The title of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) derives from the Emiliano-Romagnolo dialect spoken in the Northern Italian village where the writer/director was raised. It supposedly means “I remember,” though if this is true it’s probably safe to assume that the Romagnolian memory is more heavily imbued with fantasy than the average. Episodic, bawdy, cyclical, and at every point flamboyantly exaggerated, Amarcord, newly available on Blu-ray from Criterion, is a group portrait of Italian village life during the rise of fascism, a threat that seems to have no significant effect on humble provincial matters. It’s less a narrative than a vast mural that gradually reveals itself over the course of a couple of hours. Chronologically, a year has passed by the film’s end, but you can somehow imagine all of the preceding events simply repeating themselves once the last fade-to-black closes.
Caricatures of all types inhabit Fellini’s village, as do the deformed and the purely symbolic. The men are mostly salacious while the women are fantastically voluptuous, a collective homage to the corset. Some resemble drag queens, others are the closest thing to living embodiments of Robert Crumb drawings that this world will furnish. Families talking to each other in such blustery tones you worry the elder, heavier members could go into cardiac arrest at any moment. There’s a crazy uncle who pees his pants, carries rocks in his pockets, and climbs a tree in the middle of nowhere so as to declare his melancholy horniness to a nearly unpopulated landscape. There’s a teenage boy nearly smothered by massive breasts, each of them larger than his head. There’s a dwarf nun. And of course there’s sweet, red-haired Gradisca (Magali Noël), an object of desire that just wants to be loved, and an ideal frame upon which to display Danilo Donati’s costume designs, Gradisca’s favoured outfit being a dress and beret combo of a scarlet that hums on the screen as though radioactive, a sort of sex-force, not clothing but some kind of form-fitting energy field designed to ceaselessly prompt in viewers the urge to see its wearer naked.
So Fellini’s memory/imagination has rendered the world of his childhood a series of broad comic sketches. At times you get to feeling like you’re watching Benny Hill with millionaire production design. I confess my patience with the more cartoonish aspect of Fellini’s work, especially in the later films, those modeled on the circus and likely the source of all that’s most tiresome in the films of Terry Gilliam, has its limits. But the rewards of Fellini’s obsession with scale arrive in the inspired heights of artifice, the unabashedly fake and fragile-looking images, and the dream-like extremes of atmospheric conditions. Weather regularly turns his village into a fabulous theme park. The fog sequence is extraordinarily beautiful, as are those colossal mounds of snow that transform the village centre into a labyrinth. And because behaviour is typically so larger than life the rare moments when a character delivers a line with a straight face are that much more striking. Despite (or because of) all the fart jokes and pee jokes, nothing in Amarcord made me laugh as hard as a scene where an older patron leaves the village cinema and, when asked what she thought of the movie, looks directly at the camera and says without any inflection: “It was beautiful. I had a good cry.”