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Fellini remembers: "My little poem"

not the rational eye, or the sentimental eye.

"These are also the views of what a man of 54 thinks about his childhood. What is memory? Not the cold collection of what has really happened, but a point of view toward it. And these were the people I knew. These were the teachers at school, these were the fascists, these were the school kids, these were the women we lusted for, these were the townspeople."

Fellini had flown into New York during the New York Film Festival (although he hadn't allowed "Amarcord" to be entered in it), and now he sat in his suite at the Sherry Netherland surrounded by an entourage and looking something like the movie director who was the subject of his autobiographical "8 1/2." He is a large man with an almost childish simplicity and wit. His eyebrows turn up in perpetual amusement, and he exudes a charisma that envelops everyone around him.

That was the feeling I got about the entourage. He was accompanied by so many people, not so they could stroke his ego, but because he liked them so much he couldn't bear to be without them. There was his translator, who somehow turned out to be a stunning young blond. There was his American distributor, who spoke of the long lines of fans waiting to get into "Amarcord." There was his publicist, and there was his screenwriter Tonio Guerra, and midway through the interview, his actress wife, Giulietta Masina, came bustling in laden with packages from Fifth Ave stores.

Fellini's life seems to flow naturally into his work, and more than half of his films have been overtly autobiographical. The first one was "Variety Lights" (1950), based on memories of vaudeville tours through Italy. "I Vitelloni" (1953) was the story of several semi-loutish young men who hung around, unemployed, in a town not unlike Rimini. "La Dolce Vita" was the story of a gossip columnist caught up in the nightlife along the Via Veneto (and Fellini himself got his start in Rome as a popular journalist). "8 1/2" was about the creative problems of a film director, and "Juliet of the Spirits" (which starred Masina) was about the creative problems of a director's wife.

"These people from my home town turned up in 'I Vitelloni' and in 'The Clowns' and in 'Fellini's Roma,'" he said. "They turned up even in films where they were not welcome. At last I decided to go back and visit them. And my screenplay was written with Tonio Guerra."

Guerra, a slim, intense and very quiet presence in a corner, looked up and nodded. "Tonio is from a little town very near Rimini," Fellini said. "He is much older than I, 25 or 30 years older..." They both laughed. "Actually, he is exactly my own age, and like myself, he came to Rome. He has worked with Antonioni a lot -- he wrote 'Blow Up' - but this is the first time we have worked together. And he has written my little poem."

A Fellini film is almost always a remarkable fusion between plot and music. His longtime composer, Nino Rota, is sometimes asked to supply almost walltowall music, and in many of the scenes (especially Fellini's obligatory processions), the characters seem to be moving to the music.

"Amarcord" looks especially like that, and Fellini said he played records on the set while the actors walked about. "It isn't the music Rota will compose," he said, "but it gives the rhythm, the emotion. The people move more lightly than if they were just told to walk around. But the fact is that when I do a scene, it is born in my mind, completely, before I do a single thing. I visualize the idea, the screenplay, dialog, casting, point of view, lighting, laboratory work, sound, music -- everything. And it is all there at the beginning.

"I think that any creative operation exists, on a fantasy level, before the artist ever begins to set it down. And in my fantasy I see complete. Before Newton discovered the law of gravity, it existed. The same for artistic expression. The artist (to use such a decadent romantic term) is one who has the ability to put himself in connection with that fantasy and interfere with it the least possible. To put it down, and not interfere with culture, phony ideas, ideology. The most difficult thing to obtain is simplicity."

Fellini dislikes messages (and a critic once wrote that you'd have a hard time finding conscious thought processes in any of his films). He says you have to feel his films. In "Amarcord," for example, there's a beautiful, inexplicable scene in the winter when a peacock belonging to a local aristocrat escapes. As the young men of the town watch, the peacock spreads its tail feathers in the snow.

It's an unforgettable image, but what does it mean? "Nothing," Fellini declared. "The peacock lands in the snow and spreads its feathers, and that is that. It is a moment of quiet and beauty for the boys. One of the causes of our unhappiness is that we cannot accept things as they are. The moment of the peacock is simple beauty, to be accepted. In 'La Dolce Vita,' there was a character named Steiner who killed himself. He was an intellectual He was too cold, too smart. He can kill himself but he cannot escape himself. He tried so hard to understand that he became blind, he could not hear, he was trapped in himself."

And yet perhaps there is a message of sorts in "Amarcord," or if not a message, then at least a feeling about 1934 Italy under fascism.

"So many of the people in this movie are stupid," Fellini said. "But it is hard to make fun of the fascists, because they were more grotesque than you can show, more buffoons. Stupidity has a very great fascination for the stupid. It is easy. It is hard to live individually.

"Near the end of the movie, all the people go out in their little boats and wait all night on the sea for the great Italian ocean liner to come past. It is the greatest ship in all of the world. And when it comes, it is vast, towering, impossible.

"One of the critics said, 'Fellini failed because you can see the ship is only a model, not a real ship.' What stupidity! Of course it is a model! A phony dream. The ship was fascist Italy, all appearance, all illusion.

"But yet I love the people who went out to see it, because they needed their illusions so much."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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