and, even, lets him try to lift her. Winter, a season related to witchcraft, returns and the hero loses Gradisca in a labyrinth of pathways shoveled into the snow. The death of Titta’s mother and Gradisca’s marriage to the Fascist officer deprives the protagonist of the most potent fantasy images of women and the film ends. Even elements of the movie that seem not to involve sex or fantasized female sex-objects are curiously feminized. Rex, the most masculine-seeming fetish object in the film, is a ship and characteristically referred to as female. Mussolini’s bald globular head is softened and made feminine by being composed of flower blossoms. The Fascists’ torture Titta’s father in a strange way. Like mothers doting over a sick child, they force him to swallow laxative castor oil.

Jung in a famous 1926 essay on marriage wrote that "What (men) know about women is distorted, derived from (their) own anima projections." Jung argued that the male soul is female, the anima, a view that Fellini explicitly endorses in 8 ½ (a nonsense phrase uttered by the protagonist can be deciphered as a kind anagram for "anima"). Jung felt that true creativity required individuation, a process marked by certain symbolic milestones that were mythological in character and emergent from "the collective unconscious." We begin our lives as "persona" – that is, as adopting the attitudes, expressions, and features of those we admire. As a sense of individuality develops, persona yields to ego and, then, certain shadowy manifestations of the ego – that is, ego projections that distort reality. In the final phases of individuation, human beings are reconciled to their souls, that is, achieve a unity of identity and soul. In men, this process involves an encounter with the anima and acceptance of the female nature of the soul – that is, an acknowledgment of our fundamentally bisexual character. (In women, unity arises when the female ego identifies as a unity with the male soul or animus). We may consider these concepts questionable, even, perhaps, nonsensical – but Fellini admired Jung’s thought and embodied his ideas in many of his films. Amarcord shows Fellini’s youth as an encounter with various archetypes of the female. The four archetypes recognized by Jung are Eve, Helen, the Virgin Mary, and, lastly, Sophia or divine Wisdom. The triumvirate of Eve, Helen and the Virgin Mary are clearly present in various forms in the film. Fellini seems to trace his creativity and the power of his imagination to his encounter with these powerful female archetypes who’s grasp on Titta’s fantasies is acknowledged by the film and, then, it seems, overcome.

Fellini suggests that an Italian boy grows up when his mother dies and he realizes that his fantasy of a bountiful reality that offers you what you desire ("Gradisca") can not be satisfied by reality. The concept of an all-forgiving nurturing and maternal world must be abandoned. Amarcord plots this trajectory as a literal cooling – when Gradisca’s voluminous derriere is pelted with snow, we recognize that a kind of threshold has been crossed. The maternal breast, once proffered, becomes suffocating and is, then, withdrawn.

Amarcord develops another, less occult, theme. Jung’s theories involve elaborate systems of projection. The idea of projection implicates the cinema where images are literally projected in light. Movies are a dream-factory and embody the projection of desires, most of them erotic. We see these desires as flickering images on a screen, powerfully influencing our imagination but, nonetheless, shadowy, remote, and elusive. The village in Amarcord features a movie theater in its plaza and the characters imitate movie stars, for instance, Ronald Colman. Amarcord is so remarkably successful as a work of art because it synthesizes the dream world of cinema, in which desires are projected for our revery, and memories of youth, also projections of beautiful and unsatisfied desires. The cinema is the space in which the Jungian alchemy of myth and desire produces an individuated imagination.


Fascism and Spectacle
Many critics lugubriously view Amarcord as a semi-tragic indictment of Fascism. The end of the film is construed as heavily ironic – "paradise" where the wedding takes place is a kind of Hell. The dissolution of the wedding party and the use of the wide-screen format to isolate the characters at the movie’s end is thought to be desolate and alienating. The fact that the beauteous Gradisca marries a Fascist carabineri further incenses many critics – they seem to wish that Gradisca had chosen a more suitable mate, perhaps, someone like a Harvard or Yale professor of Italian cinema. As is the case with much academic criticism, I think this analysis is tone-deaf to the texture of the film’s ending and overly simplifies a very complex system of emblems and symbols. In my view, the ending of the film is Shakespearian, a conclusion that regulates ardor and desire into lawfulness and order – the tone is elegaic, but that is because passion must be domesticated into a socially sanctioned union. We miss the raw ardor and desire that motivated the romance, but, also, must realistically grasp that those passions can not endure. Fellini’s vision is double: he views Gradisca as an unsurpassable object of desire to the adolescent boys in the film; but we also see that she is aging, far older than her ostensible 30 years, sad, and, perhaps, not as desirable as the teenage boys think. The "dying fall" of Shakespeare’s comedies is expressly invoked by Biscein’s Puck-like address to the audience, advising those who have enjoyed Fellini’s spectacle that the show is over and that they must disperse to return to their own lives.

Further, Fellini’s view of Fascism is very different from the perspective on that political movement that American academics might express. For Fellini, Fascism is the paradigm of adolescence – a political movement that, in a sinister, if humorous, way, apes teenage passion. Fellini’s fascist schoolteachers and priests are like Boy Scout leaders. They seem generally harmless; their torture is even adolescent – inducing diarrhea in their victims. As the film shows, in Italy just about everyone at every level of society was a Fascist – even Rossellini and Fellini worked for Mussolini on films with overtly pro-Fascist themes. In Fellini’s remembered Rimini, only one man opposes the Fascist regime.

In published remarks on the film, Fellini observes that Fascism and adolescence are very similar. Both involve energetic and rebellious youth subject to autocratic-seeming authority figures. Adolescents are dreamy; they fantasize about their future. Italian fascism was, also, a kind of day dream, a revery on themes combining Futurism with Roman mythology. Further, the Fascists emphasized the importance of athletics and athletic competition, exploiting a kind of team spirit that is attractive to High School kids. Finally, Fellini notes that both Fascism and adolescence are periods of waiting, boredom, ennui as a teenager (or political adherent) waits for his future to


Most importantly, Fascism relies upon spectacle for its persuasive effect. And Fellini delights in spectacle – indeed, for Fellini the world and life itself is a kind of magical spectacle, a visual banquet. Fellini casts his actors not on the basis of their skills or resumes, but because of their appearance. Like Oscar Wilde, he understands that only very superficial people don’t judge the world on appearances. (In this perspective, Fellini closely follows Nietzsche who famously praised the Mediterranean delight in surface appearance and joi d’vivre as far more subtle, gay, life-affirming, and profound than the German fascination with depths and hidden meanings.) For Italians, the world is primarily a spectacle – men aspire to display a bella figura; each night, people promenade through their piazzas, both looking at others and desiring others to look at them. Seeing and being seen is central to Italian society. Fellini views small-town life as comprised of parades, processions, displays of baroque religiosity and spectacular histrionics. At the center of his film, Fellini offers a three-fold epiphany – the vision of the Rex, the appearance of the Mithraic white bull, and the peacock’s mysterious benediction in the snow. Conversely, when the grandpa finds himself unable to see, lost in the fog, he immediately begins to think of death – when the spectacle ceases, death must follow. Although Fellini undoubtedly despises Fascism, there is no doubt that he glories in its spectacle, a spectacle that is fundamentally dramatic and, even, cinematic.




1. This song by Harold Arlen was premiered in the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933 and is featured in Amarcord : _____________________.
2. True or False: Norma Shearer appeared in a film known in Italian as Oggi.
3. Is a Laurel and Hardy film being shown at the Fulgor?
4. This Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film from 1937 features songs by the Gershwin brothers, the tune "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off", and choreography by Hermes Pan.
5. Dante was inspired by ___________ dropped by plane into his brain?
6. In 1939, William Wellman directed this Gary Cooper film about French foreign legionaires a shot-for-shot remake of a 1926 Ronald Colman picture. What’s the movie called?

7. The mood of the film’s ending is _____________________.

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