Amarcord presents a scathing satirical critique of Italian provincial life during the 1930s, the height of the fascist period (1922–43). In this era, Mussolini’s dictatorship enjoyed its greatest popular support. While Fellini’s depiction of the provincial world under fascism provides a complex political and cultural interpretation of the period, his portrayal of the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Rimini, Fellini’s birthplace, awarded him international acclaim. The worldwide magnitude of the film derives from its stylistic playfulness and ability to fluctuate between humorous images and serene depictions of human existence. Not only was the film successful at the box office, it received the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Film in 1974.
The inhabitants of Fellini’s imaginary Rimini are not divided into good anti-fascists and evil fascists. Instead, all of the characters are sketched out in masterful caricatures, comic types with antecedents in Fellini’s earlier films. Fellini’s fascists are not sinister, perverted individuals but pathetic clowns, manifestations of the arrested development typical of the entire village. As Fellini himself wrote in an essay-interview entitled “The Fascism Within Us”: “I have the impression that fascism and adolescence continue to be . . . permanent historical seasons of our lives . . . remaining children for eternity, leaving responsibilities for others, living with the comforting sensation that there is someone who thinks for you . . . and in the meanwhile, you have this limited, time-wasting freedom which permits you only to cultivate absurd dreams . . .”
Yet the hilarious portrait Fellini draws—of the ridiculous parades, the gymnastic exercises in uniform, and the small daily compromises necessary to live under a dictatorship—speak volumes about what life was like in that era. Through the sequences in which the Amarcordians greet a visiting fascist bigwig, and the scene in which they row out in the sea to catch a glimpse of the passage of the Rex (an enormous ocean liner that was the pride of Mussolini’s regime) coming from America, Fellini reveals the mechanism behind the mimicry of the cinematic image; he discloses film’s function as a mediator of authentic sexual desire. These scenes expose the townspeople as people dominated by false ideals and idiotic dreams of heroic feats and romantic love. Such public behavior has its direct psychological parallel in numerous scenes of daily life at home, in schools, and in church, with the clever comic touch that is Fellini’s trademark.
More than any other Italian film treatment of fascism, Fellini’s Amarcord manages to explain the public lives of its characters by minute details of their private lives. The sense of intimacy and immediacy that the film creates allows the audience to recognize certain aspects of themselves in these characters. One of the most interesting stylistic features of Amarcord is the proliferation of narrative points of view. In the original Italian print, we discover a complex mixture of direct addresses to the camera by various characters, as well as voice-overs providing information or commentary on the film’s action. In a few significant instances, this voice-over presence is provided by Fellini himself, something rendered moot when viewing prints dubbed in English. To define Amarcord as merely another “political” film would fail to do justice to such a poetic work. The film’s title means “I remember” in one of the dialects of Fellini’s native province, but this does not amount to a strictly autobiographical interpretation of work. While Amarcord, as its title suggests, contains a great deal of nostalgia, Fellini’s use of nostalgia as a means of romanticizing the past serves to underline his belief that fascism was based upon false ideals, and also his recognition that regret or nostalgia is as inevitable a sentiment as refusal.
Thus, Fellini offers Amarcord not just as a political explanation for a dark period in Italy’s national life, but as an important clue to the understanding of Italian national character as well. Though the film denounces the state of perpetual adolescence and illustrates Fellini’s belief that refusal of individual responsibility characterizes Italian society, it never degenerates into dogmatic treatise. Instead, Amarcord performs a certain magic that only a master of the cinema could accomplish.