If I were to rank all the Federico Fellini films I’ve seen up to now, I would put Amarcord at the very top. Most people, when asked what their favorite film is, they would say 8 ½ or La Dolce Vita but I regard Amarcord as his absolute masterpiece. Not that I didn’t like the other two films but if I got the chance to watch them again, I don’t think, I would be that interested. Amarcord, on the other hand, is truly an influential, exemplary and epic piece of work. It’s been said that the film is partly autobiographical. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. More on that later.
The central character Titta Biondi who, I am guessing, is the alter-ego of Fellini and he is going through the first pangs of adolescence. He lusts after three women: A middle-aged woman Gradisca (played by Magali Noel) who happens to be the village beauty, a perpetually horny prostitute called Volpina and a plump woman who is only referred to as the Tobacconist. But we slowly learn that it’s Gradisca that he is most obsessed with. But the film is not just about the sexual awakening of this young lad and his friends but also the several other amusing characters that revolve around him. Fellini introduces us to a bevy of interesting and eccentric characters, some of whom addresses the viewer directly and takes them through a small history lesson of Rimini, the coastal town of Italy that Fellini grew up in.
The characters we see here look as if they belong inside a cartoon – peculiar, larger than life and flamboyant characters. Fellini doesn’t spare anyone. He presents us with plenty of wildly amusing and hilarious caricatures of all the school teachers and headmasters, Titta’s crazy family, the priest who wants to know if the boys are “touching themselves”, Titta and his buddies who are constantly thinking of “touching themselves” and hide this fact from the priest and their parents, the fascists who are hell-bent on brainwashing everyone and the women who yearn for their knights in shining armors. There is so much drama going on and everything works like a circus with Fellini at the helm handling these characters with the skill of a master juggler. Amarcord represents the peak of Fellini’s artistic prowess.
The film begins with a festive mood and ends with a tinge of melancholy – all good things come to an end and now it is time for the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s a beautifully compiled and staged montage of vivid and colorful memories from Fellini’s imagination. Many directors have been influenced by the films of Fellini and paid homage to them in their own films. The most recent examples are Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Youth. A strong influence of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita can be felt in these two films. And I can think of at least six films that pay homage to Amarcord: Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and his Malena, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu Mama Tambien, Emir Kusturica’s Underground and Black Cat, White Cat and Woody Allen’s Radio Days. If you look at Tornatore’s two films, you see similar characters too.
There is a priest who may or not be virtuous, there are boys who are “touching themselves” (masturbation is an integral part of all these films), the village beauty that all the boys fantasize about and the parents who are trying to figure out how they ended up in such a mess and what they did to deserve all this. In Cinema Paradiso, the primary obsession is the cinema but this aspect is something not explored much in Amarcord. However, we do get one or two glimpses of the local cinema. Malena and Y tu Mama Tambien, in retrospect, feel like extensions of one of the vignettes in Amarcord – boys obsessed with women who are much older than them. Allen’s Radio Days is set in the same time period as Fellini’s film – the 1930s – and presents us with a similar picture of New York City during the Golden Age of Radio. And Kusturica’s Underground is like Amarcord on acid. I’m sure if Fellini saw the film, he would’ve loved it.
Fellini once said that he was a born liar. There is a documentary on him which was made before his death called ‘I’m a Born Liar’. He made up stories about the films and the actors he worked with. Some of the things that he showed in his films may be based on his own life and some other things he may have invented. Amarcord could be one of them. The film is a colorful and lavishly mounted period piece that lacks a coherent narrative and instead is a string of fragmented memories that works as a nostalgic poem to a time gone by. Fellini presents us an era the way he saw it – absurd, fantastic, melancholic, and funny. Perhaps some of these events really happened in his childhood and the rest, I assume, were his fantasies – and possibly his friends’ – which he still remembered vividly while he wrote the film. Or maybe they were all constructed out of thin air.