Frederico Fellini's Amarcord - which won the best foreign language film Oscar in 1975 - is a very odd film, in that it's consistently crass but also breathtakingly beautiful. Multiple scenes feature urination - one involves a prank in an algebra classroom, and one involves a mentally ill man who forgets to unzip his pants during a pit stop on a long road trip. But then again, it also features some of the most striking visual images I've ever seen; Fellini is a visual stylist almost without compare, and this movie's depiction of rural Italy has a real dream-like majesty to it.
The whole time I was watching Amarcord I was unclear if there was a deep metaphorical meaning to the film's various vignettes or if they were just the visions of a madman. For example, let's consider the movie's approach to sex. There's the scene where a young boy tries to seduce an overweight shop keeper by literally picking her up... And it sort of works, because she decides to take out one of her tits and "feed" him. However, he ends up completely blowing his chance because he keeps blowing on her breast instead of sucking on it, much to her frustration.
Is that a commentary a comment on how awkward it can be for a boy to turn into a man? Or is it a dirty old man indulging in a weird fetish? I honestly can't tell, because Fellini's film is too scattershot, in that it continually blends scenes that seem to speak to something larger with scenes that just seem like dirty jokes. (If you can find the meaning in the scene where four teenage boys are sitting in a car, two in front and two in back, shouting out the names of their crushes while simultaneously masturbating, then you are a better critic than I am.)
Fellini's best films have a magical realism feel to them, and they blend the insane with the mundane in a way that doesn't always make logical sense but are nonetheless emotionally powerful. Amarcord has brief flashes where Fellini manages to hit that balance, but all too often it just feels semi-random. The scene set in a confessional booth where a horny penitent imagines a montage of plump female rumps landing on bicycle seats doesn't quite feel like a skewering of the church, but rather like a lowbrow (and semi-random) indulgence.
(That said: it is also a funny and audacious moment.)
I think that all of Amarcord's strengths and weaknesses can be summed up in the above image. Look at how well framed it is, and at the way he juxtaposes his actor with an iconic piece of art, and at the way he contrasts her pleasure with his condemnation... It's just a compelling image.
Now imagine that actresses' breast in the mouth of an incompetent teenage boy because that still comes from the aforementioned suck-not-blow scene, and there's a confused young kid slightly off-screen.
What do we make of that shot now? It's still visually arresting, but in such a crass context it becomes ironic. But is it meaningful? Because it's definitely nonsensical - after all, why would a shop woman have that painting in her shop? Would any of this make more sense if I knew more about that specific painting, or about Fellini's biography? Or is this some tip-of-the-Fruedian iceberg shit where we could know everything about what went into that scene and still not get why Fellini wrote and directed it?
If a lesser filmmaker had made Amarcord it might be their best work: the film might be nonsensical, but it's definitely entertaining, and it did give me a sneaking suspicion that it was wise in a way I wasn't quite getting; it might be flawed, but it's memorable. However, I can't say that it really ranks with Fellini's best work, because La Dolce Vita or La Strada or 8 1/2 all manage to walk their narrative tightropes in a tighter fashion.