Written by Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Federico Fellini
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing, ain’t it? It’s such a powerful hallucinogen. People construct vivid dreams out of fragments of memories that make them yearn for a non-existent past when they were a child and blind to the workings of the universe. Fellini knows it too, and while he wasn’t overtly political (he was a member of Christian Democracy and Catholic but was rather wishy-washy when it came to pinning his personal beliefs down), he clearly was disgusted by authoritarianism. Fellini experienced this in the form of Mussolini’s fascist movement when he was a child, made to participate in the basic compulsory youth programs that never asked for parental permission. Amarcord is the story of fondly remembering childhood but being unable to close your eyes to the evil at the core of quaint small-town life.
Borgo San Giuliano is a town near Rimini, Italy. You know it’s spring each year when the fluffy poplar seed pods come floating down like a type of snow. To celebrate this season’s coming, the townsfolk gather in the square for a traditional bonfire, where they symbolically burn away the Old Witch of Winter. There are fireworks, pranks between people with longstanding playful feuds, and a fun time. However, the truth begins to peek out when we watch the older children head off to school, where the fascist takeover has replaced competent, qualified teachers with loyalists to Mussolini. It’s evident in the quality of education. Some teachers ramble on about whatever topic interests them while the kids play around and torment each other. Others recite a list of dry meaningless facts as the students fall asleep.
There’s also a performance done for visiting members of Mussolini’s regime in Rome, checking on the outer provinces and their loyalty to the status quo. Teachers and other community members, often small business owners, dress up in their most excellent military uniforms to lead a pageant of students showcasing their regimentation. A large flower float of Mussolini’s face takes center stage. While the story is mostly an ensemble affair, we follow Titta, a young boy, and his family. While standing in the shadow of the dictator’s face, Titta fantasizes about marrying his crush Aldina.
The celebration ends on a sour note that evening when a gramophone playing The Internationale, an anthem of the left-wing movement, sits in the town square bell tower. The fascists lose their minds, firing their rifles at the device until it comes crashing to the ground. Throughout the night, they pull in members of the town who have unscrupulous pasts. One of them is Aurelio, Titta’s father, an anarchist in his youth. Aurelio claims to have no knowledge of this, and the fascists, his neighbors, remember, force him to drink a bottle of castor oil, a popular laxative of the era. We later see him stumbling home in the wee hours, his wife bathing him in a washtub to wash the shit off of him that he was forced to lay in.
The summer comes, and Titta’s family visits his Uncle Teo, Aurelio’s brother, who lives in an insane asylum. Teo can leave with his family for an afternoon, and a lovely picnic is had. However, he snaps at one point, climbing a tree and refusing to come down while screaming, “Voglio una donna!” (I want a woman!). Teo carries stones in his pockets that he throws at anyone trying to get him down. Eventually, the asylum staff arrives, and he’s forced down, locked away again, until the family visits him, maybe a year later.
In the fall, the SS Rex, an Italian ocean liner, comes near the bay. It was one of the chief accomplishments of the fascists. The townspeople find their small boats overturned by its wake when they row out to get a closer view of the ship. Winter comes, and with it, tremendous illness, a deadly flu. Titta becomes ill, and his mother stays by his bed, nursing him back to health. Tragically, she catches it and dies, leaving Aurelio a widow. His brother-in-law, a fascist the mother coddled, weeps more than anyone else, knowing Aurelio will be kicking him out permanently. Then the fluffy pods fall, and it seems as though the cycle of life is set to continue for another year.
In such a beautiful and intelligent way, Fellini showcases the mundanity of fascism. He showcases how communities can be swallowed up by the ideology so effortlessly that people accept the brutality that comes with it because they have had it integrated into the cycle of life. People live and work alongside loyalists who, when operating under the power of Mussolini, never flinch when it comes to torturing them. The film keeps up in the outer layer, the place of tension, never allowing anyone to fight back or honestly resist. Even the true brutality is kept nuanced so that our curiosity is sparked.
Characters like Titta seem to live in perpetual ignorance of the weight of their times. He’s concerned with running around with his friends and lusting after girls his age and the older Gradisca. On that level, the film can come across as something akin to the seasonal stories of Our Town or Under Milkwood. But that would be selling it short and ignoring the tragedy of life Fellini weaves into every moment. The adults behave as infantile as the children, concerned with vulgarities and hedonism, not to an extreme degree but to one that is troubling. It doesn’t feel like most children have many people guiding them through life, just hand-holding them into fascism.
As someone who left the United States and continues to spend a lot of time reflecting on growing up there, I have realized how deeply fascism is embedded in everyday American life, from the blind worship of cops & soldiers to the rituals we perform (Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, etc.). I watched a white teacher force a Black child to stand for the Pledge and said nothing because I was afraid of the community I lived in. Right now, Americans must wake up to this poison within; you must evaluate where your neighbors stand and where your actual community is. In Amarcord, most of the townsfolk are chummy and get along. But then, in certain moments, the truth emerges, and we see the ease with which society descends into horror. We’re in a time when mutual aid and community groups will be one of the few things that can save us.