Amarcord (1973) – Federico Fellini
Amarcord (1973) is Fellini’s most lyrical film. It may also be his most structurally meandering, but there’s competition there. The title is a colloquial term that means, “I remember,” and the vignettes of childhood seen through the eyes of a teenage boy, Titta (Bruno Zanin), seem random; very few of them are complete stories in and of themselves. They are swatches of memories from the time when a boy crosses into manhood. It feels like a movie about nostalgia, about sentimentality, but I’m always struck by how caustic it is, by how merciless is its portrayal of this little town on the Mediterranean. This is a film that feels like a drippy look at yesteryear when it’s really a damning exposé of a backward place in a dangerous time.
It’s the first day of spring in Rimini in the 1930s. Puffballs have fallen off the flowers and appear like snow on the warm countryside, and that means it’s time for the communal burning of the winter witch, a monstrous stuffed figure that is placed on top of a pyre and set ablaze. The whole town comes out for it, prominently the town beauty Gradisca (Magali Noel), the pompous cinema owner (Mario Liberati), schoolteachers, crusty old aristocrats, the stuffy town lawyer (Luigi Rossi) the nymphomaniac prostitute Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli), and Mr. and Mrs. Biondi (Armando Brancia and Pupella Maggio) and their children, the oldest of whom is Titta. The rest of the movie will follow these bizarre and diverse characters for a year, throwing in a buxom tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi), a visiting prince (Marcello Di Falco), and plenty of Fascists, reminding the citizens of the greatness of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
It’s not a particularly remarkable year (though the lawyer, who narrates directly to the audience about the particulars of the town, informs us that it was an unusually snowy winter), but the way Fellini coordinates the relatively routine episodes into a collection of truths about human nature and especially the nature of masculinity creates a poignant tableau. Fellini’s style is so easy, his delivery is so airy and musical, and he’s such a humanist that sometimes his serious points get disregarded because of the light, sometimes subversive package they are delivered in. This is often a very blue movie, one that relies heavily on sexual or scatological baseness for some of its humor, and there are no fewer than a dozen fart jokes throughout the proceedings, but Fellini is a master at setting us up.
In the first third of the movie we are taken into a school full of the most bizarre and grotesque authority figures since Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933). These teachers, who are less interested in teaching than hearing themselves teach, are constantly undone by extremely rude behavior from their charges, ranging from crude outbursts during lessons to students actually relieving themselves during class. The students pick on each other just as barbarically. Later, when Titta’s father, who has undermined the authority of the Fascists, is tortured by being made to drink castor oil and is overwhelmed by its diarrheic effect, Titta laughs at him as he would in the society of the school, and we see what a cruel culture he’s been brought up in. The same effect is achieved when Titta’s first instinct is to mock his uncle, bedeviled by mental illness, when he has a similar accident.
That’s the brilliance of Fellini’s film. After 8½ (1963), his movies all went to a lovely, dreamlike place, and leading up to Amarcord, he had strung off Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Fellini’s Roma (1972), fantastic delights all, and Amarcord is one of his loveliest, but it contains some vinegar. At first, it seems as if the Fascists are simply an historical fact, included for the sake of accuracy, but the deeper you look into the behavior of the people of the town, the more ripe for the movement they seem. There’s a hive-minded distrust of individuality; they are mean in how they pick on those that are different or less fortunate. Authority is almost exclusively self-serving, represented by the teachers but also the members of the church, including a priest who would rather micromanage the decorating of his basilica than listen earnestly to Titta’s confession. Watch the party leaders emerge during a Fascist rally shrouded in smoke. Look at the obviously artificial ocean liner, the biggest and best on the Italian seas, that the townsfolk take their tiny boats and schooners out to watch pass. These people have beliefs, but they’re either smoke and mirrors or aren’t based in reality.
Amarcord is mainly the fable of the arrogance and immediacy of masculinity. Through the lens of nostalgia, it presents a pretty cold, detached look at how boys are raised to be animals. Despite being told exclusively from a male point of view, this may be Fellini’s most feminist film. True, there’s no strong female character like the ones he wrote for Giulietta Masina, particularly in Juliet of the Spirits and Nights of Cabiria (1957), and the women of 8½ and La Dolce Vita (1960) seemed more complete, but never before had Fellini exposed the casual misogyny of the male world. In his previous movies Fellini, who returns to the idea of adolescent lust frequently, in some ways romanticizes a young boy’s simple want for a sexuality he doesn’t understand, but in Amarcord, it’s much more aggressive. All the boys observe the women of the town only by their physical attributes: Gradisca and her backside and the ample upper half of the tobacconist; the ones they don’t find attractive become the target for pranks.
As adults the men evolve those thoughts into behavior, treating the women like objects. Volpina the prostitute, over-the-top with her animalistic lusts, is one side of the coin; the other is Gradisca, the great dame of the city, who is just the same, used to gain indulgences for the town. There’s a constant reinforcing of the idea that women are raised to sacrifice themselves to a man’s world. The winter ends because the horrible witch is burned. The women of the town need to wear tight clothes to occupy the fantasies of the young boys. When their sexuality is no longer needed, they are to be of service to their male counterparts, darning socks or cooking, as Titta’s mother is ubiquitously doing. Even Gradisca, who seemed like the exception of the rule, is married off at the end of the film to a frumpy, balding military officer, where she will cease to exist as an illusion for the boys and become like their mothers. “She’s found her Gary Cooper!” a man screams at the wedding. Not quite. Gradisca represents the fate for some of the girls in the school like the pretty Aldina (Donatella Gambini) who has eyes for a handsome student who will probably leave town when he’s old enough and she’ll be stuck with the portly, uncooth who makes Ciccio (Fernando de Felice), who awkwardly makes passes at her. When Titta backs into his first sexual experience, it’s a grotesque fiasco that leaves him humiliated, primarily because she was in charge, not he. The movie is not overt in its thoughts on this and in fact, there are scenes of real love between Titta’s mother and father, but there’s a saying that Italian men are raised to be princes, and I can’t help but think of that phrase during Amarcord.
More than anything, Amarcord is an immediate experience. Fellini was a natural filmmaker and some of his greatest sequences and compositions are on display here. The sly political undertones are something for your brain to chew on, but your soul remembers a blind accordionist playing in a dingy field named “To Heaven” while a fat dogs lazily rests beside him, or the image of a man in a tree, the debased activity in a garage that seems to give power to a car, a peacock in the snow. Fellini’s visual signatures of processions and the dwindling idle of a gathering are all here, accompanied by the finest score Nino Rota ever gave him. All at the service of what seems at first a fond love letter to childhood but what is really a cutting confession as well as one of this finest of filmmaker’s greatest achievements.
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