If dreams were like Fellini movies, we’d all wake up happy and contented with just a hint of melancholy.
I’ve been a fan of Fellini for years, and thanks to Netflix, I’ve begun to reacquaint myself with the works of his I’ve already seen, as well as those I have never seen. Tonight’s selection of Amarcord is one of the former, a movie I first saw almost ten years ago on a worn-out VHS tape. The DVD version is immaculate, one of the Criterion Collection from Janus Films. It has been extensively restored, using a new set of software that removes artifacts and scratches from the original print. The results are a beautiful digital transfer.
Fellini’s work is a puzzle box. His earlier films like La Strada fall more along the lines of “traditional” cinema, with coherent narratives that follow the typical structure of most stories. That is, they have a beginning, a rising action, a climax and a short denouement. As he got older, and more assured as a director, he began to eschew traditional narratives in favor of more impressionistic works, such as my personal favorite, 8 ˝. That’s not to say his movies were about nothing, so much as his movies were about the creation of a feeling, of a dream-like state, the way one feels when the air is a little thin, the wind is blowing through the trees and you can hear the blades of grass waving. Rather than tell a story, Fellini’s films painted a portrait in motion. The story of most of Fellini’s later films are what the viewer makes of the images presented, the themes sublime, understated.
Amarcord is all of these things and more. In simple terms, Amarcord is a Proustian collection of memories, vignettes and images from the Fellini’s childhood in a provincial town in Fascist Italy. There are no central characters, no one person or group whose story the film centers on. The main character of the piece is the village of Amarcord itself. A multitude of characters flit through the village’s streets and houses, its buildings and plazas, all of whom are as important and immaterial to the flow of the story as any other. In turn, we are shown slices of the lives of the town flirt and hairdresser, Gradisca, the family of an anti-Fascist businessman and his irascible son, Titta, and the ribald tall-tales of a street vendor Biscein. None of the stories take center stage for long. Throughout it all, the mayor of the town pops in and out to speak directly to the audience, breaking the “fourth dimension” effortlessly with bits of history about the town dating back to at least 286 B.C.
Through the lives of the inhabitants, the viewer is invited to live through a year of the town’s life. It begins with the appearance of “the puffballs,” the sure sign that winter is over and spring has arrived. We see a bonfire festival celebrating the arrival of spring. Fellini weaves the pomp of the many festivals in with slice of life vignettes, such as school-house pranks, the sexual fantasies of Titta, the nationalistic pride of the Fascist fervor sweeping the country, and the arrival of an Italian cruise ship, The Rex. In the end, the viewer is left with an impression, the same feeling one gets from gazing at an exhibition of paintings or a night at the symphony.
The film ends as it begins, with the arrival of the puffballs. Though one of the characters dies in the final half-hour, the joy of a wedding and the return of spring infuses the film with a sense of hope. One of the characters speaks to the audience directly again, bidding them a fond good-bye. The director has taken you on a year-long tour of the village, of his childhood memories, and of his own reflections on those times through the filter of memory.
If you have never seen a Fellini film, I would not recommend that you start with Amarcord. You’d be better suited to stick to one of his earlier works like La Strada or even 8 ˝. Unfortunately, one of his better films to start with, La Dolce Vita, is not yet available on DVD, or I’d recommend that one. Once you become used to his style of filmmaking, you’ll be better able to appreciate the airiness of Amarcord. It’s a beautiful film, a note-perfect example of a master at work, but it’s hardly approachable.
The DVD iteslf is a bit skimpy. Other than the film itself, you’re given the usual chapter selection, subtitle options, as well as an extremely short piece on the restoration of the film. There are no commentaries, no interviews, nothing to really put the film in any sort of context with the director’s other works. Curiously enough, there is a “Help” option which tells you how to use the menu. I’m sure there are tribes in the Congo which have not yet seen a DVD and still feel that cameras will steal their souls, but they don’t buy Fellini DVD’s. I’m fairly certain that anyone who has taken the effort to buy a DVD player and are using that DVD player to watch Fellini films can figure out the intricacies of moving the blinking cursor and hitting enter on their remote. Perhaps I overestimate their intelligence.
I would rate this movie a conditional four out of five stars. I say conditional because it really depends on whether you can dig Fellini or just think he’s another Italian director referenced by stuck-up film school dropouts to show how avant-garde they are. Those types may be idiots, but Fellini was most certainly a master of the filmmaking arts.