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Federico Fellini, Amarcord, 1973, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) and Gradisca (Magali NoŽl).

FEDERICO FELLINI HAD A TOUGH TIME choosing a title for Amarcord, his splendid satire of provincial Italy in the 1930s. He considered a sarcastic one, Viva l’Italia!, and nearly went with Il borgo (The Village), which, as he later explained, would have captured the sense of “medieval enclosure” in the town depicted in the film, his native Rimini—and suggested that the country was full of equally unevolved burgs. The neologism he eventually settled on (a play on “I remember” in Romagnese dialect) carries an appropriate perfume of the unfamiliar and the untranslatable. But it also brings problems—mainly, the implication that this 1973 film is a nostalgia trip. And so Fellini found himself griping to interviewers: “Amarcord doesn’t mean ‘I remember’ at all.”

Instead, he insisted that it is a “cabalistic word” that evokes the prevailing atmosphere of the film: “a funereal feeling, one of isolation, dream, torpor, and of ignorance.” Fellini’s loose narrative of classroom pranks, curvaceous women, swearing old men, gleefully narrated tall tales, and colorful community rituals mostly adds up to an empty romp—and that’s the point. Rimini is stuck in a rut of childishness and spectacle-fed delusion that leads straight to fascism. But many of the town’s routines come across as ribald good fun, and it is easy to misinterpret Fellini’s familiarity with his caricatures—namely Gradisca (Magali NoŽl), the village belle—as affection.

Fellini is torn here: As one of the twentieth century’s most autobiographical filmmakers, he’s attempting to renounce his birthplace without effacing himself. Unlike I vitelloni, the director’s 1953 exploration of his childhood home, this film offers no truly sympathetic characters. But Fellini is Fellini: While he disowns, he mythologizes. As with the choice of title, he can’t help giving the whole thing a whiff of richness and mystery. This is understandable, in a way: “While you detach yourself from all this absurdity, you know very well that you are cutting the ground from under your own feet,” Fellini said. “This thing from which you wish to detach yourself, and which you judge without pity, is the only life you have had.”

Federico Fellini’s Amarcord plays at Film Forum in New York December 3–16. For more details, click here.

Darrell Hartman