In the pantheon of great international cinematographers, it’s hard to think of many more diverse or accomplished than Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC. From the stark black-and-white of Rocco and His Brothers to the sumptuous color of Carnal Knowledge and All That Jazz, Rotunno’s oeuvre consistently combines technical precision with deeply affecting emotional content. Whether working on a Dario Argento horror film or a Robert Altman farce, the cinematographer has an unerring instinct for the proper way to visually express a script’s themes.
Although Rotunno has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with many directors, he is perhaps best known for the string of classics he shot for Federico Fellini. Their partnership yielded several acclaimed films, including Satyricon, Roma and Casanova, but perhaps the most beloved and enduring is Amarcord. Less a story than a series of episodes inspired by Fellini’s memories of childhood, the film is a perfect showcase for Rotunno’s skills.
On first viewing, most of Amarcord seems deeply romantic, but a closer examination reveals a more ambivalent depiction of provincial Italy under Mussolini. Instead of crafting a plot, Fellini and screenwriter Tonino Guerra created a series of vignettes that focus on day-to-day life in Rimini, the small town where Fellini was raised. These superficially comic and nostalgic portraits of Rimini’s residents have disturbing undercurrents; there are many playful scenes of citizens having fun, but the fun is almost always at someone else’s emotional or physical expense.
The movie also features a running motif of characters who are either incapable of evolving or unwilling to do so, and this is where Fellini’s mixed feelings about his subjects become most apparent. The adults’ childish antics are amusing at first, but this behavior is ultimately connected to the kind of pliable personality that allowed fascism to flourish in 1930s Italy. Yet Amarcord is rarely a dark or depressing film; the overall tone is one of exuberance, and the images are infused with great beauty.
The film is filled with scatological humor, cruel pranks and political oppression, yet Rotunno’s lighting and compositions are quite lovely. His use of color is particularly noteworthy and helps to unify the sprawling storyline. Amarcord takes place over the course of one year, and Rotunno gives each season its own palette.
The Criterion Collection’s recent two-disc DVD of Amarcord is a reissue for the company, but the transfer and supplements are all new. The image quality is stunningly good and shows significantly more tonal range and detail than the previous transfer. The monaural soundtrack is impressive as well, and its subtlety and clarity serve as a reminder that Fellini’s films are as expressive aurally as they are visually.
Italian film scholars Peter Brunette and Frank Burke provide an erudite commentary track that can be enjoyed by Fellini neophytes as well as those familiar with his work. Disc one also includes a silent deleted scene and a theatrical trailer from the picture’s U.S. release.
The highlight of disc two is “Fellini’s Homecoming,” a 45-minute documentary on the origins of Amarcord that includes interviews with Rotunno and other collaborators. Fellini’s own thoughts on his work are entertainingly conveyed in a 30-minute radio interview, which is accompanied by an hour’s worth of radio interviews with various relatives and friends. An additional video interview with Magali Noel, who plays the film’s most alluring object of desire, provides some amusing production anecdotes.
The package also contains radio ads, stills, posters, Fellini’s sketches, and a brief film-restoration demonstration. The numerous extras and improved transfer make this DVD a worthwhile purchase for Fellini and Rotunno fans, even those who already own Criterion’s original pressing.