There’s no structured narrative/no neat story line to explain
Our final film in the Fellini marathon was 1973’s Amarcord, which is a dialectic slang for “I remember”. In broad strokes, the film covers one year in the life of a quaint seaside town in 1930s Italy. Although the main character, if there is one, would appear to be Titta – a teenaged boy who surprisingly turns out to NOT be a stand-in for Fellini in his childhood – the story follows some dozen characters.
“Story” here is a somewhat loaded word. What the film really consists of is a series of usually comic, rarely connected episodes, which makes for a bit of difficulty in pulling the whole thing together. In point of fact, to my eyes there’s really only one small “rug” that even comes close to tying this room together.
The film starts with the appearance of the floating puffballs that signify the onset of spring. The villagers of the town, in an annual tradition, erect a massive pile of old furniture in the town square for a traditional bonfire, and they burn it, certain that this is the greatest and most glorious spring bonfire yet. In one of several similar appearances, the town lawyer begins to narrate to the camera, explaining the ways and traditions of the town, but he is interrupted by hecklers from the windows and leaves off.
We then get a scene that documents the town’s teenagers at school and their antics, which include a fairly ridiculous scheme in which a long telescoping paper cylinder is used to allow a seated classmate to long-distance urinate at the feet of a boy at the chalkboard. Let it be stated for the record that Amarcord is not afraid to be scatological. We also meet the overweight Ciccio, who has an ultimately futile (at least in the scope of the film) crush on the beautiful Aldina – while it would seem that many of his fellow schoolboys would prefer Gradisca, an older (possibly intended to be in her late twenties) single woman who sees herself as unlucky in love.
We are introduced to Aurelio, Titta’s father, who works as a construction foreman and was once associated with anarchist political groups that stood in opposition to the contemporary Fascist Party, and the remainder of his family, including his mother and his mother’s brother Lallo, who leeches off the family.
Of course, the two dominant influences overarching the culture of the town must be the Catholic Church and the Fascist Party, and these are taken in order. First, the church oppresses the young boys as they are beginning to explore their sexuality by warning them against the dangers of masturbation and then forcing them into the confessional. Naturally, a denial would never be believed, so Titta admits to masturbating just once, just a little, and he felt bad afterwards, which is of course comically shown to be a ridiculous understatement.
Then, the Fascist Party comes to town for a parade. The town mostly falls in line, but someone has planted a gramophone playing a left-wing anthem in the bell tower and the fascists pull out their pistols and very inefficiently remove the offending record player. Amongst others, Aurelio is brought in for questioning because of his anarchist past, and is forced to take castor oil as a warning of sorts for non-compliance with the Fascist Party.
There follows an unreliably narrated sequence regarding the town’s Grand Hotel, which details how Gradisca (“Whatever you want”) got her name by offering herself to a Fascist official staying there in return for money for the town to rebuild its harbor, and another character’s claim to have infiltrated a visiting sheik’s harem and to have slept with all 28 of the women in a single night.
On a summer afternoon, Aurelio and his family go on a day trip to the country, and they bring along Aurelio’s institutionalized brother, who proceeds to wet his pants and later to climb a great tree and scream from the top “I want a woman!” for hours on end, resisting any attempts to get him down until one of the nuns from his asylum shows up to order him down.
Two events of great local interest follow. First the town goes out to sea in small boats in the middle of the night to witness the passage of a great ship, a wonder built by the Fascist regime. Then, an annual auto race passes through the town and the citizens gather to watch the cars drive through.
Titta, in an ostensible pursuit of some cigarettes, approaches the town’s very buxom tobacconist at closing time. She picks up on his true amorous intentions and gives him the opportunity to suck on her breast. Like the proverbial dog catching the bus, Titta at this point has no idea what to do and she eventually shoos him off.
Finally, winter comes along, and amidst what will come to be known as “The Great Snow” Titta’s mother takes ill, and finally dies. After her funeral, Titta walks down to the beach only to see the reappearance of the puffballs. The cycle of life is paralleled by the cycle of the seasons, and shortly thereafter the ever-lonely Gradisca celebrates her marriage to a Fascist officer.
While the episodes are funny (and often a bit PG-13), there’s not much that ties them together other than the persistence of the characters. At best, the structure of the film that uses the year as a backdrop, beginning with hope in the spring, leading into despair in the winter and them turning back to hope in the spring is really the only thing that even comes close to narrative in the film. While 8 1/2 is similar in its lack of a traditional narrative, it does follow one character through his difficulties in producing and ultimately abandoning a film. Amarcord, on the other hand, is not much more than a series of short stories, and while it is universally praised by critics worldwide, I personally think the film suffers for its lack of cohesion.