Near the end of “Roma”, Federico Fellini’s sprawling, Proustian, episodically constructed meditation on the nature of the Eternal City of his youth and of its people’s imagination across the decades, released in 1972, the director and his itinerant band of roving filmmakers encounter the American writer, essayist and gadabout Gore Vidal having lunch with a group of friends in a trattoria on a crowded open Piazza in the Trastevere district of Rome, during the region’s annual Festa de Noantri. This yearly festival is a celebration of the Roman way of life that is at once indelibly bound up with the city’s enduring self-myths, its legends and traditions (both pagan and Catholic) -- and an excuse for an extended party that culminates in a series of bustling outdoor festivities formed around a religious procession which leads a statue of the Madonna Fiumarola through the neighbourhood’s narrow winding streets and expansive squares. Vidal, who at the time was still living in Rome, as he had been throughout the latter half of the 1960s, serves up one of his characteristically pithy, apparently off-the-cuff aphorisms for the benefit of Fellini’s microphone in response to a question about what it is that compels him to continue living amid this noisy clamour, in what is, after all, such an intrinsically Italian environment, steeped in its parochial flavours and eccentricities. After considering the question for a moment, he manages to sum up pretty much the whole of the past two hours of Fellini’s latest cinematic epic -- casting the allure of Rome for the visitor in the city’s continuing status as what he calls ‘the city of illusions’: ‘it’s the city of church, of Government, of the movies,’ he reminds us; ‘all are makers of illusion … I am too, as are you!’
Fittingly given such a response, this encounter was, off course, not the casual chance meeting it is made out to be on the screen, caught merely by chance as the rolling cameras of Fellini and his documentary crew happened to stumble upon the garrulous Vidal and his party mid-feast. In fact, the crowded Piazza had been constructed on a huge soundstage at Cinecitta -- set-dressed and packed with extras arranged especially for the occasion -- and, as Vidal later recalled in his autobiography, variant versions of the scene were shot during hours of retakes as Fellini tried out different visual ideas and compositions. In other words, Vidal’s semi-improvised on-screen quote cuts to the heart of the primary idea informing “Roma” thematically; an idea which is mirrored in the manner of the movie’s very conception and the artifice of its construction, as well as in its visual motifs, which resolve around a sense of never-ending movement and change against an ancient backdrop which appears at the same time solid and foundational; informing the psyche of a colourful, earthy people well-used to the precariousness and changeability of their environment, but who also bear an historical belief (that carries a certain set of political implications) in its timelessness and in its essential immutability.
This film is an impressionistic collage of apparently unrelated sequences, none ostensibly bound by a narrative connection or by logic, but which seem to cohere into a presentation of a psychological profile of the city, encompassing both realism and baroque fantasy in the course of acknowledging that any idea of Rome presented as fact is always merely the product of its author’s own history and personal experience. Rome is constantly on the move, the film seems to show: from bustling squares and galleries of colourful faces that once up the audiences of the regional theatre of the 1940s, to the apocalyptic free-for-all of a traffic jam on a modern-day motorway, the city has always been in the process of being reinvented and reconfigured by the next generation. But what has gone before also always plays its role in affecting the present through its impact on how one comes to interpret one’s own personal relationship with the past and the myths which have helped to form it. Thus “Roma” is as much an inner autobiographical sketch of Fellini at a particular moment in his career as it is a portrait of Rome between the decades of his childhood in the 1930s and the early 1970s when this picture was released. It’s also a dialectical commentary on the very artistic processes involved in attempting to construct any film history or personal biography, and an exploration of the political and social ramifications of doing so at that particular moment in time. The early 1970s were a period of social revolution in which the authority of the Italian state and Church were both being challenged by new youth movements. The ideals of feminism came to the fore; anti-war demonstrations and liberal attitudes to sex and drugs were exemplified by the visibility of the hippy counterculture in a way that was entirely new to someone of Fellini’s generation, provoking a mixed reaction spanning both fascination and alienation in himself and his peers, and also something of a nostalgically inclined urge to look again at the values and social norms which had informed Fellini’s own relationship with the city of Rome while growing up, as a way to excavate the fault lines of the current generational conflict through examination of how Rome’s ancient heritage had been woven into a narrative of national pride by the religious and political forces of his youth.
“Roma” is peculiar hybrid of a movie then. Cinematically informed as much by the Neorealism of his Italian peers of the 1940s or the Nouvelle Vague innovations of form carried out by Goddard et al in the ‘50s and ‘60s as by the surrealist creative influence of Buñuel, it incorporates Fellini’s by now well-established post “La Dolce Vita” tropes and themes, such as the stylised vignettes depicting incidents from a provincial childhood, lengthy recreations of popular vaudevillian theatre which celebrate the rambunctious audiences more than the on-stage proceedings, and a grand guignol gallery of larger-than-life prostitutes who’re seen as both grotesque and scary and yet full of fleshy vitality and allure,whether in dismal backstreet brothels run like military barracks (and where the silent male clients are penned in like sheep) or in luxuriant high-class establishments that look like vast marble-tiled auditoriums, this diverse carnival of life and living is assembled in diverse vignettes, side by side in what becomes a highly choreographed, abstract free-association ramble through the director’s subconscious, as well as through the alleyways and byways of a remembered city pictured here in the process of being claimed by a new postwar ‘70s generation that Fellini can only gaze upon, almost voyeuristically, with fascinated bemusement.
The film was originally conceived as a small-scale side-project along the same lines as Fellini’s previous TV film about clowns, and like that now little-seen film it sometimes identifies itself as a documentary (with Fellini often appearing prominently in shot alongside the cameras and cranes of his crew) but then self-reflexively sets about incorporating the documentary-making process into a larger project, which aims to configure the personal nature of the filmmaking process around an attempt to reconcile the eternal tension between various versions of the past and the present. Both the budget and the schedule eventually expanded into that of a major project, with extra financial assistance materialising once United Artists came on board as the movie’s US distributor. Several other smaller foreign and Italian production companies also signed on as investors as Fellini’s originally modest vision inevitably began to grow into the sprawling creation we have now. The movie involves some amazingly opulent sets created by the great Italian production designer Danilo Donati (who earned a BAFTA nomination for his work on the film), which include among them the extravagant recreation, on Cinecitta’s massive soundstage 5, of half a kilometre of the great Raccordo Anulare expressway -- a then newly built ring road that connects Rome’s sprawling motorway system. There is also a truly awe-inspiring and poignantly allegorical sequence in which Fellini’s faux documentary crew find themselves present on a clamorous drilling site during the construction of Rome’s subway system at the moment when the workers stumble upon the discovery of a first century Roman villa full of pristine frescoes that have been hidden away from human sight for two-thousand years, but which begin to fade to nothingness the moment they’re exposed to the open air.
What we end up with is an evocative journey through Fellini’s recollections of his childhood and young adulthood created in a stylised piece of autobiography which also deliberately undermines itself by incidentally showing how Rome as an historical entity has been constantly re-imagined by each generation through national myths which get used to support the political orthodoxy of the day. Beginning from recreations of an idyllic childhood spent growing up in Rimini, which make use of both real locations and studio sets with painted backcloths (a trend which continues throughout the movie), we move beyond those priest-filled seminary days in which an idea of a noble Rome as the fount of the Christian tradition is first instilled, to the young adult Fellini’s first encounters with the rich variety of Roman working-class life, discovered during the Fascist era amid his attempts to make it in the city as a newspaper reporter while lodging at a boarding house full of colourfully odd characters. The mobile camera work, with lengthy and complicated tracking shots in which a variety of characters constantly wander in and out of shot, establishes the film’s sense of movement and its interest in capturing the life of the city through long processions made up of an arrangement of diverse figures. This continues throughout each segment of the film as the various episodes move back and forth in time: we see it in the fast-flowing ‘conveyor belt’ of spectacle and chaos captured variously on the platform of a pre-war train station or in the madness of Rome’s modern motorway system; in the array of vaudevillian acts whose traditions are used to market the fascist myth of cohesive nationality to a sceptical wartime populace during a lengthy comic exchange between the audience and the stage during a backstreet variety show; and in the way in which the ancient Roman frescoes brought up from below ground arrange their figures in similar rows over which Fellini’s camera tracks them as though emphasising the fact that their gazes out of the past belong to the same bustling squares we see elsewhere in the film.
The parade of middle-aged prostitutes presented during several brothel scenes encompassing both the surreally grotesque and the baroque, blend into a cheeky poke at the pretensions of Catholicism during a comic ‘fashion show’ of fine ecclesiastical raiment, that starts off as a simple enough joke, treating the grand diversity of attire to be found amid the church’s ranks as though it were an end in itself and parading the ‘models’ along a catwalk to one of Nino Rota’s catchiest cues. Nuns with winged habits bounce along in unison or roller-skating monsignors glide around the hall as an audience of church grandees perched on gilded thrones look on. But then things become increasingly outrageous in a surrealist sense as an array of icons are presented one by one which come to seem more like unwieldy modern art sculptures or recondite model installations than religious items. The film ends with an allegorical representation of modernity and history existing side-by-side as a gang of leather-clad motorcyclists speed around the squares leading up to the coliseum. The complete lack of overt narrative binding any of this together may still alienate some viewers, and the film certainly had mixed reactions at the time of its release; but the free-form structure does produce associations and connections which gain traction the more one reflects upon the enormous abundance of fertile imagery the movie contains.It also functions as just about the best compendium of Fellini tropes you could ask for, bringing together elements of “8 ½”, “Fellini Satyricon” and “Amarcord” and anticipating the extreme stylisation in the sets later found on “Fellini's Casanova” … most of all, though, it often looks utterly ravishing.
In fact, “Roma” comes to UK Blu-ray looking utterly fabulous in a superbly restored edition which will delight fans who already appreciate the film, and might also possibly convert a few more viewers to its cause by foregrounding the movie’s lucid beauty like never before, especially with its stunningly detailed rendering of sets and décor and in its display of the qualities encompassed in the gorgeous cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno, which often captures light poetically, either from reflecting blue-grey cigarette smoke in the air during the variety show section, or the dust of an underground building site suspended in beams of an arc-light and the incense billowing around the catwalk at the Ecclesiastics’ fashion show. The Italian soundtrack is included, and that feels like the best option for viewing the film. But there is also an English Language dub track, which is interesting since there is a lot more voiceover narration on it than is included in the Italian domestic version, perhaps because it was felt that more explanatory context should be provided for an English-speaking audience as many things that an Italian viewer would understand intuitively might not be so readily apparent to British or American audiences. Also, some of the dialogue is radically different in the English dub from what the subtitles for the Italian language version convey.
There are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes which were left in the film in the original Italian version but taken out by Fellini for international release. Here they are included in the extras section. Most of them are merely trims which tighten up scenes, but there are a few lengthier segments, including one which shows an extra variety act in the theatre section of the movie. Plus there are some longer sections from the Festa de Noantri sequence, involving cameos from Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi. Fellini scholar Chris Wagstaff provides insightful background on the movie’s production and its themes in a 16.27 video piece created for this Eureka Video release, and the Italian and International trailers are also included. Finally, a 36-page booklet featuring the words of Fellini, rounds off this Masters of Cinema package. "Roma" is an interesting movie which has never been at the forefront of Fellini’s filmography but is certainly worthy of interest, and gets excellent treatment here.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!