Federico Fellini and the Exuberance of Memory

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The films of Federico Fellini are lathered in suds of the surreal; in his movies, characters succumb to the hallucinations of fantasies, memories, and daydreams, with the language of the films themselves intentionally blurring what’s actually happening and what’s merely imagined. Many of these fantastical images are bizarre psychological projections of the fears and desires of his protagonists, which can often be analyzed as stand-ins for the director himself. With Fellini, though, it isn’t really about discerning what’s real and what isn’t. Memories, dreams, and present reality all share equal value, and as with a majority of David Lynch’s filmography or the numerous (and very literary) dream sequences found in The Sopranos, Fellini uses expressive exaggerations to symbolize a greater meaning in the characters’ psychologies. In these films, the present seems to be inseparable from the past, with memories serving as the bifocals through which the characters view their current life. ‘s Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is taunted by his unfaithful memories. Amarcord, whose title can be roughly translated to I Remember, draws heavily from Fellini’s own childhood in Rimini in the same manner that Roma, Belfast, and The Hand of God are rooted in the autobiographical remembrances of their directors.

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What separates Fellini movies from these others, however, is the very way in which memory is portrayed. In movies like , Amarcord, and Fellini’s Roma (not to be confused with the Alfonso Cuarón picture of the same name, to which Fellini’s has no relation), youthful memories are made exuberant and stripped of their realism. They become caricatures, larger-than-life episodes that are filtered through the unreliable lens of time. Memories are portrayed through the subjective perspective of youth, and the scenes are seen as a child or teenager may have experienced them at the time. So far removed from the truth of these events, Fellini protagonists — and Fellini himself — have an innate inability to see things precisely as they were. Either consciously or unconsciously, those remembering misremember, instead allowing things to become exaggerated into something fantastic.


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Fellini’s near-obsession with the past makes sense, given the director’s tendency to look at his own subconscious fears and desires through his later work. In in particular, links are drawn between Guido’s desires and his childhood, a concept adhering the Freudian theory that personalities are shaped by childhood experiences. A dreamlike memory of a childhood bath is later replicated in a lavish sexual fantasy where Guido dreams of being bathed by a harem of women in the same sprawling building as he was as a child. The importance of memories in these films isn’t based entirely on their novelty, nor on the sentimentality with which they’re intertwined. They define who the characters really are.


What makes watching memories à la Fellini so wonderful, though, is the way in which the guy captures the way said memories feel. A youthful or adolescent perspective is undeniably different from an aged one. As children and teenagers, we view the world differently, and Fellini films take full advantage of this concept to create lavish, surreal episodes that nuzzle cozily against the blatantly fictional daydreams and fantasies also found in these films. I Vitelloni, an early work of in Fellini’s oeuvre, also serves as a semi-autobiographical reflection on adolescence. Only here, the director had yet to blossom into his style. The picture is much more straightforward, much less fantastical. When Fellini metamorphosed and spread his artistic wings, he embraced a singular sense of surrealism that would ultimately define his style, and with this change, his portrayal of memory consequently changed.


In Fellini’s masterful 8½, Guido Anselmi finds himself with a serious case of director’s block after completing a highly acclaimed picture (art imitates life, as Fellini’s previous masterpiece La Dolce Vita is the sort of picture that’s almost impossible to follow up) and is repeatedly plagued by his subconscious, which seems to distract him at every inopportune moment. When a clairvoyant, attempting to entertain the crowd, reads Guido’s mind and conjures the phrase “Ana nisi masa”, Guido is brought back to a childhood memory: a boy, running around rambunctiously, attempting to avoid a bath.

Eventually, he and about a dozen other children are dunked and washed rhythmically in a gargantuan wine barrel while a doting young girl happily throws grapes into the mix from above. It’s in a sprawling, minimally-furnished home in which everything is much bigger than it probably should be. Is it a convent, an abandoned castle, or an actual home that is made massive by young Guido’s childish perspective? It’s a scene remembered decades later, filtered through an unreliable and biased viewpoint.


The women in this sequence pine for Guido’s attention. They seem almost obsessive in expressing their appreciation for the boy. Why? What about the other children? This is Guido’s memory, and not theirs. It’s Guido Hour, every hour. To him, he’s a kind and innocent boy, praiseworthy and adorable. His obsession with the women in his adult life unquestionably biased this aspect of his memory. It’s not to say that Guido wasn’t loved as a child, but the unequal amount of affection the boy received is undeniably suspect.

Guido doesn’t remember things exactly as they were. Instead, an otherwise unspectacular event (getting bathed by a maternal figure) is distorted out of its reality. What was presumably a tub or a bucket becomes a massive wine barrel, and even the furnishings of this childhood home are grown into grotesquely large proportions. As a child, these things and the home itself surely seemed much larger than they actually were, given young Guido’s comparatively smaller size. When remembering, Guido forms the memory into a tall tale, one undeniably rooted in reality but no longer truly there.

The same can be said for another memory that appears later in the film: Guido and his friends experience a sexual awakening when encountering a beach-inhabiting sex worker named Saraghina (Eddra Gale). She is a domineering and insatiable woman who dances hypnotically for her paying audience. Her personality is much larger than life and clearly exaggerated by Guido’s memory. It’s a crucial moment in his life, and it’s ingrained in his memory as something almost supernatural. Later, when Guido is reprimanded by the priests from his school, he is taken down a long corridor where massive, imposing portraits of saints stare down at him, condemning. Did these portraits really exist, were they really so large, and did they really seem to literally look down upon him? Of course not. This is Fellini, where memory and fantasies share real estate.


In the case of Amarcord, the movie is an entire feature’s worth of episodes based upon memories. Rimini during Mussolini’s regime is recalled with a biting scene of humor—and plenty of Fellini’s inimitable flair. Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) is a sex-obsessed rebellious youth whose adolescence in a hypocritical society is as frequently hilarious as it is beautiful. It’s understandable why Amarcord is a personal favorite of artists such as Hou Hsiou-Hsien, Martin Scorsese, and Italo Calvino: it’s a lush, extravagant picture that manages to be so much at once (it even won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film). For one, it’s a sentimental recollection of the childhood from one of cinema’s most beloved figures, but for another, it’s a meditation on memory itself and a searing indictment of fascism’s utter absurdity.

There’s no shortage of hyperbole in Amarcord. From the comically-obsessed Mussolini devotees leading a parade through the city’s streets to the town heartthrob Gradisca’s (Magali Noël) almost supernatural allure, and so much in between. In one episode, Titta’s uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia) takes an afternoon away from his time spent in a mental hospital only to climb a tree all cat-like and shout to the heavens that he wants a woman. In another, Rimini is covered with a beautiful snowfall, and as the town residents partake in a joyous snowball fight (Gradisca enthusiastically joining in) a majestic peacock inexplicably appears and spreads its plumage proudly. When the locals venture out to see the behemoth ocean liner the SS Rex, the ship’s lights appear suddenly in the fog, almost ghostlike. It’s not exactly supernatural or magical, but it definitely isn’t exactly realistic, either. That’s the point. Amarcord isn’t about remembering factually.


Just as Guido can be interpreted as a fictional avatar for Fellini and his self-reflection, Titta can be seen as a vehicle for the filmmaker to explore his Riminian adolescence—though, in this case, the protagonist has his real-world counterpart in Fellini’s childhood friend Titta Benzi. In My Rimini, a book written by Fellini six years before he would shoot Amarcord, the filmmaker speaks on his hometown: “I cannot see Rimini as an objective fact, that’s it. It is a dimension of my memory and nothing more…Rimini: what is it? It is a dimension of my memory (among other things, an invented, adulterated, secondhand sort of memory)”. Many of the episodes in Amarcord appear first in My Rimini. Fellini stated much later that Amarcord isn’t entirely autobiographical. It’s more complicated than that. The fact that memories and reminiscences in Amarcord (and many other Fellini films) are exaggerated makes the movies more sincere in their remembrance because they allow for the grandeur and feeling of such memories to be portrayed through their lush visual and aural artistry.

With Roma, Fellini’s film preceding Amarcord by only one year, the maestro of Italian cinema portrays a youthful Rome as he remembers it, literally recreating the memories by crafting elaborate sets and stages to film on rather than shooting on location. By mixing these dreamy vignettes with staged aspects of a would-be documentary in which Fellini and his crew are seen filming parts of Rome, Roma acknowledges its own fictitious nature. When a group of politically-minded students and a cynical conservative who’s dissatisfied with the cultural direction Rome was headed asks Fellini if he’s interested in showing the problems that contemporary Rome was facing, the director shrugs. “I think a person should be true to his own nature,” he replies, citing that he’d rather show an extravagant variety show, and this is exactly what he does in the following scene. Much of Roma is, in a sense, a variety show. It’s exuberant, comical, and way over the top.


Through many expressionist flourishes, Fellini’s movies become less concerned with what actually happened in a given memory than they are with how that particular memory felt. Guido’s memory of maternal love transforms into a feeling of being doted—even obsessed—over. The sexually liberated Saraghina, performing a seductive dance for money, becomes transfigured into a symbol of ravenous feminine sexuality. As with Amarcord, life in Fascist Rimini becomes an absurd carnival of dictatorial obsession and cultural repression, an image that, through exaggeration, becomes a more accurate representation of the memories than objective truth.

It makes a difference that each of these films are accented by Nino Rota’s carnivalesque scores—a staple in these mid-to-late career Fellini pictures. Fellini’s obsession with the circus (as seen most blatantly in La Strada and The Clowns) is not only reinforced with Rota’s immediately recognizable tunes but also directly aids the director’s hyperbolic portrayal of memories. Events are made spectacular, and perhaps such events really were spectacular—not in the sense that they happened as extravagantly as portrayed here in the films, but in the sense that they once felt so extravagant and that time itself helped transform these memories into something unworldly.


Fellini understands that much of the joy of memories comes from the actual reflection upon them. They aren’t always supposed to be factual, nor entirely accurate. It’s more about remembering how they once felt, how a given event may have once wowed you, moved you, changed you. Things may even become fantastic once you begin remember them.

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