263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s greatest political empire, upon whose ruins successors erected the throne of Europe’s greatest spiritual empire. Federico Fellini, who came from the Italian provinces but made the city his adopted adult home, always looked at Rome as both an outsider and an intimate: the city always seemed a little strange to him. He set most of his movies there, and the city is the backdrop for his most iconic moments: Anita Ekberg splashing in the Trevi fountain, the statue of Christ flying over the city. In retrospect it seems obvious that Fellini would devote an entire movie to Rome as a character: a “city symphony” in the ancient cinematic tradition of Manhatta (1921), Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927), or Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Of course, in Fellini’s hands the symphony becomes twisted: those early movies were avant-garde in their experimentation with new camera techniques, but the modern maestro performs his experiments with narrative. The result, while completely scripted, is neither fully a fiction film, nor truly a documentary. Rather, Fellini skips between reality and fiction, inserting himself into the film as tour guide in ways both subtle and obvious. He fashions a series of portraits and postcards into a collage that conveys some of the wonder and teeming humanity of a city that has served as the center of Western culture for millennia—and may, at the time this was filmed, once again be in one of its periodic declines and falls.

To bring Rome to life, Fellini assembles his usual high-quality collaborators: the superlative set and costume design (by Andrea Fantacci and Danilo Donati, respectively), and the per-usual excellent score by Nino Rota stand out. The early scenes are disjointed, jumping back and forth in time and reality. Fellini scatters odd bits throughout a first hour that often lingers on extended mini-dramas: young Federico’s long tour of the working-class Roman pensione and the raucous dinner in the piazza outside, the variety show that focuses as much on the rowdy hecklers in the audience as the acts. Along the way, however, we get enough departures from the straight line to assure us Fellini has not returned to the bad neorealist habits of his youth; he’s as skewed and brilliantly self-indulgent as ever, and it will all pay off at the end if we are patient. We are reassured by the scene where college students stumble on the production and accost Fellini himself, demanding he address social problems in his new film, only to be met by the director’s objection, “I have to be true to my own nature.” That means depicting a prepubescent boy’s fantasy that casts the local pharmacist’s wife as a modern Messalina, an eerie inter-sequence where we watch the shadows of stray dogs alarmed by the nighttime sights and sounds of an electric arc welder, and a scene where ancient Roman frescoes are uncovered by workers excavating tunnels for a subway, only to be instantly destroyed by contact modern air. The most extended of these early scenes is one of Roma‘s most impressive: a long cruise through highway traffic, where Fellini’s crew’s camera (dangling off a weaving crane on a truck) captures roadside prostitutes, hitchhikers, and ancient ruins on its trip towards the city center. Sights like a riderless horse weaving among the traffic (followed much later by a man drawing a carriage) and ominous untended fires on the side of the road eventually culminate in the sight of an accident that has strewn cattle carcasses across the roadside.

The sight of hippies lounging on the Spanish Steps like lotus eaters, amorous half-naked couples almost making love in public, prompts the intermittent narrator to remember how much more difficult it was to acquire sexual experiences when he was a youth. This prompts another extended wartime flashback to scenes set in two brothels; scenes that begin the film’s ascent to what passes for a climax in such a non-linear work. The anxious men begin their experience at the working-class bordello packed into a narrow corridor while the whores display themselves at the top of the stairs; unable to see anything, the men in the rear pop up like jumping jacks to get a view of the wares. The entire troupe is led upstairs to a warehouse-like enclosure for a better view, gathering in a circle as weathered prostitutes parade by with pitches that mix vulgar come-ons with disdainful challenges to the assembly’s masculinity. The procedure is depressingly mechanized and dehumanized, with a bingo board displaying numbers of the currently occupied rooms and a high-tech madame ringing a buzzer whenever one of the gals scores a client. The scene then shifts to a higher class brothel where working conditions are slightly better. The show floor is now a bourgeois drawing-room, the courtesans descend on a gilded elevator and dress in furs, silks, and satins (although, with their breasts hanging out of their nightgowns, their garb is ultimately just as trashy as their downscale competition). Fellini’s young stand-in, Peter Gonzales, arrives, and is smitten by the brothel’s star prostitute, dressed in a chain mail bikini that would not look out of place on Barbarella. He purchases her time and body, makes small talk, and offers her a real date, which she accepts—ambiguously, as we never return to this storyline.

It is hardly accidental that the extended brothel sequence is immediately followed by the extended ecclesiastical fashion show. Both segments feature the spectacle of people parading past an audience where they are judged on their appearance. While the cloistered priestly convocation is more civilized, it’s also more horrific and inhuman. Although presented as the dream of a pious old woman, this sequence shows off Roma at its most nightmarish. A cardinal and his anachronistic noble guests—including a male wearing a ruff and women dressed in evening gowns and tiaras—occupy a center tier of seats, while priests and red-robed subordinate cardinals take the flanking positions. Servants serve hors d’oeuvres and glasses of crème de menthe. The contestants in the spectacle are the most grotesque of Fellini’s caricatures in the film. They start off simply, with black satin robes for novices, and grow increasingly bizarre: cardinals on roller skates, nuns with dove hats with wings that bob as they move, shells of copper bishop’s vestments, ghastly figures in shrouds like angels of death, and a grandiose finale with a glowing Pope appearing in the sky—a Pope who might as well be Sol Invictus. Fellini always had a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church, viewing it with admiring scorn. His imagery here is technically blasphemous, but so silly it seems merely irreverent, rather than mean-spirited or gauche. But the underlying message cuts deep: the Church thrives more from its pageantry and sizzle than its substance.

After the ecclesiastical climax, Roma goes into swift decline. It returns to modern times for a downbeat fifteen minute wind down.  The film crew goes into a piazza at night for the city’s patriotic Festa de Noantri. As they wander past tables of the various establishments, wandering drunks stare into the camera, barkers insult the crew for not spending any money, and a balladeer sings “Our Rome, My Rome! They’re stealing your soul away.” They find a table where Gore Vidal is sitting and interview him. “Rome is the city of illusions,” he advises. “After all, the Church, the government and the film industry are all located here.” He continues, “the end of the world is coming ever closer… Too many cars, too many poisons. What better place [to be] than Rome, which has been reborn so often?” As his party toasts the coming apocalypse, cops arrive and first roust, then beat, the hippies congregating on church steps, while the diners continue their feasting. Cut to a boxing match in the middle of a public square with crowds howling for blood. A crew member reports, “Someone stole the camera!” As the night winds down, Fellini finds the actress Anna Magnani heading home. He declares her the living symbol of Rome, but she refuses an interview and shuts the door in his face. In the very last scene, a motorcycle gang roars through the city in the pre-dawn hours, howling past Rome’s great monuments: the Trevi fountain, the Equestrian Marcus Aurelius, the Pantheon, the Forum ruins, heading to the Coliseum. Are the barbarians here so soon?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Fellini’s free-flowing valentine to the Rome of his imagination, of his memory and especially of his movies. It’s a testament to the unique properties of films, and a gigantic advertisement for himself… It’s like watching a gallant old prince auction off the contents of his palazzo—both too cheaply and much too readily, since his creditors really aren’t that desperate. As the extraordinary things are carried out and put on display, you recognize them with love, laughter and a good deal of shock.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“What is unreal, and where is the real? Fellini doesn’t know, and he seems to believe that Rome has never known. Rome has simply endured, waiting in the hope of someday finding out.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“Federico Fellini’s Eternal City fugue is neither memory (‘Oh, you and your damned Proust!’) nor documentary (the craning camera pretending to be following a rain-spattered traffic jam is actually orchestrating it). Imagery is instead arranged in impressionistic, movable blocks that ebb and flow in a sea of molten lava.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

IMDB LINK: Roma (1972)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Roma (1972) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion page includes the American release trailer, David Forgacs’ booklet essay, and a brief video selection from the featurette where director discusses the film

Fellini’s Roma (1972) – Articles – Essay by Jeff Stafford for Turner Classic Movies with background information and anecdotes from Gore Vidal and others

FELLINI’S ROMA (1972)‘s appreciation of the film, written for this site (before the Criterion release)

DVD INFO: In 2016 the Criterion Collection released a restored 2K version of Roma on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy). You can now throw out your old extras-free MGM Roma DVDs. This release includes 17-minutes of deleted scenes, including Marcello Mastrioianni’s cameo; interviews with director Paolo Sorrentino and poet and Fellini associate Valerio Magrelli; “Felliniana,” a selection of promotional materials and behind-the-scenes photographs; and the U.S. release trailer. The informative commentary is by Fellini expert Frank Burke. Instead of the usual booklet, you get a fold-out poster with a psychedelic bishop’s outfit on one side and an essay by David Forgacs on the other. The poster is well-designed and a nice idea in theory, but the inevitable crease marks make it less-than-suitable for display.

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