Sunday 13 September 2009

Amarcord (1973)

Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Magali Noel and Ciccio Ingrassia

Anyone who's seen a late film by Federico Fellini knows that they're in for a riot of visuals and this is no exception, beginning with a bonfire in the city square to celebrate the arrival of spring. Winter is gone, as the locals can tell because the puffballs are soaring, so they burn a witch that represents the passing season. It's a ritual, a tradition, and this film is full of them, so much so that it's a dedicated Italian equivalent of a John Ford movie. Made in 1973 but set during the 1930s in Rimini in which Fellini was born in 1920. He's said that it isn't autobiographical but does bear similarities with his childhood. The film's title should really be 'A m'arcord', or 'I remember' in the Rimini dialect.

There's no real plot, merely a year-long slice of Rimini life as defined by its traditions and the characters who populate it, as well as its myths and lies. With the vaguaries of memory, it makes no distinction between what actually happened, the spirit of what actually happened or what people might pretend or want to believe actually happened, because all these things add up into the legend. Going back to John Ford again, when there's a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend. What this gives us is so much flavour and character that it washes over us like a wave.

If there's a focus it's the Biondi family, complete with their mad uncle Teo who looks like Frank Zappa with a hint of Ron Perlman. We follow a whole slew of family members wherever they go. Titta is the schoolboy, getting up to all sorts of mischief in class and elsewhere. He lusts after Gradisca, the town's hairdresser; he takes part in mutual masturbation sessions in a parked car in a garage and lies to the priest during confession. He's blissfully unaware of so much while becoming aware of so much more. He talks to his mother in hospital completely oblivious that she's about to die.

It isn't just Titto though, presumably the character most closely based on Fellini himself. His father Aurelio gets hauled in and abused by the fascists after a celebration for El Duce is interrupted by someone playing the revolutionaries hymn on a gramaphone from the bell tower. They all pick up Teo from the asylum for a day out at a farm, only for him to climb a tree and cry out for a woman for five hours, refusing every attempt to bring him back down. And as Titto is part of a family, so the Biondi family is part of Rimini.

Many of the memories aren't really specific to one family but belong to the town of Rimini itself, and many are as often utterly generic as they are specific. One of the most memorable scenes takes place in the fog where dead trees morph into other shapes and a white bull to appear out of nowhere. The schoolkids dance to imaginary music outside the closed Grand Hotel or turn out for the blessing of the animals on St Anthony's Day to see all the women sit on bicycles, full of the Italian obsession for a full figure.

Everyone in town turns out for the bonfire or the fascist rally or the arrival of snow. They all watch the arrival of new prostitutes for the brothel driving through the town square or head out to sea to watch a huge cruise liner called the Rex pass in the night. These scenes have so many little stories in wrapped up within them, like the school photograph. Boys scare girls with frogs, other boys smile at girls who in turn smile at other boys. Such are the memories that Fellini conjures up, as full of detail as Biscein's tall tales and as full of visual magic as the tobacconist's huge breasts or the arrival of the Count's peacock during a snowstorm. What a magical film, utterly free of narrative structure, merely a collection of images that combine to tell the biggest story of them all: life itself.

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