Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 18, 2009
Janus Films recently struck new 35mm prints of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) and these are currently making the rounds nation-wide. Here in Colorado we had our screening last week and I’m still basking in its memory, which is an apt tribute to a film whose title (if not entirely invented) supposedly means “I remember” in Romagnese dialect. (Or, put another way, in the dialect of Rimini – the small coastal town in Italy on the Adriatic Sea where Fellini was born on January 20th, 1920.) Amarcord is a semi-biographical (or completely fantastical) look back at Fellini’s youth through the prism of his imagination. It takes on an epic quality because in tackling a specific place, time, and people, it tells us the story of a tribe. And because it’s Fellini’s tribe, their story is peppered with moments of visual splendor that can still make an audience gasp with wonder.
At the time of its release, Variety reported on how Amarcord was in production for almost a year and cost around $3.5 million to make, also adding that “Fellini’s traditionally generous dosage of fantasy and poetry are subordinated to the grotesque, the macabre, (and) the sentimental.” Elsewhere it was greeted with far more effusive acclaim. It is now widely considered one of his best works, clearly showing the director at the peak of his powers. It was also to be Fellini’s last big box-office hit.
The film takes place over one year and opens and closes with the floating thistledown that marks the beginning of spring. We see Fellini’s provincial town bustle with life as we follow multiple narrations (none entirely reliable) through the four seasons. It is populated, to use Tom Dawson’s words from his BBC review, with “libidinous grandfathers, crazy uncles, hysterical mothers, constantly bickering families, and dwarf nuns.”
And let’s not forget the horny teenagers and huge-breasted women! Andrew O’Hehir at Salon credits the latter for a “legendary topless scene that brings Titta (Bruno Zanin) up close and personal with the bodacious town tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi), a Russ Meyer-worthy moment that no doubt helped propel Amarcord to international hit status – and to a 1974 Oscar for best foreign film.” I think O’Hehir might be overstating his point here as even he later adds that “Amarcord is a lot more than a sweet-natured erotic fantasia about bucolic existence in a bygone era. That era, after all, was the Fascist dictatorship of the 1930′s, which Fellini depicts as a willfully stupid exercise in group think that swept up the entire population and was only beginning to show its sinister underbelly.” This is not to say that the international community or the people at the Academy do not like boobs (their voting record shows quite the contrary), but I’d like to think Fellini got his accolades for hitting the high marks, rather than the low ones.
But that’s the beauty of Amarcord, because while it casts a wide net, digging deep into the gutter of bawdy humor (which makes it accessible) it also reaches high to the heavens and dares to capture something transcendental and sublime. Part of me can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, it is precisely because Amarcord traffics “in a parallel universe of fart jokes and free associations” (Lance Goldenberg, Village Voice) that is also succeeds in delivering high art without being pretentious.
Fellini is one of the great masters of spectacle. No wonder Terry Gilliam loves him so. I sat in the front row receptive to it all. Toward the end, when the screen was white with snow and slowly a beautiful and colorful bird fans open its dazzling tail-feathers and reveals itself as a majestic peacock, I felt the chill of cinematic ecstasy run straight from screen to eyeball to brain to body. With interest in repertory programming on the wane it can’t be said that Amarcord is getting anywhere near the audience attention now as it once did. But with me it’s still a huge hit – and not because of the boobs, but because of that one bird.
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