Movie Review of Restored 1973 Fellini Film "Amarcord"

Fascists march in "Amarcord," which explores small-town life in the Italy of the filmmaker's youth.
Fascists march in "Amarcord," which explores small-town life in the Italy of the filmmaker's youth. (Cristaldifilm)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Even Federico Fellini acknowledged that he had the habit of making the same film again and again, and "Amarcord" is just that film. Orthodox Fellini lovers may give primacy to the earlier, more narrative dramas, "8 1/2 ," "La Strada" or "La Dolce Vita," but "Amarcord" may be a more perfect summary of "Felliniesque," the sumptuous carnival style that defined Fellini's work from the late 1960s on. And it proves that Felliniesque means much more than just a shorthand term for the bizarre.

Janus is rereleasing the 1973 color classic, which mostly abandons plot for a series of vignettes exploring the foibles, characters and cruelties of small-town life during the Fascist years in Italy. A familiar cast of Fellini exotics is assembled: Uncle Teo, up a tree, shouting "I want a woman"; the large-chested tobacco lady, who almost smothers a young man in her colossal bosom; Volpina, the prostitute who seems to have wandered in from "Satyricon"; and red-nosed, filthy old Biscein, whose tall tales include the conquest of a whole harem of Eastern beauties.

And, of course, Gradisca, played by the Sophia Loren look-alike Magali Noël. Elected queen of the town for her beauty, Gradisca has learned to govern from the movies, moving through the ancient streets in a form-hugging red coat, with her gestures slowed and exaggerated to a camera-ready crawl of sensuality. If the film has a plot, it's a dual one: the growing-up narrative of Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin), a boy on the verge of manhood, and the get-me-outta-here story of Gradisca, who has grown too big for the town even while she wants nothing more than a chance to fall in love and settle down.

But the film also has a harrowing middle act, about Mussolini and the thin line between the rough-and-tumble of small-town life and the pure thuggery of fascism. Sandwiched between the pranks and crass humor of the opening, and the cycles-of-life conclusion of the film, is a brutal chapter about Il Duce's visit to this little absurdist capital of Fellini's imaginary Italy. His arrival is announced with a comical blast of thick exhaust or smoke, underscoring the obvious: The dictator was made of hot air.

No one in the mesmerized crowd cheers louder than Gradisca, whose elemental need for a strong man represents the collective, infantile need for strong leadership. But the story turns ugly fast, as Titta's father (Armando Brancia) is rounded up by the authorities, humiliated and forced to drink catastrophic doses of castor oil. Perhaps the most touching moment of this freewheeling film is the brief cessation of hostilities between Titta's parents, as his mother (Pupella Maggio) washes the muck off her brutalized husband.

It would be nice to say that the newly restored film looked resplendent, as if it were made yesterday. But it doesn't. While the current print may be better than some that have been in circulation for years, it is still marred by the flaws that old films are heir to. It has pops and scratches and vertical lines that wander through the image like the melody of a drunken accordion player.

The biggest disappointment is the quality of Nino Rota's magnificent soundtrack, which sounds like an old LP that has gathered dust in the garage. Remastered recordings can sound much better than this, without too much loss of the higher frequencies. Unfortunately, this version hisses loudly in the treble range and overwhelms the speakers in fortissimo passages.

Given how integral music is to the film's effect, it's a detail that needs improving. And given how much this film is about memory -- the personal memory of Titta, the collective memory of political events and the house-of-mirrors memory we're all prone to when we see the real world through cinema-tinted glasses -- it's sad the whole project isn't a little more impressive. But then, it's rare to see "Amarcord" on the big screen, and no one should be scared away by a "restoration" that leaves the film looking no worse than its fabulous old self.

Amarcord (127 minutes, at E Street Cinema) is rated R for brief nudity, sexual content and adult themes.

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