Fellini's Amarcord won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1974, often the kiss of death for many critics. For me, the Academy got it right.
Amarcord is a rollicking movie, artifice, grand gestures, and sentiment blending with operatic insistence, not unlike a Puccini oeuvre in which the heroine on her deathbed is still able to belt out a stirring aria. Either you accept Fellini's fervid style or you don't.
At first the film seems little more than disparate episodes in a rural seaside Italian town in the 1930s. Rather than a chain of cause-effect events we have a series of seemingly random arrivals: the fluff balls signaling the beginning of spring; the black-clad motorcyclist; the new batch of prostitutes; the fascists federales making their entrance through the billowing smoke; the distinguished hotel guests, first the prince and then the Emir with his 30 concubines; the luxury liner Rex; the Grand Turismo racing cars; the peacock in the snow; and finally the fluff balls again.
These advents not only serve to call our attention to the staid and provincial character of the town and its inhabitants, but they contain their own antipodes, their own endings and escapes. Both the burning of the winter witch (left) several minutes into the film, and the death of Titta's mother close to the film's end take place as spring arrives. Titta himself departs soon after she is buried. And independent, carefree Gradisca, who is in love with Gary Cooper, is taken off by her husband/policeman, not a movie star but a portly civil servant, a fascist official, as the fluff balls float through the early spring air. The ominous motorcyclist appears several times and disappears almost immediately. The prostitutes are obviously taking the place of other prostitutes; they come and go with the seasons. The royal hotel guests leave no trace at all, save stories for the town historian. The luxury liner Rex, too, is a passing specter (Fellini uses a cardboard mockup) leaving nothing in its wake but evanescent dreams. The peacock is just as ethereal as the Rex, a bright splash of color in winter streets, like Gradisca's red coat. The racing cars give temporary excitement and are gone in a roar, leaving behind only a dog's ear in the street.
Only one arrival has more staying power--and it is crucial to the film. The prancing federales know their audience, Fellini tells us, know how to use the dreams these people have. They are sly buffoons, these men and women who espouse the fascist crusade, and obviously they are cast from the same mold as the town's school teachers and clerics, interested only in formulae, rites and doctrine. And, as Titta's father learns, they brook no opposition. We feel that the life of the town are these rituals, in themselves silly communal acts with no lasting value save that they are shared experiences.
Amarcord teems with people: the townspeople gathering around the giant fire which ends winter, the processions, the dances, the fascist rally, the lively table scenes of Titta's family. These gatherings are both the townspeople's affirmations of their history and traditions but they are also the grist for the fascist mill. Fellini seems to be telling us that these Italians are like children, they love to play, to be entertained, and if that entertainment takes the form of a fascist rally, so be it. It's great fun.
But Fellini doesn't leave it at that. He juxtaposes these ebullient scenes with what I think of as Amarcord's most powerful filmic element, the lone figure who must face the realities of loss and the consequence of opposition.
I think of the final shots of Amarcord's three principle characters: Titta's father, Gradisca the town beauty, and Titta. Each must decide what to do in the face of loss. Titta's father, a construction foreman, has opposed the fascists and is punished and humiliated for this. After burying his wife, we see him as he sits at the now empty kitchen table, once the center of his and his family's life. Fellini puts him off-center, brushing imaginary crumbs from the table, his back to the door, the one bit of color a bowl of fruit on the cupboard to the right.
Fellini carefully follows this shot (which is from Titta's perspective) with our final view of Titta alone on the pier, looking out to sea, dressed for travel, fluff balls floating in the spring breeze. He will leave his youth as Fellini himself did.
Finally there is Gradisca who, Fellini has said in an interview, represents "everything in the film (sex, dream, liberty, the conquest of adulthood)." In the film's final sequence she has lost her youth (she is nearly 29!) and so gives up her dreams and marries the policeman. As she is being led by him to a waiting automobile, she throws her bouquet to the wedding guests but it falls limply on the ground. Her husband has the last word as he pulls her into the car, "Viva l'Italia," the cry of the fascists. She has settled for less.
So what is Fellini telling us? Why such a relatively bleak ending to such an affectionate portrait of the Italian people? Let's remember that Amarcord was made some three decades after the collapse of fascism. I believe that by presenting these people going about their lives, loving, fighting, working, dreaming, Fellini is saying that they prefer living their lives and letting others make their decisions for them. And if those decisions are sometimes wrong, they will survive. Gradisca's bouquet is not left on the ground, after all, but is picked up by a young girl who waves her prize to her parents. Life goes on, Fellini tells us, and while it is often brutal, bizarre, bawdy (all sentiments echoed in Nino Rota's score), it is also full of love and care.
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