- Ravi Swami
Amarcord, Dir: Federico Fellini, 1973
Federico Fellini's 1973 film "Amarcord" is a film title I was aware of and that for some reason carried with it the sense that it represented the height of Fellini-esque excess and invention seen in his earlier films, but beyond that I had no idea what it was about - it was another film to add to the list of critically acclaimed films that I had missed and felt the need to catch up on.
It also happens to be included in a line-up of Oscar winning films currently available on Criterion Channel, along with Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon", which has the honour of being the first film I watched in an actual cinema (The BFI Southbank) since the beginning of the Covid lockdown.
"Amarcord" roughly translates as "I remember" and the film is a semi-autobiographical recounting of life in an Italian village during the pre-WWII rise of fascism, but this latter detail is not the sole focus of the plot but rather provides a backdrop to a series of vignettes exploring both adult and adolescent attitudes to sexuality in rural communities and in particular toward women.
There's a strong sense at the outset that the film is depicted from a very male perspective but in fact as it plays out it's clear that the end result is a Rabelaisian exposé of attitudes to women and the tedium of village life that leads to rampant sexuality coupled with a deep sense of nostalgia for the life and ways of people in rural Italy that Fellini himself left behind for the big city, a recurring theme in his work since his earliest films such as "I Vitteloni" .
Opinions seem to differ on the focus of the film, depending upon reviews by critics, for example does the film follow "Titta Biondi" (Bruno Zanin), the adolescent son of Aurelio Biondi (Armando Brancia), a harassed father of unruly boys who is in constant war with his over-worked wife "Miranda Biondi" (Pupella Maggio) ?, or does it follow Aurelio?...or is it the town academic who frequently breaks the third wall (a device Fellini uses several times in the film) to describe to the viewer the fascinating but rather irrelevant details of the town's architecture and history and exploits of peripheral characters while chaos reigns around him ?
In fact Fellini manages to create a plot that weaves effortlessly between the plot's many colourful characters, shifting viewpoints and perspectives in the process and resulting in humorous vignettes over the course of a single year and set against a particular time period in Italy's recent history.
The rise of Mussolini appears to galvanise the local populace into patriotic fervour but the prosperity promised by fascism is viewed as hollow by the resolutely apolitical Aurelio Biondi who is deeply suspicious of fascism and who in any case has his own war to fight on the home front as his wayward sons, in particular the middle son Titta, cause havoc in the town.
Drifting in and out of the story is the town prostitute "Volpina" (Josianne Tanzilli), depicted as a sex-crazed nymphomaniac who I felt was a deeply troubling character but Fellini doesn't flinch from portraying the less savoury aspects of village life and where woman such as Volpina are the product of abuse, and any humour of the situations featuring her character are balanced by an unsparing critical slant that reveals her to be an object of pity.
To underline the conflicts within the Biondi family, Aurelio is "shopped" to the local fascist official by one of his own sons out of revenge for his often angry outbursts toward them and his wife. This results in him being called up to account for an incident in which a gramophone playing the Communist anthem of "The Internationale" has been placed in the bell-tower of the local church during a fascist recruitment rally in the town square that it overlooks..
In front of the official he is forced to confess his guilt and admit to his political leanings, which he refuses to do, and then he is forced to down castor oil in a scene that reflects upon the kind of random cruelty seen elsewhere in the film and that became a useful tool to the fascists. Fellini depicts the unfortunate outcome with humour but ultimately we sympathise with his courageous stance against the madness that overtakes the town.
Rather than simply being a catalogue of the eccentricities of Italian village life, the focus on the Biondi family, riven by internal conflicts and beset by problems, could be viewed as a metaphor for the pre-fascist Italy of kingdoms in perpetual conflict and rivalry, a situation exploited by the fascists in order to impose a "new" sense of order and purity implicit in their notion of a united Italy that invoked the lost glory of the old Roman Empire, with the false promises of banishing corruption and the ideal of sexual continence and vigour to sweep away the complicated messiness and contradictions of village Italy, but of course in reality it simply replaced it with dictatorship dressed up in a fancy uniform - something that Fellini neatly exposes in the film.
The lure of fascism for the young was that it offered an escape from the kind of family tyranny exhibited by Aurelio Biondi - Aurelio struggles against the unruliness of everyone in his family, no one listens to him and he has little authority but by the end he accepts their differences instead of insisting they become compliant robots who control their whims and sexual yearnings and accept his absolute authority, which he realises is an act of futility.
In contrast the fascist officials are revealed to be just as venal and corrupt as the people they intend to regulate and turn into obedient machines.
The main object of lust - among many - for the male populace, both married and single, is "Gradisca" (Magali Noël), a glamorous hairdresser who sashays through every scene with her entourage of two young women on her quest to find the "right" man to settle down with while in the meantime pursuing affairs with any available rich and well-heeled man, much to the chagrin of men in the town for whom she is out of reach.
This forms the basis for a vignette where she agrees to spend the night with a visiting count but ultimately it leads to nothing except a tarnished reputation.
Personally speaking the most affecting episode in the film occurs when Aurelio Biondi arranges a family visit to his mentally retarded uncle "Teo" who is held in an insane asylum though again it's made clear in some reviews that he has some kind of mental illness rather than being simply mentally disabled or backward in some way, which is a different thing - clearly facilities available at the time made no differentiation between insanity and disability.
Fellini's handling of this episode reveals an admirable level of sensitivity and though there are comedic moments such as when Teo wets his pants or climbs a tree to yell "I want a woman!" at the top of his voice while Aurelio is driven to his wits end by his troubles when he refuses to come down, it's clear that these moments reveal Aurelio's forbearance and ability to ride through the most trying circumstances in life without simply giving up, as he threatens to do many times throughout the film.
There are many hilarious moments in the film that balance the pathos such as when "Biscein" (Gennaro Ombra), a local peddler of confectionary and ice cream tells tall tales about his improbable exploits such as bedding 28 of the wives of a visiting "Emir", clearly a complete fantasy but that provides Fellini with an opportunity to exercise his characteristic talent for fantastical scenes, inventive art direction and costume thanks to the talents of his
regular collaborator Danilo Donati.
One other detail that Fellini doesn't flinch from depicting is adolescent male sexuality, something that no doubt inspired later efforts in American "frat" films such as "American Pie" - here presented as vaguely pitiable and hilarious as for example when Titta's gang of friends engage in group masturbation in a car to find relief from their raging hormones.
This is a recurring motif in the film as everyone from female teachers to overweight fish wives are lusted over by the hormonally charged local youths in Titta's gang and it's clear that Titta is struggling to come to terms with growing up which in turn leads to his waywardness but he has no success whatsoever as regards the opposite sex other than an episode where he agrees to pump up the tires of Volpina's bike only to discover that her experience of sex is possibly not the best introduction for a young man on the brink of adolescence.
This all reaches a peak in what could be seen as the most controversial scene in the film, a scene that was certainly exploited to the full in publicity media such as the poster above but which, in the context of the film, is only one such episode amongst many.
Titta takes his obsession with the buxom tobbaconist of the village (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) a stage further by visiting her one evening as she is shutting up for the day, ostensibly to cadge a cigarette but also as an opportunity to make a move, and after offering him one she realises that his interest doesn't stop short of a cigarette.
After she mentions that she was strong enough to lift her own father, Titta offers to pick her up, which he just about manages to do three times before collapsing due to the exertion, not realising that this has aroused the tobacconist so much that she removes one of her very large breasts and asks Titta to suckle on it before offering him her other breast before breaking off suddenly due to his lack of experience.
She sends Titta packing and he staggers home and spends the next few days in his sick bed as his mother cares for him, a casualty of the exertion.
As the year turns the film ends where it began in Spring as "puffballs" or the fluffy seeds of Lombardi poplars fill the air and drift through the village in clouds that add a magical quality to every scene.
Gradisca has finally found her beau, a Fascist officer and a count to boot, and the villagers celebrate her marriage with a party in the countryside. Titta's is devastated by the death of his mother from an illness and decides to leave the village and as the wedding guests wave off the tearful bride they remark on the absence of Titta.
I've omitted several scenes from this review, such the anonymous motorcyclist who tears through the town to the cheers of the locals throughout the film, or the motor rally or of the scenes later in the film of a dense fog as autumn descends on the town, bringing with it a sense of gloom and melancholia, but none of these sequences are particularly extraneous to the whole and instead serve to provide distractions from the preoccupations of the central characters in the film and of the lives of the villagers.
On one level "Amarcord" is a carnival of grotesques as expected from Federico Fellini judging by his earlier films, but typically it's also a nostalgic, nuanced, sympathetic, affectionate and frequently ribald window on the world of Italian village life that Fellini remembered from his youth.
"Amarcord" Dir: Federico Fellini, 1973