Everyone remembers the blowhard on the movie line in Annie Hall. But almost nobody remembers that some of what he says is right.
“We saw the Fellini film,” he begins, and forget the blather about La Strada being a great film for its use of “negative imagery” (whatever that is). The cineaste showboat’s complaints about self-indulgence, about the lack of a cohesive structure, about Fellini not knowing what he wants to say, sums up much of the director’s career.
There are few great filmmakers—and Fellini certainly was one—who went so wrong so resolutely. Through Nights of Cabiria in 1957, Fellini built on the neorealism that Vittorio De Sica had brought to Italian cinema, mixing it with a lyrical and sometimes whimsical strain that never devolved into sentimentality or into the ickiness of what’s come to be called magic realism.
It all changed with 1960’s La Dolce Vita, one of those enormous critical and commercial successes that, as 2001 did with Stanley Kubrick, set a director on a path that negates everything that had been good about his work. Everyone remembers the pleasure of watching Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg gambol in the Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, that interlude is surrounded by three hours of moralizing about the spiritual emptiness of modern life—as if we should be shocked that the rich indulge in casual sex and shallow luxury. As with the decadence that Antonioni would show in Blow-Up, what we’re meant to view as bad actually looks like a lot of fun. (If rolling around with a naked, teenage Jane Birkin is the path to hell, I know a lot of us who are going to be stocking up on sunblock.) In Pietro Germi’s great 1961 comedy Divorce, Italian Style, the inhabitants of a rural Italian town flock to a showing of La Dolce Vita and, as Germi shows us their shocked and envious faces taking in all this moral corruption, he speaks the truth about Fellini’s opus: It’s a movie for hicks.
La Dolce Vita is the type of success that kills a director. After it, Fellini was a ringmaster collecting his grotesques, the very lack of structure and discipline in his movies acclaimed by his adherents as the fulfillment of a phantasmagoric vision. The empty-headedness, as in 8 1¼2, could be fun to let wash over you. Hardened into habit, whimsy becomes leaden, and that makes later films like City of Women and Ginger and Fred nearly unwatchable.
Fellini’s 1973 Amarcord, just released by Criterion on one of its typical—i.e., immaculately restored—DVD’s, has many of the same problems other Fellini films do: The picture is populated by caricatures instead of characters; there’s that damn controlling metaphor of life as a carnival; the episodes are strung together without any sense of dramatic structure or pacing. If you took away the “Felliniesque” touches, what you’d be left with would be terribly sentimental. Inevitably, the argument has been made that Fellini’s usual mishegas is here a way of emphasizing how imagination affects memory. It’s not; it’s habit. But in Amarcord, for once, Fellini’s self-indulgence doesn’t overtake the movie, doesn’t wear you out. You can see everything that’s wrong with the picture and it remains a pleasure to watch.
The title, a neologism invented by Fellini, according to Sam Rohdie’s accompanying essay, translates roughly as “I Remember.” Based on Fellini’s reminiscences of growing up in Rimini, Amarcord follows a year in the life of a seaside town, from spring to spring, in the late 30’s, when Mussolini was in power and Italy had made common cause with Germany. The poster for the movie showed the characters in tableaux staring out at the viewer. Watching it is like seeing them step out of tableaux for an episode, then fade into the background.
Some of the more promising characters—like the fat schoolboy hopelessly in love with a lithe, pampered classmate, or the mama’s boy who, in his teens, already has the dark circles under his eyes of a haggard middle-aged man—don’t get enough screen time. And there’s far too much of others, like the town idiot who spins endless tall tales. Although his big episode, a story of sneaking into a sultan’s harem for the night, is at least visually amusing: As the idiot plays his flute, the concubines rise from their bed one by one in what looks like Busby Berkley directing The Arabian Nights.
Some characters immediately call up the worst in Fellini, like Volpina, the town nympho, who licks her lips and leers into the camera. Fellini didn’t do great by women. There’s the inevitable huge-breasted woman who bares them to the camera. Magali Noël has the role of Gradisca, the town beauty, and her twitching backside gets as much screen time as the rest of her.
Perhaps Amarcord works because, in mining his memories of growing up, Fellini connects with the adolescent impulse to make fun of everything, to jeer at authority. The town lawyer, a friendly, pleasant fellow, turns up to relate the town’s ancient history to us—and gets a raspberry or a snowball in the head for his troubles. Those missiles represent the best timing in the film, a schoolboy’s response to the endless crap our teachers always bored us with. And what should be a groaningly loud section—a family dinner that erupts into chaos—instead plays as explosively funny, with the father (Armando Brancia) essaying the type of slow burn we might have enjoyed had Edgar Kennedy been Italian.
It all blows away as easily as the dandelion puffballs that float through the air at the beginning and end of the movie. Fellini’s stand-in (Bruno Zanin) has no more weight than any other character, and he certainly shows nothing of the artist in utero. And though individual scenes are touching—as in the tender solicitude of a wife caring for her husband after an interrogation by the local Fascists—Fellini’s decision to treat the Fascists as no more than clowns just seems part of his inability to get outside his own head. (Even clowns can cause destruction and terror.)
Finally, though, the picture’s good nature wins you over. It’s like spending time with a wearisome old relative who, for once, recovers the charm that used to make his stories a pleasure instead of a trial. Fellini may have left the church behind decades before Amarcord, but this time out, he earned an indulgence.