Background: Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical Roma (Spine #848) is a cluttered, messy affair that nevertheless contains sequences of intense, visceral power. This is Fellini’s twelfth film in the Criterion Collection: Amarcord (Spine #4), Nights of Cabiria (Spine #49), And the Ship Sails On (Spine #50), Variety Lights (Spine #81), 8½ (Spine #140), Juliet of the Spirits (Spine #149), The White Sheik (Spine #189), La Strada (Spine #219), I vitelloni (Spine #246), La dolce vita (Spine #733), Satyricon (Spine #747).
Story: A loose, nonlinear procession of reminiscences and allegories, Roma sees director Federico Fellini turn his camera on Rome, the capital city of Italy and the epicenter of Italian cinema. The film alternates between two narratives, that of Fellini as a child and young man and—in a postmodern twist—that of Fellini as an acclaimed director trying to make a film in Rome.
The Film: Cruder critics and observers might dismiss Roma as Fellini’s warm-up for his next film Amarcord (1973), that mesmeric masterpiece that reflected the director’s childhood in the Italian coastal town of Rimini during the nascence of 1930s Italian fascism. We see in both films a similar preoccupation with the preposterous rituals of Mussolini and the Roman Catholic church, a similar preoccupation with societies equally obsessed with mythic sexual purity and basest sexual perversion, and a similar preoccupation with peoples trapped by their culture’s ancient histories and fables of military glory. Certain individual scenes seem like practice runs for later ones in Amarcord, particularly an early sequence detailing rowdy schoolboys rebelling against their stern teachers.
But while they may share similar subject matter, Roma and Amarcord have different agendas. Amarcord sought to tell Fellini’s story; Roma tells the story of an entire city, its people, and its thousands of years of history. The film can best be described as a travelogue comprised of prolonged vignettes featuring little of the cohesion that distinguished Fellini’s later career phantasms like 8½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Fellini himself acts as the connective tissue to these vignettes. As a boy he was fed tales of Rome’s glory in school, his class even being forced to cross the withered remains of the once mighty Rubicon by their teacher. As a young man first traveling to the city, he revels in its hot-blooded chaos, wandering through its crowded train stations, apartment buildings jam-packed with eccentric family members, and noisy piazzas where the masses gorge themselves on pasta, snails, and offal. Finally, as a grown man and filmmaker, Fellini returns a third time to turn his camera on the city for several documentary passages.
The overall effect of the film is one of stupefied, exhausted wonder. Many of the film’s sequences ask the audience simply to sit and immerse ourselves in the rhythms of the city. One of the most powerful sees the filmmaker Fellini get trapped with his crew on the ring-like roads circling the periphery of the city. As they navigate the traffic, we realize that this is yet another of Fellini’s beloved cinematic processions—indeed, we see broad cross-sections of the human experience as they pass hitchhikers, grotesque accidents, vans of sports fans, and travelers just trying to mind their own business. Compare this to the final sequence of the film: a gang of motorcyclists weave through the ancient city’s roads, wheeling around its mighty monuments and arches before disappearing into the night. Rome sits waiting for all who might arrive. And when they leave, Rome remains, untouched yet defined by the ravages of time.
Perhaps the most notorious vignette sees an ecclesiastical fashion show where hosts of increasingly preposterous and bizarre habits, frocks, and cassocks fill before an audience of stuffy clergy and laypeople. As it climaxes with the appearance of the Pope sporting golden vestments, the audience spasms in the throes of orgiastic spiritual ecstasy. Luis Buñuel proclaimed the fashion show the greatest thing Fellini ever filmed—small wonder considering it might be the most sublime demonstration of cinematic surrealism since Buñuel sliced a calf’s eye with a razor-blade.
In all cases, Fellini finds Rome to be a host of contradictions. Late in the film he encounters the famous Roman actress Anna Magnani, whom he describes as a living symbol of the city: “Rome as she-wolf and vestal virgin, aristocrat and tramp, somber and festive. I could go on till morning.” Maybe that’s why Fellini resisted giving the film a more coherent structure. Rome is more than just a city on a map, it’s a mind-scape, an idea, an atmosphere. Fellini sought to replicate those feelings of temporal insignificance outsiders must feel when they first enter the Eternal City. Whether or not he did so with complete success is for the viewer to decide.
Supplements: A relatively modest release, Criterion provided its Blu-ray version of the film with several interviews with industry professionals like filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and poet Valerio Magrelli, a number of audio commentaries, and a gallery of movie posters for the film from all over the world. As with many Criterion releases, the main selling point of Roma is the fantastic transfer of the film itself: a luscious 2K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Unlike their recent release of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), the monaural soundtrack does wonders here.
Overall: Many recent critics and filmmakers have declared the film one of Fellini’s masterpieces. I wouldn’t go that far. It’s too messy, too indulgent for it to stand alongside Fellini’s other supreme triumphs. But it is a film worth seeing, if only to get the opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest cities through the eyes of one of the world’s greatest artists.
Film Grade: B-
Criterion Grade: B+
Featured Image: United Artists