Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Amarcord

Directed by Federico Fellini. 1973.

Perhaps with the exception of Mr. Hulot's Holiday, there is no film more effortless to watch than Amarcord. This is all the more striking because Amarcord lacks a traditional plot with conventional scenes and dialogue to move it along. In contrast, the narrative of Amarcord is conveyed through the film's musical and visual rhythms, through a sense of the passage of time. It is an ease of motion, the imperceptibility of its connective tissue, which makes Amarcord a dreamlike whole out of the film's motley bits. This dreamlike passage of time universalizes the film's rich visuals into an overwhelming sense of a sumptuous, joyous, loved life.

In fact the larger-than-life visuals of the film would surely overwhelm a dialogue-heavy, plotted film, distracting with their absurdity. The dreamlike mood liberates the visuals which one can experience as ones own dream. Fellini's great contemporary Andrey Tarkovsy explored similar tone and structure, additionally commenting in his book "Sculpting in Time," that
It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality. Rhythm colours a work with stylistic marks. It is not thought up, not composed on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, but comes into being spontaneously in a film, in response to the director's innate awareness of life, his "search for time." –Andrey Tarkovsky [1]
Amarcord's dreamlike sense not just of sight and sound but of motion which makes the Felliniesque style so natural and appealing.

Yet Amarcord still has a nominal narrative: a year in the life of a teenage boy in his coastal Italian hometown. Here too, though, Amarcord is larger than life and though we see the daily goings on of Titta, his family, and the townspeople, it is memory filtered through the gauze of Fellini's own waltzing, voluptuous sense of the world. School, then, consists not in homework and rote drills but in the lioness teaching arithmetic, the flame-haired headmaster, and one of the most ingenious pranks you'll ever see. And in girls. Grossing out, pining after, and lusting at girls.

Politics is the grandiose absurdities of the fascist regime with all of its uniforms, gun-twirling, and stomping around town. One of the film's best moments comes during a party parade when a giant paper mache likeness of Il Duce is raised as the party boys twirl their guns in demonstration of their health and commitment. The scene shifts from the comic proportions of the giant red face to the absurd as without warning one of the boys is being married to his beloved Aldina. . . by the giant face! Again the memories freely coalesce here, the sights, sounds, and emotions blending together into a tide you cannot help be swept up in.

The town too becomes iconic with its square, sight of the annual torching of the winter-witch, and the boulevard down which the town beauties strut and a lone motor-biker sweeps. Then there's the movie theater, sight of many hoped-for encounters, and the storefront of the massively proportioned tobacconist (and a hilariously-placed portrait of Dante.) One of the best moments in town comes when the boys stand outside one of the stores and press their faces to the glass as the owner bemoans that he couldn't get away with offing them once and for all. It's a brief scene but it establishes the town not just as a place but in time. They boys surely must do that every week and, we get the sense, so must have boys for many years, and so they'll continue to.

Yet Amarcord is not about growth or coming of age, but of the ebb and flow of people in life. It's also about remembering, people, places, feelings, with intensity and affection. The film is bookended by scenes of the arrival in town of the "puffballs" which signal the end of winter. This device, as well as Nino Rota's waltzing theme, give Amarcord a rondo-like sense of departure and return. To quote Tarkovsky again, we fall into Fellini's rhythm and become his ally. We eagerly follow him through the vast ivory hotel and we wait for the Rex to pass by the shore. So sure is he of the truth of these fables and so beautifully does he tell them that the fabulous, like a wintertide peacock, ceases to be the impossible and becomes a marvel.

[1] Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. 1986. p.120

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