Amarcord Critical Analysis Essay
Federico Fellini 1921–
Italian director, screenwriter, artist, and actor.
Fellini's films are an intense mixture of fantasy and reality. He often appears to be a naive bystander observing the carnival of life. His films are deeply personal; for example, his wife plays herself in Juliet of the Spirits, the story of their marriage. While many critics find his films imaginative and perceptive, others accuse him of egotism and self-indulgence. But even though the quality of his work is disputed from film to film, his exuberance is undeniable; he revels in the eccentric, the colorful, and the bizarre, but he does not mock the characters he depicts. Rather, he seeks to understand them.
Born in Rimini, Italy, Fellini moved to Florence at the age of seventeen. Already he had acquired traits that reappear in his work: a love of the sea and antipathy toward the Catholic hierarchy. In Florence, he worked as a street artist until he was offered a position in a vaudeville show. He became a gag writer, then progressed to scriptwriting. An assistantship with Roberto Rossellini on Open City exposed him to neorealism, the cinematic movement that used non-professional actors and worked on location, thus bringing about an effect of verism. Fellini's first directing effort, with Alberto Lattuada, was Variety Lights. Though critics deemed it a failure, its revenue enabled him to direct his first solo film, The White Sheik. Its strict adherence to neorealistic style gave little indication, however, of Fellini's creative prowess.
I Vitelloni is regarded as a transitional work that retains various neorealistic elements of The White Sheik while foreshadowing the broader thematic aspects of La Strada, the film which brought Fellini international renown. Fellini used a carnival metaphor in La Strada for his theme, a lonely person's search for love. Some view it as Fellini's first acknowledgement of Christian belief, seeing La Strada's structure as a pilgrimage. Others interpret it in more secular terms. In their opinion, Fellini is merely sympathetic towards all humankind.
La Dolce Vita caused an uproar in Italy due to its condemnation of Rome's upper class. Some critics misunderstood its mockery and felt Fellini was glorifying, rather than lampooning Roman society and its morals. Not surprisingly, it most upset the very people it attacked.
8 1/2 marks a new stylistic development and is considered his most poetic film. Though the story of a filmmaker, 8 1/2 is actually the story of a man in the process of finding himself artistically and personally. It, too, is subject to more complex interpretations that examine Fellini's concern with aging and religious ambivalence.
The films following 8 1/2 have been more intimate, interspersed with fantasy and reality. Some, such as Satyricon, are blatantly flamboyant, and it is in this film that his obsession with the grotesque and bizarre is most evident. His most recent film, Orchestra Rehearsal, received mixed critical reviews due to his controversial treatment of an orchestra rehearsal as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life.
Although many critics have accused Fellini of immorality and conceit, his uniquely personal means of depicting life has resulted in innovative cinematic expression. Indeed, flaws are considered part of his personal statement. Fellini brushes aside accusations of egotism with "If I made a movie about a filet of sole, it would be about me." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Today I had the great pleasure of watching the masterpiece "Amarcord" again. The film is a charming series of vignettes set in Fellini's seaside hometown during his childhood in 1930s Italy. A warm and gentle comedy, it lovingly skewers the platitudes by which everyday people manage their daily lives.
Although Fellini is ever the romantic, he is also honest. And so a film about early adolescence includes story after wry story of adolescent sexual fantasy. We see daydreams of erotic conquest, braggadocio that cannot be fulfilled (including the largest breasts on this earth), boys lovingly tailing the town's glamorous hairdresser, and even a comical circle-jerk, in which boys take turns calling out fantasy objects for the group's arousal.
In parallel, the film keeps returning to the adolescent sexual fantasies of the adults---obsessive shots of women's butts (the women fully participating in the town game), a construction crew slobbering over the town nympho, an elderly gentleman recalling his grandfather's sexual exploits, women swooning over a local would-be Ronald Coleman (look him up, kids).
The subtext of the film, in fact, is the perpetual adolescence of the townspeople, flailing helplessly under the repressions of the Catholic Church and Mussolini's Fascism. We see a typical Italian family---a couple around 50 living with his father and her adult brother, along with their two children. The old man is a reminder that the couple are less than adults, while her brother is an unemployed man-child, indulged by his married sister, coming to dinner in a bathrobe and hairnet, and using the most obvious pickup lines to simply get laid, lacking any interest in a relationship.
Fellini saves a special stinging critique for the Church. A priest who hears the boys' confessions is primarily interested in their "self-pollution." The institution is particularly uninterested in either challenging the rise of Fascism or supporting townspeople who do. Religion has displaced both spirituality and morality.
Everything we have learned to expect from Fellini is on display in this film: his extraordinary gift for creating visual tableaux, his respect for world cinema, and his love of parades, of music, and for the Italian people. We also see how sexual repression, whether based in religion or politics, undermines adult development.
In addition to its enduring artistry and wise look at the human family, "Amarcord" has special resonance today. As the world's attention focuses on the Islamic community, there's a perfect storm brewing there. Very high unemployment among men (women generally don't go to work in most Muslim countries) means that many young men can't get married, and are still living at home. This, plus the lack of premarital sex (with little privacy for unmarried couples who are so inclined) means that several hundred million Muslim young men can't have sex (except for prostitutes or boys).
This enormous population of horny young men, with little to support their sense of self-worth, masculinity, or adulthood, is ripe for exploitation. They can help overturn a government, as in Tunisia, or they can blow themselves up and hope for virgins in heaven.
In "Amarcord," Fellini shows us the sexual dreams of teen boys, whose tender age blocks their fulfillment. He shows us the sexual dreams of adults, which look quite similar---but while unblocked by age, they are infantilized by religious guilt, political corruption, and a simplistic vision of gender relations.
The Arab world boils today with something similar, but with a dangerous new edge. No one in the Church is calling for people to blow themselves up for Christ. Italy, Spain, and every other cradle of western Catholicism is a hotbed of pre-marital, extra-marital, and openly gay sex. Islam urgently needs not just a religious reformation, but a sexual reformation. Like Fellini's characters, they desperately need the political and religious structures that will support a dignified, life-affirming sexuality for all.
Otherwise, another generation of sexually humiliated and emotionally frustrated young men may think heaven is their best option---and to get bonus points, they will take us with them.
"Amarcord" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was Oscar-nominated for both Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay.