Today I had the great pleasure of watching the masterpiece “Amarcord” again. The film is a charming series of vignettes set in Fellini’s seaside hometown during his childhood in 1930s Italy. A warm and gentle comedy, it lovingly skewers the platitudes by which everyday people manage their daily lives.
Although Fellini is ever the romantic, he is also honest. And so a film about early adolescence includes story after wry story of adolescent sexual fantasy. We see daydreams of erotic conquest, braggadocio that cannot be fulfilled (including the largest breasts on this earth), boys lovingly tailing the town’s glamorous hairdresser, and even a comical circle-jerk, in which boys take turns calling out fantasy objects for the group’s arousal.
In parallel, the film keeps returning to the adolescent sexual fantasies of the adults—obsessive shots of women’s butts (the women fully participating in the town game), a construction crew slobbering over the town nympho, an elderly gentleman recalling his grandfather’s sexual exploits, women swooning over a local would-be Ronald Coleman (look him up, kids).
The subtext of the film, in fact, is the perpetual adolescence of the townspeople, flailing helplessly under the repressions of the Catholic Church and Mussolini’s Fascism. We see a typical Italian family—a couple around 50 living with his father and her adult brother, along with their two children. The old man is a reminder that the couple are less than adults, while her brother is an unemployed man-child, indulged by his married sister, coming to dinner in a bathrobe and hairnet, and using the most obvious pickup lines to simply get laid, lacking any interest in a relationship.
Fellini saves a special stinging critique for the Church. A priest who hears the boys’ confessions is primarily interested in their “self-pollution.” The institution is particularly uninterested in either challenging the rise of Fascism or supporting townspeople who do. Religion has displaced both spirituality and morality.
Everything we have learned to expect from Fellini is on display in this film: his extraordinary gift for creating visual tableaux, his respect for world cinema, and his love of parades, of music, and for the Italian people. We also see how sexual repression, whether based in religion or politics, undermines adult development.
In addition to its enduring artistry and wise look at the human family, “Amarcord” has special resonance today. As the world’s attention focuses on the Islamic community, there’s a perfect storm brewing there. Very high unemployment among men (women don’t go to work in most Muslim countries) means that many young men can’t get married, and are still living at home. This, plus the lack of premarital sex (with little privacy for unmarried couples who are so inclined) means that several hundred million Muslim young men can’t have sex (except for prostitutes or boys).
This enormous population of horny young men, with little to support their sense of self-worth, masculinity, or adulthood, is ripe for exploitation. They can help overturn a government, as in Tunisia, or they can blow themselves up and hope for virgins in heaven.
In “Amarcord,” Fellini shows us the sexual dreams of teen boys, whose tender age blocks their fulfillment. He shows us the sexual dreams of adults, which look quite similar—but while unblocked by age, they are infantilized by religious guilt, political corruption, and a simplistic vision of gender relations.
The Arab world boils today with something similar, but with a dangerous new edge. No one in the Church is calling for people to blow themselves up for Christ. Italy, Spain, and every other cradle of western Catholicism is a hotbed of pre-marital, extra-marital, and openly gay sex. Islam urgently needs not just a religious reformation, but a sexual reformation. Like Fellini’s characters, they desperately need the political and religious structures that will support a dignified, life-affirming sexuality for all.
Otherwise, another generation of sexually humiliated and emotionally frustrated young men may think heaven is their best option—and to get bonus points, they will take us with them.
“Amarcord” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was Oscar-nominated for both Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay.