By Robert Ham
In my fantasy vision, the Italian government tapped their most treasured cultural export, Federico Fellini, asking him to make a film that would encourage people to visit Rome. Something light and funny and stylish that would drum up some business for a flagging tourism industry and that would emphasize the beauty and cultural diversity of their capital city. I like to imagine the distressed looks on their faces when the reels unfurled on Roma -- a brash, messy, colorful tribute to the city that bred Fellini's outlook on life and art. It would go something like the slideshow that the children in the Catholic school are treated to. Slide after slide of landmarks and iconography, then, a shot of a woman in a thong viewed from behind. But instead of the reaction of joy and lust like the children exhibit, what Fellini would have been greeted with was lots of hand wringing, dozens of angry voices talking at once, and threats to run him out of the country entirely.
Alright, I admit it's a ridiculous notion. Roma was, after all, the film submitted by the Italians for consideration for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1972 (it didn't make the cut). And it's hardly a controversial film. It is as loving and skewed a portrait of Fellini's past as the works before and after it in the Fellini filmography: The Clowns and Amarcord.
But watching it, I couldn't help wondering how the actual citizens of Rome must have viewed the film. Did they just shake their heads and tut-tut a bit with a bemused smile? Or were their feathers ruffled up, appalled at the sight of their beloved hometown represented in as gaudy, dirty, and surreal a fashion as Fellini does here?
Likely it's the former, because if you've seen any of Fellini's films, you know what you are getting into with Roma. This mid-period work bears all the hallmarks: buxom women, scenes and tableaus that fly by like the aforementioned slide show, and -- when he dares to settle on just one scene, he spins through it, capturing quick little hits of dialog and incident.
Roma is also, as Senses of Cinema's Adrian Danks points out, one of the loudest and most audio-centric films that Fellini made in his long career: "The post-synched sound of the Italian studio enabling the director to create a fugue of shouting voices, traffic noises, snatches of the sounds of popular culture and Nino Rota's wonderful music." And just like the women he tends to fill the corners of his film with, the proportions and dimensions are way off in an almost cartoonish fashion. The portions of food in one of the film's most exhausting sequences -- a shared meal in a piazza -- look revolting and almost plastic. The clothing worn by religious figures in an outlandish fashion show are billowing and shapeless. And the traffic jam that takes viewers through the Raccardo Annulare, an expressway that circles the city. Fellini melts details and time together into a dream-like mass of imagery (a student protest, an overturned truck, prostitutes and hitchhikers along the roadway, muddy water splashing up against a car windshield, sun giving way to rain, etc.).
Credit Fellini with knowing how to contrast that overwhelming deluge of activity, giving the quieter moments that much more emphasis and power. Chief of which is another much-talked about scene when subway workers, drilling a new line, comes across a beautiful ancient ruin with brightly colored frescoes and delicately carved statues preserved from the rush of modernity. But when the sun and air hit them, they all start to disintegrate. That the drilling machine is especially phallic just adds to the push and pull between the hard masculine leadership of Rome that led to its world dominance and the softer qualities that keeps us returning to it when we talk about the literature and art of Europe.
That's always been Fellini's raison d'etre when it comes to filmmaking, though. Putting at the forefront of his films a soft-cheeked or bodacious female lead (most often his wife Giulietta Masina, or someone more buxom like Anita Ekberg) up against a much more chiseled male figure (Anthony Quinn or his usual foil Marcelo Mastroianni). He plays their "typical" masculine and feminine qualities off one another, showing all too often how they are two sides of the same coin.
It is an idea that Fellini sticks to when putting his vast, multi-colored spotlight on his home city. But like any major metropolitan city, it is only one facet of its massive whole. To cop a phrase from Whitman, Rome is vast; it contains multitudes. And the only person with the daring enough to sing a song of The Eternal City has done so, and done so with aplomb and cheek and breathtaking brilliance. Enjoy.