Amarcord is a bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale), the cinematic equivalent of a young man's rite of passage into maturity: Titta's sentimental education is therefore emblematic of Italy's "lapse of conscience."
Fellini skewers Mussolini's ludicrous posturings and those of a Catholic Church that "imprisoned Italians in a perpetual adolescence" by mocking himself and his fellow villagers in wildly comic scenes that underline their incapacity to adopt genuine moral responsibility or outgrow foolish sexual fantasies.
At the hairdresser’s, a Fascist has just had his head newly shaved when Aldina arrives to accompany Gradisca (Magali Noël), the village beauty, to the traditional bonfire celebrating spring. As night falls, the inhabitants of Borgo make their way to the village square where Fellini presents his comic characters: the blind accordion player (Domenica Pertica) relentlessly tormented by schoolboys; Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli), the stringy blond nymphomaniac; the stout and buxom tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi); Titta (Bruno Zanin), the rosy-cheeked adolescent protagonist; and Aurelio (Armando Brancia), Titta’s father, a construction foreman of working-class background. Modest and reserved, Aurelio responds in frenzied anger to Titta’s pranks while Miranda (Pupella Maggio), his wife, always comes to her son’s defence. Miranda’s brother, Lallo (Nando Orfei), lives with Titta’s family, sponging off his brother-in-law. In tow are Titta’s grandfather (Peppino Ianigro), a likeable old goat with an eye on the family’s young maid, and a street vendor, Biscein (Gennaro Ombra), the town’s inveterate liar.
Giudizio sits an effigy of the "Old Witch of Winter" in a chair on the stack and Gradisca is given the honour of setting it aflame. Lallo maliciously removes the ladder, trapping Giudizio atop the inferno. "I’m burning!" he screams as the crowd dances gaily round the bonfire and schoolboys run amuck exploding firecrackers. From a window, the Fascist bigwig (Ferrucia Brembilla) fires his pistol into the air. "I feel spring all over me already," says Gradisca in ecstasy.
The local aristocrat and his decrepit wife raise a toast to the dying flames. Schoolboys drag Volpina near the cinders then swing her back and forth in rhythm to the blind accordionist’s tune. A motorcyclist roars through the glowing coals in a mindless display of exhibitionism. Black-clothed women scoop the scattered embers into pans as the town lawyer (Luigi Rossi) appears walking his bicycle. Like Giudizio, he addresses the camera to explain choice titbits of the town’s history. A florid suite of raspberries interrupts his charming pedantry and he departs in a huff.
Zeus (Franco Magno), the red-haired crusty schoolmaster, presides over an official class photograph. After showing us a wall hung with the portraits of the king, the pope, and Mussolini, Fellini serves up a sequence of side-splitting classroom antics involving Titta, Gigliozzi (Bruno Lenzi), Ovo (Bruno Scagnetti), and Ciccio (Fernando de Felice), the class fat boy who has a crush on Aldina (Donatella Gambini), a lovely brunette. If the schoolboys are stereotypical delinquents, their teachers are ridiculous. During her inane lessons on Giotto’s perspective, the Fine Arts professor (Fides Stagni) dips a breakfast biscuit in milk. Expanding her voluptuous chest, the feral-faced math teacher (Dina Adorni) demonstrates an algebraic formula. Clicking tongue and palate to pronounce a syllable, the Italian professor (Mario Silvestri) is reduced to hysterics by Ovo’s parody of him. Myopic religion instructor Don Balosa (Gianfilippo Carcano) wipes his glasses and drones on while half the class sneaks out for a smoke in the boys’ room.
"Fu Manchu!” cries Volpina prowling on a sunburnt beach. When workers at Aurelio's construction site invite her to join them, the foreman promptly sends her off. Mortar, an old brick-maker, is asked to recite his new poem titled Bricks:
Aurelio replies with a homily on the virtues of hard work. During dinner with his family, Aurelio explodes when news arrives that Titta urinated on the neighbor's hat. The ensuing squabble builds into a delirious domestic fit.
Titta and his gang follow Gradisca on her promenade under the arcades and when that proves fruitless, flatten their noses against an irate merchant’s shop window. Lallo and his fellow Don Juans spot a carriage-load of new prostitutes on their way to the local brothel. The news spreads like wildfire to the town's male population.
Doubling as the town's parish priest, Don Balosa's main concerns are floral arrangements and making sure his schoolboys avoid masturbation. At confession, he warns Titta that “Saint Louis cries when you touch yourself.” Given his fantasies involving the busty tobacconist, the sensual math teacher, the fat-bottomed peasant women on bicycles, Volpina the man-eater, and Gradisca whom he tried to grope at the Cinema Fulgor, Titta complains that it can’t be helped.
A dirty dust cloud announces the visit of the federale during a parade led by the local gerarca. Following behind him are the math teacher and her colleagues rejuvenated by Fascist rhetoric. Now in uniform, Lallo joins the parade shouting, "Mussolini's got balls this big!” In a wild daydream, Ciccio stands before the giant face of Mussolini who blesses him and his "Fascist bride," Aldina. Surreptitiously wired into the bell tower of the town church, a gramophone plays a recording of the anti-Mussolini Internazionale but it is soon shot at and destroyed by gun-crazy Fascists. Due to his anarchist past, Aurelio is brought in for questioning and forced to drink castor oil. He limps home in a nauseous state to be washed by Miranda. We discover later that it was Lallo who betrayed him.
In a series of fantasy sequences at the Grand Hotel, Gradisca is encouraged to bed the Fascist high official in return for government funds to rebuild the town's harbor while pimple-faced Biscein recounts the night he made love to twenty-nine women in the visiting sultan’s harem. The Grand Hotel also provides the backdrop to Lallo’s gang of mother-controlled layabouts who obsessively pursue middle-aged female tourists.
One summer afternoon, the family visits Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), Aurelio’s brother, confined to an insane asylum. They take him out for a day in the country but he escapes into a tree yelling, "Voglio una donna!" ("I want a woman!"). All attempts to bring him down are met with stones that Teo carries in his pockets. A dwarf nun and two orderlies finally arrive on the scene. Marching up the ladder, the nun reprimands Teo who obediently agrees to return to the asylum. "We are all mad at times," sighs Aurelio.
The town's inhabitants embark in small boats to meet the passage of the SS Rex, the regime’s proudest technological achievement. By midnight, they have fallen asleep waiting for its arrival. Awakened by a foghorn, they watch in awe as the liner sails past, cap-sizing their boats in its wake. Titta’s grandfather wanders lost in a disorienting fog so thick it seems to smother the house and the autumnal landscape. Walking out to the Grand Hotel, Titta and his friends find it boarded up. Like zombies, they waltz on the terrace with imaginary female partners enveloped in the fog.
The annual car race provides the occasion for Titta to daydream of winning the grand prize: Gradisca. One evening, the buxom tobacconist is about to close up shop when Titta tries to weasel a cigarette. She ignores him but he catches her interest by boasting that he can lift her. Daring him to try, she’s aroused when he succeeds. Setting her back down, he goes to sit breathlessly in a corner as she draws the shop's iron shutter and exposes a breast, overwhelming Titta by her sheer size. The teenager’s awkward efforts end with him being suffocated by the very objects of his desire. Losing all interest, she sends him away after giving him the cigarette for free.
On the cusp of winter, Titta falls sick and is tended by his mother. "This will go down as the Year of the Big Snow!" announces the lawyer peering out from behind a snow bank. As Gradisca makes her way to church in the town square, Titta follows in hot pursuit and is almost run over by the motorcyclist bombing through a labyrinth of snow. On a visit to comfort his ailing mother in hospital, she tells him that it’s time he matured. A friendly snow fight breaks out between Lallo, Gradisca, and the schoolboys but is quickly interrupted by a piercing bird call. They watch mesmerized as a peacock, on the rim of a frozen fountain, struts its magnificent tail.
Titta wakes to find the house in mourning: Miranda has died. Locking himself in his mother’s bedroom, he breaks down and cries. After the funeral, he walks out to the quay just as the puffballs return drifting on the wind. In a deserted field with half the village present, Gradisca celebrates her marriage to a balding, pot-bellied officer. A man raises his glass and exclaims, “She’s found her Gary Cooper!" Someone asks, "Where's Titta?" "Titta’s gone away!" cries Ovo, as Gradisca drives off with her carabiniere to the tune of the blind accordion player.
Rapidly picked up for international distribution after winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1975, the film was destined to be Fellini's "last major commercial success."
When Amarcord opened in New York, critic Vincent Canby lauded it as possibly "Fellini's most marvelous film... It's an extravagantly funny, sometimes dreamlike evocation of a year in the life of a small Italian coastal town in the nineteen-thirties, not as it literally was, perhaps, but as it is recalled by a director with a superstar's access to the resources of the Italian film industry and a piper's command over our imaginations. When Mr. Fellini is working in peak condition, as he is in Amarcord (the vernacular for "I remember" in Romagna), he somehow brings out the best in us. We become more humane, less stuffy, more appreciative of the profound importance of attitudes that in other circumstances would seem merely eccentric if not lunatic."
In his review, critic Roger Ebert discussed Fellini's value as a director: "It's also absolutely breathtaking filmmaking. Fellini has ranked for a long time among the five or six greatest directors in the world, and of them all, he's the natural. Ingmar Bergman achieves his greatness through thought and soul-searching, Alfred Hitchcock built his films with meticulous craftsmanship, and Luis Buñuel used his fetishes and fantasies to construct barbed jokes about humanity. But Fellini... well, moviemaking for him seems almost effortless, like breathing, and he can orchestrate the most complicated scenes with purity and ease. He's the Willie Mays of movies."
Russell Davies, British film critic and BBC radio host, compared the film to the work of Thornton Wilder and Dylan Thomas: "The pattern is cyclic... A year in the life of a coastal village, with due emphasis on the seasons, and the births, marriages and deaths. It is an Our Town or Under Milk Wood of the Adriatic seaboard, concocted and displayed in the Roman film studios with the latter-day Fellini’s distate for real stone and wind and sky. The people, however, are real, and the many non-actors among them come in all the shapes and sizes one cares to imagine without plunging too deep into Tod Browning freak territory."