Director's Cut: Under a paper moon: Ships that pass in the night: John Duigan on audacity and indolent expectation in Fellini's Amarcord

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The Independent Culture
In Fellini's Amarcord, a film recalling his early life in the seaport town of Rimini, there is a scene where the people of the town hear that a wonderful new ocean liner is going to be passing by. Everyone goes out to sea in a collection of small boats. Some of them are strumming music, some of them are day-dreaming; the afternoon blurs into evening and fog descends - you hear the horns of ships passing in the distance.

Suddenly, out of the fog, there emerges the massive shape of the ship, glowing like a huge birthday cake. The town awakes as if from a dream; they gasp and cheer and call out to it, and it sails majestically past and is swallowed up again by the mist. It leaves them with this feeling of a world passing in the night. Then they return, nursing the image, to their normal lives.

What struck me was how it created this atmosphere of indolent expectation. Gradually the soporific feeling of the hot afternoon on the ocean was filtered into a more dream-like world through the fog and the advent of night and the sounds of the distant ships.

And when the actual ship came, he didn't even attempt to make it real. It was such an audacious choice by Fellini who, of course, came from a background working as a production designer and did a lot of theatre in his youth; most film-makers, if they hadn't been able to get an ocean liner, would have probably chosen to look for existing footage of a real liner that they could intercut. But here, it was as if a huge theatrical prop came floating past and somehow that was exactly how it should have been. It was an intoxicating moment, as if the people were seeing something of which they had no real concept - something that was just other than the world that they knew. What I drew from it is the sense of yearning for something mystical.

Fellini is a very visual film-maker; he deals almost exclusively through imagery. There is a great attention to the evocation of atmosphere through sound, but the words uttered by the actors are of secondary importance; he often supplied them only after the whole film was shot. He post-syncs everything.

He was a magical realist in the cinema before anyone else, and his films, I think, are tremendously celebratory of life in all its aspects. There's a terrific sense of humour at work, and an empathy with the totality of human experience. I find those films very attractive for their exuberance and humanism, in contrast to so much that's negative in the preoccupations of contemporary cinema. One thing I find puzzling is that people lament the amount of violence in films, and yet critics hail Tarantino's films as wonderful. I find the sensibility at work in a film like Reservoir Dogs absolutely appalling.

John Duigan is the director of 'The Year My Voice Broke' and 'Flirting'. His new film, 'Sirens', is on release

(Photograph omitted)