Tuesday, April 18, 2017

1974 Winner, Amarcord


Director:  Federico Fellini

Distributed by:  Warner Bros./New World Pictures

Released:  December 1973

Country:  Italy

Going backward chronologically with our Best Foreign Films, now is when we get into the Italian and French dominance of the award.  No other country would win more than three times  from the inception of the award to 1974, while Italy won 11 and France 9 during that time period.  The director of Amarcord, the 1974 Best Foreign Film, is known as one of the great directors of all cinema, Federico Fellini, and this one is the last of his three films that won the award. 

I’ll start with this:  You don’t have to know anything about movies to know, after just a few minutes of watching this film, that Fellini is a master director.  The photography is wonderful, with scenes in school, church, the town square, and the coast, that are all marvelously shot.  You can see his influence over the art:  The scenery often reminded me of 1990’s winner Cinema Paradiso, 2013 winner The Great Beauty, and 1998’s Life is Beautiful.   Francis Ford Coppola must have also been influenced by Fellini, as one scene in the country brought a couple different The Godfather locations to my mind, though that great film was made two years earlier than Amarcord. (The fact that Nino Rota, frequent Fellini collaborator, did the score for both Amarcord and The Godfather probably had something to do with it as well.)

Titta (right) with his father and grandfather
I start with all that stuff about the scenery in part because there isn’t much of a linear plot here.  This is more like a snapshot of small town, pre-World War II north-central Italy.  Mussolini is in power and fascism has its clutches around Italy, but these small-town people have their lives to lead.  There is a vast cast of eccentric characters, but the focus is mostly on teenage boy Titta, presumably based on Fellini himself, and his family.  Titta’s dad is especially blustery and funny, looking remarkably like the guy who used to wake up early to make the Dunkin Donuts.  He always seems to be angry, either at Titta, or at his freeloading brother-in-law, or at his half-witted brother who won’t come down from a tree he’s climbed. 

There are scenes in the classroom that reminded me of stuff you may have seen in the Little Rascals, only a bit more PG-13.  At one point, while a bookish-looking kid is up at the chalkboard with the teacher struggling with a math problem, some mischievous boys construct and extend a long paper tube, one boy peeing into it from his classroom desk, sending a puddle next to the unsuspecting nerd.  The tube disposed of before she notices, the teacher looks down at the floor and then the student and yells, “What do you do?!” It's one of those immature pranks that you laugh at and wonder why you didn't think of it when you were young, and then think it's probably better that you didn't.

Looking for something?
Fellini, or rather young Titta and his friends, are obsessed with sex, and more specifically, with women’s butts and breasts.  Close-ups of women’s rears appear frequently in the film, with the boys and men gazing longingly.  There is one amusing scene when a female shop-worker encounters Titta and unleashes her breasts on him, nearly killing poor Titta and no doubt requiring Fellini to use a wide-angle lens. (A look at the movie poster will give you a clue at what I mean--that cartoon really isn't a caricature.)  In another scene, an aging but still attractive hairdresser whom all the town boys have the hots for finds herself sitting next to Titta in an otherwise empty movie theater.  As he moves his hand onto her slightly exposed thigh she snarkily asks, “Looking for something?”

Armacord as a whole can be taken as a critique of an Italy that allowed a fascist’s rise to power.  Some of the more serious scenes involve the struggle for these townspeople to deal with the choice they had with fascism—go with it or get run over by it.  It strikes me, though, that Fellini is presenting rural life much more lovingly and nostalgically than that.  Yes, the Catholic priests are tone deaf to the needs of the people; yes, the boys spend all their time thinking of girls; and yes, there are few weirdos who are part of the fabric of the place.  But it seems like this was a simpler time, and I think given how colorfully and brilliantly the movie is shot, it would be difficult to not like this small Italian town.

The Title:  A kind of made-up Italian word meaning, “I remember.”

Time to make the donuts!
The Culture:  This was a time between the great wars, in small town Italy, and Fellini presents us with the naivety of the time.  Everyone knows each other in this odd cast of characters:  the priests and teachers; the round-reared hairdresser; the odd nymphomaniac who hangs around; and the strange town character who talks to the camera from time to time. They all make up the time and place Fellini remembers.

Agenda danger:  Fellini, a non-practicing Catholic himself, seems to be critical of the Church, of Catholic education, and of the way the Church viewed sex.  But I found this presentation to be mostly an accounting of how it was then, and not a condemnation of the time he grew up in.  Titta’s father, a comic figure overall, stands up to the fascists admirably, as few must have in the time.

Best Picture that year:  The Godfather, Part II

Rating:  I must say I was a little confused by this once I finished it:  What was the story?  What did it mean?  But it was a film that was enjoyable to watch from start to finish, and it stuck with me a little after I was done, which I believe to be the mark of a great film. 

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