The problem with puberty, above all the sexual frustration and general malaise, is that you become an unavoidable know-it-all. It's an element of discovery: Whenever you discover something for the first time, you automatically think you have it over on everyone else, until you finally realize that everyone else figured it out before you or exactly when you did. Federico Fellini's Amarcord has a deep love for that feeling of discovery, of that brash cockiness, and realizes that nothing can really subdue this feeling. Not even World War II.
In a strange little town in Italy, a pack of boys, led by Titta (Bruno Zanin) live in the eccentric world of sex, family and war. Titta's ant-fascist parents are only the tip of the Iceberg. His uncle lodges himself in a tree and cries out to the heavens and anyone listening "I want a woman!" while his friends and him pee through tubes for pranks, take part in circle jerks, and fantasize about the local beauty, Gradisca. His father gets interrogated by Mussolini's soldiers to the point where he defecates himself, and the local shopkeeper, with a bust the size of most family sedans, gives him his first sexual encounter (presumably also the strangest he'll ever encounter). I'm leaving out the peacock, the speed racers, the nympho who lives by the sea, and the plucky narrator.
Fellini has to be the king of getting away with having a film with no plot. At least his artistic brother-in-arms, Antonioni, had the foresight to give a general plot (technically, L'Avventura is about a search for a missing woman). Amarcord simply exists in the vast oceans of hormones and gentle immaturity, without a care in the world. Yet, Fellini's film does extract some atmospheric meaning and the course it takes seems natural and organic, possibly even more than his other films. Gradisca as the juvenile goddess of sex, and eventually is married off to a military official (lust becomes duty). Take a look at the scene in which Titta and the shopkeep finally are with each other. He proves his alpha-male stature by picking up the large woman, only to be belittled by a sexual encounter that, uproariously, reduces him to an infant. The grand confusion of going from a child to a young man is laid out with such precise ardor, with sincere understanding and brash humor; it's no wonder this is widely accepted as Fellini's most popular film.
In thought, Amarcord becomes essential in Fellini's oeuvre as the audacious yin to 8 1/2's staggering yang. The film exists in a simple utopia of utter bewilderment, so full to brimming with sexuality and frivolous energy that it sometimes seems impossible that it keeps the audience interested. Where 8 1/2 was about the main character slowly coming back to the absurdity of life, Amarcord simply encompasses us in that absurdity, ending right where the characters would invariably make the great mistake of becoming serious.
What sticks out so much about Amarcord is its wild evocativeness. The current trend of film would suggest that these situations should be played as laughs, elevated from the normal run of ones life. What Fellini understands, quite possibly more than anyone, is that the thick, boisterous lust and the unkempt rebellion are normal at that time. Very rarely is there a time when one returns to a normalcy at that age because your body and mind are revolting against all the things it's been doing before. Amarcord has a heartfelt faithfulness to that feeling of inescapable irresponsibility and embraces it full thrust, and it's the reason the film is considered a classic to this day. I don't know much, but I know that.
The reissued Criterion DVD includes two discs. Disc one offers a scholarly commentary track and one deleted scene. The second offers the extras: A documentary about Fellini, interview with Amarcord's star, drawings by Fellini, and other "ephemera" relating to the movie. A sizable book about the film is also included.