In his overrated 1939 comedy “The Great Dictator,” Charlie Chaplain presented Fascist Italy as having a powerful army on par with Nazi Germany.
Chaplain was way off. Italy got trounced in North Africa and humiliated in Greece. By the time the Allies invaded the Italian peninsula in 1943, it was German soldiers trying to fight them off.
Italian military might was a delusional fantasy. Even more than that, Italy itself is a fantasy.
Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” is a love letter to his hometown. But it’s also a focused, convincing exploration of why Mussolini failed so spectacularly.
The film follows one year in Rimini, a village on the Adriatic coast. We get to know everyone in town a little bit, but the action is centered around teenage boy Titta and his family.
Fellini looks back to his childhood with nostalgia. But it isn’t a sweet, family-friendly nostalgia. If the director’s memory is to be trusted, the people in his town did little more than fight with each other and think about sex.
Every public celebration is an excuse for the townspeople to try to one-up each other with insults. And to lust after and examine the backsides of women, who all seem to like the attention.
Titta’s homelife is like an R-rated sitcom, with his father and mother yelling at each other every night. They rachet the drama up to 10, with mom and dad regularly threatening to kill themselves. But it’s just a routine they learned from their parents. They do love each other.
When the fascists come to town, they are a little menacing. But Fellini exposes them as ineffectual thugs.
There is a fascist rally where all the local boys are expected to perform showy military maneuvers. Kind of like the Hitler youth. But none of the boys are into it. There is a big Paper Mache Mussolini in the center of the town square to inspire love of country. But one boy stops paying attention and imagines the Mussolini head officiating his marriage to the girl he has a crush on.
And that’s the secret to Mussolini’s abject failure: he pictures the people as Italians. And they don’t.
Only the fascists mention Italy. The townspeople just consider themselves people from Rimini. In school, the kids are taught about ancient Rome and the legendary artists from Florence. Nothing about the country of Italy, which was just 70 years old at the time.
Fellini makes his point clear with the very name of the film. “Amarcord” means “I remember.” But not in Italian.
Now, in the age of mass media, most people in Italy do speak Italian. But not in the pre-television 1930s. The people in his region spoke Romagnol, a language that was influenced by the barbarian Lombards, who conquered the region 1400 years earlier.
“Amarcord” is a weird, whimsical cinematic experience. But even though it has no plot, it most certainly has a vision. It introduces the world to a group of people who care much more about sex than flag and country. These would be fun people to party with on Saturday night. And you would be a certified fool to fight a war with them as your soldiers.