Federico Fellini’s Amarcord has often been linked with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander as films made by old men looking back on their youth. While this is true, Amarcord has a loose narrative structure in which the lives of many characters are detailed in comic vignettes, whereas Fanny and Alexander is a straightforward drama.
In fact, Amarcord shares a deeper affinity with another work that was obviously influenced by it: Woody Allen’s grossly underrated Radio Days. Which of those two films is better is debatable, though Radio Days is both tighter and a bit deeper in characterization. (Allen’s opening classroom scenes in Annie Hall also owe a debt to the school scenes found in Amarcord.)
Now, many of the labels applied to Amarcord are simply incorrect – e.g., it is not surreal, for it is grounded in reality, even as flights of fancy take place; and it is not a satire, even though there are satirical elements. The very impulse to always definitively characterize something as this or that, without allowing comfortable straddling of boundaries says more about the critics than about the film.
Though not a masterpiece on a par with earlier Fellini classics such as Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and 8½, Amarcord is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Released in Italy in late 1973, the film opened the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The proper Italian expression for “I remember” is mi ricordo, but for his film’s title Fellini used the version of his own native Romagnolo dialect, a m’arcòrd, to limn his lost boyhood in the coastal town of Rimini – which happens to be the film’s central character. From there, he constructed a remarkable film, following a year in the life of a town and its citizenry from one spring to the next. (Amarcord also heralded the weaker and even more loosely constructed films that ended his career.)
Amarcord‘s color palette is extravagant – almost at the level of Juliet of the Spirits – while sexual contact is shown as distasteful and grotesque. Witness, for instance, the huge breasts of the town tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) being shoved into the mouth of poor, horny Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin), the film’s Fellini surrogate. The sequence ends with him unable to satisfy her. She then dismisses him with the payment of a single cigarette – a phallic symbol. Far too much, however, has been read into such things by critics who feel that artistic “depth” means that every second is larded with symbolism.
The aforementioned scene, for instance, has allowed much to be written about Fellini’s use of symbols – which are evident, but not dominant – and the director’s supposed misogyny – when he’s really critiquing regressive male attitudes toward sex. In Amarcord, Fellini also attacks xenophobia and other provincial biases, but many critics fixate on just a few of their own personal political axes against him while ignoring one of his greatest traits: sentiment.
Note that I wrote sentiment not sentimentality, for Fellini always stays on the proper side of the boundary between the two. Characters who suffer – think of the great ones portrayed by Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni – never do so merely to evoke sympathy. Instead, their suffering invokes cogitation about their plights. Similarly, while there are characters who suffer in Amarcord, none of that is simply to foster a connection for the viewer, for their suffering is depicted so as to illuminate truth.
Think of the scene where the beautician Gradisca (Magali Noël) gives herself to the Fascist officer in the Grand Hotel. Some critics have predictably ripped Fellini, especially in Amarcord, for not being critical enough of the Fascists. After all, they state, the worst we see them do is give castor oil to their enemies and shoot at a bell tower, which is rigged with a phonograph playing “The Internationale,” the Communist marching song. But such complaints ignore the very ludicrousness of the portrayals.
Imagine criticizing Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator because it did not show mounds of dead bodies of all the enemies of State the Nazis killed. It would be ridiculous, for that film far more effectively shows the buffoonish nature of Hitler, just as Amarcord shows the clownish nature of Mussolini’s black-shirted sycophants. In fact, Fellini does take some direct, if subtle shots at them, e.g., the puff of dirt that swirls in and away as the Fascists start their march through town. This is the filmmaker’s view of all the false promises the Fascists made.
That most of the characters in the film, save one or two, either love or are indifferent to the Fascists is not a latter-day bourgeois forgiveness of their crimes, but a reflection of reality as it was in the 1930s. True, after the Fascists plunged Italy into the ruinous Second World War, they became reviled, but in the ’20s and ’30s they were seen as saviors of the nation, for they lifted it out of the economic doldrums of the post-Great War period.
Even if some of the critics were correct – not only on the film’s approach to Fascism, but also on its depiction of the generation gap, the worthlessness of the school system, or the uncaring nature of the Roman Catholic Church – they would still miss the whole point of Amarcord. For what we see is not Italy as it was in the 1930s, but Italy as remembered, and remembered by Fellini alone.
The terrific scenes are many. There is the Biondi family’s picnic outing with crazy Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), who’s let out from the insane asylum for a day. He first pisses in his pants, and then climbs an apple tree, shouting, “I want a woman!” until the doctors and a midget nun get him down. There is also the snowfall scene where a peacock appears out of nowhere, and the fog scene where a white bull similarly appears for no reason.
There is Titta’s and his pal’s obsession with the asses of women, especially Gradisca’s, as well as their joint masturbation sessions. There is Gradisca’s search for love and Volpina’s (Josiane Tanzilli) search for sex. There is the marital woes of Papa (Armando Brancia) and Mama Biondi (Pupella Maggio), and then her death.
There are the fantasy sequences at the hotel, narrated by the Lawyer (Luigi Rossi) – one of several Fourth Wall breakers. Also, the fantasy marriage of fat boy Ciccio to sexy Aldina at the behest of the floral image of Mussolini, and the townsfolk rowing out to see the fantastical America-bound luxury liner, The Rex.
Nino Rota’s score is the best thing in the film, though Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is not far behind, especially in the sunset scene where Uncle Teo is coaxed down from the apple tree and back to the asylum.
The Criterion Collection’s two-disc DVD is a great improvement on the 1998 single-disc edition. It is a radiant film transfer, and thankfully the film comes with not only subtitles but in an dubbed English version as well.
The first disc has Amarcord, the American trailer, and an audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Frank Burke, in addition to a deleted scene of a lost ring in a toilet. Though mostly solid, the commentary at times suffers from the duo’s reading way too much into the film, even as they decry the very same thing done by others.
Disc two has the 45-minute documentary Fellini’s Homecoming, an interview with Magali Noël, a gallery of Fellini’s drawings of the film’s characters, a collection of stills and radio ads, and audio interviews with Fellini and others, which had been conducted by Fellini cohort Gideon Bachmann. Also included are a video restoration demonstration, and a 63-page booklet with the full text of Fellini’s 1967 essay “My Rimini” and an essay by film scholar Sam Rohdie.
In sum, Amarcord succeeds because its totality is greater than any of its parts. It may not be a great film, but it is a great display of artistic excellence, as the director marshals countless disparate elements into a film that succeeds far more often than it doesn’t. In Amarcord, Federico Fellini shows he is a great artist even when his art is not exactly great.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Director: Federico Fellini.
Screenplay: Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra.
Cast: Bruno Zanin. Magali Noël. Pupella Maggio. Armando Brancia. Ciccio Ingrassia. Nando Orfei. Luigi Rossi. Gianfilippo Carcano. Josiane Tanzilli. Maria Antonietta Beluzzi. Giuseppe Ianigro. Ferruccio Brembilla.
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno. Film Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni. Music: Franco Cristaldi. Production Design: Danilo Donati. Producer: Franco Cristaldi.