Amarcord (1973)

Directed by Federico Fellini

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Amarcord depicts a series of vignettes, spread amongst a Simpsons-like cast of characters in a small town in the Italian countryside.  It’s a nostalgic comedy, full of slapstick and vulgarity, which occasionally pulls back far enough to remind you that this was all happening within a fascist state.  The most memorable sequence of the film follows these bumbling, innocent characters we’ve come to know and has them gleefully taking part in a parade in honor of Benito Mussolini.

It’s a strange dichotomy, one which doesn’t seem intended to undercut who these characters are or the validity of their own experiences.  They are for the most part children, even the adults, harmless except for their complicity with the regime, though that is something left unexplored.  The film does mock their blind loyalty to the Mussolini regime (“Mussolini’s got two balls this big!”), though it then quickly forgets about it to focus on smaller, human moments in town.

Much of the story revolves around a family with a temperamental patriarch who is briefly taken custody by the state for alleged subversive activities (involving a record player), an uncle in a mental institution in the countryside, and a teenaged son who lusts over a series of older women and fantasizes about them while “confessing” to an absent-minded priest.

There are a series of slapstick gags at first confined to the classroom (with a long homemade straw through which one boy urinates and a series of fart jokes), but soon these make their way out into everyday life.  In one scene a man excuses himself from a family meal so he can go pass gas in another room.

The impression I got is that behind every closed door or curtained window is something potentially vulgar, possibly humiliating and certainly human going on.  When you put on your coat and go outside you tuck away these bodily functions and crass jokes, hiding them from others who have their own veiled discretions.  I suppose, taking a step back, this is all some commentary on the romanticism of life and society from afar versus the gross realities in proximity.

Throughout the film there will be a couple narrators who wax poetic about the beauty and history of this small town.  They are vagabonds and other townsfolk on the fringes of society, people who seem only to have such a perspective because they’re forced to view things from the outside.  They demonstrate a zen-like patience with all that goes on around them, even as they are interrupted by fart sounds and snowballs thrown at them from any number of people just offscreen.  Based on those we follow throughout the film, it’s anyone’s guess as to who is throwing the snowballs.

Amarcord is an amusing, wholesome look at a specific time and place, in spite of the fascist connections.  We’re meant not only to laugh but to feel for some of the other characters pushed to the side.  One of them is a woman lusted after by teenagers but who longs with melancholy for her “Gary Cooper,” a man to come sweep her off her feet.  Another woman is a prostitute mocked by those around her, and then there’s the man assaulted by police and forced to drink castor oil.

Fellini’s film is imbued with the same nostalgia as films like Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, Woody Allen’s Radio Days (surely inspired by this film, just as Allen’s Stardust Memories was inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2) and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.  Truffaut’s film, however, was his first and thus made with a more biting sense of realism that refused to glamorize young Antoine’s childhood, likely because it didn’t feel so far removed from Truffaut’s own.  Amarcord, like Malle’s and Allen’s nostalgic films was made years later and with that time comes a new perspective of the past that overlooks the ups and downs and celebrates it all instead.  In this film the narrators often admit that certain stories are not meant to be taken literally and that, I suppose, objective truth is impossible.  It’s all about the stories we tell and the way we tell them.  Another of these types of movies is John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, one which I didn’t particularly care for because of how quickly it neuters the past.

Movies like these, it seems, suggest that the greater themes from the stories of our own lives reveal themselves over time.

Up Next: The Christmas Chronicles (2018), Say Anything… (1989), Life (1999)

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