By Alan Scherstuhl
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Back in the days when art houses were temples of cinema and auteurs their living gods, few filmmakers cast longer shadows than Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Time and changing tastes took their inevitable toll on both art houses and auteurs, but everything old is new again this week; as fate would have it, Fanny and Alexander, Bergman's 1982 swansong to the cinema, surfaces for one week at the IFC Center just as a new print of Fellini's Amarcord, the 1974 Oscar winner that turned out to be the director's last creative gasp, opens for two weeks at Film Forum.
The synchronicity doesn't end there. Both of these career-capping classics show us filmmakers looking forward by looking back, aging artists (Bergman was 64 when he made Fanny; Fellini, 53 at the time of Amarcord) using the tools of their trade to reclaim their pasts. Though atypically endearing, Fanny and Alexander demonstrates Bergman's preference for exorcising his demons outright, while Amarcord reminds us of Fellini's penchant for exaggerating his into abstraction. But both films are largely successful examples of filmmakers turning the trick of transforming memory into art and then into popular entertainment by dodging and weaving with a past replayed on an endless loop.
That loop permeates every frame as Amarcord cycles through a full complement of seasons, beginning and ending with spring and the promise/threat of rebirth. Essentially 123 minutes of things falling apart, often grotesquely but also beautifully, Amarcord takes place during the 1930s in Rimini, the little seaside village where Fellini grew up. Memory speaks volumes here, and pivotal elements of the film clearly correspond to actual characters and events from the filmmaker's childhood, though Fellini always denied that Amarcord's splendidly orchestrated chaos served as autobiography. The Rimini of Amarcord exists in a parallel universe of fart jokes and free associations, a highly visual and unmistakably artificial locus constructed almost entirely inside the studios of Cinecittà. Fellini, ever the honest liar, is careful to distance himself from his past while embracing it, filtering memory through protective layers of imagination.
Fellini doesn't even supply Amarcord with a readily identifiable surrogate for his younger self, just multiple unreliable narrators relating elaborately manufactured stories within stories. Contradictions are key to the film's pleasure, with slapstick humor and gross-out gags folding into inexplicable poetry, and characters periodically addressing the camera as if to remind us that everything on the screen is illusion. Amarcord's various dramatic personae scurry about in mostly frenetic mode, coming together in public squares, kitchens, schools, churches, and movie theaters (the real love letter here is not to a time or place, but to the cinema), as one of Nino Rota's most beloved scores provides a memorable soundtrack for their lives.
As earthy as it is episodic, much of Amarcord comes off like a series of loosely connected vaudeville routines, its players pumped up into a realm of caricature where gestures and emotions are as outsized as those famously enormous butts and breasts so dear to the director's heart. But what positions the film among Fellini's greatest are its punctuation points of mysterious beauty—the whole village rowing out to sea to witness an ocean liner passing in the night; a towering head of Il Duce composed entirely of flowers; the loony uncle bleating out his frustrations from the top of a tree; a peacock magically appearing to spread its tail in the snow. These are the moments that truly define Fellini's spectacle, and when notions of biographical fidelity pale before what lingers in the mind.
There's plenty of poetry and magic in Fanny and Alexander as well, along with proof that Fellini isn't the only old-school auteur with a taste for fart jokes. After relegating children to the sidelines of most of his films, Bergman finally positions one front and center here, showing us the world through the eyes of his sensitive but somewhat rebellious stand-in, 10-year-old Alexander. Bergman grounds his film in the dreams and nightmares of youth, as well as an adolescent appreciation for bodily functions, tempering his signature soul-searching with goodly amounts of sheer exuberance and sensuality.
Fanny and Alexander marked Bergman's return to Sweden after a four-year tax exile in Germany, and there's a sense here of a great director coming to terms with the past while offering one final reprise of his most important themes. A sprawling, ornately constructed entertainment, the film can be roughly divided into two sections—the first revolving around life with the Ekdahls, a colorful clan of early-20th-century theater lovers, and the second focusing on the two titular Ekdahl children, forced into exile when their father dies and their mother remarries a charismatic but oppressive clergyman (who bears a marked resemblance to Bergman's own father).
Bergman went so far as to call Fanny and Alexander a comedy, but the film becomes progressively darker as it unfolds, teetering between richly imagined fairy tale and overstuffed Shakespearean tragedy. The ultra-meaty five-hour version being screened at the IFC Center is Bergman's preferred cut, and even those not enamored of the theatrical version (a mere three hours) may find themselves astonished.
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