Amarcord (Italy/France, 1973)March 22, 2020
I have always felt that Fellini is an acquired taste, and it’s one for which I never developed a ravenous appetite. While I value the director’s flamboyancy, his work has never connected with me in the same way as the output of many of the other great filmmakers of the ‘60s. Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I relate. Perhaps that’s because many of Fellini’s films are about memories (the name Amarcord means “I remember”) and one’s appreciation of reminiscences increases with the passage of years.
Amarcord, like many of the director’s films, uses his past as a springboard for his art. Although he denied that it was autobiographical, the collage of vignettes and incidents has a “lived in” feeling that comes only from experience. Of course, Fellini exaggerated many of the incidents and characters for comedic effect but Amarcord retains the gauzy, affectionate aura that cocoons memories. The last of the director’s great films (although he would continue to make movies for another 17 years, the post-Amarcord films were celebrated more for being Fellini than for being great movies), Amarcord is also his most personal.
The main character isn’t a person, it’s the coastal northern Italy town of Rimini in which the various episodes transpire. The year is 1932 (although it’s never explicitly stated, the appearance of the SS Rex on its maiden voyage establishes the date). Mussolini is almost universally revered, Italy has slipped into fascism, the Church’s role in everyday life is paramount, and the storm clouds of World War 2 have not yet begun forming on the horizon.
Amarcord is constructed as a series of episodes during the course of a year. It begins with the arrival of the “puffballs” (a sign of spring) and ends with the same event four seasons later. In between, we meet a variety of the oddball characters inhabiting the village. Many of the stories focus on teenager Titta (Bruno Zamin) and his family - his socialist father (Armando Drancia), Aurelio; his put-upon mother (Pupella Maggio), Miranda; his sly grandfather (Giuseppe Lanigro); his uncles, Lallo (Nado Orfei) and Teo (Cicco Ingrassia); and his brother, Oliva (Stefano Proietti). There’s also the local beauty, Gradisca (Magali Noel); the buxom tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi); and the wolf-like prostitute La Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli).
The atmosphere is balanced by the dual powers of fascism and Catholicism. When Titta’s father plays a recording of the Internationale from a bell tower, he is brought in for questioning by the local authorities. Meanwhile, the local priest shows an unhealthy fascination with the masturbation habits of the young boys who come to him for confession. Titta (like every other male in the village) fantasizes about Gradisca, while recognizing her to be out of his league.
Fellini moves unhurriedly through the calendar year. After the arrival of the “puffballs,” he focuses on an annual rite of spring: the town bonfire. He then takes us into the school, where we witness the pranks of students and the obstinance and narcissism of teachers. The Grand Hotel becomes the location for fantasy sequences. Uncle Teo comes home from the asylum to pay a visit and, predictably, causes chaos. By the time winter arrives, with the biggest snowfall in recorded history, Titta must face a personal crisis. The film concludes with Gradisca’s marriage accompanying the promised return of warmer weather.
Outside of Miranda’s death, little of consequence happens during the course of Amarcord. This is intentional. Fellini’s goal wasn’t to tell an epic story about life in interwar Italy but to focus on nostalgia and offer a pointed commentary about the insidious nature of fascism. He does this not only with broad satire (such as the parade and the huge “head” of Mussolini) but in the more subtle nods toward the minute compromises made in everyday life. He sampled exaggerated caricatures from his memories, sprinkled them with fantasy, and provided a warm and vibrant portrait of a place that never existed in the real world but is easy to envision as it unfolds on screen. He also spoke his own lines as part of the voiceover narrative.
The style for which Fellini has become famous was fully evolved by the time he made Amarcord and it informs the movie’s most visually striking sequences. Paramount among them is the snowstorm, which effectively captures the excitement and wonder that accompanies the arrival of winter weather. The eventual result – a veritable catacomb of walkways cut into head-high mounds of snow and capped off by the unlikely arrival of a peacock – offers the kind of imagery that lodges itself in the memory. Equally unforgettable is the scene in which Titta awkwardly discovers what the tobacconist has been hiding under her blouse. (As we know from this and other films, Fellini appreciated the female chest. When Roger Ebert made the following comment, “Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer,” it was only partially intended to be tongue-in-cheek.)