Saturday, April 30, 2011

TV Bites: Amarcord


A shorter version of this post was originally published on the Criterion Collection website.

By this point, you should now I'm going to be doing quasi-monthly Chef du Cinema mini-posts at the Criterion Collection website (see above). When the lovely people there suggested that I just pick something from their catalog I wanted to do first, I was sure I’d be overwhelmed to choose one. But starting with their new releases, the first film on the list was Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, and I stopped right there. I’d been dying to give it the Chef du Cinema treatment as it’s been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it in a theater over 30 years ago. Partly because I love Fellini in general, and partly because I spent part of my youth living in a seaside resort town in New York, and could relate to Fellini’s own memories of his youth in the Italian seaside resort town of Rimini.

If you're coming here for the first time and want to make sense of this, click to this post. And thanks for dropping by!

If you're a fan of Criterion films, I've done four previous of their releases:
Charade, Slacker, Coup de Torchon, and Shoot the Piano Player.

What I'm about to write is rare to hear: Watch the dubbed version. While most films have a cheaply dubbed version that can be painful to listen to, Amarcord had a wide US release and the dubbed version is excellent. You get hear a lot of subtleties and asides that are not included in the subtitles. I'm serious. Watch the subtitled version too, and see for yourself. More on this subject in an upcoming Chef du Cinema class post, so stay tuned for that.

Amarcord can be purchased direct or streamed direct from Criterion, and is both streamable & home rentable via Netflix.


"Look at them all up there. Millions and millions and millions of stars. Look at that. What I'd like to know is how the hell it's all held up there? I mean, for us, the problem, in a sense doesn't exist. You want to build a house - a few bricks and mortar, and that's it. But where's the foundation that holds all that up there? You need more than bricks."

In April 1967, Federico Fellini had spent two years developing a film with producer Dino Di Laurentiis and it wasn't going well at all. He was against the direction Di Laurentiis wanted to take the film and felt he was being backed against a wall. All this was having a physical toll on him and so he contracts bronchitis. Then a couple of days later, he passes out in his hotel and is taken to the hospital. To illustrate how messed up their relationship was at the time (or maybe he just knows him so well), Di Laurentiis is not only suspicious, thinking Fellini is trying to get out of his contract, but sends his own team of doctors to examine him. They return saying it might be cancer, and according to the story Di Laurentiis "weeps." Then, in a twist of fate, Di Laurentiis is hospitalized with appendicitis. It is still thought by the media that Fellini might be faking it. The doctors say he has pleurisy, but then a childhood friend turned doctor appears and announces Fellini has "Saranelli-Schwarzmann syndrome." Fellini wrote that the doctors now treated him for this and he soon began to regain his health.

Now I believe Fellini had pleurisy, but I have searched the entire Internet and the only reference to this so-called "Saranelli-Schwarzmann syndrome" is in biographies of Fellini. Sometimes it was hard to tell what to believe when the Maestro (as he was known) said anything. "I am a born liar," he stated in the documentary (and book) of that title. "For me, the things that are the most real are the ones I invented." In the end, he did get out of making the film with De Laurentiis.

But why am I telling this story? Because Fellini then went off to Manziana to regain his strength, and while doing so wrote a long essay entitled "La Mia Rimini" (My Rimini), in which he reminisces (and fantasizes) about his youth in the seaside town of Rimini. These reminiscences/imaginings would begin to find their way into his films, and eventually become the groundwork for Amarcord. (This essay is available in the book Fellini on Fellini, as well as included in the Criterion Amarcord DVD.)

"[I]n my last two pictures, in The Clowns and in Roma, I began to put in little cartoon-like vignettes of my home town of Rimini," Fellini explained in 1974. "This point of view, this looking back from a distance - I liked it, and I said to myself, 'Probably one day I'll make an entire picture in this cartoon style, just to say goodbye forever to all those ghosts. I'll make an entire picture for them, and after that they won't bother me anymore." (See below for, as he told Charlotte Chandler, those ghosts refused to leave him.)

Fellini started working on Amarcord, even before he was finished with his other pseudo-biographical film, Roma. For Amarcord, he partnered to write the screenplay with Tonino Guerra, a man who has written or co-written something like 100 screenplays to date. In fact, he is receiving the 2011 Jean Renoir Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer's Guild of America, "given to an international writer who has advanced the literature of motion pictures and made outstanding contributions to the profession of screenwriter." His credits include classics like Blow-Up, L'Avventura, Zabriskie Point, The Night of the Shooting Stars, and last year, at 90 years old, he saw the American remake of his Everybody's Fine, starring Robert DeNiro and Drew Barrymore. After Amarcord, he worked with Fellini on Ginger & Fred and And The Ship Sails On.

Fellini chose Guerra because they were about the same age and had grown up in neighboring towns. They originally wrote the script in their local dialect, then translated it into more general Italian, but keeping as much as the colloquial speech as possible. (Again, I recommend the dubbed version because I find the subtitles too formal and lack the nuances that the dubbed version seems to have.)

But rather than make himself the main character, Fellini chose to tap into his memories of his childhood friend Titta Benzi's family. (Benzi, who became an attorney in Rimini, was nearly cast as the father in the film.) The socialist leaning father, the hair-net wearing fascist gigolo uncle, the sex-obsessed grandpa, the obsessive mother, and younger brother - were all Benzi's family, not Fellini's.

For many, the most memorable scene in the film relates to young Titta's obsession with older women Gradisca (also known as "S'il vouz plait," in the English dubbed version). Though in "La Mia Rimini," Fellini is the obsessed boy. He literally copied the incident about him and Gradisca in the movie theater together directly from the essay, as well as the story of how she got her name.

"One day I had gone to Fulgar cinema. I saw Gradisca sitting there alone, in the expensive seats," he wrote in the essay. "I sat down, rather overcome by my feelings, first a long way from her, then gradually drawing closer...." The story ends the same as it does in the movie.

He continues in the essay to say that many years later, he went looking for the iconic woman who had so captured his heart as a youth. He wrote: "In my Jaguar, I reached a wretched little village [where he heard she was living and married]... A little old woman was hanging out washing in a garden." He writes how saddened he was to see Gradisca, now a decrepit old lady, and how she had lost that "carnival glitter of hers."

While this makes for good drama, it is yet another of Fellini's tall tales. When the film was released, an Italian journalist tracked her down - in Rimini and not sixty. She was, in fact, only five years older than Fellini. And she got her name not from a liaison with a prince, but because on the day she was born, her father was fighting in Gradiska, Bosnia in WWI. She also denied the movie theater story had any basis in fact. But she was the girl of many boys dreams in her day. "Of all the boys who wanted to make time with me, how would I be able to remember which one was Fellini?" she told the reporter. Sigh... women...

Now let's digress a bit to discuss the title of the film. "I have often simplified the cabalistic meanings of the word 'amarcord' by saying it was a 'Romagnol' [the dialect of the Emilia-Romagna region] for 'I remember.' But that's not quite true," Fellini said at some time after the movie was released. "I think the original idea came to me after reading about a Swedish abortionist named Hammercord, the sound of which simply started the ball rolling. If you contract 'amare' (to love), 'core' (heart), 'ricordare' (to remember, and 'amaro' (bitter) you end up with "Amar-cor-d.'"

But once again, separating truth from fiction with Fellini can be difficult. The name "Hammercord," also appeared in early leaked rumors of the film's story to the press. "Initially," wrote John Baxter in his biography, "it was leaked as a science fiction story set in the year 2000, its hero a Swedish pollution expert named Hammercord who no longer trusts his identity and those of the people around him. The doctor would reclaim this heritage by returning to the past." I haven't found any indication that Fellini actually had such a story in mind, though the working title for the film was L'umomo invaso (The Invaded Man, or The Man Profaned).

As the film neared completion, the American distributors (aka Roger Corman) urged him to come up with a new title, and thus Amarcord. Shortly thereafter, however, Fellini offered yet another explanation of the word. "[H]e said [it] was a nonsense word, chosen... at random. He'd scribbled it on a napkin one day at lunch and his non-Italian companion had remarked that it sounded like the name of an apertif - 'Drink Amarcord and Your Liver will be Strong.' If it would sell a drink, Fellini told journalists, it would sell a film."

Let's just run with what Sam Rohdie wrote in his essay about the film: "Whatever the meaning, Amarcord evokes another world: evanescent, unreal, unreachable, impalpable, like an image in the depth of a mirror that can be attested to for only a brief instant before it vanishes, like the images of the cinema.... Amarcord is not memory — or if it is, it is false memory — not fragments of what once was but fragments of what is imagined to have been."

As mentioned above, Amarcord was distributed in the US by none other than Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Corman, who is usually associated with low budget films (and giving a start to some of the great American film directors of the 70's), distributed many great art house films of the 1970's, including Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and Ingmar Bergman's Cries & Whispers. Just to put this in perspective, other films New World Pictures released in 1974, included Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, Candy Strip Nurses, and TNT Jackson.

Corman was asked why he got involved in these quality art house pictures. He said, "It's simple really: I love motion pictures. Primarily, the process of making them, but almost as much the distributing... that was an area I had never tried before. I thought I could be of service to film-makers who were not being treated adequately. But let me be clear - this was no charity in any way. I expected to make money."

Well he chose wisely with Amarcord, as the film not only won for Best Foreign Film at the 1975 Oscars, but returned the following year with Fellini nominated for Best Director, and Fellini and Tonino Guerra nominated for Best Original Screenplay. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I don't think that a film was ever nominated two years in a row at the Oscars like that. As they say, the film "had legs" and did very well at the box office and continues to be a favorite for film lovers today.


How much do I love Fellini, you ask? Well the only time I was in Italy, so far, was about a decade ago now. I spent about five days in Florence then took a train and spent a night in Rimini, then four days in Rome. I had to spend a night in Rimini. I had to see the town I felt I knew so well through Amarcord. (Though the film was mostly shot on the lot at Cinecittà.) And I had promised myself when Fellini died that someday I would go and leave flowers at his grave... to thank him for all his work and inspiration. But I was there in early January. Not exactly the time of year for visiting a seaside resort, you might think. But having lived in one, I prefer them when the tourists are gone and the hotels are boarded up for the season. It's just you and the locals.

The following is from my own diary of that visit in 2003: "Imagine that Elvis Presley was really important in your life. That he radically changed your perception of reality and that he inspired you to be someone you may not have been. Then imagine one day you get a chance to go to Memphis and other than say naming a street after Elvis there's nary any indication anyone is even aware of his general importance. You wander into local record shops and they don't sell Elvis records. The people at the hotel look at you oddly because you want a taxi to take you to Graceland. This is my experience in Rimini, in part.

What is Rimini like today? Picture Miami Beach. Take out the glitz and glamour of the last 10 years. And then add four inches of snow. Yes, snow. If Florence was really cold, this place is really f@#king cold. I can now appreciate the opening scene in Amarcord where they make a big bonfire in the center of town to welcome the coming of spring at the last day of winter. Man, do I get that scene.

After arriving I went to the tourist office where a woman who seemed like she was really pissed I came in - as she was just about to open her bottom desk drawer and grab a drink of something - also seemed to have no clue to help me find any significant sites in town that may relate to Fellini's movies, nor was she interested. Luckily, I had downloaded a page about some places to go. I had also emailed the local Fellini Association but they never emailed back. So last night, after settling in, I went for a walk to the Grand Hotel which is just that. A great old hotel from an era when hotels were truly grand. I wanted to stay there but when I had emailed they said they were all booked up. But I stood there and imagined a young Fellini watching the well-to-do's dancing to big band music.

There is a story that Richard Basehart tells of when working on La Strada, Fellini took him for a drive here and out to the pier and said "Now, do you understand me?"

I walk out to the pier and have a little commune with the Maestro. I ask for a sign... and suddenly a guy on a scooter comes rip roaring down the pier, goes to the edge, spins around and speeds back past me and away. In Amarcord, there's a guy on a motorcycle whom we never learn anything else about but he just zips around town. There were also three joggers who appear wearing shorts though their heads were wrapped tightly with scarves. Seriously, it's like 10 degrees here with breeze coming from the sea.

In the morning, I take another walk along the beach where I have a nice moment as this guy who must have been in his 70's rides up on his bicycle, gets off, and looks at the water with me for a bit. We nod at each other and then he pedals off. Who was he? I don't know. Does it matter? No. It was a beautiful morning to share with a stranger."

I asked a taxi driver to take me to his grave. He was the only one that seemed to understand what I was looking for and drove me around the old part of town to see the old town square, church, and some semi-faded murals of scenes from his films. I bought some flowers at the entrance of the cemetery and laid them down. The taxi driver then took me to the train station and I left for Rome. Even today, there is only (from what I've read) a very sparse little museum there now. Either they don't care, or they don't want to be remembered of what it was like before they turned it into the Miami Beach of Italy.

As Fellini himself wrote in his essay "La Mia Rimini" in 1967, "The Rimini I see now is never-ending. Before there were miles of darkness around the town and the coast road was unused.... Now, there's no more darkness. Instead, there's 15 kilometres of night-clubs and illuminated signs, and this endless procession of glittering cars, a kind of milky way made of headlamps.... just where the peasants' farmyards used to be, just where you used to hear nothing but mongrel barking[, t]oday these places have turned into Oriental gardens, with music and juke boxes and people everywhere, a whirligig of flashing images, a country of playthings, Las Vegas.... I no longer knew where I was... I felt foreign, defrauded, diminished. I was at a party that no longer for me."

Fellini's personal assistant/secretary Liliana Betti recalled in her memoir, how at the time he wrote the above, that "Fellini's relationship to his hometown is rife with obscure, contradictory feelings. He is tied to Rimini by a kind of enslavement that alternately enraptures and repulses him. Now, for the first time, he approached Rimini directly and securely, with no more fear, rites, or aversion. And his writing, speaking, and talking about it were similar to those of a man who can finally stare into the eyes of the sphinx, consciously to verify, as an adult, her nurturing, but also imperiling and imprisoning sap - and not to love her again or love her more, or to destroy her - but to return her to her natural dimension, which is that of a perennially consoling actuality and continuation."

After making Amarcord, he told Charlotte Chandler: "I don't like to go back to Rimini. Whenever I go back, I am assailed by ghosts. The reality goes to war with the world of my imagination. For me, the real Rimini is the one in my head. I could have gone back there to film for Amarcord, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. The Rimini I could recreate was closer to the reality of my memory. What could I have had if I had made the trip with all of my troupe to the real place? Memory is not exact. I discovered that the life I've told about has become more real for me that the life I really lived."

The Maestro was a trickster who knew how to tell a good story that often wouldn't let fact get in its way. We do create our own present and future, so why shouldn't we recreate our own past as we choose. And we do. We forget some things and remember things that never happened. But the concern over fact and fiction shouldn't diminish our love of this movie. It's just a movie. And a wonderful one at that....


Rimini, being on the coast, would suggest that any good grilled fish dish or fish risotto be a perfect accompaniment to this film. However, there is a popular street food I couldn’t resist learning to make. Piadine (or Piade) are Italian flatbread, their version of pita bread or flour tortillas, which you stuff with good stuff, fold in half, and eat. They are extremely popular all along the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. Fellini was said to be a great fan of them. He and his Amarcord co-writer, Tonino Guerra, would spend many evenings at Osteria La Sangiovesa, a restaurant just outside Rimini, which Guerra designed the interior of, and is known for its excellent Piadine.

In Fellini’s youth, however, Piadine were poor people’s food, sold at stalls along the beach, called a Piadineria. These days, however, they’ve gone upscale - even Starbucks sells them. Relatively simple to make, they can be filled with a variety of both traditional and nontraditional fillings.

I found a quote, attributed to Maddalena Fellini, the director’s sister, recalling an old Rimini saying: “Ogni donna fa la Piada a modo suo” (“Every woman makes piada in her own special way”), and this is certainly true even today. I found recipes that ranged from three ingredients up to seven. Some swear they must be made with lard, others with olive oil. The one below is not definitive, because there is just no such thing. One thing everyone agrees upon, though, is that Piadine must be eaten within minutes of being made. You can’t make it and let it sit. (There is also the similar Cascione (or Crescione), in which instead of cooking the bread, then filling it, you stuff it first, then close it like a Calzone, and pan fry it.)

Once you’ve made your Piadine, your choice of fillings are limitless. You can go traditional with just cheese, or cheese & sautéed arugula (and/or prosciutto - or any good Italian salami or ham); sausage & peppers; or tomato, basil & fresh mozzarella. The cheese traditionally used is Italian squacquerone. But If you can’t find it, try crescenza, taleggio, or stracchino. Also bel paese, teleme, fontina, even brie, or any soft cow’s milk cheese you like. Non-traditional filling ideas I’ve seen include grilled chicken & caesar salad; bacon, brie & tomato, butternut squash & pecorino romano; sautéed garlic shrimp & asparagus; or grilled eggplant, zucchini & fontina. There is also a traditional sweet Piadina made with Nutella & banana. Just let your imagination and taste buds guide you.

Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes 8

filled with crescenza & sautéed arugula

3 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour (about 500 grams)
7 tablespoons lard or olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup warm water

If using an electric mixer or food processor, attach dough hook/paddle. If by hand, just add ingredients in a mixing bowl, as directed, and stir/whisk.

Add flour, salt and baking soda and pulse to mix. Add lard and honey and mix at low speed until all ingredients are combined. Then, gradually add water (and I mean slowly) until the dough ball forms. You don't want the dough too moist, just a nice firm dough - not gooey. Remove dough and continue kneading by hand for about 3 minutes. Then return to bowl, cover, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Traditionally, the Piadine are cooked on something called a testo, similar to the Mexican comal. If you have a comal, use that. Otherwise, a large skillet or griddle will work. You can also cook them on an outdoor grill. Whichever way you choose, heat it now.

Divide the dough into eight equal-sized balls. One at a time, roll the balls into a thin pancake - about 8-inches in diameter. Getting a perfect circle takes practice. Feel free to cheat using a plate or a pizza cutter or just go rustic and do the best you can!

Place one at a time on the cooking surface. If it starts to puff up or get bubbles, use a fork or spatula to punch it down. Depending on your heat source, it could take 1 to 4 minutes per side. When it starts getting some nice char or color, flip it.

Remove from heat, insert your fillings, fold over, and eat! If not eating right away, put in pre-heated oven at 225*. Remember piadine should be eaten as soon as they're made.

Criterion's Amarcord Page
A Fellini site
Federico Fellini, by Antonia Shanahan @ Senses of Cinema
Fellini Tribute & Receiving Honorary Oscar at 1993 Awards@ YouTube
Interview with Fellini discussing creativity & his LSD experience @ YouTube

Amarcord (The Criterion Collection) DVD
Fellini - I'm a Born Liar DVD
Fellini On Fellini, by Federico Fellini
Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, by Tullio Kezich & Minna Proctor
I'm a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon, edited by Damian Pettigrew
Fellini: An Intimate Portrat, by Liliana Betti
Fellini: The Biography, by John Baxter
I, Fellini, by Charlotte Chandler
Fellini, by Hollis Alpert
The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

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