‘Amarcord’: What Evil Lurks Beneath the Absurd Surface

[15 March 2011]

By Dan Heaton

Federico Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord took home the 1974 Best Foreign Film Oscar, which is a stunning achievement, considering the absence of a plot or overriding message. This two-hour slice of life offers an engaging glimpse at a year in the lives of townspeople in provincial Italy. Fellini and writer Tonino Guera display a clear understanding of the human experience without shifting into melodrama. This understated ease might lead some viewers to consider it too minimal and an uninteresting production, but there’s plenty lurking beneath the surface.

The story takes place during Mussolini’s fascist reign of the ‘30s, and the era’s politics hang over every scene. The stoic, quiet military scenes contrast sharply with the enjoyable carnival moments, which display actual life and energy. However, the precision of the military group quickly disappears after an unexpected loss of power. While continuing to focus on life in the town, he quickly reveals the wild nastiness behind the organized fascists. They’re constantly hunting for subversives, even when what little exists is but that of a tired old man.

An odd narrator makes frequent appearances to describe the proceedings, but the connection between the vignettes and him isn’t entirely clear. He appears quickly, even riding through one scene on a bike, and the reliability of his accounts isn’t definitive. In one sequence, he describes an elaborate seduction to explain how a couple met, and then explains that he doesn’t believe it’s true. Like Fellini, the narrator is toying with the audience and consistently shifting the perspective to consistently avoid any conventional plot structure.

This Blu-Ray release wonderfully presents the stunning outdoor images of the Italian countryside and Fellini’s sharp use of color. During the family’s trip yearly to the countryside with the mentally ill Teo, the gold fields sparkle from the screen and match the nostalgic tone of that sequence. The characters are given room to breathe within medium and long shots that present the vast landscape. Predictably, this calmness lasts for only so long, becoming chaos when Teo climbs a tree and screams “I want a woman!” This situation’s absurdity masks some genuine sadness and ultimately kills the outing.

Another remarkable sequence involves the townspeople excited taking small boats into the water to see the majestic sight of a gargantuan cruise ship, the Rex. Characters are awestruck and moved to tears by the bright, massive vessel. This brief moment perfectly encapsulates the changing world of the ‘30s and the increasing role of technology. It also depicts the gap between the townspeople’s lives and the rising industrial machine. Their awe at this spectacle shows this divide without clearing stating this contrast.

Another major element is the vulgarity of nearly everyone, particularly the adolescent kids pining for even a glimpse of the town’s curvaceous women. Nearly everyone’s minds are constantly on sex or its possibility, even when they’re too innocent to understand it. The young guys bombard the local priest with details about their thoughts, which raises exasperation more than disgust from the religious man. The scenes involving seduction likely involve falsehoods or embellishments from the narrator, who appears to be recounting past experiences. Of course, it’s not entirely clear whose memories we’re seeing, or if they’re real at all. Fellini delights in presenting gorgeous scenes while avoiding a clear explanation of the bigger picture.

Criterion does a wonderful job providing extras that are enjoyable and heighten our experience of viewing the film. “Fellini’s Homecoming” includes conversations with many of Fellini’s co-workers and friends, often focusing on his relationship to his hometown of Rimini. This 44-minute feature gives us interesting background about the legendary director while connecting to the fictional events in the movie. Another solid inclusion is a 15-minute interview with Magali Noel, who played Gradisca in the movie. She fondly recalls the difficulties of her audition, which required her to immediately fly across Europe at a moment’s notice. Noel offers engaging details about how Fellini’s original style, which comes across in the finished product.

There’s also a commentary recorded in 2006 from film studies professors Peter Brunette and Frank Burke that offers a different perspective. Brunette specializes in Italian film, and Burke has written several books about Fellini. Both speakers have plenty of knowledge and spotlight the connections to Fellini’s other films and his time growing up in Rimini. Other extras include Fellini’s colorful character sketches, a deleted scene, production stills, and an impressive demonstration of the improvements offered by this restoration.

Roughly translated as “I remember”, Amarcord shows Fellini pulling memories from his childhood in Rimini, but he elaborates on them to create a fictional environment. Experts point out numerous connections between this tale and his younger life, but the connections aren’t simple enough to call this an autobiography. Instead, it’s a unique combination of a dream, whitewashed history, and a striking portrait of a small Italian town. Fellini crafts a unique version of his memories of Rimini that transcends any expected formula. The result is a warm, yet rarely sentimental picture that surprises more with each successive vignette.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/138110-amarcord/