On Fellini's 'Amarcord' and the Home-Video Revolution

The puffballs are yellow. Somehow, in maybe seven or eight viewings, I had never noticed that the little tufts of spring fluff blown across the screen by the wind at the beginning of Federico Fellini's 1974 Amarcord are yellow. They had always looked white, or maybe gray, like giant dandelion seeds or airborne pussy willow catkins. To find such a minor but striking difference in such a familiar film—indeed, the film I most often claim as my favorite, when asked—proves more than a minor revelation. It speaks to the subtle, potentially telling differences in the various versions of films that are made available over the years. This seems especially worth unpacking a bit since the way films are made available is currently in a state of flux.

I first saw Amarcord sometime in the mid- to late '80s on VHS tape, most likely a copy from the hallowed collection at the downtown branch of the Knox County Public Library. I had seen my share of foreign classics on big screens, almost exclusively at student-union screenings at the University of Georgia at Athens or at UT's University Center, but in the Southeast you almost always had to hunt up such obscure titles on videocassette. And even though the tape Amarcord was available only with a truly dreadful English-language dub, it still captivated me.

The title is a bit of dialect from Fellini's native Emilia-Romanga that translates as "I remember," and Amarcord is the most autobiographical work in his oeuvre, even though the main characters were based on the family of a childhood friend, not his own. It is, nonetheless, set in the 1930s, the time of Fellini's own young manhood, in a ringer for his small Italian coastal hometown of Rimini. Though many of the vignettes revolve around teenage Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin), his apoplectic father Aurellio (Armando Bracia), his no-nonsense mother Miranda (Pupella Maggio), and their extended family, the cast of characters encompasses the whole town, from local beauty/beautician Gradisca (Magali Noel) to the local attorney/amateur historian (Luigi Rossi) to the scrappy, scruffy street peddler (Gennaro Umbro) to an assortment of Titta's teachers and classmates. And although certain events in the Biondi household mark major moments in the film, there is no plot whatsoever—it's just a year in the life of the town and its people.

When asked why Amarcord is my favorite film, I usually respond, "It has a little bit of everything." Fellini's jaunty absurdity and bawdy humor touches nearly every sequence, whether it's the all-consuming sexual obsessions of Titta and his teenage cohorts (from piercing crushes to Titta's iconic encounter with a gargantuan-breasted tobacconist) or the director's satirization of the town's ruling institutions: the school, the church, and the then-rising National Fascist Party. But the film is not without its serious moments. Fellini may undercut the Fascists with their own ridiculousness, but he also reveals their venal evil and cruelty when they detain and humiliate Aurellio for his communist sympathies. The characters experience both a chilling harbinger of mortality in an impenetrable fog and the actual death of a major character; at the same time, there are also moments of sweetness, beauty, and longing. Many things change, many evidently never will, and when the puffballs fly again, you know it's time to go home. (Also, Biscein, the peddler character, walks toward the camera and tells you it's time to go home.)

When home-video exemplar the Criterion Collection started releasing DVDs in the late '90s, Amarcord was one of the very first titles it put out. The 1998 Criterion edition did away with the horrible dubbed English in favor of the original Italian dialogue and subtitles. By any standard, it was a huge improvement, and the image didn't degrade through repeated plays as with VHS. That said, I recently hauled out the initial Criterion disc to watch and was shocked at how battered and washed-out it seemed. To eyes used to seeing things in 1080p resolution on an LCD screen, even the most painstaking early DVDs can come off nearly unwatchable.

Criterion did a proper state-of-the-art digital restoration from a best-available print in 2006 for a new edition, and recently re-reissued that transfer on DVD and Blu-ray. It's thanks to the Blu-ray that I know the puffballs are yellow, that the sky in the wedding scene is a somewhat more hopeful pale blue rather than light gray, that there are many unnoticed details lurking in the shadows and backgrounds of the frames. The beauty and clarity of this latest, greatest home-video version of the film doesn't make me love the film any more, but it makes me enormously grateful for the opportunity to see it this way, probably the best one can experience it short of a new print, a good projectionist, and a 40-foot screen.

This past weekend The New York Times joined a growing number of publications hatching think pieces on where home video is going now that physical media such as DVDs are on the wane and a bewildering range of streaming and downloading options are popping up. Until bandwidth availability and other aspects of the tech improve, it seems unlikely that any streaming experience of Amarcord is going to equal an evening in with the newest Criterion edition. But I remain hopeful, and can't wait to see what the next iteration will bring.