The world of Fellini’s Amarcord is one shaped by the director’s own imagination. Often accused of being an apolitical artist who betrayed neo-realism and cared only about his own personal “playground”, in Amarcord Fellini revisits his upbringing in fascist Italy. Fellini’s vision depicts an extravagantly funny, dreamlike evocation of life in a small Italian coastal town in the 1930s, not as it literally was, but as recalled by the director (Amarcord can be translated as “I remember”). On a structural level, an despite the fact that is centered around an adolescent, Titta (who could be the young Fellini), and his family, the film does not focus solely on the main character but rather unfolds in a series of episodes involving various figures.
Fellini was born in 1920 in Rimini into a middle-class family. Rimini subsequently became the setting of Fellini’s earlier I vitelloni (1953) and, indelibly, Amarcord. At school Fellini demonstrated a talent for drawing, with a particular penchant for an exaggerated, cartoon-like depiction of people (a skill he later utilised as a newspaper caricaturist in postwar Rome). He was also fascinated by circuses and the kind of vaudeville performers that Rimini attracted. According to one story, he ran away from home at the age of seven to follow a travelling circus. Fellini subsequently worked as a screenwriter for neo-realist pioneer Roberto Rossellini, and made several features in the early 1950s, but his truly personal style as director only fully emerged with La strada (1954). From that point on he continued to boldly explore his obsessions with the circus, societal decadence, and women in such films as Le noti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983) and Amarcord.
Amarcord commences with an expository commentary in which one of the film’s narrators, the Lawyer, points out that the origins of local history are lost in the modern political upheavals that mark Italian society. This sense of chaos is further conveyed during the bonfire and “witch” burning sequence we are subsequently shown. The crowd of townspeople that are gathered for this occasion are a very motley crew: there are herds of inquisitive and hungry-looking children, a moaning prostitute, Volpina, a blind vagrant obliviously playing the accordion, and Aurelio and Miranda (parents of Titta), a couple who are always on the verge of igniting an argument. All are gathered to mark the arrival of spring by the burning of a “witch”, an artificial creation whose hand we sadly see stretched out from the fire. However, the sense of community this activity suggests is a rather tenuous one, and the only moment of true unity between the townsfolk we see occurs when Madame’s “great lode of new girls” are paraded proudly through the town before the public’s gawking faces (1).
The same great confusion and even greater ignorance colours the depiction of Titta’s school routine. In a montage sequence, Fellini shows local teachers trapped between personal weaknesses and the iron principles of the regime. School for Titta and his classmates is a place where the doctrines of submissiveness and obedience are incorporated into a chain of tedious drills and meaningless repetitions. To escape the routine, masturbation, sexual fantasies and various sensuous longings become the primary “occupations” of the youngsters.
Titta’s family, although a loving one, do not provide a quiet nest. Within this setting, two of Titta’s uncles deserve special attention. The first never leaves the family and remains “young” and idle; he shows up for breakfast in a hairnet and with a yellow scarf around his neck. He has never crossed the border from adolescence to adulthood, his infantilism providing a metaphor for fascism as a kind of illness or mental stupor. Fellini suggested, in an interview about Amarcord, that there are some psychological or emotional dimensions to being a fascist, including an inability to take responsibility and a sense of one’s “arrested development” (2). Titta’s other uncle is an unfortunate fellow who was once a promising child, but is now locked in a psychiatric institution. While on a family picnic away from the asylum, he climbs to the top of a tree and calls out his need for a woman. Such a figure finally retrieves him – a dwarf nun. It is unlikely that religion, as well as the ruling regime, could have been brought any lower.
Fellini has been always fascinated by movie studios and movie sets. One of the most marvellous moments in Amarcord is a scene in which the townspeople come together to herald the voyage of the old Rex, an ocean liner that is a symbolic embodiment of fascist power. Ostensibly a model, the liner itself and the artificial swinging plastic waves on which it sits are so obviously “false” that it is almost painful to see all the people standing up to salute the miracle of its voyage. This sequence softens the film’s key distinctions between tragedy and comedy, dream and reality, past and present, and conveys Fellini’s feeling of compassion and sadness toward his fellow Italians.
However, there is also a sense of rebellion and vigour in Amarcord. For example, Titta escapes from class during the monotonous ruminations of his history teacher, conceals during “confession” the sinful acts of masturbation he indulges in with his friends, and urinates on the hat of a sinister church official. Behind this mockery of “institutionalised” life the director reveals a world of imagination – which is entirely his own.
- The way Fellini comments on community is similar, I think, to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). In Altman’s film, which depicts the demystification of the American frontier, people are only seen together when they gather in the brothel or in the church when it is burning.
- Peter Bondanella (ed.), Essays in Criticism: Federico Fellini, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, pp. 25-28.
Amarcord (1973 Italy 123 mins)
Prod Co: F. C. Produzioni (Rome)/PECF (Paris) Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Federico Fellini Scr: Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra Phot: Giuseppe Rotunno Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Art Dir: Giorgio Giovannini Mus: Nino Rota
Cast: Pupella Maggio, Miranda Biondi, Armando Brancia, Magali Noël, Ciccio Ingrassia, Nando Orfei, Luigi Rossi, Bruno Zanin