Friday, July 08, 2016
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra, Gene Luotto
Photography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Cast: Luigi Rossi, Bruno Zanin, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Magali Noel, Stefano Proietti, Ciccio Ingrassia, Giuseppe Ianigro, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi, Gennaro Ombra
For the most part, director Federico Fellini's work after the 1950s is an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired. I've complained about and/or danced around this previously (see 8½, La Dolce Vita). I like specific scenes, sometimes very much, but the loose and instinctual way Fellini executes his pictures tends to leave me impatient for a more to hang onto. After a couple tries, I recently found more than usual to like in Amarcord. It's in his characteristic later style, but that somehow works better here. "Amarcord" is a phonetic spelling of a term in the relevant Italian dialect that translates as "I remember." It thus announces itself as a memoir film, episodic, random, and idealized by definition, built from the stuff of memories, and childhood memories at that, of a specific time and place.
That time and place, however, happens to be 1930s Fascist Italy. You can't help reacting when you first see whimsy and nostalgia slathered on an era so reviled now. But Fellini is not doing any kind of gloss job here, which helps make the picture work. Mussolini and his followers tend to be ridiculous, but they are also clearly menacing (think Donald Trump rallies), and more than one long scene is devoted to reckless depredations of Fascist Party authorities in the era. Il Duce himself even makes an appearance at one point, largely as a buffoon. Fellini's artistry is notably evident in his skillful use all through the movie of mists, fog, road dust, gas fumes, and other visual obscurities functioning like impaired memory, a subtly effective way to remind us that this is a film of memories and that memory is unreliable.
Before anything else, I must say, I was won over by Nino Rota's score. He worked often with Fellini, and often to good effect, and this is one of their best collaborations. It's Rota's usual merry melodic circus music, played on accordions, clarinets, and trombones, but it seemed unusually penetrating this time, carrying many scenes.
For the most part the picture focuses on a lower middle-class family of four in which the merchant father is something of an outspoken political radical and Communist sympathizer. It covers scenes in a year in the life of the family and the seaside town they live in, and various characters in the town, starting in one early spring and ending in the next. It's often aimless, but nearly as often it finds a seductive thread to groove on awhile—Gradisca, the town beauty, or an institutionalized uncle of the family on a day outing, or a night adventure on the waters to greet a cruise ship coming to harbor, and many other town activities.
It is stuffed with the theatrical flourishes Fellini loves, peppered with sight gags, blackouts, and various unexplained points. Memorable throwaway scenes can go less than 20 seconds—a statue that the townspeople visit daily, even in pouring rain, is an example. At the end of one scene, it sounds like someone has found an ear, but that's all we ever hear about it. There are numerous farting jokes, alas. A beautiful peacock shows up in a winter storm. The fourth wall is broken at will—you're just going to have to be prepared for that. It is charming and annoying by turns.
Who is telling the story? That becomes an intriguing question as events unfold. It seems likely the point of view is one of the boys in the family, probably the youngest, who seems to have some potential for a literary bent. Many events involve the older brother, Titta, but he doesn't seem to me to have a promising future—he admires the Fascists a bit much. We never really learn the fate of most of the family even though the story is explicitly made out of memories. Then there is a kind of tour guide narrator, known as the Lawyer, who appears to live in the 1930s with the rest of the characters, and shows up now and then addressing the camera wryly with helpful historical information and amusing tales.
In the end, a few powerful narrative threads raise the picture well beyond anecdote, and it becomes tender and moving in a way that also mimics memory very nicely. As a type, the memoir film tends to be an even narrower project than the essay film, which is problematic enough. In many ways the gold standard now could be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in terms of compressing and focusing the uniquely individual point of view of a memoir. Woody Allen also made a good one in Radio Days. The free-flowing discursive style of all three is similar, as are the many different degrees of development that go into the ideas involved and the scenes representing them. Sometimes Amarcord is comically grotesque, as in a scene with Titta and the town tobacconist, whom all the town boys lust after. Sometimes it's quietly moving, as the way a death in the family is treated. And, always, the wonderful soundtrack music plays on.
As for its position in the top 100 movies of all time on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, I suspect that's more residual overflowing appreciation for Fellini, after 8½ at #7, La Dolce Vita at #30, and La Strada (which I happen to love myself) at #54, and before Nights of Cabiria at #198. That's five titles in the top 200. At this point, only Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock, with six apiece, appear to have more cachet than Fellini among the critics surveyed. Amarcord, #71 on the list, is easily a notch above most of the things Fellini did in the decade previous. Worth seeing if you don't hate Fellini, try it that way. Except you already have—but worth seeing again in that case.