Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Amarcord (1973) A Film by Federico Fellini
To watch Federico Fellini's Amarcord is to step inside someone else's mind as they flip through old photo albums from their youth. The film exists in that ineffable place where the brain constructs its own memories of the past, regardless of whether or not they play out as they did in the photographic scenes. Or at least, that's what Amarcord feels like. In truth, Fellini did not have to resurrect any ancient photographs or memorabilia from his past in order to build the world of the film; he did not need any objective indicators to use as springboards for ideas. That the atmosphere of the film seems so polished, so intimate, and so paradoxically accurate, despite its deliberately fabricated surfaces, speaks volumes about the feverish imagination of Fellini. The subject of the film is Fellini's hometown of Rimini, yet it's a place that he visited only sporadically and for brief periods of time since his youth. Fellini made a conscious decision not to shoot Amarcord in Rimini in order to preserve the poignancy and essential constructive nature of his memory, an intentional sidestep of representational autobiography.
Therefore the film is a work of self-mythology, and is all the more universal for it. Released in 1973 and thus considered one of the initial works in Fellini's much-overlooked "later career", Amarcord is the Italian director's warmest, most nostalgic, and most continually surprising film. Aside from the coherent time span of a year that the film takes place within, signaled by the yellow puffballs of spring that delicately breeze through the air and act as bookends, any semblance of narrative structure is nonexistent. Fellini instead just strings together a series of scenarios, mostly centering around a boisterous family with their pre-teen son Titta, but also expanding to accommodate for other members of the town, such as the impassioned prostitute Volpina, Titta's lovesick friends, and the object of all male desire, the refined Gradisca. Interspersed within the vignettes are brief scenes of meta-documentary, where a lawyer and historian muses about the town's culture directly to the camera, a trope that Fellini would return to in And the Ship Sails On. Emerging from this cacophony of seemingly disjointed scenes is a loving portrait of a community connected by its collective quirkiness.
Amarcord is an ensemble piece in the purest sense of the term, in that no individual character stands out as more important than another. Instead, it is their presence onscreen together, along with their surroundings, which work to form one large character, and it is this character, a spirit more than a physical shape, which proves of interest to Fellini. Fittingly, none of the individuals in the town would seem entirely plausible in this world; they occupy an adjacent universe as faint distortions of recognizable "types" seen through Fellini's mad imagination. He spent the bulk of his pre-production time going on day-trips to search for faces that could occupy his film, figures whom he believed could undergo his warping process from individuals to caricatures to the embodiments of his own crude sketches. The result is a cast of characters who may or may not be based off of real people from Fellini's past, yet each is so fully vested in that it's hard to doubt their existence. From Titta's father's enraged dinnertime fits to Gradisca's endearing poses for a Fascist officer to the priest's odd fascination with when and why the young boys touched themselves, Fellini depicts a town full of spirited oddballs who are grounded less in movie stereotypes as they are in one man's bubbling imagination.
The film's communitarian spirit is accompanied by an equally unwavering loyalty that the characters have towards God, their country, and their families, three values that are stated in this order throughout the film. Although Fellini's foremost interests are personal and anecdotal rather than political or religious, his examination of the inherent patriotism and faith in his characters proves to be quite crucial to the film. It is through these lenses which we view some of its most significant events. For instance, Titta and his friends' sexual fantasies - this being one of the most omnipresent themes in the film - are triggered mainly by the priest in confessionals. He adamantly inquires about their experiences in vulgarity, launching a hilarious montage of Titta and his friends satisfying themselves in inopportune places due to the smallest of erotic gestures. Later on, in a blazing release of sensual desire, the voluptuous tobacconist exposes herself to Titta and lets his face be consumed by her bosom. Similarly, Titta's plump friend imagines a marriage to his crush Aldina staged in front of a Fascist rally replete with an oversized flower-sculpture of Mussolini, the figure behind the force that puts Titta's Communist father through a scene in which he is coerced into drinking castor oil. Fellini, famously indifferent towards Fascism (a notion which is evident in the largely comic portrayal of the officers in the film), may not see politics or religious institutions as his film's meat, but it is an inevitability that they play a large role in the proceedings, figuring prominently into even the most personal of moments because of how sewn into the fabric of Italy they are.
For its majority, Amarcord is a boisterous film, punctuated almost constantly by joking spurts of foul-mouthed familial anger (a distinctly Italian trait if there ever was one) and Nina Rota's typically wistful, circus-like score. Even when we think we're silently viewing the town center in the middle of the night, with its dog seated territorially as always, a blaring motorcycle zooms by the frame and circles the square only to return and vanish off into the distance with another crackling roar. This continuous clatter emphasizes the liveliness of Rimini, the fact that even when it's ostensibly sleeping, it never quite tips over entirely into stasis. Yet there are a few scattered scenes where the magic of the visuals requires little to no aural accompaniment, and it is during these quiet moments that Amarcord is most sublime and memorable. The calm after the family's zany uncle stops screaming "I want a woman!" from high stop a tree, the thick fog covering the morning route to school where a cow is seen enigmatically sipping from a puddle, the first snow of the winter which, famously, marks the inexplicable arrival of a peacock; such scenes sprinkle mystery and beauty into this otherwise hilarious, irreverent, and charming artistic creation.