We celebrated the New Year by watching Fellini’s masterful Amarcord, in which he brilliantly uses nostalgia to discuss the fascist Italy of his youth. (The film’s title comes from an Italian expression meaning “I Remember”.) Nostalgia may seem like an odd choice for a film about fascism, after all, nostalgia for a long-lost “golden age” is one of the central features of fascism. But Fellini’s nostalgia isn’t about myth-making, it is about myth destruction.
Fellini isn’t a surrealist, but a hyper-realist. He presents reality to us on a larger-than life (“operatic” seems like the right word) scale. The breasts of the woman Titta lusts after are so huge that they suffocate him. The character of Gradisca dreams of Gary Cooper, but marries a stout fascist bureaucrat. The entire town rows out to sea in order to greet the nation’s largest ocean liner, only highlighting their own insignificance as the ship silently passes them by in the night. But by bathing this realism in the soft glow of nostalgia Fellini conveys a message much more powerful than simple “irony.” If the film were simply ironic, we wouldn’t understand the power of nostalgia. Fellini captures this power, and respects it, at the same time as he sees through it.
Peter Bondanella puts it this way:
The film’s title means “I remember” in one of the dialects of Fellini’s native province, but this does not amount to a strictly autobiographical interpretation of work. While Amarcord, as its title suggests, contains a great deal of nostalgia, Fellini’s use of nostalgia as a means of romanticizing the past serves to underline his belief that fascism was based upon false ideals, and also his recognition that regret or nostalgia is as inevitable a sentiment as refusal.
Bondanella quotes from a Fellini interview in which Fellini describes Italian fascism as a state of perpetual adolescence:
As Fellini himself wrote in an essay-interview entitled “The Fascism Within Us”: “I have the impression that fascism and adolescence continue to be . . . permanent historical seasons of our lives . . . remaining children for eternity, leaving responsibilities for others, living with the comforting sensation that there is someone who thinks for you . . . and in the meanwhile, you have this limited, time-wasting freedom which permits you only to cultivate absurd dreams . . .”
All this made me think about the role of nostalgia in American culture. America too seems to be constantly re-living its adolescence, wether it is the war years of the “Great Generation” or 60s, 70s and 80s nostalgia captured by such TV fare as That 70s Show and VH1’s I love the 80s. I’m not sure what this all means — except that perhaps it is time to for us to grow up.