DVD Review Of Amarcord

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/16/07


  Federico Fellini’s 1973 Amarcord is a film that has often been linked with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander as films by old men looking back on their youth. While this is true, in the main, the fact is that Amarcord has a loose narrative structure, in which the lives of many characters are detailed in comic vignettes, whereas Fanny & Alexander is a straight drama. The film that Amarcord shares a deeper affinity with is one which was obviously influenced by it; Woody Allen’s grossly underrated and terrific Radio Days. Which of those two films is better is debatable, although Allen’s film is tighter, shorter, and a bit deeper in characterization. Allen’s opening classroom scenes in Annie Hall also owe a debt to this film’s school-based scenes. Amarcord is not a masterpiece, on par with earlier Fellini classics like Nights Of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, nor , but it is a very good and enjoyable romp, which opened the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film that same year.

  Reportedly, the proper Italian for ‘I remember’ is ‘mi ricordo’, but Fellini used his own native Romagnolo dialect’s version of the term a m’arcòrd, to limn his lost boyhood in the coastal town of Rimini- which is the central character of the film. Regardless, the film he constructed is a very good one, which follows a year in the life of a town and its citizenry- from one spring to the next, although it heralded the weaker and even more loosely constructed films that ended his career. This is the last film that most cineastes even to bother arguing the greatness of. Yet, many of the labels applied to it simply are not correct- it is not surreal, for it is grounded in reality, even as flights of fancy take place; 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 of the flaws of the critic than they do of the film. Also, despite the picaresque nature of the film it does not move too quickly. Most of the famed scenes plat out in seven to ten minute stretches where small details filter into the subconscious without even knowing it.

  Yes, the color palette is extravagant- almost at the level of Juliet Of The Spirits, and sexual contact is shown as distasteful and grotesque- witness the huge breasts of the town tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) being shoved into the mouth of poor, horny Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin)- the Fellini surrogate, which ends with him unable to satisfy her, and her dismissing him with the payment of a single cigaret- a phallic symbol, but far too much has been read into such things by critics who feel that artistic ‘depth’ means that every second is larded with symbolism. Thus they masturbate over the silliest and most manifest scenes and images, and miss the truly important moments, scenes, or exchanges in the film. This has allowed much to be written over Fellini’s supposed misogyny- when he’s really critiquing regressive male attitudes toward sex, or symbolism- which is evident, but not dominant. Fellini also attacks xenophobia and other provincial biases. Yet many critics fixate on just a few of their own personal political axes against him while ignoring one of his greatest traits- sentiment. 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 characters portrayed by Giulieta Masina or Marcello Mastroianni, never suffer merely to evoke sympathy, but to invoke cogitation about their plights. Similarly, while there are characters who suffer in Amarcord, none of the suffering is simply to foster a connection for the viewer, rather to illuminate some truth- think of the scene where Gradisca (Magali Noël- aka ‘S’il vous plait’, but literally meaning ‘Please enjoy’) the beautician gives herself to the Fascist officer in the Grand Hotel.

  Some critics have predictably ripped Fellini, especially in this film, as 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 Communist marching song, The Internationale. But, this ignores the very ludicrousness of the portrayals. Imagine criticizing Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator because it did not show mounds of dead bodies of all the enemies of state the Nazis killed. It’s ridiculous, for that film far more effectively shows the buffoonish nature of Hitler, as this does the clownish nature of the black shirted sycophants of Mussolini. And, it’s not as if Fellini does not take some direct, if subtle shots- witness the puff of dirt that swirls in and away as the Fascists start their march through town. This is his 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. Yes, after the Fascists plunged Italy into the ruinous Second World War, they were reviled, but in the 1920s and 1930s they were seen as saviors of the nation, for they lifted it out of the economic doldrums of the post-great war period.
  But, even were some of the political criticisms correct- not only about Fascism, but on 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 the film- that this 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, where he first pisses in his pants- forgetting to open his fly, and then climbs an apple tree and shouts, ‘I want a woman!’ until the doctors and a midget nun- a woman, indeed!, get him down. There is the snowfall scene where a peacock appears out of nowhere, the fog scene where a white bull similarly appears with 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 town whore Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli) and her 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 and tall tale sequences at the hotel, narrated by the Lawyer (Luigi Rossi)- one of several Fourth Wall breakers, 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 American bound luxury liner, The Rex. Finally, the film ends with the salvation and doom of Gradisca, as she marries a Fascist officer, and the film comes to a dim end, literally, as Fellini seems to have buried the past, which fades like the Fascist promises.

  The two disk DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is a great improvement on 1998 single disk DVD. It is a radiant film and transfer, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Thankfully, the film comes with not only subtitles but in an English dubbed version. The first disk has the film, the American trailer, and an audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Frank Burke, as well as a deleted scene of a lost ring in a toilet. The commentary often suffers from the duo’s reading way too much into the film, even as they decry the very same thing done by others, but it’s a solid commentary, devoid of the usual critical fellatio that often bogs down commentaries. Yet, too often they delve into longwinded explanations of the obvious, such as Fellini’s use of self-representation in a film laden with deliberate grotesques, his attacks on Fascism, the church, schools, and sexual mores, or even the manifest themes of the intrusion of the real world into memory- the peacock, foreigners, the Fascists, The Rex, etc., especially considering the film ends with the word Amarcord, not Fin, onscreen. Disk two has a 45 minute documentary called Fellini’s Homecoming- about the director and Rimini, an interview with Magnali Noël, a gallery of Fellini’s drawings of the characters, a collection of stills and radio ads, and audio interviews with Fellini, and others, by Gideon Bachmann, a Fellini cohort. There is also video restoration demonstration on disk two, and a 63 page booklet, with the full text of Fellini’s 1967 essay My Rimini, and an essay by film scholar Sam Rohdie.

  The musical soundtrack, by Nino Rota, is stellar, and the best thing in the film, although the cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno is not far behind, especially in the sunset scene where Uncle Teo is coaxed down from the apple tree and back to the asylum. Yet, Amarcord succeeds because its totality is greater than any of its great to mediocre parts. It may not be a great film, but it is a great display of artistic excellence to marshal such disparate elements into a film that succeeds far more often than it doesn’t. Federico Fellini, in this film, shows that he is a great artist, even when his art is not great.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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