The title is supposed to mean "I remember," and the film is ostensibly a memory-dream-diary of life in the director's seaside hometown of Rimini during one year in the 1930s. But Fellini was an irrepressible showman who loved pulling the audience's collective chain, and Amarcord is no more straightforward as a recollection of his real adolescence than "amarcord" is a real word--Fellini made it up as a bit of pretend vernacular. So the strolling town historian who pops up occasionally to supply antiquarian footnotes directly to the camera more often than not gets pelted with snowballs from offscreen. Just as Nino Rota's (wonderful) music score recycles melodies from his scores for earlier Fellini masterworks, Fellini's movie is full of lyric ecstasies--spontaneous parades, comic ceremonies, eye-popping surrealist moments--that exist principally because that is what a Fellini movie is supposed to be like. There's no dominant story line, no individual character or player to be identified as the center of the film's swirling movement. Yet we do get to "know," and begin to cherish, literally dozens of goofy, eccentric, funny/sad creatures who have their distinct places in the continuum of Fellini's made-up town and reimagined Italy of a bygone era.
The era was, of course, that of Facsism. Fellini's take on Fascism here is anything but portentous; the giddy nationalism given voice occasionally by delirious crowds of townsfolk is no more sinister than the same crowd might have been in cheering on the local football team. In the movie's most famous set-piece, dozens of locals put out to sea in small boats to witness the passage of a fabulous ocean liner, the Rex, "the greatest construction of the regime." Waiting, they sleep--till suddenly the luminous (and entirely unreal) vision is towering above them, threatening to swamp them all. The moment is both ecstatic and terrifying. It's not the only one.
One last memory: In 1975 Amarcord received the Oscar for best foreign-language film of 1974. Since the film went into general U.S. release in '75, it was eligible for the Motion Picture Academy to turn around and nominate Fellini again, in '76, for best director and best original screenplay of 1975. He didn't win any further awards, but his repeat appearance in that year's Oscar derby occasioned an exquisite cultural moment: the young Steven Spielberg, realizing that he had not been cited for his direction of Jaws, gasping, "They gave my nomination to Fellini?!" --Richard T. Jameson