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Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits

Federico Fellini was born and brought up in Rimini, Italy, a small seaside town in the province of Emilia-Romagna. Amarcord is a neologism he contrived, which comes closest to the Emiliano-Romagnolo dialect phrase mi ricordo (I remember). Fellini, a great liar, denied this origin, claiming instead that it was a mysterious, cabalistic word, linked to invention rather than memory. Whatever the meaning, amarcord evokes another world: evanescent, unreal, unreachable, impalpable, like an image in the depth of a mirror that can be attested to for only a brief instant before it vanishes, like the images of the cinema.

Amarcord embodies this equivocation between memory and invention, between a world represented (remembered) and a world created (imagined). Amarcord is not memory—or if it is, it is false memory—not fragments of what once was but fragments of what is imagined to have been.

At times in Amarcord, the characters speak directly to a filmmaker (Fellini?), who appears to record the events and actions in the town. There is in the film, as in so many late Fellini works, the figure of a journalist-documentarian-archivist, who reports and comments on the happenings that are seen. But this is false, and rather than rendering the events as true, the device emphasizes their unreality and the artificiality of the representations. As the characters are exaggerated, so too is the documentary, and both become unreal.

All of Fellini’s films—from those up to La dolce vita (1960), which represent worlds (narrativized, realistic, dramatic), to those after La dolce vita, including Amarcord (1973), whichcreate worlds (dreamlike, episodic, artificial)have a similar source in popular entertainments: the circus, with its clowns and unreality; variety theater, with its vulgarity and hyperbole, especially sexual; comic books, with their caricatures and sketchiness; silent film comedies, with their grace and innocence (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy).

Amarcord is like a circus, composed of numbers, perfectly linear and sequential but whose links are neither logical, dra­matic, nor narratively motivated. Each of the numbers in the film is a circus act, and the actors are the circus clowns. Indeed, there is no story in Amarcord, simply a collection of these episodes, whose order is only marginally consequential or where consequence is not of great importance: the seasons will change, Miranda will die, Gradisca will marry. Since the figures are essentially only images that have been designed, sketched, and exaggerated, rather than developed and given body to, they are simultaneously eternal and ephemeral, like the ocean liner Rex, which appears in its impossible magnificence out of the blackness of the sea at night, bringing Gradisca to tears and the others in boats to shouts of astonishment at the unreal wonder of it, in a kind of maritime séance. Even fascism is made into spectacle: were this a realistic film, fascism would be a politics that would eventually be overcome; in Amarcord, because fascism is only an act of clowns dressed up in a circus, it seems to be timeless, a perpetual provincialism and infantilism, more symbolic than historical or real, like Chaplin as the Great Dictator.

This is not what happens in Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953), the film apparently closest to Amarcord in its depiction of a small seaside town likeRimini. In I vitelloni, the town is in fact like Rimini, and the events that befall the characters elicit realistic tears, anguish, and anger; in Amarcord, to the contrary, the town is a caricature. It seems completely constructed, as false as the tears of Gradisca and as delusive as her dream marriage—and as contrived as the animal sexual hunger of Volpina (Foxy), the town nymphomaniac.

All the scenes in the film—Gradisca and the prince; Titta and the tobacconist; the harem episode at the Grand Hotel; Titta groping Gradisca in the cinema (“Are you looking for something?”); the celebration of the fascists; Uncle Teo up a tree, shouting for a woman; the dwarf nun who rescues him; the peeing in the classroom; even Aurelio forced to drink cod-liver oil—are less narrative events than tableaux, interesting chiefly not for what they represent but as comic performances of representing. No characters are characters in the usual sense, any more than the town is a real one. None have substance, none are palpable. It is an imaginary town with imaginary, projected characters who are fragments, magnifications, caricatures, and grotesques, as in a dream. The dwarf nun is no different in kind from the panting, openmouthed Volpina.

The characters in Fellini’s early films tend to be more realistic and individualized than those in his later ones, where circus elements are more evident and characters less natural, more fantastic and exaggerated. That is, whereas in The White Sheik (1952), Fernando Rivoli is both Rivoli and the clown he plays, in Amarcord, there are no such divisions. Rivoli dreams and Wanda dreams in The White Sheik, but in Amarcord, Gradisca is a dream, as are Uncle Teo and the whole of the film.

In Fellini’s Intervista (1987), his next-to-last film, he plays himself, a filmmaker shooting a film called Amerika, based on the novel by Kafka. In one scene, in his office at Cinecittà, he is interviewing a number of actors (all of whom are caricature “types”) for roles in his forthcoming film. Probably the scene is not unlike Fellini’s actual method of making a film. The first step for him was not the script or the story that the film would illustrate but rather faces and images that would evoke a world. Amarcord is exactly that, a “world,” part circus, part science fiction, composed of images of its inhabitants.

Fellini had a vast archive of photographs of actors, and out of these he would begin to construct his alternative universes and find his films—not representations of the world, not verisimilitude, but deformation and contrast, literally other worlds, elsewhere, beyond. And there was his sketching and doodling, essentially a playing, like his tours through the photographic archive of images of women with enormous breasts, ample bottoms (the stuff of dreams and masturbation); men grimacing pathetically, at once masking and revealing their impotence (the stuff of nightmares); dwarves, giants, the misshapen, the predatory.

There was no ready-made, no literary pretext for Fellini, but rather a search for the shape of the film in these images, a process of seeking out and discovery that carried over into the actual filming, where the film you see is the film being discovered in the process of filming, as if there were no “before” to it, as if the film had been found. It is not a record, then, of something outside it but an expression of an inspiration chanced upon at the moment of filming.

Fellini’s films (certainly his later ones, including Amarcord) bear the marks of their imme­diacy, sketchiness, momen­tari­ness, lack of finality, lack of development, inspirational and free associations (“You begin to shoot an action, and suddenly you are taken with the shimmering of light on a crystal of glass”). Such processes, essentially irrational, unconscious, almost impossible to plan (the vagaries of light, a sudden glimmer of recognition), were for Fellini (impressed by Jungian psychology and its notion of archetypes) signs of creativity and artistry. They were the I, the me, of Fellini.

In Amarcord, the Rex is made of cardboard, the sea of plastic, the sunset of paint. Very little is natural, and when it is, it is parodied and deformed. The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward. The films increasingly became the expression of the soul of Fellini—not his autobiography, his life to be represented, but what he wished to express. “There is nothing autobiographical in Amarcord,” he said (nor is there in his celebrated essay “My Rimini,” which is neither autobiography nor exactly recollection but something rather more delicate and poetic: reminiscence). This expressive reality is made up of the spirits of Fellini, like those of Juliet in Juliet of the Spirits (1965). His films objectify these spirits and in so doing liberate them. The clowns of Amarcord are such spirits, not memories exactly but compressed symbols and associations, as in a dream.

One aspect of Amarcord that helps hold the film together and give it continuity is the change of seasons, from the initial appearance of the puffballs that herald the end of winter to their reappearance at the close of the film. An entire year goes by, and its four seasons come full circle. The seasonal changes have more to do with the material of the film, principally the light, than with what is represented: the darkness, shadows, and yellow effect of artificial lights in the winter; the glow of springtime, with its sharp, clear light, followed by summer haze; then the gray, foggy mistiness of autumn, when cows assume strange shapes; and finally, the glare of winter snow. Yellows, then, followed by greens, blues, whites, and all of these played off of by the whites and reds of the costuming, particularly of Gradisca, whose dress outlines her wiggling bottom.

Being freed from the constraints of narrative allows not only for a greater range of associations but for filmmaking in which images and sounds and their colors, textures, light, tones, rhythms, and movement can combine and resonate. And in Fellini’s case, these are resonances of joyfulness and generosity.

The beauty of film rests in the fragility of its images, a fragility often denied by narrative structures so tightly bound that images become firmly fixed in place. It is exactly in that place that Fellini’s films open up, and in doing so make images precious, alive, and transitory. The essential subject of Fellini’s films, and particularly of the late ones, like Amarcord, is the cinema itself, another world: ephemeral, touching, ineffable, comic, and grand . . . like a pheasant in the snow.

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