#7 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Watching this, and enjoying it, made me think of my review of Fellini’s Satyricon and feeling bad about it because both are episodic series of events that may or may not tie together, but I was simply more entertained by Roma than by the earlier film. Since it had been a while since I had seen Satyricon (and it had been out of the context of the rest of Fellini’s work), I did end up revisiting it immediately afterwards. I’ll have thoughts on that later, but, in short, my opinion remains the same. Roma holds together much better for a couple of big reasons.
Roma doesn’t really have a story. It’s easy to see I Clowns as the embryonic form of Roma because they both share quite a few large elements. Fellini appears as a minor character directing things, again. There’s a mix of footage that feels like it was captured impromptu on the streets of modern Rome (though, again, I’d be hard pressed to believe that it wasn’t all staged) with work done on soundstages that even go so far as to replicate a Roman street in the 1930s. Through it all Fellini is trying to convey what Rome means to him as evidenced by the film’s alternate title: Fellini’s Roma.
Fellini approaches the city from two fronts. The first was his introduction to the city as a young man. He had grown up with tales of Rome’s greatness in school (including a march over the Tiber just like Julius Caesar), but it’s the living breathing city itself that captures the Fellini-like character who shows up at Termini Station dressed in a white suit. What he sees as he’s introduced to life in the city are the large personalities that make up Rome in microcosm in his pension and the outdoor seating of the neighborhood restaurant. The people are loud and lightly antagonistic, but there’s a real feeling of community that makes it easy to see the appeal to a young man with no direct ties to the place.
Contrasting Fellini’s theatrically dramatized version of his personal first arrival to Rome is the carnivalesque but still gritty and handheld look at Fellini directing a camera crane on the highway into Rome through the rain. He directs the camera’s view while people marvel at the sight or ignore it completely with the camera capturing weird moments like a horse trotting in the middle of the road, keeping pace with the cars around it. (Reading up on this afterwards, most of the sequence was created on an outdoor set showing Fellini blurring the lines between that which looks realistic and that which looks theatrical.)
Other tales we see are a rowdy vaudeville performance in a theater in the early days of the Second World War, a collection of hippies hanging out on the Spanish Steps in the modern day, a look at the tunneling process to build Rome’s metro system that constantly comes across ancient ruins under the ground, a contrasting pair of brothel experiences from the 40s, and a fashion show of costumes for religious people for a cardinal by an old aristocratic family. What these individual stories end up doing is often working in conjunction with those around them to provide either contrasting views of life back then versus life right now (you know, the 1970s). The undercurrent of it all is a sense of sadness at old things passing away.
And yet, the point of modern Rome is that it is built on layers and layers of history that you can’t escape. There’s a late scene set in the Piazza di Sainta Maria de Trastevere with the church that has stood in that spot since the 221 AD and in its current form since 1143 (a church I actually attended regularly when I lived in Rome because it was the closest to my apartment), and in front of it are a group of hippies hanging out, eventually chased off by police with intellectuals commenting on the action from their restaurant tables to the side. It’s a wonderful microcosm of the movie’s overall approach to Rome, that it’s a beautiful, old city, and that it’s always full of life in every era.
And yet, it’s sense of sadness is actually rather deep. The Roman house found in the excavation for the metro is a wonderful example. They detect the open space, carefully cut until they create an opening, climb inside to see a wonderful series of frescoes full of vibrant color obvious even in the limited light, and then they watch the frescoes all fade at the exposure to the new air with impotent cries for someone to do something to stop it. Rome was vibrant and alive two thousand years before at the height of the Roman Empire, and it is alive today in 1972, but something has gotten lost. The reality of that life is gone forever, and all we have are faded relics.
Roma contains Fellini’s satirical streak as well, and the contrast of the two brothel sequences (one low class and noisy like a stock market, the other high class and more muted though far from silent) with the ecclesiastical fashion show is particularly striking. On its own, the fashion show would be satirical as the prince of the Church, a cardinal, sits in his thrown and watches elaborate costumes including bishop’s vestments studded with electric lights, but as contrast to the women who paraded themselves in front of the men in the brothels, it gains an extra level of bite. There’s a similarity to the actions of both that makes the fashion show even more unpleasant than a weird display of wealth and bad taste, but there’s also Felliniesque joy in the scene as well. The turtledove habits the nuns where bounce in time with the music. There are a pair of roller skating priests that are just delightful to witness. Fellini had his satirical bite, but he never seemed all that mean about it.
His most experimental film, Fellini’s Roma can be a challenge for general audiences because of it’s total absence of plot and embrace of non-linear storytelling. It’s a heavily thematic and emotional film that rewards a certain type of viewing that most people aren’t used to, and that ends up being one of the reasons that I find it so appealing. There’s such warmth, sadness, and joy as Fellini shares his love of his adoptive home city that I end up getting swept up in it.