- Fellini's Crowds and the Remains of Religion
The fascist parade in Federico Fellini's Amarcord enables us to take the measure of the director's analytic and inteve genius. It begins amid swirls of dust and smoke emanating from the town train station, as if attributing the successful spread of Italian fascism to a failure of perception. The party is, as the saying goes, blowing smoke in our face, producing a cultural climate favorable to murky thinking. The haze connotes the inability to properly envision phenomena with any mental or moral clarity, to distinguish matters clearly, such as the difference that the film suggests in a later scene, with comic irony, between a real military victory and shooting a gramophone out of a bell tower because it is playing the communist Internationale.
But we cannot get away with anything like blaming fascism only on the weather, moral or physical. Far more revealing is the next sequence of shots, in which local party officials and members, all in uniform, are shown running a little breathlessly in loose formation, while exchanging remarks that express gleeful admiration of their leader and his party. They hustle up some stairs in the same loose formation and stand facing the camera, medium close-up, in order to acclaim the party slogans booming from loudspeakers. They shout in unison before, we note, the slogans are fully pronounced, so that we are made aware that they are not really listening to what is being said, but only acting in concert. Their acclamation is comically out of sync—with reality, perceptual and, by implication, social. This image of the bersaglieri running in unison is familiar to spectators at political rallies and from newsreels at the time, and to historians since then. But Fellini has moved the camera in closer than it has ever been before, combining two or three characters in a head-shot as they trot up the street. It is a classic gesture of defamiliarization, as the Russian formalists called it when identifying art-work, that makes this phenomenon available to deeper understanding. [End Page 159]
We have just viewed a penetrating analysis of group action, a symbolic discourse on crowd behavior as it concerns organized political activity. The running here is not natural to such a group; it must mean something. It isn't dictated to them as orders; it must obey the dictates of the phenomenon that Fellini is revealing to us. This brilliantly orchestrated scene prompts the question: why, when, for what reason does a crowd run? The answers, typically, are two: in fear, in panic, as from fire or flood; or in rage, in fury, as against an abhorred enemy culprit—to the Bastille, or the gallows, or the nearest tree or lamppost that can serve as such. Though it is closer to the second case, Fellini's gang of fascists fits neither of these models precisely, and we have to step back a bit and reflect upon what he is representing to us about crowd behavior and organized political activity of a certain kind, of the kind that can only succeed, perhaps, amid a hazy climate of moral perception. We need to probe further the logic of this phenomenon, to explore the meaning of what appears before our eyes, as the philosophers do when they say they are doing phenomenology. We can do this by further considering alternative models of behavior.
In a military parade, we have an organized crowd of a certain specific type, in which a group is massed in rigid formation and everyone moves in lock-step order to the regular beat of the drum or to a repeated count of numbers. Fellini gives us an example of this in the fascist youth athletic exercises performed by uniformed groups of boys and girls who move their rifles and hoops to a steady eight-count beat. So we know the director of Amarcord is thinking about mass movements of all sorts. Moreover, his film also provides us with a crowd phenomenon at the opposite end of the social spectrum. At the beginning of the film, we witness the nightly passagiata, the evening town stroll still very...