256. AMARCORD (1973)

“The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward.”–Sam Rohdie, “Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Luigi Rossi, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi

PLOT: Amarcord documents a year in the lives of residents of an Italian coastal town (based on Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini) in the 1930s under Mussolini’s Fascist party. Titta, an adolescent boy, is the character with the most screen time, and he spends it mostly with his friends engaging in mischief and lusting after unobtainable older women. The most unobtainable of these is Gradisca, the dreamy, red-maned village beauty and the second most important character, whose eventual marriage marks the end of a chapter in the town’s history.

Still from Amarcord (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was also nominated (in 1976) for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
  • Depending on what source you believe, “amarcord” is either a Fellini neologism, or an unusual slang word from the Romagnolo dialect of Italian meaning “I remember.” Per Damian Pettigrew, it possibly derives from “amare” (“love”) + “ricordo” (“memory”) (=”fond memory”), perhaps with a touch of “amaro” (=”bitter”, for “bittersweet memory”). Or, it might be just a slurred pronunciation of the Italian phrase “io mi ricordo” (“I remember”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most mainstream movie fans remember the peacock in the blizzard, or the massive S.S. Rex passing by in the night (over, as it turns out, a sea made of cellophane). The weird-minded are more thrilled by the sight of the imaginary wedding ministered by the giant Facscist talking head made from red and white blossoms, with the girls holding up hula hoops on one side of the aisle while the boys raise their rifles on the other.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flowery Mussolini wedding; bean vendor in a harem; dwarf nun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Amarcord finds Federico Fellini fondly remembering, or deliberately misremembering, his own youth in a series of sketches that alternate between burlesque comedy, light absurdism, and total fantasy. Mainstream movie lovers sometimes see Amarcord as too flamboyant, while Fellini’s more surrealist-oriented fans often miss the delirium of Satyricon, seeing this one as too nostalgic and accessible. Amarcord admittedly isn’t Fellini’s weirdest, but as one of the most beloved works by one of the weird genre’s key directors, it’s worth your time. It skates onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the sliding-scale rule: the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to be honored.


Original U.S. release trailer for Amarcord

COMMENTS: It sounds like an outtake from “Arabian Nights” by way of “The Decameron”: scrawny Biscein is hawking his beans and olives one night when he passes under the Grand Hotel window where the lonely concubines of a traveling Turkish sultan are locked away. Silently beckoning to him, the only man in sight, they tie their sheets and pillowcases into a makeshift rope so he can scale the hotel wall. Once inside, he pulls his trusty recorder out of his rear pocket and charms the veiled beauties with his tunes while they dance for him in a hotel room that looks like a seraglio, complete with a bathing pool. As Biscein tells it, he was able to “polish off” twenty-eight of them that night…

Lest we have doubts, we are assured of this story’s falsity by the town’s historian, who addresses us directly. By contrast, his own account of the arrival of the emir at the Italian resort—a carnivalesque procession which features a saber-wielding henchman who waves off the hotel rabble while the sultan’s burka-clad harem is herded into the elevator—seems credible. The historian makes his own embellishments seem more credible by pointing out the absurdities of another storyteller’s huge whopper. This may be part of Fellini’s strategy, too, to make his portrait of this town ring true by including blatant fantasies that make the film’s “reality” seem more authentic by comparison. We know that the giant head of Mussolini does not open his mouth and arrange a fascist marriage between Titta’s fat friend and the pretty young girl he’s enamored with. But we don’t doubt that the local Fascists actually created a fifteen-foot tall portrait of a scowling Il Duce out of flowers to preside over youth exercises. Such delusional devotion to a dictator should strike us as absurd, and frightening, but by mixing it with adolescent daydreams Fellini distances us from the reality of what is happening to Italy at that moment, precisely by locating us in the reality of the people who lived there. The townsfolk see only the pageantry of Mussolini’s Fascists, whether they find it patriotic, inspiring, infuriating, or ridiculous. When we watch them through Fellini’s memory, where real (or at least, realistic) events are mixed up with fantasy and comic exaggeration, the Fascists become to us what they were to the people who lived under them; just another feature of the landscape, no more important for Titta and his friends than Greek lessons or mandatory confessions, and far less important than scaring girls with frogs or hoping to cop a feel off the curvy Gradisca in a darkened theater.

Amarcord is filled with almost as many minor supplemental caricatures as a season of “The Simpsons.” Most incidents involve Titta and his bickering parents. Next in importance comes hairdresser Gradisca, whose every wiggle captures the town’s male attention. But there are so many more: Titta’s crazy uncle, freed from the asylum once per year for a family picnic. The lawyer, that fourth-wall-breaking town historian. Biscein the liar. A blind accordionist. Volpina (“fox”), the nympho whore, who lurks alone on the outskirts of town like a semi-domesticated animal. The stout, busty tobacconist, another wellspring of teenage desire. Scureza the motorcyclist, whom we never see except when he’s racing his bike through a scene. Dozens of characters wander in and out of each others’ stories, delivering a line or two or simply standing in the background, adding continuity. None of them are carefully detailed, but together they convey the depth of a real, living community. The town itself, that multifaceted, contradictory burg composed of swaggering Fascists and secret Socialists, devout mothers and vulgar teenagers, marginalized prostitutes and distant aristocrats, priests and nuns, everyday laborers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, cinema operators, madmen, and everyone else, becomes the main character. Everyone is invited to toss a chair on the bonfire when they burn the witch of winter to celebrate the coming Spring.

Not everything in Amarcord is as consistently strange as Biscein’s harem fantasy, which briefly turns into a -style belly dancing number, or Mussolini’s blooming ministerial head. But Fellini deploys an off-center sense of humor throughout the film, with odd gags that are sometimes sly, sometimes inexplicable. The hormonally-charged scene where Titta boasts that he can pick up the hefty tobacconist, which plays like an overheated wet daydream, ends with a punchline, as he complains he can’t lift the sliding door to her shop. When Papa decides to spontaneously commit suicide, his chosen method is to rip his jaw from his face. The priest harries Titta to get him to confess that he has touched himself, then simply waves off the next boy without explanation, before immediately laying into the one after. The local Fascist battalion launches a fusillade against a bell tower that’s armed only with a phonograph record. A white bull looms out of the fog, a stray memory and a floating symbol. Titta chases Gradisca through a snow maze while Scureza roars through on his bike. Of course, the moment when a dwarf nun talks Titta’s crazy uncle out of a tree strikes everyone as surreal, but what about the bits where a spectator claims to have found an ear that fell off as a race car zoomed by, or when Volpina walks on the beach and yells “Fu Manchu!” before squatting to urinate? Fellini drops in such weirdish moments quietly, without drawing attention to them. These oddities are the piquant flavors of this feast. Amarcord is a film about memories, and memories come in many species, from outright fictions like to Biscein’s boasts to recollections of daydreams to strange fragments orphaned from their context, certain slants of light…

Amarcord is a unique film. Fellini’s own Fellini’s Roma was similar in it’s motif of a city as the film’s main character, but that phantasmagorical tour of the Eternal City was an experimental mosaic, while Amarcord is firmly a narrative film. It’s as difficult to hunt down Amarcord‘s direct heirs (‘s Nashville, or TV’s “Twin Peaks“?) as it is to divine its ancestors. But the movie feels influential. As disjointed as it is, it seems whole; as singular as it is, it seems classic. It’s rooted in its particular locale—you can almost feel the salty air wafting in from the Adriatic—and yet it strikes universal chords. Its uniqueness comes from Fellini, the most shamelessly autobiographical of all important directors. He has a light touch with the grotesque and sees life as a spontaneously evolving carnival. He sends us back in time to a place we’ve never been before, but where we recognize our own faded memories of home.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an extravagantly funny, sometimes dreamlike evocation of a year in the life of a small Italian coastal town in the nineteen-thirties, not as it literally was, perhaps, but as it is recalled by a director with a superstar’s access to the resources of the Italian film industry and a piper’s command over our imaginations.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“A bizarre, intriguing mixture of fact, fantasy and obscurity…”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

“A pictorial weaving of the bizarre fragments of Fellini’s imagination and memory…”–TV Guide

IMDB LINK: Amarcord (1973)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Amarcord | Comune di Rimini – The Amarcord page at the Fellini Foundation website includes basic information, a selection of quotes about the film, and a sidebar with various posters, one-sheets and boxcover illustrations

Amarcord (1973) – The Criterion Collection page with the trailer, links (including a “three reasons” video), and two essays

Amarcord Movie Review & Film Summary (1974) – Roger Ebert’s essay on Amarcord for his “Great Movies” series

Amarcord – Felicia Feaster gives background on the film for Turner Classic Movies

Lessons We Can Learn From Amarcord – “Another Fashion Magazine” gives its readers five takeaways from Amarcord (including “when in doubt, wear red”)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Fellini On Fellini”This collection of writings by Fellini begins with a long chapter on his memories of growing up in Rimini

DVD INFO: With a spine number of 4, Amarcord has been a staple of the Criterion Collection since the label’s beginning. Their 1998 DVD release was updated in 2006 (buy) with the Blu-ray appearing in 2011 (buy). The extra features are almost as numerous as characters in Amarcord. Critics Peter Brunette and Frank Burke supply the commentary. Other supplements include a 45-minute Fellini documentary, an interview with Magali Noël (who played Gradisca), a selection of Fellini’s drawings, an audio interview with the director, a deleted scene, an option to hear the film dubbed into English (!), and more, including a booklet with essays by Sam Rohdie and Fellini himself.

Amarcord is also available on-demand (rent or buy on-demand).

 

4 thoughts on “256. AMARCORD (1973)”

  1. Very good review. Will have to revisit this film very soon. One thing I noticed: Did you forget to number it? This should be No. 256, if my calculations are correct.

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