07/03/2012 07:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

Woody Allen's Roman Holiday

With his newest movie, To Rome with Love, Woody Allen, continues his European film tour. Italy can now be added to Allen's take on England, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; Spain, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and France, Midnight in Paris.

But the movie that To Rome with Love most resembles is William Wyler's 1953 Roman Holiday. Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough film. In it she plays a young princess (from an unknown country) who decides to escape from the constrictive life she has been forced to lead by sneaking away from her overprotective staff.

The princess has the good luck to be taken up by a handsome American reporter (Gregory Peck), and for 24 hours she has the time of her life before resuming her formal duties.

Wyler's film is a paean to the value of breaking free from convention, and nearly 60 years later, the same sentiments are at the center of To Rome with Love. Only the setting is different. Contemporary Europe, mired in debt and austerity programs, has replaced the social conformity of the 1950s.

To Rome with Love has no single narrative. It instead consists of a series of separate tales in which the characters don't meet but are challenged over what they want to do when the unexpected comes their way.

In some cases the unexpected is easy to embrace. When in the opening scene a young American tourist (Alison Pill) asks directions from a handsome Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti) with the name of Michelangelo, it is only natural that the two should end up having dinner and before long getting engaged.

The surprises of To Rome with Love come when the unexpected violates taste and propriety. In another of the film's romantic tales, a newly married couple arrive in Rome to meet the relatives of the husband (Alessando Tiberi). The couple get separated when the wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) becomes lost on her way to a beauty shop. The result is that she gets taken up by a movie star and has an affair with the burglar who intrudes on them. He gets pursued by a beautiful call girl (Penelope Cruz), whom he finally can't resist.

When the couple meet up again, neither says anything about what really happened. But neither has been damaged by the day. To the contrary, they have found a capacity for sex they did not know existed in them before, and when they decide to leave Rome and return to the small town they come from, it is with a larger appreciation of their own erotic appetites. Mercifully absent is any handwringing by them or Allen about the need for safe sex or the shallowness of hookups.

But what makes To Rome with Love special is how far Allen will go in endorsing the unexpected. When a young architect (Jesse Eisenberg) takes up with a quirky and narcissistic Hollywood actress (Ellen Page), then gets dumped, he learns something about his own shallowness. He shows every sign of being a better man for his experience and even more appreciative of his kind, but predictable, girlfriend.

Similarly, when a mortician (the renowned opera singer Fabio Armiliato) who in To Rome with Love can only sing in the shower gets a chance to perform in public by being put in a shower on stage, he is delighted with the change his performances make in his life despite the ridiculousness he is subjected to. He also knows the novelty of his theatrical shower singing cannot last, and after a series of triumphs, he happily returns to his job working with the dead.

And so it goes in To Rome with Love. Allen's characters don't even need to be in love or to have a special talent in order to thrive. An ordinary office worker (Roberto Benigni) becomes a celebrity for no good reason and discovers that the pleasures of being noticed are far more important than the loss of privacy. When he is finally abandoned by the media, he realizes that the routines of his life do not need the defending he once thought they did.

"Can one's work be influenced by Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman?" Allen once asked in a tribute he wrote to Bergman. The answer in To Rome with Love is yes.

Now 76 years old, Allen not only shows no signs of slowing down (he appears as an actor in To Rome with Love), he shows no signs of worrying about death. The madcap comedy that was part of such early Allen hits as Bananas and Annie Hall may be gone, but what remains is the work of a director who believes that joy is as profound a teacher as tragedy and sees no need to conceal that belief with irony.

Nicolaus Mills is professor American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of 'Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.'