Amarcord: Collectors' Edition Review

Although later Fellini films would come to be characterised by a fair amount of self-indulgence, the essential themes and personal obsessions would always remain there and the method in which the director presented them would always be fascinating. Drawing heavily on his memories of growing up in Rimini in North-West Italy in the 1930s, Amarcord is perhaps the most successful of Fellini’s films of his later period, depicting life in a small provincial town full of characters, presenting them all in an appropriate bawdy, episodic, cartoon-strip of a film, yet one with a warm, human, nostalgic undercurrent.

Set in the fictional small Italian seaside town of Battipaglia, Fellini presents his typical parade of colourful characters, all exaggerated and heightened by the eye of a caricaturist or perhaps just magnified by the vagaries of memory. The film focuses principally on the Biondi family, every one of whom carries those stereotypically Italian temperaments to the absolute limit. It’s like every provincial Italian family rolled into one. The parents, Aurelio and Miranda bawl each other out, driven to exasperation by the behaviour of extremely unruly children, there’s the vain but aging and still single uncle and the one in a lunatic asylum, and a lively and lecherous grandfather. The principal narrator, Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) takes us through those memories of childhood, covers all the things that linger in the memory and they are all subjected to the same impressionistic over-elaboration. The film ostensibly takes place over one year, but each season is hyper-exaggerated like they were every spring, summer, autumn and winter of your childhood all rolled into one. In spring the air is completely filled with puffballs, the summer wavers in a haze of intense heat, autumn mists are impenetrable and the winter is the coldest imaginable with 10 foot snow drifts.

In the same way that memory of the seasons is idealised and exaggerated for effect, so too are the inhabitants of the small seaside town. We meet all the idiosyncratic teachers of the boys school and see the pranks that are carried out in class, the overly-inquisitive priest who inquires on the morals of the boys, and the sluttish crazy woman, La Volpina (this film’s version of 8 ½’s La Saraghina character) who prowls around the beach and the workmen sites. There’s the buxom lady at the tobacconists whose outlandish breasts are the fantasy of every schoolboy and Titta in particular, as is La Gradisca (Magali Noël), the town’s beauty who the boys trail around the town for a glimpse of her behind (more than a little of all this influenced Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna). The period is also captured in the arrival of Fascist dignitaries in the town, a sequence which combines humour and fear to an unsettling effect, but seems indicative of the town’s desire to be important once again. Like the town simpleton Biscein’s tall-story of the day that an Asian prince arrived at the Grand Hotel with 30 concubines that he claims to have personally satisfied, the fantasies, rumours and stories built around the Grand Hotel are also central to the film in this respect – the longing for an exoticism and splendour that are no longer there, the youths touchingly in one scene looking in on the hotel’s former splendour and dancing with the wind.

There are many memorable episodes that characterise this spirit of lost wonder in the film – as indeed the whole idea of childhood reminiscence is inclined to do – but two episodes in particular seem to summarise this most effectively. One involves the Grand Hotel and the town’s beauty, La Gradisca, whose fates seem to be intertwined. Both seem to be a representation of the fading grandeur of the town – both have had their day and been the hosts to counts and royalty and, like them, the once popular seaside town relies on its memory of the glory days, unable to acknowledge that those days are probably gone forever. The other episode, which underlines this impression, is the town’s anticipation of the arrival of the grand cruise liner, the Rex, which passes 5 miles out off the coast, but draws the whole town out to greet its path – a representation of the glamour, splendour and prestige that the town craves, that can be only fleetingly glimpsed, remaining tantalisingly just out of reach.

Amarcord fits well into Fellini’s catalogue, particularly when it is considered alongside his other films as part of a larger body of work. The memories of one’s childhood in a small, provincial town here dovetails nicely into the young adolescent viewpoint of a similar town in Fellini’s earlier I Vitelloni, both films leading up to the departure of the young man for the bright lights of the big city, a career in journalism and the cinema elaborated on, just as fictionally, in La Dolce Vita, Roma and Intervista. The continuity of Fellini’s work is assisted invaluably by the music of Nino Rota, which is at its most imaginative and playful here, effortlessly weaving period music, jazz and samba rhythms into a rich blend of melody that evokes the feeling of warmth and nostalgia.

Although there is a Criterion Edition of Amarcord in the USA, Warner Bros have recently released their own edition in Europe. The UK seemed to receive a cut down single-disc version of this set, while in France it was released as an international 2-disc set Collector’s Edition with extensive and fully subtitled extra features. Menus are in English. This review takes a look at the French Collectors’ Edition and makes a brief comparison to the Criterion release.

The video quality of Warner’s French R2 edition of Amarcord is not great. The print is transferred anamorphically at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and exhibits many marks and scratches. Most of them are minor and fleeting, barely registering, but they are more evident in some scenes than others. One of the worst scenes is of Titta and La Gradisca in the cinema, where the darkness shows up a particularly bad bout of white dust speckling. It is certainly less noticeable elsewhere, although one or two larger white spots intrude into the picture on occasions. Colours are strong and bright, but there is a dull, faded sepia tint to the film that is more evident in scenes where blacks are predominant. This could be an intentional effect for a period look, but I don’t think so. There is a low level of grain visible throughout.

The audio is generally fine, presented in the original Italian Dolby Digital 1.0. There’s nothing striking about the sound, which has low levels of noise, but generally it’s clear and dialogue is audible throughout, although the actual volume is quite low. There are the usual unavoidable problems with lip-syncing, but this is more to do, as Enzo de Castro observes in the extra features, with Fellini rewriting and redubbing lines in post production, sometimes even when a person’s lips were not moving. As well as the original soundtrack, an English dub is included, which isn’t bad and tries at least to match the voices and expression of the original, but the Italian is obviously much more preferable. A French dub is also included.

Subtitles for a range of European languages are included, including English and all are optional. See sidebar for details. The language is a bit ripe and colourful in both the dub and the subtitles, as it should be, which along with the adolescent sexual fantasies earn the film a 15 certificate in the UK, but the rather more open-minded French certify this release as ‘Tous Publics’ - suitable for everyone.

Disc 1
Trailer (4:15)
A very long trailer tends to spoil the effect of the film, which doesn’t rely on plot, but does have a great deal of funny situations.

Disc 2
The Music of Nino Rota (12:07)
This is a superb look at Rota’s genius by film music historian Stéphane Lerouge and composer Alexandre Desplat (Girl With A Pearl Earring, Birth), with particular reference to Amarcord and Fellini’s Casanova.

Fellini’s Amarcord (34:05)
Including recent interviews with Magali Noël (La Gradisca), Bruno Zanin (Titta), Enzo de Castro, personal assistant Fiammetta Profili and poster artist Giuliano Géleng, each of them talk about how they got involved with Fellini, how they found working with him and give anecdotes about working on Amarcord. There is also some attempt to get behind who Fellini was psychologically, examining the film and his interest in spiritualism, psychoanalysis and dreams.

The Magic World of Fellini (27:53)
Three Fellini experts try to establish the facts around the creation of Amarcord and Fellini’s reminiscences of Rimini. Using split-screens and cutting between each of the critics, this builds up into a fascinating and dynamic examination of how Fellini worked and what it was he was able to achieve.

There are also trailers included for the Warner releases of Death in Venice (3:41) and The Damned (2:38).

French R2 v Criterion R1 comparison
The most obvious difference difference between the Warners Bros edition and the Criterion release is that the Criterion is non-anamorphic NTSC, while the French release is anamorphic PAL. The Criterion print is restored however and has noticeably less damage than the French release. The Criterion was restored to remove some of the worst damage so while dustspots are still there, they are less noticeable than on the Warner release. If you have the Criterion and want an indication to how the French release looks, it’s basically the ‘before’, unrestored print containing all the faults that are shown as corrected in the ‘Restoration Demonstration’. Both releases have the same optional English dub and optional English subtitles.

The restored Criterion edition looks marginally better overall with less print damage, but the colour levels and the dull blacks are similar on both versions. The Criterion certainly shows more clarity and detail however. See below for side-by-side comparison screenshots - Warner followed by Criterion.

A lot of people think that ‘Amarcord’ means ‘I remember’ in Italian or at least in some Italian dialect, but it’s actually an invented word – which is somewhat appropriate for a film that deals with romanticisation and invention. I can’t say what the word means to Fellini (and you have to take most of what he says with a large pinch of salt anyway) but to my mind ‘amare’ means ‘to love’ and ‘ricordo’ means ‘I remember’, so when I hear the film’s title Amarcord it conveys for me the meaning of looking back with affection on the past. And that’s what Amarcord does. Yet for all the caricature and exaggeration in its reminiscences, for all the bawdiness and the flatulence, the film remains funny and tinged with the sadness of nostalgia, is both personal and at the same time connects with a collective childhood that anyone can identify with strongly. Were I to choose between the two DVD editions to watch the film again, I would probably choose the Criterion, but it is far from one of their best discs. The French edition however has an extra disc of fabulously interesting and informative extras, which the Criterion does not, so the choice isn’t easy unless Criterion decide to revisit this one with an anamorphic transfer.

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