Director: Federico Fellini
Writer: Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi
Cinematographer: Giuseppe Rotunno
Producer: Turi Vasile
by Jon Cvack
As often mentioned, I’m not the biggest fan of surrealist or experimental cinema, as it often functions under a subjectivity that excuses any points of confusion or misunderstanding, either as the fault of the viewer or created by design; in which nothing necessarily has to make universal sense, and therefore anything’s permissible. Recently checking out The Holy Mountain (1973) and I was surprised to see that - counter to El Topo (1970) which fell victim to the surrealist fallacy - it always kept its abstract images within the realm of comprehension; providing at least some parameters and general themes.
I had known Roma took on a similar structure, focused specifically on Rome and its people. Watching two BTS interviews on the Criterion BluRay, I was comforted in being far from the only one who was confused by what the film was exactly about; as even his closest collaborators struggled to make sense of it. Reading David Forgacs’ Criterion essay, he puts better words to the feelings you get - of an old Rome competing with a new one; a semi autobiographical narrative about a Fellini-like character who arrives in the city for the first time, absorbing all of the cultures and traditions, good and bad.
There is no coherent narrative to the story, but rather a set of somewhat connected chapters, mostly in their being about a specific element of Rome. Countless scenes specifically come to mind: the brothels examining both the lower class destinations for furloughed soldiers and men from modest means to the more extravagant destinations, where the women are gorgeous and competing for the highest dollar. Another is your classic Fellini traffic jam injected with steroids as we see a film crew filming an extraordinarily complex and chaotic scene. The third is one as the most memorable moments, spending ten to fifteen minutes on the lower class streets, moving from family to family as they eat dinner and arguments abound. The final being a team of archaeologists heading down beneath the city, discovering rare frescoes soon destroyed by the fresh and salty air pouring into the room. A fifth at a vaudeville show where the audience scolds each performer, forcing them to abandon their act and leaving the stage. The final scene features an extravagant Catholic fashion show.
The film plays as such a deep and profound reflection on life, functioning more as a series of memories and allegories that there’s no use in trying to think of what it all means when pieced together. The film is as much an autobiography on Fellini being a fresh Rome transplant as a fully realized filmmaker, struggling to capture the city he loves. Each scene is photographed with absolute beauty, where regardless of criticism, the film so beautiful it excuses any confusion. Like all great filmmakers, Fellini has a love affair with his city. What John Ford did with the West, Paul Thomas Anderson with Los Angeles, or Scorsese or Woody Allen with New York, Fellini makes the city a character, showing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like any great film about a city, I left feeling a personal relationship to it.
In the end I was left thinking, in my own superficial and ignorant way, how we hadn’t yet seen the Coliseum; the one specific landmark from the film. Then the closing images came in, with the biker gang roaring through the streets, their motors bouncing off the building, drowning out all else; where if they had entered any other scene we would have lost all the wonderful sound of the streets and people. It seemed to embody superficiality. As with any great city, soon the romance displaces all of the common people which made it great to begin with; now reserved for the wealthy and tourists who do nothing more than race by.
BELOW: Eating in the streets of Rome
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