- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” seemed inimitable and endearing — despite a propensity for crass and vulgar slapstick that often bellowed from the ramparts — when it arrived on the art-house circuit in the fall of 1974, a year after its Italian release. The defects seem curiously magnified and the merits blessedly preserved in a two-disc DVD edition from the Criterion Collection.

“Amarcord” might be a logical candidate for holiday gift lists among moviegoers with an abiding soft spot for Mr. Fellini, who died in 1994 at the age of 74. Not having seen the movie for more than 30 years, I was surprised that the soft spot was growing a bit sore during the movie’s introductory episodes, which accentuate the clownish and grotesque aspects of adolescence in a small seacoast town in the early 1930s.

This setting was presumed to be a distinctively exaggerated facsimile of Mr. Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini, in the Emilia-Romagna province. The filmmaker even had published a sketchbook of sorts after recovering from a bout of pleurisy in 1967. Titled “My Rimini,” it is reproduced in a booklet that accompanies the DVD. Under a slightly different title,”Rimini, My Home Town,” it was anthologized in the collection “Fellini on Fellini” in 1976.

Several sequences in “Amarcord” were anticipated in the recollections of “My Rimini,” which also identified material that the director had appropriated in earlier movies, including his own “I Vitelloni” and Roberto Rossellini’s “The Miracle,” written by Mr. Fellini. The title of his memory film became something of an exotic selling point. It evidently was a Fellini coinage, derived from the vernacular “mi ricordo,” meaning “I recall.” He liked the sound and the lyrical connotations, which he underscored when elaborating the derivation for interviewers: “I remember but I remain — the moments come to me, it is not that I go to them.”

There’s an image early in the movie that distills the elusive nature of summoning up memories. A well-dressed visitor who resembles Mr. Fellini is seen strolling on the beachfront. He clutches at the puffballs from wildflowers that fill the air during springtime in Romagna. You have the sense of a middle-aged memoirist grasping at fragments of the past. He may catch a few on the wing, but a multitude of other fragments remain gone with the wind.

The seasons provide a convenient and organic framework for the movie’s episodic rambles. “Amarcord” pretends to recapture a year of selected events, ranging from private moments to public spectacles, that often involve a youthful Fellini alter ego named Titta (Bruno Zenin) and members of his family. This household — mother, father, two sons, a layabout brother-in-law, a grandpa, a maid — enters as a wrangling vaudeville or sitcom cliche and modulates toward pathos as spring and summer are supplanted by autumn and winter.

At this late date, one is tempted to attribute the rampant vulgarity in such recent farces as “American Pie” and “South Park” to Mr. Fellini’s “Amarcord,” which had a kind of free-standing and self-contained tastelessness in 1974. In their defense, the Fellini vulgarities also proved disarming in respects that tend to elude later vulgarians. Certain sex gags were flat-out funny, notably Titta’s ruminations during confession and his encounter with a prodigious tobacconist who engulfs him in her bosom and leaves him a teenage invalid after overmatched heavy petting. The recurrent scatological gags are groaners, but they set up situations that have ominous reverberations: the abuse of Titta’s father by local fascists and his kid brother’s sudden confrontation with a bull, which looms out of a dense winter fog as the boy walks to school

The tone of the movie begins to shift toward the contemplative and poignant when the family sets out for a visit with Uncle Teo, a mental patient whose derangement proves too much for non-pros to handle. The seriocomic balance in this episode is reinforced by a famously evocative sequence in which townspeople row out to get a nocturnal glimpse of a luxury liner sailing by. The subsequent winter episodes, enhanced by spell-casting fogs and snowfalls, confirm grave and tender aspects that were obscured by ribald and blatant ones, including the incorrigible nature of Mr. Fellini’s own showmanship and circus-impresario mystique after 20 years of fame and self-absorption.

By the time another spring rolls around, with the puffballs wafting through the open-air wedding party for Magali Noel as Gradisca, a hairdresser who has been the town’s reigning glamour and bachelor girl, “Amarcord” has done something of a 180-degree emotional turn. The most powerful and affecting impressions express a feeling of estrangement in familiar surroundings.

Mr. Fellini has already summarized it beautifully in the fog-shrouded episode in which the grandpa discovers that he has been lost at the threshold of his own home. The sensation recurs when someone calls out for Titta at the wedding and a voice replies that Titta has already gone. This is a lovely way of reminding us that the filmmaker pulled up stakes almost 40 years earlier, when he was a bit older than Titta but determined to find a larger stage for his aspirations.

TITLE: “Amarcord”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and comic vulgarity, with an emphasis on scatological humor and sexual slapstick)

CREDITS: Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay by Mr. Fellini and Tonino Guerra. Cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno. Music by Nino Rota. In Italian with English subtitles. A dubbed version and commentary track also available in DVD edition

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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