Reading Fellini’s heart as a kid

— Library of Congress

Federico Fellini in 1965.

A few minutes into Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” even the casual viewer comes to see that the kids the director portrays — in his hometown of Rimini, Italy in the 1930s when he was a teen — were smart-ass airheads, without vision or purpose, unable, or unwilling, to transcend the roles history assigned them — as was the case with their mothers and fathers, and their parents before them.

You’d think Fellini had read Paul Goodman’s “Growing up Absurd” or Émile Durkheim on anomie.

But “Amarcord” is not a small-town biopic; it’s an artistic projection of Fellini’s heart as a kid, a feeling-memory projected onto the screen when Fascism had control of Italy’s mind. Compelled to escape the roles society allowed, Fellini left for Florence in 1937 at 17.

And though the movie is the work of an exile, it is an homage of deep feeling to the life he once lived. He treats each “character” of his youth with the vivid imagination of a poet-philosopher; he wanted them all to live forever — even the prurient parish priest and his teach-by-the-book teachers who took up the garb, and saluted with the vigor, of Fascists. (No resister is portrayed.)

And because Fellini allows each character — high and low — to have a say, “Amarcord” is an expression of dignitas. Each person comes on screen, tells his story, and waits in the wings until called again. And, after you’ve seen the movie a few times, you realize the town is a character as well. She draws you in.

“Amarcord” is more than a memoirist’s dream then, it’s ethnography; Fellini catches each person in his living-day-to-day, speaking-unselfconsciously self — alone or with the family, or maybe with a smart-ass peer group who embrace the Nazis in their Fascist youth uniforms.

“Amarcord” fits into the category of movie-making I call autobiographical comedy. Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” fits as well. Both films create a vision of a past when a person’s moral consciousness is born.

I love “Radio Days” and I love “Amarcord” but, in the personal memoir category, I vote for Fellini; Woody’s lingua franca has an edge, Fellini speaks in softer tones and treats his peeps with compassion. The viewer wants to visit Rimini but not the Rockaway Beach of Woody Allen.

Every time I see “Amarcord” I’m drawn to those subculturally-predelinquent, smart-ass teens who find fun in sadistically teasing the vulnerable — and they’re always fired up with sex.

“The Maestro” says in his memoir “I, Fellini” that, “I would stand with my young friends and we would study the women and speculate on who wore a brassiere and who didn’t. We would position ourselves at the bicycle stand in the late afternoon, when the women came for their bicycles, so we could watch from behind with the best view as they sat down on their bicycles.”

At some point in “Amarcord,” we’re introduced to those rears as they squat down upon the seats and morphously slide down their sides. Fellini says, “The sharp saddles slipped rapidly under the shiny black satin skirts, outlining, swelling, expanding, with dazzling gleams and sparkles, the biggest and finest bums in the whole of Romagna.” All fodder for future sexual fantasies.

Fellini thought the paths society offered did not extend beyond the ordinary. He says when he was leaving town he thought his “friends would be envious because I was leaving, but far from it. They were perplexed. They didn’t feel the drive to leave that I did. They were content to live in Rimini and were surprised I didn’t feel as they did.”

The word “Amarcord” comes from the dialect-Italian m’arcôrd which means “I remember” so we tend to think the movie is about memory.

But, in a 1980 interview with “Panorama” magazine, Fellini said no, “It is not memory that dominates my films. To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.”

But that’s not exactly true, and why the Canadian-born filmmaker Damian Pettigrew called his feature documentary: “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar.”

The undying adolescence of Fellini’s smart-alecky posse bored into his consciousness as well.

Twenty years earlier, he lit up the screen with a vision of what those guys looked like in their late-twenties in “I Vitelloni.”

“Vitelloni” in Italian means little bullocks, overgrown calves, little-boy-bulls — that sort of thing — and metaphorically means layabouts, lazy loafers, do-nothings. Italians have a name for that type today, “Mammoni.” Mommy’s pets.

Fellini’s “Amarcord” co-screenwriter Ennio Flaiano (the third was Tullio Pinelli) said that he thought “vitelloni” came from “vudellone, the large intestine, or a person who eats a lot. It was a way of describing the family son who only ate but never ‘produced’ — like an intestine, waiting to be filled.”

Fellini said the title came from what an old lady called him when he got caught pranking as a kid: vitelline! He said the vitelloni in Rimini shined “during the holiday season, and waiting for it takes up the rest of the year.”

He returned to Rimini in 1945 only to see a town torn to pieces. He said it “looked like a sea of rubble. There was nothing left. All that came out of the ruins was the dialect, the familiar cadences, a call of ‘Duilio! Severino!’, those strange names.”

And those who have such names in “Amarcord” did live in Rimini.

One was the beautiful, “sexy” hairdresser, Gradisca, who, when she walked down the street, the teen bullocks get “hot and bothered” and started making sexual gestures with arms and hands.

Titta, the boy who plays Fellini in the movie, puts the moves on Gradisca one day when he finds himself alone with her in a movie theater; she looks down at his hand in condescension.

The historical Fellini could not escape her scent; he says, I “went looking for Gradisca many years later in the country near Comasco.”

He was told she got married to a sailor (a cousin) and moved to “a wretched little village, then a muddy part of the river.”

When he drove there (in a Porsche), he came upon a little old lady hanging out wash in her garden. He got out and said, “Excuse me ... Where does Gradisca live?”

The old woman said, “Who’s looking for her?”

Fellini said he was, that he was an “old acquaintance: ‘Can you tell me where she is?’ ‘I am Gradisca,’ said the old woman.”

There before him stood the burning sexual flame of his youth but she “had lost every single trace of that triumphant, carnival glitter of hers. When I came to work it out, in fact, she must have been sixty years old.”

The Gradisca of “Amarcord” is beautiful, vivacious, and a “teaser” robed in red, whom every man in Rimini wants to “have a chat with.”

In real life, “Dressed in black satin that flashed in a steely, glittery way,” Fellini says, “she was one of the first to wear false eyelashes. Inside the café [Commercio] everyone has his nose to the glass. Even in winter Gradisca looked as if she has just stepped out of a band-box, with curls, the first permanent wave.”

In “Amarcord,” Gradisca and all the townspeople she lives among, live without wrinkle or care. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats says that’s one of the benefits of art:

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

With such thinking, no one loses.

But one wonders — with the coronavirus running rampant — to what extent Keats and Fellini, and all their talk of art, can help assuage the sorrow weighing on the American soul.