In 1972’s Roma, Federico Fellini shifted away from the grandiose fantasy which defined his films during the second half of the 1960s (Juliet of the Spirits, Toby Dammit, and Satyricon). Instead, he returned to a more grounded reflection into his past. In Roma, Fellini recalls arriving in late 1930s Rome from his small town of Rimini to find work as a young journalist. Those hoping to see Fellini return to surrealist fantasy in his next movie would have to wait. For Amarcord (1973), Fellini actually went back further into his memories — he went back to his childhood.
Even though Roma was released before Amarcord, perhaps the better order to watch (and discuss) these films would be the latter and then the former.
Amarcord takes place in the early 1930s Borgo San Giuliano, Italy, which is based on Fellini’s childhood town of Rimini. Amarcord, however, is not entirely autobiographical. Rather than base the film on himself and his family (Fellini believed they weren’t that interesting), he features the family of a childhood friend named Titta Benzi (played here by a young Italian fisherman named Bruno Zanin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Matt Damon). Benzi’s family was full of eccentrics, which Fellini felt would better serve his story.
Co-written by Michelangelo Antonioni’s prolific screenwriter, Tonino Guerra (L’avventura, Blow-Up, Red Desert, Zabriskie Point), Fellini and Guerra delved back into their memories of growing up in small coastal Italian villages. There are memories of town celebrations, strict school headmasters, adolescent hi-jinks and most notably, adolescent hormones.
Amarcord begins with the arrival of spring. Borgo’s citizens jump and rejoice as puffballs soar through the air. The town’s citizens gather in the town square for the annual spring bonfire, which symbolizes the burning of “the old witch of winter.” Here, we are introduced to the male inhabitants of Borgo — the lawyer, the blind accordion player, the manager of the local movie theater, the oddballs in Titta’s family and many others. If there is a constant theme which runs throughout Amarcord it is this: virtually every male character’s thoughts are consumed by women. Many of the men in this tiny town even obsess over the same woman; a shapely hairdresser named Gradisca (Magali Noel), who wistfully longs for a companion herself. She dreams for a dashing, cultured man of excitement to whisk her away from her boring little town, but she has long since realized that she’s not going to find him there. Still, she yearns.
Gradisca spends many days in the local movie theater surrendering her dreams to the images of Gary Cooper. To Gradisca, he is a man and while she may feel affection for the males in her little town, they will never compare to her matinee idol. This is disappointing to young Titta, who although significantly younger, fantasizes about Gradisca and chases her all over town like a little puppy.
Gradisca — with her form-fitting outfits, stylish heels and fiery red hair — walks the streets of her Borgo as if she had stepped out of a Chanel exhibit (Chanel actually believed fashion ideas originated from the streets. After WWII, the designer understood the needs of women for functional and comfortable dresses, which explains Gradisca’s outfits). In contrast, Titta and his classmates wear old, hand-me-down clothes which further alienates them from the females (young and older) in the town.
In perhaps Amarcord’s most memorable sequence, we see Titta follow Gradisca into an empty movie theater where they are the only ones inside. Gradisca is once again entranced by the images flickering before her, while Titta makes his way, seat by seat until he’s sitting right next to her. He then slides his hand up along her leg and under her skirt. Gradisca ignores the gesture until she slowly turns to Titta and destroys his false confidence by asking him, “Looking for something?” A mortified Titta doesn’t say anything. With that, his fantasy of Gradisca dies. You can imagine Fellini saying, “Yes, these boys fantasize about women, but what would they do if they actually wound up with one? Would they know how to touch a woman in a way that is pleasing to her?“
Titta realizes he will never have Gradisca and before anyone else in Borgo realizes it — Gradisca will soon be gone.
Another of Amarcord’s most memorable scenes involves a family picnic with Titta, his parents, his uncle Lallo, his siblings and his other uncle, Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), who is picked up from the insane asylum where he resides. When arriving at the picnic destination outside a family farm, Teo disappears. His family search for him only to discover he has climbed up a very large tree where he repeatedly screams, “I want a woman!” Nothing or anybody can convince him to come down. He continues his pained cry of “I want a woman!” over and over again to the point where it drives everybody mad. Titta suggests he fetch the town nymphomaniac Volpina (or ‘Vixen’), but that idea is shot down. Instead, the family wait until Teo’s doctor arrives — with a diminutive nun — who finally coaxes him down.
Sex even manifests itself through the politics of the time in Amarcord. Italy’s Prime Minister and ruler, Mussolini, the founder of Italian fascism, was believed to have unbridled sexual prowess and was described to foster a “passionate” love for his people. Women found him to be “irresistible” as he was rumored to possess a “vast” sexual appetite and therefore, admired by legions of citizens. Fellini presents a mammoth-sized likeness of Il Duce in this film, where the citizens of the town and even members of Titta’s family march in step to praise the leader, “He has balls this big,” exclaims uncle Lallo.
When Biscien (Gennaro Ombra), the town vendor, stumbles on a hotel with a visiting sultan, he is invited up to their floor where Biscien claims he single-handedly satisfied the sexual appetites of 30 concubines. Biscien is known as the town liar, so his tale is not believed by many. This could be another fantasy conjured by the imagination of another male in this town.
Titta takes part in the annual town car racing event where he fantasizes his prize not to be a trophy — but of Gradisca (he doesn’t win the race or her). One of Titta’s school pals, Ciccio (Fernando De Felice, in his only film role), is desperately in love with fellow student Aldina (Nella Gambini), but she only scoffs at his romantic poems and gestures. In this same race, Ciccio imagines himself to be a skilled race car driver who Aldina only then notices, but he offers her nothing but a rude arm gesture and speeds off. Ciccio’s fantasy is to be wanted by Aldina, so he can then be in a position where he can reject her. Quite a contrast from the Ciccio who up until this moment has done nothing but pine away for her. Still, even in his fantasy, Ciccio has no idea what to say to charm Aldina. Rude gestures are all he knows. Only during the previous Mussolini march sequence does Ciccio fantasize about marrying Aldina in front of the ruler’s giant likeness. Such is the appealing aphrodisiac power of Il Duce.
As the season changes, the winter snowfall brings a quiet romantic stillness across the citizens of the town. The young men imagine dancing with their fantasy women in fog and snow. One evening, Titta ventures to the town’s tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi), an extremely large-breasted woman. Titta playfully says he can lift her, which she obliges him to do so. During the act, she experiences arousal and pins the skinny young man down on the ground, where she exposes her full breast to his lips. As Fellini has now demonstrated, Titta (along with his chums) has no clue what to do when it comes to matters involving sex. Rather than sucking on the woman’s breast, he blows on it as if he’s holding a trombone to his mouth. Fed up, the tobacconist pushes him away and has him leave. Once again, Titta cowers under the humiliation of being unable to hold his own opposite a woman.
With the winter approaching, Titta’s mother urges him to mature. However, after the town’s major snowfall, when he and his friends encounter Gradisca, instead of engaging her in conversation they begin flinging snowballs at her. She plays along because to her, these are just boys. This is where they admit this fact as well. Gradisca will never look at them as anything else. Now, they realize this. The snowball fight is interrupted by the sight of a peacock in the snow. Everybody stands in silent awe as the bird spreads its wide blue feathers (the peacock is considered to be a symbol of harmony or celebration of life). With winter having arrived in Borgo, it will soon be time to think of spring once again, with the soaring puffballs and spring bonfire which opened the film.
This spring is goodbye for Gradisca, however, as she finally met the companion she longed for — a traveling officer who looks nothing like Gary Cooper — whom she marries in a field under the swirling puffballs. Gone too is Titta, although, we don’t see him drive off with a companion the way Gradisca does. If this film is believed to be autobiographical (even though Titta isn’t technically based on Fellini), we can assume that Titta will also soon leave his small town behind for a larger one. So, now we refer back to Roma — to the young dapper journalist embarking on his voyage into the big city — just as Fellini did.
Released in 1972, Roma (co-written by Bernardino Zapponi, who also co-wrote Fellini’s Satyricon) is similar to Amarcord in that it doesn’t adhere to a straight narrative to propel its story. In fact, Roma contains less of a singular story than Amarcord. Roma consists of several situations and events which jump over time — sometimes by decades. The main narrative thread in Roma illustrates a young Fellini (played by the ridiculously handsome Peter Gonzales) arriving in Rome to pursue his career in journalism.
The young Fellini secures lodging in a boarding house whose inhabitants make the Benzi family in Amarcord look 100% sane by any stretch of the imagination. To the young visitor, this new environment feels as strange and alien to him as one might feel if they were deposited into the surreal world of the director’s previous film, Satyricon (which I will cover more extensively in part three of this series).
During the young man’s first night in his new city, he is invited to an outdoor town feast where its inhabitants gorge on never-ending plates of fat pasta, snails, roasted boar and rivers of wine. The poor villagers of Amarcord could only dream of eating so good. Young Fellini waltzes around Rome in a crisp, blindingly white, sophisticated suit and black tie. Again, young Titta in his shabby hand-me-downs has probably never even imagined such an outfit existing, let alone ever owning one. Borgo is no Rome and Rome is no Borgo. While both films showcase the autobiographical teenage years of Fellini, these stories couldn’t be any more different.
Except when it comes to women and sex.
Rome, much like Borgo, is home to shapely women — most notably found in the town brothels — a place of attraction and fascination for males in both places. Young Fellini visits one and is immediately smitten with Dolores (Fiona Florence), a ravishing, smoky-eyed serious brunette who couldn’t be any more different from Gradisca, who exhibited playfulness and even affection for her town’s lascivious males. Dolores is all business with the young man and displays no indication she wishes to see him in the outside world — even when he asks her to.
It’s not made clear after this encounter if Dolores and the young man ever saw each other again. For that matter, we do not know if Fellini ever saw Gradisca again when he left Rimini. Although, rumor is that he did search for her in later years, only to discover that the woman he once referred to as “the archetype of femininity” had still retained much of her beauty (though she did not remember him as she had many male suitors chasing after her). If there’s one thing both these largely autobiographical films share, it’s that Fellini never forgot any of the women who made an impression on him in his life — or his fantasies.