Puffballs float into a tiny Italian town on a gust of wind, and they usher in spring: so begins Federico Fellini's 1973 film, Amarcord. We are informed of this seasonal change by screaming children, whose hands are stretched towards the sky, hoping to catch spring as it falls. We are also told by random passersby, who stop to stare as the puffballs drift to the ground. And we are told once again by a senile old narrator, who stumbles over words he must have been saying for years, as though the prognosticating puffballs were floating down not from the sky, but from a memory half-forgotten. The entire film, in fact, has the feel of half-remembered, half-improvised nostalgia: a year long memory of Fellini's, embroidered with his own personal brand of ridiculous.
And the film is quite often ridiculous. From the uncle who climbs a tree and refuses to come down, to the overly sexualized daydreams of the young boys of the town, the film deals with the ordinary and makes it loud and colorful and strange. There is Gradisca, who seemingly owns one outfit (red, of course). She features prominently in the fantasies of men and boys alike, and features even more prominently in the town's urban legends. And yet, despite her role as town temptress, she is content to sit in an empty theater and watch Gary Cooper movies, hoping against hope that she could find a real life facsimile for her film idol. And then there is Titta, the young boy around whom this episodic film revolves. He argues with his father, is doted on by his mother, and lifts up the buxom cigarette girl in a display of teenage masculinity. Titta is an obvious Fellini stand in, a character whose thought on woman and religion and the beauty of the world are only beginning to coalesce. And these things, the women and the world, are always most beautiful in the spring, when the puffballs all.
But spring, that season of blue skies, hellos, and goodbyes, is not the only important season in the film. There is also fall, the time when the fog comes. It's impenetrable, and an old man stands in its midst and asks it: "Where am I? I don't seem to be anywhere. If death is like this, I don't think much of it." And here, for an instant, Amarcord becomes a bit tragic. But instead of decrying the tempest in his mind, the old man merely responds with an emphatic "Up yours!" And with that, we are returned to Amarcord, where moments of true emotion are always undercut by the carnival of life. But the man lost in the fog finds his home, as he was standing in front of it the entire time. And then the camera follows the leaves blowing through the air, and finds a group of people waltzing without partners to music only they can hear, asking the question "Where are you my love?" to no one in particular.
After fall comes winter, a time where peacocks perch on great mounds of snow and unveil their feathers. But in the midst of this image of beauty is sadness, as Titta's mother dies shortly after. Her funeral dirge acts as the transition between piles of snow to puffballs. And when spring has returned, we follow the puffballs as they waft towards the wedding of the lovely Gradisca, who may have finally found her Gary Cooper. Sadly, however, it is not that simple. Gradisca's new husband is a fascist politician, the type of person who could irrevocably change the town's way of life. And the threat of fascism is presented as almost a joke in the film. Dictators take the form of overgrown cardboard clowns in this particular circus, but beneath the facade is real danger. And the aftereffects of Italian fascism were portrayed through neorealism, a filmic movement that Fellini was a part of at the beginning of his career. But with Amarcord, he goes back to the beginning; the world that came before the Italian people fell into poverty and tragedy. Because before that tragedy, the only things falling were puffballs.