Back in the days when art houses were temples of cinema and auteurs their living gods, few filmmakers cast a longer shadow than Federico Fellini. Time and changing tastes took their inevitable toll on both art houses and auteurs, but everything old is new again this week, as a new print of Fellini’s Amarcord, the 1974 Oscar winner that turned out to be the director’s last creative gasp, opens at the Nuart.
Essentially 123 minutes of things falling apart, often grotesquely but also beautifully, Amarcord takes place during the 1930s in Rimini, the little seaside village where Fellini grew up. Memory speaks volumes here, and pivotal elements of the film clearly correspond to actual characters and events from the filmmaker’s childhood, though Fellini has always denied that Amarcord’s splendidly orchestrated chaos served as autobiography. The Rimini of Amarcord exists in a parallel universe of fart jokes and free associations, a highly visual and unmistakably artificial locus constructed almost entirely inside the studios of Cinecittà. Fellini, ever the honest liar, is careful to distance himself from his past while embracing it, filtering memory through protective layers of imagination.
Fellini doesn’t even supply Amarcord with a readily identifiable surrogate for his younger self, just multiple unreliable narrators relating elaborately manufactured stories within stories. Contradictions are key to the film’s pleasure, with slapstick humor and gross-out gags folding into inexplicable poetry, and characters periodically addressing the camera as if to remind us that everything on the screen is illusion. Amarcord’s various dramatic personae scurry about in mostly frenetic mode, coming together in public squares, kitchens, schools, churches and movie theaters (the real love letter here is not to a time or place but to the cinema), as one of Nino Rota’s most beloved scores provides a memorable soundtrack for their lives.
As earthy as it is episodic, Amarcord often comes off like a series of loosely connected vaudeville routines, its players pumped up into a realm of caricature, where gestures and emotions are as outsized as those famously enormous butts and breasts so dear to the director’s heart. But what positions the film among Fellini’s greatest are its punctuation points of mysterious beauty — the whole village rowing out to sea to witness an ocean liner passing in the night; a towering head of Il Duce composed entirely of flowers; the loony uncle bleating out his frustrations from the top of a tree; a peacock magically appearing to spread its tail in the snow. These are the moments that truly define Fellini’s spectacle, and when notions of biographical fidelity pale before what lingers in the mind. (Nuart)