Grotesque Goodies: Unidealistic Memories of Food and the Fellinian Style in Amarcord
by Sean Sabye
“The point is not to idealize life but to live in its rhythm.”
– Federico Fellini
In a 1984 interview with Mimi Sheraton of Vanity Fair Magazine, legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini described his relationship with food and its impact on his artistry (Sheraton). When Sheraton asked Il Maestro which food scene from his films he would consider his favorite, Fellini gave an indirect answer, characterizing the dinner scene in Amarcord (1973) as the “closest to my own life” (Sheraton). This association between familiarity and partiality is written into the DNA of Amarcord (the title translating to “I Remember”)––a love letter to Fellini’s hometown outside of Rimini expressed through an episodic narrative set during the fascist rule of Italy in the 1930s. Although the film never settles on the story of one character, focusing instead on a multitude of tales told by a colorful cast of gorgeously bizarre townspeople, the narrative most often centers around the perspective of an adolescent boy named Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin), the assumed stand-in for Fellini himself. The abrasive dinner scene Fellini refers to in the Vanity Fair interview takes place in the Biondi household, most likely reflecting the director’s own experiences of hostile home-cooked meals during his youth. This scene, as well as the wedding feast that ends the film, captures the nostalgic experience of food without participating in the idealization of memory. The film achieves this effect by visually employing or refusing what film scholar Rinaldo Vignati terms a “Fellinian” style: “a baroque, exuberant style, prone to the grotesque, amplification and deformation” (Vignati).
While the whimsical and fractured tone of Amarcord often gives the viewer the sensation of a dream, the film’s food scenes ground encounters with memory in some semblance of reality. In his piece “Fame, Lack of Appetite and Disgust: Food in Fellini’s Films and Dreams,” Vignati asserts that Fellini’s food scenes “recall … the material dimension of reality” (Vignati). Memories are most often understood as unreliable, but with the inclusion of food they appear more tangible, especially when supplemented by visual reminders of the harsh or revolting aspects of lived experience. The mise-en-scène in the opening shot of the Biondi dinner scene establishes the claustrophobia of Titta’s home environment, interrupting an otherwise Rockwellian family portrait with the inclusion of a clothesline drooping into the frame under the weight of a single pair of wet socks (figure 1). This juxtaposition of food and wet clothing continues throughout the scene, as we later observe Titta’s mother (Pupella Maggio) reserving the largest pot in the kitchen for the purpose of boiling dirty clothes and rags. The scene’s final example of conflating the succulent and the stomach-churning comes after Mr. Biondi (Armando Brancia) asks Titta about his day, knowing well that his son micturated from a balcony onto a stranger’s hat mere hours earlier. After Mr. Biondi chases Titta out of the house in a tizzy, he returns to the dining room to display the urine-soaked hat to his family (figure 2). The enlarged image of the hat hovers over the contents of the table, problematizing any sense of the palatability often associated with childhood foods. Mr. Biondi even goes so far as to bite the defiled hat out of frustration after Mrs. Biondi refuses to accept that her son would ever do such a thing. Fellini also injects the fascist reality of Italy into the scene with the inclusion of Titta’s uncle, Patacca (Nando Orfei), a known supporter of Mussolini who, despite being confronted with revolting images and intra-familial threats of poisoning, never stops eating. Fascism’s appetite for conquest and presence at the table constructs memory in an unsentimental, critical light.
Amarcord ends with a wedding celebration for Gradisca (Magali Noël), the object of desire for many of the adolescent boys in the seaside town. After the toasts conclude and the bride is whisked off by a man dressed in formal military garb, the ceremony’s open field setting contains a lifelessness and realism antonymous with the Fellinian style. The film’s final shot pans over the beige landscape as the last remaining members of the party drift through the deserted space (figure 3). As Hirsch Foster writes of the scene in a review of Amarcord, “the composition is deliberately unstructured, non-pictorial, but it’s also unimpressive––there’s nothing to hold on to. The finale completely lacks the sense of communion or the joyous resolution or the formal beauty which have marked every one of the director’s previous endings” (Foster). Focusing on the abandoned feast, Fellini highlights the ordinary components of memories, imbuing the everyday with the same level of wistful reverence as his most consequential moments. Gradisca’s wedding refuses “amplification and deformation,” rather than indulging in it, detracting from any fantastical exaggerations of romanticized memory in the film’s final moments.
In either satiating or subverting the Fellinian style, Amarcord opposes the notion of food’s often glamorized role in the process of remembering. Although the film’s critique of fascism can be tangentially related to food in analyzing the scenes of feasting described here, I believe there is a deeper connection between the two elements of the film that I have yet to unearth. Specifically, I would be interested to see how the ideas proposed in this essay could be connected to the depiction of fascist festivities in the film. Food may even serve as a method of further separating fascism from the political outlooks it opposes, suggested by a fascist soldier’s line, “Comrades, they speak of ‘bread and work,’ but wouldn’t ‘bread and wine’ be better?”
Amarcord. Directed by Federico Fellini, performances by Bruno Zanin, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, and Nando Orfei, PECF, 1973.
Foster, Hirsch. "AMARCORD." Film Quarterly (ARCHIVE), vol. 29, no. 1, 1975, pp. 50-52. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/amarcord/docview/223105593/se-2.
Lyon, Ninette. "Fashions in Living: Giulietta Masina, Federico Fellini A Second Fame: Good Food." Vogue, vol. 147, no. 1, 1966, pp. 152-154. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/fashions-living-giulietta-masina-federico-fellini/docview/879274325/se-2.
Sheraton, Mimi. “No Fettuccine for Fellini Says Mimi: Ahh-Zuppa!” Vanity Fair, May 1984, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/1984/05/fellini-food-198405.
Vignati, Rinaldo. “Fame, inappetenza e disgusto: il cibo nei film e nei sogni di Fellini.” Italian Studies, vol. 77, no. 4, 2022, pp. 435-449. Taylor and Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/00751634.2022.2094193.