We all have stories from our youth. Their veracity is usually up for debate, but the stories are there, napping in the shadowy parts of our brains. Amarcord — a Northern Italian phrase for I remember — is Federico Fellini’s story. It has a small town, and fascists, and befitting the frenzied concupiscence of teenage boys, a coterie of beautiful women serving as little more than objects. Looking backwards in time is a finicky venture, and for Fellini bears out all manner of misremembrances in service of his dark comedy, which is often about the way those inevitable misremembrances make our stories better.
It’s the end of winter in Borgo San Giuliano, where everyone knows everyone. The coming Spring ignites the restless townspeople, though not as dramatically as Gradisca (Magali Noël), a perpetually red-clad vixen at the center of every man’s fantasies. Gradisca is just one of Fellini’s technicolor characters, who include town liar Biscein, bilious nymphomaniac Volpina, the zaftig; tumescence-inspiring tobacconist, and a blind accordion player who is relentlessly pestered by Titta (Bruno Zanin) and his boorish pals. These players fill out a world that never reaches further than the outskirts of Borgo, and together fill in the cracks of Fellini’s wondrously bizarre childhood in Fascist Italy.
Amarcord is very silly, because adolescence is very silly; it is very colorful, because the world is more colorful when you’re young; and there is sex everywhere, because when you’re a 15-year-old boy, there is sex everywhere. Fellini’s portrait of his early years is composed with a very specific kind of veracity, presenting precisely what lives in his memory and not necessarily exactly what happened. And this is certainly compelling, given the fluidity and chromatism of memory. It also gives the film that loose edge you find in so many teenagers; Titta is mean, but also positively boyish, and between its bold colors, rabid-yet-endearing parents, and haughty Fascists, so is Amarcord.
The last time I saw Amarcord I was 13, and I watched it with my mother and my grandmother. The only things I had remembered about that viewing were that Amarcord made me horny and mortified, and so for me this movie will always be more about sex than anything else. I can’t and certainly won’t speak for young women, but being a pubescent boy is a formative and singular experience, wherein the world is very suddenly full of coitus and there’s nothing you can do about it. It marks the beginning of the end of childhood, and there’s a part of you that knows this and feels ready, and feels terrified. Amarcord, with its seasons and its spirit, evokes this end-of-era wistfulness, and does so with a big, toothy grin. It’s a film impossible not to adore, even when the sharper truths get under your skin.