Review: ‘Amarcord’

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

“I remember.” Perhaps that’s slightly misleading if you regard memory as purely objective recollection, which this movie obviously isn’t. And yet, no matter how strong Fellini’s tendency toward dissociation of events, scenes, etc. on any sort of rational level may be, I think Amarcord is finally more “together” than its temporal and narrative drift through this brightly colored cross-section of Fellini’s memory and imagination might indicate. People seem to come and go as they please, but after a while one is aware that more or less the same people are doing the coming and the going. In any crowded scene, just let your eyes drift toward whatever part of the frame the gravity of Fellini’s mise-en-scène seems to be pulling them, and you will see a face that looks familiar. No scene is impersonal in the sense of being just a crowd scene, and it might even be argued that the people who appear to be most especially cherished by Fellini are often those on the periphery of the milieu: the old man who recites his poem about bricks, the blind accordion player who fairly oozes an ecstatic agony as he pours his soulful melancholia onto the sidewalk, the whore Volpina who scurries catlike along walls and through dark alleys licking her lips in sexual anticipation, the thirty-ish, fading-but-yet-to-blossom Gradisca whose dreams are realized at the end of the movie when she at last finds her Gary Cooper (as the self-styled Ronald Colman points out in a toast to the newlyweds). Winding his way around this hub of eminently Felliniesque citizenry, travelling through murky labyrinths of time and space, Fellini finally winds up in control of the situation, having in the process integrated his sequences into an organic cycle which encompasses the movement of the entire film and which, by extrapolation, is molded by forces outside Fellini’s cinematic universe: seasons, life, death, youth, love, even madness.

In fact, cycles, circles, and curvature of almost any sort are among Fellini’s favorite motifs. A pock-faced street vendor named Pinwheel finds his way into an exotic harem of women seductively arranged in lithe, serpentlike coils around a circular pool of water. The mad uncle (or mad he may seem to some) riding in a wagon out to the farm where his family will treat him to a day’s respite from the other crazies, gazes over the side at the spinning wagon wheel, as if to say, “Well, shucks, now that’s really something.” Later, he examines the natural symmetry of stones and eggs, fondling their smooth curves. Later still, a peacock lands in the center of the town square, spreading its rainbow-like plumes in a fanned semicircle before an ornate fountain.

Fellini’s predominant cycle, though, his primary motif of unity and integration, is the turning of the seasons. The movie is properly initiated with a long, frenzied night spent celebrating the demise of winter and the coming of spring, burning witches and purging evil (I picture Fellini’s imagination soaring like a phoenix from the flames), then wends its way to another spring, culminating in marriage: the perfect metaphor for the completion of the circle. Within this context, chronological flow is suggested on a number of other levels as well. Italy is passing through the throes of pre-WW2 Fascism under Il Duce; a family must come to terms with conflicting political allegiances; the boy Matthew learns to cope with his incipient manhood, falling hopelessly in love with Gradisca, later witnessing the death of his mother.

It seems to me that one of the beauties of Amarcord is the way in which its various levels of chronological progression tend to coalesce so that we can look at the movie in a number of ways, none of them by any means exclusive of the others. Again, working from the subjective overtones contained in the movie’s title, it is tempting to emphasize the “personal history” aspect of Amarcord. And yet this is no real autobiography tracing the life of a particular person whom we can easily identify as Fellini himself: that would drastically reduce the movie’s potential to suggest imaginative associations on our part as well as stiffen the malleable substance of Fellini’s free-flowing imagery and dreamy narration. Amarcord seems best viewed as a continual ebb and flow of people, moods, and fantasy-tinged recollections which expresses a lifetime rather than delineates a life. And a richly abundant lifetime it is. At one point we see an old man, half blind, walking out of his gate and wandering through a foggy street, not knowing which way to turn, where he is going. “I’m not anywhere,” he mumbles to himself. “This must be what death is like: no people, no birds, no wine, nothing….” And for Fellini that would be death. His movie redeems life from the old man’s fog, from the gray obscurity of existence without motion or color, without a bit of vivid fantasy pulled from the magic hat of one’s imagination. The images that spill from Fellini’s mind sparkle while they exist, but they exist only for a moment, fading again like the summer shower that passes over the wedding feast at the end of Amarcord. The rain moves on, and snowy-white seed puffs float through the air once again. The cycle of seasons has been completed, fantasy has converged with reality on at least some level of cinematic poetry, and Fellini has earned the right to indulge in those infinitely patient final shots which linger on the stragglers milling about the empty feast table, as though looking for something more to do and be happy about before leaving. It is one of the warmest endings to a movie I have seen, and it seems to epitomize Fellini’s attitude toward the world he remembers and the people who inhabit it. Just before getting into the car with her new husband, Gradisca turns and waves to the scattering crowd. “I love you all,” she yells. And it seems close to what Fellini feels about his people. He loves everybody.

AMARCORD
Direction: Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Fellini, Tonino Guerra. Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno. Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni. Music: Nino Rota.
The Players: Bruno Zanin, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Magali Noel, Giuseppe Lanigro, Nando Orfei, Ciccio Ingrassia, Luigi Rossi, Gennaro Ombra, Josiane Tanzilli, Antonietta Beluzzi.

Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann