While he would continue making films, television and commercials for almost two more decades, Amarcord (1973) represents the last high-water mark for Fellini’s brilliance as a director of seemingly effortless vision, soul and execution. Depicting a year in the life of a seaside town near his native Rimini, the film plays as a collage of vignettes stitched together with affection and gentle mockery, taking various detours into surreal and quintessentially Felliniesque sequences that might be dreams or perhaps just memories of memories, filtered through the director’s eye and nostalgia. With little in the way of narrative structure, the scenes unfold like the unhurried storytelling of a master raconteur who is as liberal with embellishments as he is spellbinding in his delivery. You don’t know why you’re enthralled, but you can’t look away.

The film’s title means “I remember” in the Romagnolo dialect, and the first-person voice appears occasionally in narration delivered into the camera by various personages who seem to be winging their lines, expounding on the village’s medieval architecture or the seasonal appearance of puffballs which herald the arrival of spring. The evolution of the seasons makes for a de facto story arc, with no principal character among the varied cast of eccentric locals. Instead, we are shown a procession of scenes that roughly correspond to a person’s life divvied out over the course of a single year, starting with school and family scenes, and concluding with a marriage and a funeral. It’s the 1930s in rural Italy, where the Catholic church is the ultimate authority, fascism is on the rise and much mischief is to be made by the young and old. These characters, richly imagined and personified by both seasoned actors and non-professionals, give the film its heart.

Titta (Bruno Zanin) is the adolescent son of Miranda and Aurelio (Pupella Maggio and Armando Brancia) whose dinner table antics verge into slapstick. School teachers bluster and declaim as their students rig up ingenious contraptions to deliver streams of urine from one side of the classroom to another. A priest grills young men about their dirty thoughts and, later, a fascist official (Ferruccio Brembilla) interrogates Aurelio about his political sympathies. The town beauty, Gradisca (Magali Noël) whips the local men into a lascivious frenzy, and the comically buxom tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) plays at seducing Titta in a scene that careens into softcore fantasy. Meanwhile, Titta’s uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), released from the mental asylum for a weekend visit, climbs a tree and shouts “I want a woman!” while hurling apples at anyone who tries to bring him down, until a midget nun climbs a ladder and harangues him into submission.

In other words, it’s all Fellini, all the way down. Interspersed with these bizarre and lighthearted scenes of quotidian antics are moments of transcendent beauty. In the middle of summer, a blizzard buries the town in improbable snowdrifts, as a peacock appears, strutting through the falling snow with its plumage extended. On a misty night, the townspeople paddle their boats into the harbor to witness the passing of a massive ocean liner which appears from the fog like a glowing city, a vision of Italy’s dreams of a cosmopolitan future. The harem of a visiting dignitary occupies the Grand Hotel with a captivating procession of hooded figures, dancing and swaying as if enacting a Busby Berkeley musical number in their bejeweled burkas.

Strangely, Fellini chose not to film Amarcord anywhere near his native Rimini, opting instead to recreate the cobbled streets and stone facades in Rome’s sprawling Cinecittà studios, where everything was filmed on elaborate sound stages. Reinventing reality in this way seemed to allow him to create illusions that came closer to expressing profound truths than simply depicting the world as it was. Many of the personages in Amarcord were caricatures or riffs on people he’d known in real life in his hometown, filtered through the script he wrote with Tonino Guerra. Fellini himself remains behind the camera as his characters act out the memories and dreams that form his vision of life in the Italian provinces as fascism was casting its spell across the country. As ever, Nino Rota’s infectious score lends the proceedings a carnivalesque spirit.

Amarcord was the last of Fellini’s films to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was perhaps the most accessible of all of his award-winners, enchanting international audiences and critics alike without the formal experimentation of 8 1/2 or the sinuous plotting of La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria. The camera work in Amarcord feels fresh and surprising without drawing undue attention to itself, and the comic moments peppered throughout the vignettes keep the tone light even as darker passages leave viewers with a sense of the melancholy of memory. The moments depicted might be invented or exaggerated for effect, but, like the meticulous recreation of the town on a Roman movie lot, Fellini’s treatment transcends memory to get at something closer to deep and personal truths.

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