#4 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Out of all of Fellini’s work, this feels like the one that comes from the purest, most innocent, and most nostalgic part of Fellini’s mind. Born from his memories of his childhood in Rimini, Amarcord acts as a companion piece to his previous film, Roma, as well as feeling almost like a prequel to I Vitelloni. Largely about a group of young boys in Fascist Italy, it’s a collection of memories and events strung together in almost dreamlike fashion from the end of one winter to the end of the next. It’s also warm and inviting and endearing, one of Fellini’s easiest to like meanderings through his brain he ever made.
The end of winter in this town of Borgo San Giuliano is marked by the appearance of little natural puffballs flying through the air. There’s to be no more snow, and life is to return to the little seaside town, and the residents of the town celebrate the oncoming spring by building a large bonfire in the town’s central piazza capped by the witch of winter. Fellini uses this mass gathering to give the audience an introduction to the town and its characters. We see the group of half a dozen boys that most of the movie’s action is centered around, mostly Titta along with his mother and father and his uncle. There’s Gradisca, the town’s most attractive single woman and hairdresser that the boys lust after. There’s the large female owner of the tobacco shop that gets her own share of fantasizing from the boys. There’s the young girl Aldina, the schoolgirl that another of the boys, Ciccio, is in love with. There’s also Volpina, the local prostitute. These people revolve around each other as they welcome the new year in displays of humanity that involve the lighting of fireworks, teasing around the bonfire, and general rambunctiousness.
The movie follows Titta through school where we get portraits of his teachers, all distinctive and commanding in different ways. He goes to confession where the priest asks every boy about self-abuse. He gets into trouble when he goes to the movie with his friends and urinates on a local man’s hat from the balcony, his father chasing him around and outside of the house with threats of violence. His mother reacts badly and mother and father end up yelling endlessly at each other with mother threatening to murder herself because she can’t take it anymore (which he never follows through on).
One of the most interesting sections of the film is the treatment of Italy’s fascism in the 30s. Titta’s uncle likes to wear his uniform with pride, and the entire town turns out when an important fascist official visits, waving Italian flags, and singing fascist anthems. The town seems unified under the fascist ideals, but that night someone places a record player in the church’s belltower that plays an anti-fascist theme and the fascists go kind of nuts. They run around in the dark until they all pull out their guns and shoot mindlessly and viciously at the record player when a key shot knocks it from its perch. The view of Fascist Italy has been surprisingly bright and colorful and even fun (with Ciccio fantasizing about the large floral arrangement made to look like Mussolini’s face presiding over a wedding with Aldina), but the second that the lights go out and the outlawed music plays, the darker side emerges. Titta’s father ends up the focus as he, absent from the celebration that evening because of a fight with his wife, gets dragged in and questioned aggressively, including some bits of torture. When he stumbles home we see the love that he and his wife have for each other that gets forgotten in their more heightened moments.
Throughout the film there’s an undercurrent of unrealized goals, especially around sex, and that’s one way that it ties into I Vitelloni. Fellini’s recollections of Rimini obviously have a special place in his heart, but it also seems obvious that he’s glad he left. What he showed he loved of Rome in Roma is very different from what he shows he loved of provincial Italian life in Amarcord. He seems to have seen life in Rimini as a beginning, not an end. The boys are all on the cusp of manhood, but they get thwarted in their pursuits of women like Titta’s moment alone with Gradisca in the theater or his small adventure with the tobacconist, both undone by his lack of experience. Gradisca herself can’t find any sort of future until she marries a carabiniere at the beginning of spring in the film’s final scene and leaves the small town forever. Ciccio’s love for Aldina is never anything more than unrequited, culminating in a fantasy of Ciccio driving a sports car and flipping her off as he drives off. The family takes the father’s brother, Uncle Teo (Tio Teo in Italian, which amuses me) who lives in a mental hospital out for a lunch in the country. He ends up climbing a tree and shouting, “I want a woman!” at the top of his lungs for hours until they get the doctor and nurses from the hospital to coax him down. There’s so much wanting in this small town in this movie, and there seems to be very little actual attaining.
People are floated along by dreams, stories, and lies. The local street vendor, Biscein, maintains that when a wealthy foreign sultan came to stay at the Grand Hotel he made love to twenty-eight of the thirty women in his harem. The people of the town revel in the might of the Italian state when they all row out into the Mediterranean in the middle of the night to see the state’s huge liner, the Rex, sail by. The boys all have fantasies that drive to elevate their small existence in this small town.
There’s so much love in this movie for the characters and setting, and yet Fellini’s satirical streak attaches itself to everything at the same time. It’s obvious that Fellini has wonderful feelings towards the people he left behind, but he seems firmly committed to the idea that they should remain there for himself. The fact that it’s in the past gives the film a melancholic and nostalgic effect that transcends the screen to the audience who can share in it even though the audience has never lived in a small Italian seaside town.
Amarcord is like a warm blanket. Full of specific and wonderfully drawn characters, all circling around each other with a central theme to tie it all together, the movie paints a specific portrait of a specific time and place that is incredibly inviting. It’s probably Fellini’s easiest to like film.