AMARCORD (1974)

  • Director: Federico Fellini
  • Writers: Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra
  • Starring: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Josiane Tanzilli, Nando Orfei, Ciccio Ingrassia, and Maria Antonietta Beluzzi
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#50), 1 Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Federico Fellini, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

All of Federico Fellini’s movies are deeply introspective, and often autobiographical. It’s pretty common for his main characters to be seen by audiences and critics as a stand-in for Fellini himself. However, Amarcord, which apparently translates as “I Remember” (don’t at me, Italian speakers, apparently this is in the local dialect of Fellini’s hometown and not “normal” Italian), is probably his most personal film. It follows, mostly through a series of seemingly unconnected anecdotes, a year in the life of Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, on the shore of the Adriatic in northeastern Italy. It is not set in the “present” (the movie came out in 1974), but rather in the 1930s, when Fellini would have lived there, under the yoke of Fascism.

Amarcord partly, but not entirely, views the experience through the eyes of a teenage boy, Titta (Bruno Zanin). He may be a proxy for Fellini, though Fellini insisted he had based the character on one of his friends growing up, who had also been nicknamed Titta. He is stultified by school and obsessed with older women. His family dinners tend to devolve into screaming matches between his mother (Pupella Maggio) and father (Armando Brancia). They each mean well with the rest of the family, but can’t seem to get through a conversation without the mother threatening to kill herself or the father throwing a little fit about how much of an idiot he is (I could relate to these bits).

But the movie is not only from Titta’s point of view. Several characters end up talking directly to the camera, including a local professor who tries to opine on the town’s history between getting struck with snowballs. We see not only Titta’s fantasies, but those of some of his friends. During a fascist rally, one boy imagines himself being married to his crush by a giant talking effigy of Mussolini, in another scene, one imagines himself impressing everyone as a race car driver. In perhaps the movie’s most beautiful scene, a snowball fight after a huge snowstorm stops when someone calls out that “the Count’s peacock has escaped.” The bird suddenly alights on the fountain in the town square and spreads out its feathers against the icy backdrop. Everyone stares.

The only other character apparently named after an actual person is Gradisca (a nickname, which means something like “whatever you wish”), played by Fellini favorite Magali Noël. She is the beautiful town hairdresser, lusted after but never actually captured by both the boys and the men of the town. One painful scene involves Titta coming on to her in a movie theater and her friendly-but-firm shooting him down. The movie’s final sequence is Gradisca’s marriage to a slimy fascist, or as Roger Ebert put it, “the marriage of the town’s hopes and its doom.” She leaves town with her new husband, and someone looks around and notices Titta is gone, too.

One critic, in one of many rave reviews the film has received over the years, noted that it is less a story than the collective memory of a town, as told by the town, and as such is basically “Our Town on the Adriatic.” I don’t recall Thornton Wilder had quite so many sequences involving masturbation or close-ups of ladies’ butts. Nor does any similar American nostalgia piece feature the commentary on Fascism that Amarcord does. The town fawns to a ridiculous degree over a provincial official of the regime, including running with him through the street for some reason while breathlessly shouting out their achievements. Titta seems bored by the whole thing, while his father is a Communist who opposes the regime. In the one really horrifying sequence, the father sets up a record player to play “La Internationale” from the church tower during a rally, but is ratted out by his own brother, forced by the police to drink castor oil, and is later bathed by his wife after apparently vomiting all over himself. This is the one time the two of them seem to be able to stand each other, but Titta comes in and makes fun of his father for how much he stinks. One gets the sense Fellini maybe regrets some things in the 1930s that he might not have understood at the time.

I think the thing to realize about Amarcord is that it is not meant as a faithful recreation of Fellini’s actual childhood, but leans into the way memory distorts things over time. It is heightened, in terms of sexuality, in terms of the fights between the parents, and in terms of the Fascist pageantry. Thus, if you’re someone who is prone to not really be willing to go with Fellini down the road of his most “earthy” excesses, well, sorry, but this is a very, very “earthy” movie. Consider “Volpina” (Josiane Tanzilli), a local “loose woman” who appears a few times. She isn’t just portrayed as someone who likes sex, she is portrayed as constantly licking her lips and making ridiculous eyes at every man. At one point she shows up at a construction site and announces she’s “lost [her] pussycat.” Subtle it ain’t.

I am not sure how to work out my own feelings about Amarcord. I do think I’m not always able to follow Fellini down to all the depths he wants to here. Because the movie is all about Fellini’s own memories, every scene is presented through that prism. So if, for example, nearly all of the women in the movie are either his mom or reduced to objects, well, that’s how remembered them, and it’s probably accurate because he would have been a 14-year-old boy or whatever. I was impressed by the direction and the just effortless style Fellini has here, but I also sort of wanted to see all these people from a perspective other than that of the one teenage boy. But it’s a losing battle to ask for a movie different from the one we have, and certainly to ask Fellini not to Fellini. Amarcord is an undisputed cinema classic and well worth watching.

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