Fellini's Beatific Vision

Amarcord directed by Federico Fellini at the Cheri Complex

AMARCORD ["I Remember"] is Fellini's most ingratiating film so far--the return to scenes of his childhood near Rimini on Italy's Adriatic coast seems to have mellowed him. His fascisti are Verdi caricatures who can be deflated by a phonograph blaring out the Internationale from the bell tower in the town's main square as Mussolini begins a speech; the worst they do to the perpetrator is give him a humiliating dose of castor oil. The strangest and most wonderful things happen in the city of Amarcord, but they are all good things: A great ocean liner sails by the coast at night, lit up like it was sailing out of an electric forest; the whole population of the town piles into its boats and waits for the ship to pass, falling asleep for hours. Nature is strange but always benevolent, from the "puffballs" that, blown about everywhere, announce the end of winter, to the summer rain that comes down for just half a moment and then is gone just as suddenly, and, most of all, the snow, amazing as it is to all children, to whose eyes small drifts seem five feet high. Even death, when it comes, is a jewelled coach with cut crystal windows, followed by a procession in which everyone is included.

This inclusiveness knows no bounds. Everyone lives together in Amarcord, from the town drunk to the bizarre count in his palazzo. There is the sense of an ending whenever--because of death or marriage to an outsider--anyone leaves the town. Everyone gathers at funerals and marriages to see them off; every evening, they take their stroll along the town's main street, nodding to everyone else. The city Fellini used for filming had some things in it that were obviously postwar--Amarcord is set in the thirties--but he didn't need to change or cover up any of them. The sense of community he creates is so overwhelming that it assimilates everything into a harmonious whole, like the way gothic and romanesque arches are set into the fabric of the town's renaissance church--contributing to the structure, absorbed into the design, yet retaining their own shape for those who care to see.

There is a bad side to life in Amarcord: fascism and especially the Church, with its laughable confessionals and pathetic attempts at education. But the schoolchildren Fellini focuses on aren't warped or victimized by the Church--they exploit it, puncture it almost effortlessly, without retribution. Even the ordinary cruetly of children to other children (such as the very fat or the very small) never goes beyond the verbal stage. Sometimes, particularly in the opening scene of the bonfire with which the town welcomes the spring, there is a hint of menace, but these hints are always resolved into a joke. Fellini shows us only one side of the dionysiac, and only avoids getting sappy as a Christmas card by making his all-encompassing benevolence bittersweet. The director's old persona as the Hitchcock or Resnais or Welles who set out to terrify or bewilder or impress his audience is replaced by kindly old Father Christmas figures like Fellini and Jean Renoir, who do nothing more than wave their wands over the world and turn evil into good.

AS IN HIS most recent film, Fellini Roma, Fellini occasionally has members of the cast step out from the tapestry to address his audience, like Anna Magnani as she reaches the door to her apartment and bids us all good night. In Amarcord Fellini plays around further with this device; along with the exquisite diction of the Italian actors and the rhythm and beauty and strangeness (to the English ear) of what they are saying, this lends a theatrical, almost ritualistic quality to the film. These characters, though, are faintly ridiculous. By stepping out of the community to address us, they forfeit the strength in numbers that protects everyone else and show themselves to be somehow anti-social. One of these characters is a poet who sips Campari on the steps of the seaside Grand Hotel just outside of town, watching the Nazis make out with the local girls; another an antiquarian who stands in the midst of the snow covered square to inform us that this is the town's largest snowfall "since the ice age," although there have also been large snows in 1694 and 1888, the last one occuring on the 13th of July. He gets hit on the head with a snowball. Fellini makes fun of these characters; in Roma, it was Anna Magnani who had the last laugh. Now the director is in control again. If his impotence was exposed by confrontation with a city of Rome's complexity, his omnipotence is only too intrusive as he conquers a town the size of Rimini.

Amarcord has no plot. Like Roma, it is a "portrait" of a city, with no particular story to tell. But because the emphasis is on the simplicity of the city rather than its complications, Amarcord seems much more structured and homogeneous than Roma. It's also less daring. Fellini takes no chances, and it's his holding back that's responsible for the lack of any sequence as creative as the transforming of the traffic jam in Roma from urban ugliness to post-industrial beauty, a change much more convincing than anything in Amarcord. In Roma it was the way of seeing that made something beautiful; in Amarcord, it is the thing itself. A peacock flies onto a snowdrift and opens its fan. In a dense early morning fog a young boy wanders through a grove of trees which have assumed eerie, deformed shapes. The child's way of seeing, like his way of judging the height of the snow, is objectified instead of being shown as a consequence of perception. It's a beautiful world, Fellini seems to be saying, a good world; and the way he chooses to convince us is to show a non-stop catalogue of its beauties and consolations.

FELLINI'S BENEFICENT world has no visible social underpinnings. In one scene, some bricklayers building a house pause as one of the workers steps forward to recite a short "poem." "My grandfather laid bricks all his life," he says. "My father did the same. I have laid bricks all my life. But where is my house?" The question doesn't need to be answered; the worker is one of Fellini's eccentrics, tolerated in a good-natured way but not respected. Aurelio's wife locks him inside the house on the day II Duce comes to speak so he can't walk about in his "socialist necktie." The fascists shoot the record player he's planted in the bell-tower and march off to the bars congratulating themselves on their bravery.

If political evil hardly scratches the surface of life here, neither do Fellini's large doses of insanity. Uncle Teo climbs a tree and refuses to come down until ordered to do so by a midget nun who will have none of his nonsense. A peddler claims that one night a diminutive arab sheik checked into the grand hotel with his harem and invited him up for a tiring evening. Even the priests are allowed to join Fellini's beatific vision. Foolish as the churchmen are, Aurelio's termagant wife turns out to be the genuine image of sainthood.

Not content with making movies, Fellini seems determined to create a whole new world along with each new film--not a distorted reproduction of some world that is or has been, but a fresh-from-the-forehead-of-the-creator god world with its own pleasures, values and idiosyncracies. At first, Fellini seemed to be creating the same world over and over again; lately he appears to be wandering around, establishing new earths in whatever image strikes his fancy. There are a few things common to them all, though; a Fellini world is one where the fantastic is commonplace and madness is a fact of life as ordinary as a dirty joke.

The view of life Fellini takes in Amarcord may be partly excused because it is a self-confessed sentimental journey home, its lesson modified by the cruel world of Roma and the stark heroic drama of Satyricon. Fellini's achievement, in Satyricon, of a coherent interpretation of the ancient classical world different from anyone else's, was much greater than anything he's done since, but his audience seems to have missed it. Now critics are falling head over heels in a rush to congratulate him on having made a sweet, accessible movie--he just received the New York Film Critics' award for the best movie and best director. But madness can't be dealt with by a little stern competence from a nun and fascism can't be fought with phonographs and the reason the bricklayer doesn't have his house yet isn't something to be passed over lightly. In Amarcord, Fellini is talking down to his audience and deserves to have a snowball thrown at his head.

But Fellini probably won't need that kind of reminder. He won't stay any longer in the world of Amarcord than he remained in ancient Italy or modern Rome. Amarcord affirms human creative power in a far more unqualified way than most other artists would dare, but its message isn't nostalgic. It's not any one memory that's beautiful and good, but the totality of memories and their succession one after each other. The best things pass away, but so do the worst, and there are always new apparitions to come. The hat of the magician Fellini will never be empty.