Spring arrives with puffballs of pollen floating on the wind as the boisterous residents of a small coastal town in Northern Italy during the 1930s stage a lavish bonfire to bid farewell to winter. Amarcord follows a year in the life of these colourful characters, partly seen through the eyes of young Titta (Bruno Zanin) as he makes mischief at school and on the streets with his hoodlum pals, copes with life at home with his fiery family including his long-suffering parents Aurelio (Armando Brancia) and Miranda (Pupella Maggio), and lusts after the town sexpot Gradisca (Magali Noel) whose shapely derriere drives the local men wild. Over the course of an eventful year, there is laughter and sadness, a fascist rally disrupted by a rebellious prank, an opportunity to observe an ocean liner sailing past the town, a motorcar rally, and one tragic death, but it ends with a raucous wedding celebration and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
If cinema is indeed a kind of collective dream, few explored this concept better than Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Far from self-indulgent, as his work was sometimes labelled, the conceit allowed him to share his most intimate impressions and ideals, which in the case of his late career masterpiece Amarcord - a title derived from a Northern Italian slang word, loosely translated as “I Remember” - involved the warm recollection of his childhood in the town of Rimini. More impressionistic than bound rigidly to a narrative, the film is basically a string of episodic, though wholly compelling vignettes whose tone switches from broadly comic to subtly tragic, leavened by moments of grandiose and typically Felliniesque fantasy that are pure movie magic: the steam ship that floats like a city of lights past the astonished townsfolk, the journey of Titta’s kid brother Oliva (Stefano Proietti) through the ghostly fog, the locals charmed by sparrows in the snowfall climaxing in the unexpected arrival of a peacock, and the improbable tale spun by weaselly little street vendor Biscein about a night spent at a grand hotel with thirty concubines belonging to a visiting emir, an opulent set-piece straight out of Arabian Nights.
Equal parts satirical and celebratory, Fellini never allows one form of perspective to outweigh another, which is what gives the film its deep humanity. Drawing cartoons of his characters was a vital part of Fellini’s creative process and just as a caricaturist reduces subjects to their most defining assets, or rather those that stand out in his memory, so too does the film: Gradicsa and her voluptuous bottom, Titta’s grandfather’s (Giuseppe Ianigro) whistle and arm gesture, the Tobacconist’s (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) gargantuan bosom, etc. These are characters drawn from an artists subconscious mind rather than reality, but Fellini argues fantasy can prove just as profound. The tone is set towards the beginning as a slightly self-aggrandising lawyer recounts the history of the region and its contribution to science and culture before a mystery prankster abruptly farts at him.
Gleefully vulgar but in a manner more endearing than offensive, the film is a carnivalesque parade cast with a mix of professional actors and amateurs chosen for their remarkable, almost cartoon-like appearance. Whilst the borderline grotesque depiction of Fellini’s somewhat unconventional fantasy females seems to suggest an ambiguous attitude towards the fairer sex, the film actually draws these women with great tenderness and affection, particularly the sultry yet secretly lovelorn Gradisca. However, Amarcord offers a far from rose-tinted view of Italy’s past. Fellini lampoons the stranglehold of the Catholic church and justly mocks the naive devotion to fascism that would eventually mire a nation in war. There is also a gentle, yet quite pointed assertion that the inability of rural Italians to adopt genuine moral responsibility throughout this period left them briefly stuck in a perpetual adolescence, looking to absolute authority figures from Mussolini to the Church to make their decisions while they indulged foolish fantasies. Nevertheless, the film is not despairing. Like the townsfolk it depicts, Amarcord is exuberant, energetic and full of life. Beautifully scored by Nino Rota.