Director: Federico Fellini
Amarcord is widely known as the last "great" film from Italian auteur Federico Fellini - that is to say, his last true masterpiece. This belief is perhaps voiced most clearly by Roger Ebert in his "Great Movies" essay on the film. I personally agree with him, as I think Amarcord marks the furthest that Fellini could go in the particular direction he followed in his career and aesthetic choices and still receive fairly wide acclaim, or without entirely alienating his audience, which, according to most accounts that I have read, is what happened with his later efforts (though I quite enjoyed And the Ship Sails On, reviewed here).
The specific reason why Fellini's later efforts pale in comparison to his earlier ones I believe has to do with how he created and used characters. It is certainly worth noting how he gradually did away with strong central protagonists that his audience could relate to and latch onto within the bewildering sights and sounds in his films. Part of what makes his earlier efforts so memorable are these strong characters: Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) in La Strada, the down-on-her-luck prostitute Cabiria (Masina) in Nights of Cabiria, the journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) in La Dolce Vita and troubled director Guido (Mastroianni) in 8 1/2. Juliet (Masina) of Juliet of the Spirits could fit alongside these characters, though she was far too passive amidst Fellini's increasingly surreal images and events to exert the same sense of control and presence. Essentially, by the time Juliet came around, the dip away from such characters was becoming much more visible. Working in conjunction with this problem was Fellini's steady trajectory away from reality-based elements in his films and more towards outright fantasy and artifice. Try comparing the various "real" locations throughout Italy within the road movie La Strada with the completely artificial ship and sea where most of And the Ship Sails On takes place.
Thus with Amarcord, which follows the various inhabitants of a small coastal town during the rise of Italian fascism in the 1930s, there are few central characters to solidly grasp onto and, instead of a main narrative, a strictly episodic structure through which Fellini delves into one fanciful spectacle after another. One of the film's strongest points is the sense of community and comraderie amongst the town's people that is evoked. As a viewer, you feel like you are with these characters as they share anecdotes, memories and jokes with each other while gathered at whatever occasions Fellini chooses, be they small meetings at work or school or larger-scale events like the passing of the Rex, a massive ocean liner, or the giant bonfire at the start of the film that heralds the arrival of spring.
However, the drawbacks to such a structure are both the surplus of quirk and consequent lack of depth in the characters. Only two of them could be considered as proper central characters within Amarcord: the kindly lawyer (Luigi Rossi) who addresses the camera, but only ever to share certain historical facts about the town (often accompanied by unseen pranksters interrupting him with raspberries and snowballs), and Titta (Bruno Zanin), a blond-haired youth at the center of most of the episodic scenarios. As far as protagonists go, though, Titta isn't all that impressive: he is a mischievous, immature kid (as are his chums) who spends too much time tormenting his stressed-out father and being an all-around pest to properly win over viewers' sympathies. Much of the film's humor in fact is of the toilet variety, as Fellini indulges in a wide range of guilty pleasures and gags involving piss, shit, farting, masturbation, nymphomania and, perhaps most lovingly, obsession of certain parts of the female anatomy.
Overall, Amarcord's characters remain bizarre, clueless characters who are never really given the chance to fully transcend their presented surface traits. Going back to the nature of the film's dialogue, you rarely get anything more from them beyond the anecdotes that they trade, with the exception of a precious few moments that pass as contemplative, but nonetheless always feel very heavy-handed. Some examples include a flashback sequence that explores the past of the much-desired Gradisca (Magali Noël), the gradual ailing and, later, death of Titta's mother and one hauntingly beautiful moment in which a peacock displays its tail feathers in the midst of thick snowfall.
There is plenty of emotion shown onscreen throughout Amarcord: joviality, hushed anticipation, crazed frustration, grateful wonder, somber sadness. Yet whether you share such emotions with the characters is a different matter altogether, depending on how sympathetic you are to them. The film's vagueness could very well be an aesthetic choice of Fellini's, as he intended to make a film about his memories of his home town Rimini. The film's title in fact means "I Remember," thus inviting the possibility that the events, characters and emotions are meant solely to be striking, memory-like impressions rather than more nuanced depictions. Certainly one element that helps the film in this respect is Nino Rota's lovely musical score, which seems fashioned purely out of nostalgic longing and warm charm.
Personally, I find that Amarcord is a film that grows on you over time. As you become more accustomed to the film and its particular way of presenting stories and characters, you can better appreciate its other qualities - among them its fabulous visual design, hilariously satirical portrayal of fascist Italy and treatment of time as it unspools throughout the various seasons of the year. But those searching for a more approachable work from Fellini would do well to start with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria or, my personal favorite of his, the masterful 8 1/2.
BONUS: Amarcord Beer?!
So, as I was doing a bit of research through the inter-webs for this post, I stumbled upon images of something I thought was far too good to be true: beer labels bearing character designs from Fellini's film. Upon further investigation, I discovered that there is in fact a brewery called Amarcord Birra Artigianale named after and inspired by Amarcord! The brewery has at least four different kinds of beers named after specific characters from the film (portrayed on their respective labels): Gradisca (Noël); the ravenous town slut Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli); the stacked, heavy-set Tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) and one I can't place called Midona.
What an awesome discovery! For a film geek who deeply loves both foreign cinema and beer, this is nothing short of a slice of heaven. Now if I can only find a way to get my hands on some bottles...
Many thanks to the blog Drink With The Wench for shedding light on this find.