Saturday, September 13, 2014

Federico Fellini | Amarcord

born in a fog
by Douglas Messerli

Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra (story and screenplay), Federico Fellini (director) Amarcord / 1973, USA 1974

Nature is very busy in the small Italian town of Borgo San Giuliano where the action of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord takes place. The film begins with manine or “puffballs” brought in by the wind, presaging Spring, while exciting nearly all the towns inhabitants whom we soon meet. Later, the hot winds and rains dominate, followed by a deep fog in which one of the minor characters, the central figure Titta’s grandfather (Giuseppe Ianigro) gets lost directly in front of the gate to his son’s house. For several days, as winter returns, it heavily snows. The film ends, once more, with the puffballs flying across space.

     But Amarcord does not only reveal the nature of the seasons but the very human natures of the village’s citizens, particularly their sexual urges. The young boys, including Titta (Bruno Zanin) and his several young friends are at the age when nearly every woman excites them, including the lascivious whore Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli), who evidently cannot get enough men in her daily diet, the teasingly balloon-breasted Tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi), the saintly student Aldina Cordini (Nella Gambini), and unapproachable—at least to the boys—Gradisca (Magali Noël). But the adult males are nearly as sexually fixated: the town idiot Biscein (Gennaro Ombra) claiming, in one of his innumerable stories, that he has bedded nearly all the concubines hidden away by a visiting Pasha in the city’s grand hotel; Aurelio Bondi’s (Titta’s father) idiot brother who climbs a street and refuses to come down as he demands to have “a woman”; Titta’a dancing and romancing brother, Oliva (Stefano Proietti); and even Titta’s grandfather who, with grand motions of his arm, claims to have been sexually active for most of his life. Even the local theater owner is presented as a romantically inclined catch, presented with the name of Ronald Coleman      Perhaps only the near dead professors of Titta’s school, none of who know the first thing about how to educate their pupils, are sexually inactive. If Titta’s own father Aurelio and his mother are representative of married couples, anyone might wish to remain uncoupled, given their constantly hysterical and violent fights. Yet it is only Aurelio and Miranda, in a city of fools, who seem to represent any wisdom, suggesting they have the ability to see beyond the fog in which the others seem always to be wandering.

       Indeed, in a town committed to and dominated by the Fascists, including his disobedient son, only Aurelio speaks out against Mussolini, who, with great, unintentionally comic, fanfare visits Borgo San Giuliano and, with great pomp and circumstance, determines to display his prowess at the billiards table at the very moment when the city goes dark, while a recording of the Internationale plays unheeded in the town’s bell tower. Aurelio, the prime suspect, is punished by being forced to swallow a bottle of castor oil, producing the expected results, while his back is lashed.

     Yet even this incident of true violence and humiliation seems to impress no one in the world of adolescent group jerks, fart sounds, snow-ball fights, and bellicose pronuciamentos. To comprehend just how forgiving Fellini is of the emotionally unstable and politically blind fellow citizens of his memory, one need only compare Amarcord with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló which also depicts a group of school children “abducted” by adults taking advantage of the Fascist creed, or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, which begins with the rape of a wealthy young boy by his chauffeur, to realize that instead of presenting the character’s absurd childishness as part and parcel of the voyeuristic, masochistic and sadist extensions of the government’s political values, Fellini himself “remembers” as if observing the past of his childhood through a near-impenetrable fog.      While Pasolini and Bertolucci take their characters along with their audiences through virtual hells—anyone who sits through the whole of either of these movies must recognize his or her complicity with the brutal figures they portray—Fellini accepts his eternal adolescents as simpleton figures, rowing out in the dark of night just to catch a glimpse of the huge lit-up ocean-liner that represents the marvel and beauty of the new order and the future they imagine for themselves. Strangely, it is a marvelous sight, even if it also rises up like a strange illusion, something on the edge, in Fellini’s visual representation of it, of the real and fantasy, almost a cartoon of the great S.S. Rex, launched in 1931, to represent the marvel of Italian industry.                  

     Yet, these same men and women, Fellini makes clear, are not only lost in their world, but are entrapped. Only two citizens from Borgo San Giuliano escape, the loving Miranda, Titta’s mother, who dies—consumed by the demands of her family—and the well-endowed, derriere-displaying Grandisca, who joyfully marries a soldier—a man likely to be killed or, at the very least, imprisoned during or after the war. Everyone else is trapped, not only in the past time but in a space that, as Titta’s grandfather declares, nobody can know where they are. Even if the memory in which they exist is a loving and forgiving one, in terms of real time, these figures were damned by the very world in which they came into existence, a world which was, after all, not a natural world, despite the natural human behaviors and the conditions of nature around them to which they so readily abandoned themselves. In 1944 the Rex was shot by 123 RAF aircraft rockets, the ship, rolling over onto its portside, sinking into the waters below; the future was obliterated almost before it had begun.

Los Angeles, September 13, 2014.

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