Amarcord reveals scenes of an Italian childhood
Two things obsess director Federico Fellini throughout his Oscar-winning memory film Amarcord: the left and right cheeks of the female derriere, which he captures in loving, lingering close-ups, wiggling down Main Street, settling atop bicycle seats or otherwise straining at the fabric of tight dresses.
Amarcord came out in 1973, but serves as a reminder of how Fellini films like La Dolce Vita found American audiences who appreciated their unabashed sensuality in the 1950s and 1960s. The film's point of view justifies, or at least excuses, its ardent appreciation of the feminine form. Translated as "I Remember," Amarcord flashes back to Fellini's loosely autobiographical adolescence in a coastal Italy town. Young Titta (Bruno Zanin), a strapping teen lad in short pants, ogles the village's voluptuous ladies and pines for both sexual release and romantic companionship. It makes sense that Fellini would recall memories of those months through the prism of sex.
Currently released with a new, 35-mm print, Amarcord proves largely plotless and strings together episodes from a year in the life of the town in the 1930s. Titta's family meals erupt in comical arguments, while his schoolteachers prove to be even more eccentric than the residents of the town asylum. Titta and his friends lust after the ladies, especially a feral prostitute, a prodigiously bosomed tobacconist, and the glamorous hairdresser Gradisca (Magali Noël), whose red dresses and swiveling hips make her something of a local celebrity. Periodically, a beaming, mustachioed lawyer (the effervescent Luigi Rossi) tells the camera bits of the town's history, like seeing Our Town's omniscient stage manager played by an irrepressible Italian uncle.
The vignettes' bawdy humor takes a disquieting turn at a Black Shirt rally, when the lawyer reveals that most of the town's otherwise apolitical population belongs to the fascist party. The fascists at first prove wholly ineffectual, but show their teeth when they suspect Titta's argumentative father of an act of civil disobedience. Fellini more broadly satirizes the similarly oppressive Catholic Church. At confession, a priest tells Titta, "Do you know St. Louis weeps when you touch yourself?"
Increasingly melancholy moments inform the film's second half, such as the famous sequences in which the town people row out to sea in small boats to greet a huge ocean liner and reflect on the eternal before it arrives.
With its message that life both goes in cycles and keeps moving forward, Amarcord proves to be more than a nostalgic, horny romp. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's still the work of a master filmmaker who can seemingly craft haunting, indelible images with the ease of drawing a breath. The final sequence shows the winding down of a wedding party in shots that back further and further from the actors, as if we're seeing Fellini's childhood being, to quote The Great Gatsby, "borne back ceaselessly into the past."