“The name in the title doesn’t seem conceited or affected, as it might from another director (Peckinpah’s Albuquerque?) This is Fellini’s Rome and nobody else’s, just as all of his films since La Dolce Vita have been autobiographical musings and confessions from the most personal and the best director of his time.” -Roger Ebert.
Despite taking the prize at Cannes, Roma (1972) has often fallen under the radar among Federico Fellini‘s oeuvre and it has been dismissed, by some, as the director at the apex of his “self-indulgence”—code for “non-linearity.”
One might see Roma as a private scrapbook containing overstuffed images cut out with dull scissors. Too much glue is used and it oozes out from behind pictures, making the pages stick together and tear. Naturally, it has far more personality than anything done by a professional scrapbooker, despite not being a complete success. Fellini’s Roma is so personally visual that the dialogue is intrusive.
Fellini inserts himself into the film, played as a young man out of time in 1939 by Peter Gonzales, adorned in white. The director prophetically steps in himself to personify his later self in 1972, but acts opposite no one, merely ushering us into his gaudy compositions, purposefully taking us nowhere.
The narrative as tainted whisper follows Fellini through fantasy page after fantasy page of his Roman imagery and we quickly realize this is a metropolis seen through a celestial lens. Expectedly, the director’s interpretation of “celestial” involves high camp, calmly fusing the erotic with the pious as if it is the most pragmatic marriage since ravioli and cheese. In typical Fellini fashion, Magdalena, the erroneously-labeled garish whore, symbolizes Rome herself.
Through a series of evocative vignettes Fellini, overwhelmed with wistful sights (courtesy Director of Photography Giuseppe Rotunno) including a majestic traffic jam encircling the coliseums in an infernal rain storm, visits a brusque vaudeville show and frequents both underground and chic bordellos. Designer Danilo Donati and set director Andrea Fantacci alchemically fashion a voguish parochial pageant with skating padres and nuns adorned like Christmas trees.
Fellini, unlike Bunuel, is able to express anti-clerical sentiments without provoking religious institutions, perhaps because of his ability to transform what on the surface would seem banal into something majestic. Additionally, Fellini, despite the primordial excesses, locates the maternity of Rome. She casts a spell on her sons.
Composer Nino Rota’s score is among his most majestic, romantically ranging from folk music through 1940s big band sounds and, finally, ecstatically echoing the loud, tainted 70s with apocalyptic air raid sirens. In addition to the sounds, we are inundated with visions of groped, fleshy backsides and the smells of food gorging.
Princesses and popes of the past give way to bohemian ideology (a young Elvira—AKA Cassandra Peterson—is one of the beatniks) with Fellini and film crew vapidly chasing down Gore Vidal for an interview. The cameos, in the second half of the film, are jarringly out of place. Aptly, there are no standout performances, except for Fellini himself. The contrast between Rome of past and present is alternately phantasmagoric and obscure.
As we come to the final mercurial pages of Fellini’s Roma sketch-like scrapbook, we find the pulse of his requiem valentine to his sooty mother city seen through the rear-view mirrors of departing, spectral choppers.