In remembrance of arses past

Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)

I took home this DVD in a third attempt to get Fellini. His reputation is second to none but he’s one of the few big-shot European directors of that period I never quite warmed to. 8 1/2 had stunning craftsmanship, but too much self-absorption for my liking. La Dolce Vita was a perfect evocation of that small-hours feeling when everyone’s looking in desparation for another party to go to but the evening has run out of steam, yet I felt it had a hollow heart.

This one is later, shot in rich, vibrant colours. The title is Romagnol dialect for ‘I remember’ and the film depicts a year in the life of a small town in 1930’s Italy (drawing on Fellini’s own childhood in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast). I’d wager that life in a small town in 1930s Italy was probably fairly dull, but refracted through Fellini’s imaginative powers and relish for the tall tale, it gets sprinkled with magic dust.

This is a fond, lightly-handled, and unashamedly nostalgic film. No time for grim realism; the billowing, accordion-driven score bestows upon it the same hue as of those Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand collaborations. Most of the villagers are amateur actors and people often address the camera directly. It’s like one of Godard’s starry-eyed homages to the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age. Composition is excellent,  almost every shot looking like a painting. It has an exuberant charm and plenty of laughs.

After watching it, I wonder if Fellini is simply too humanist for my tastes. His films are carnivals where everyone’s invited, and even when he’s critical (as he often is) the overwhelming sense is of an immense affection for people, for crowds. They’re too fascinating and he always lets bygones be bygones, loves to pile them into the frame, then sit back and marvel at people in all their energy and variety.

The characters are not sketched in much psychological depth, most are pure cartoon; but they do entertain and the point is that there’s no hero at the centre. The community is the star and no individual is greater than the whole. As usual, Fellini crams the screen with a cast of thousands, all coming and going and leaving you unsure where to look. There’s no more plot than the passing of the seasons; instead the characters are woven in and out of the tapestry through a series of anecdotes.

Things may get exaggerated for comic effect, the film consciously plays up to certain stereotypes, but you do come away with a sense of what life in the town is like; the piazza as a focal point that draws people in (British towns don’t really have an equivalent). It’s the place for bonfires, races, snowball fights, fascist rallies, or just hanging out with your friends. It has several sacred sites; the C13th church, the café/bar and the cinema. The latter is the most serious rival to the church and most of the boys are dreaming of Westerns as they go through the routines of mass and confession.

Some of the characters. There’s a family; Aurelio is a builders’ foreman, Miranda his wife. They live with their two sons, Aurelio’s lecherous father and Miranda’s brother- a layabout playboy who’s well in with the fascist party. Aurelio and Miranda are very over-the-top, forever rowing over the dinner table and maing outrageous threats to kill themselves, or each other, or another relative. Miranda has a mother’s stoicism whereas Aurelio will rage against the heavens for the latest affront from his sons or brother-in-law.

The charming, eloquent town lawyer pops up now and again. He loves the town but is a detached observer and would-be narrator. When he appears, he’ll start giving the camera florid lectures about the architecture or the pre-historic origins of the town settlement. Inevitably he’ll be interrupted by a gossiping passer-by, an off-screen heckle or a snowball. He’ll smile, shrug and retreat, letting the carnival of to-ing and fro-ing come back to the fore.

There are doddering teachers, a blind accordionist, a toothless idiot savant, a tobacconist with gargantuan breasts, a boy-racer motorcyclist, the sad, bowed local aristocrat who has been sidelined by the local facsist bigwigs. There’s Volpina the nymphomaniac, with blonde hair and painted eyebrows- a feverish madness in her eyes, her sweating skin a deathly white.

There’s Gradisca (“Help yourself”), the town’s beauty and its pride and joy. She acts the film star, always dressed in provocative red. The camera lovingly follows her sashaying bottom as she struts through the piazza. But even Gradisca submits to the greater needs of the community; she attends fascist rallies with enthusiasm and she got her name after sleeping with a Prince; to guarantee that the government would invest in rebuilding the town harbour (one of several artificial, choreographed semi-dream sequences set around the Grand Hotel).

The early part of the film is concerned with Aurelio’s son Titto and his school pals. They play elaborate pranks on their gormless teachers and lust after the women of the town. The priest’s main concern during confession is to find out whether the boys masturbate (“You know, St Francis cries when you touch yourself”). Confession is an art- give him enough sin to seem credible, but not too much because it’ll all go straight back to your parents. After one confession, four boys sit in a car and wank together, calling out names of the local women. The car vibrates, its headlights flashing on and off.

Indeed, the humour is earthy and ribald. Fart jokes abound. In one of the first scenes, someone shouts out that Volpina “probably puts a cock in her morning coffee”. The schoolboys visit the WWI victory monument every day to study its female posterior, and at the end of market day the camera gives close-ups of all the bottoms of the departing peasant women as they mount their bicycles. Sometimes you’re unsure if this is all Rabelais/Chaucer or American Pie/Benny Hill. The bewildered Titto has a memorable encounter with the tobacconist, who promptly throws him out afterwards. The boys fantasise over women, but don’t actually know what to do; their episodes reminded me of a benign version of Céline’s Mort a Crédit.

Some scenes are more powerful than others. One of the funniest is the blazing summer’s day when the family collect Aurelio’s brother Teo from the local loony bin (after bribing the staff with cigars) and take him for an afternoon meal on a farm. Teo climbs a tree and starts shouting “Voglio una donna!” (“I want a woman!”). His pockets are full of stones which he throws at anyone who tries to bring him down. People try different tricks to get a reaction, sit and wait, slap the flies that land on their faces. Afternoon gives way to sunset and he’s still up there, shouting.

When the Rex cruise ship is scheduled to pass, it’s a major event. The whole town gets into gondole and yachts- a shot of the piazza shows it empty, save for a dog. Late at night, the enormous ship passes- rather unreal-looking, several stories high and all twinkling lights. Gradisca is weeping, everyone cheers and waves, and all ignore the blind accordionist who keeps asking, “What’s it like?”. Brilliant. Another striking image occurs when the count’s peacock flies into the piazza during the snowstorm. As it lands, the camera glides from the skies to eye level, giving a view of the awestruck boys. Then it turns on the peacock, sitting on the fountain, and continues descending to ground level. The peacock displays.

Speaking of peacocks. The treatment of fascism is interesting, and one area where you really feel Fellini is telling it as it was. There’s something endearing and Dad’s Army-ish about the blackshirts; some are still tying their laces, &c, when called to attention. Instead of marching they jog through the town centre. They come out with fanciful statements- the sunshine is “a divine sign that the heaven are on our side”. Centrepiece to their rally is an enormous, surreal replica of Mussolini’s glowering face, made from red and white flowers. You get the sense of fascism as a sort of religion. But the cult of the Duce is one to which 99% will gladly subscribe; the uncle, the teachers and the tobacconist are all in uniform.

There is dissent. Miranda locks her anti-fascist husband indoors all day (“if I want to be a widow I’ll strangle you myself”) but that night, there’s a power cut when the chief fascist is about to hit the winning shot at the pool table. A gramophone plays L’Internationale from the top of the church campanile, showing that this was no accident. Aurelio is hauled in and interrogated over ambivalent remarks he has been reported to have made about Mussolini. He is made to drink castor oil and roughed up a little. A blackshirt in a wheelchair (probably a veteran of the WWI trenchocracy) seems genuinely hurt by Aurelio’s “lack of faith” and “failure to understand”; it really is a religion. Back home, Aurelio rages against whoever turned him in. Cut to his brother-in-law, turning over and going back to sleep.

This celebratory film is not without shadows, then. If Rimini is one big playground, it has a playground bully too. There’s a sense that the harsh facts of life are encroaching on our cast at the end of the film. Miranda dies and the whole village turns out for her funeral. Yet even here, Fellini’s zest for life is irrepresible and he can’t resist pin-pricking the sombre mood. The hearse passes cardboard cutouts of Laurel and Hardy outside the cinema. Inside a black carriage are her sons, nephews and nieces. A small boy starts pulling funny faces.

There’s slight melancholy, too, at the wedding of Gradisca; they celebrate her happiness, but the town’s crown jewel is leaving them. As her wedding car drives off, the fields are blown with the puffballs that had the town rejoicing at the start of the film. They signal that winter is over and spring is returning; the cycle of death and birth is about to restart. A note of perspective, of zooming-out, on which to end a sentimental, smiling, irreverent film.


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