DVD Review Of Roma

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/2/07


  The 1972 film Roma, by Federico Fellini, lies somewhere between his 1968 film Satyricon and his 1973 film Amarcord, not only chronologically, but creatively (The Clowns, from 1970, is a minor work, by comparison). It is a picaresque film, as both the other films are, and has some of the heightened imagery and poesy of Satyricon, while possessing Amarcord’s humor and jabs at Fellini’s Fascist era youth. That said, it is not as good a film as the two films that sandwich it for the very reason that it sits on that fence the two other films eschew. Whereas Satyricon was a freestyle adaptation from an ancient Roman work of art, with recurring characters in its vignettes, Roma is more of a travelogue crossed with memory, and the only constant within it is the city of Rome. The film was written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi, who collaborated on Satyricon, and, like that film, it is a visual orgy, filled with color and spectacle.

  The two hour film is divided into a series of hallucinogenic vignettes admixed with golden memories that recount Roman history, Fellini’s past, and the present of the city. These narrative streams and themes bounce back and forth, as Fellini tries to embody the very concept of Rome as ‘The Eternal City’ of mythos (as opposed to the ‘city of illusions’ that American writer Gore Vidal calls it, in a late cameo appearance proclaiming Apocalypticism as a vision). Early on in the film, after a primer on the city, the Rubicon (where Fellini’s teacher quotes Julius Caesar to them: ‘Alea iacta est.’), and the Caesars, we are introduced to a young wide-eyed Fellini (Peter Gonzales Falcon) on his first visit to the big city- a technique redone with far less success a decade and a half later in the disastrous Intervista. It is on the eve of the Second World War, after a childhood in his native Rimini, where Fellini has been introduced to films, art, and life. Rome is a city at ease with the European Apocalypse all about them, yet filled with some of the memorable grotesques who would inhabit the fictive Rimini of Amarcord. The residents feel the war will not touch them for the Allies would dare not bomb Rome because Vatican City is within its boundaries, and this would be a great offense to the Pope. They’re wrong, of course, but before we get any real dramatic or narrative payoffs the scene shifts. Throughout the film we get this rising toward a climax, only to be thrust in to another situation that either deflates or comments on the past scenes. Thus the film truly does inhabit a dream logic, which it wields with impunity.

  One of the most interesting scenes comes later in the film when municipal workers are digging a subway tunnel and discover an underground hall loaded with gorgeous frescoes of the ancient Roman elite (which is very similar to the frescoes that end Satyricon), after initially discovering a huge mammoth tusk. The engineers complain of the Roman strata which forces simple workers to become architects lest be committing crimes against history. The subway was reputedly first proposed in 1871, but was buried under bureaucratic sludge for a century before work began on the project. But, this may have been a good thing, for the frescoes immediately fade when fresh air comes into the tunnel. It’s a typical Fellini moment of manifest, yet redolent, symbolism re: the modern world. If this represents Fellini’s loss of the sacred in the world, the profane is represented by a fashion show in front of an audience of priests (some on roller skates) and nuns (some adorned in neon)- one in which the Pope is seen on a psychedelic throne, as well as an evocation of then contemporaneous Hippy culture to ancient Rome, then swiftly contrasting and comparing it to the vigorous Roman prostitution subculture during the Second World War. All of this not only a part of the film Roma, which the viewer is watching, but also a part of an unnamed film that the Fellini within the film is directing, and one which ends, as does the outer film of Roma, with a several minute long sequence of motorcyclists biking around Rome, with no music nor comment. It is an oddly mesmerizing and enigmatic end to a film that skates dangerously close to willful hermeticism and preciousness. Yet it does not wallow in such, and works, because Fellini knows exactly what he is doing. As example, the biker sequence works so well because it is a perfect counterbalance to an early shot in the film where a noisy Roman traffic jam is captured by the internal and external Fellini, who swoops above it all, filming it from a moving crane, through the traffic, as a hellacious nighttime thunderstorm unleashes its fury. That scene ends at the famed Colosseum, as does the biker sequence which ends the film.

  Of course, the film would not be Fellinian without whores and midgets, and a slew of other oddities- human or not. This parade of grotesques is not limited to the material, but also to the very habits of the Romans from all eras, such as a scene at an outdoor restaurant, where the lower classes practice vulgarianism unabashedly. The film also has a number of uncredited cameo appearances, aside from Fellini and Vidal- mostly by Italian filmic luminaries such as Anna Magnani, Marcello Mastroianni, Feodor Chaliapin, and Alberto Sordi. The DVD, put out by MGM, is spare in the extreme, with the only bonus being the original theatrical trailer. The film is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and is a fine print- the colors really show what a great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno was; especially in the shots taken at night, where the lighting and the colors literally blaze in their contrast to the pitch. The art direction and costuming by Danilo Donati also shines, even more so than in earlier Fellini color films- especially during the stellar Papal throne sequence, which seems almost the antithesis (or genial parody) of Francis Bacon’s Satanically satiric painted portrait of Pope Innocent X- replete with a throne that seems to explode in color and neon. That said, the only one of the Fellini regular crew who seems to be doing subpar work is the normally fantastic Nino Rota, whose soundtrack is barely an influence on the images. Whether this is because the music is deliberately understated or because the imagery is so overwhelming is debatable, but it’s still a notable absence.

  Overall, Roma is a solid film with great moments, but one that has more value as a work of art that bears scrutiny for its reflection of its creator, rather than standing on its own artistic merits. It is not as daring as Satyricon, not as ribald nor tightly edited as Amarcord, not as probing of the human condition as Nights Of Cabiria, not as intellectualized as , nor is it as all-encompassing as La Dolce Vita. But, after all, how many films are? It is akin to dissing a drama of Eugene O’Neill because it falls short of The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, or A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. If it is best as a baedeker to those greater films in the Fellini canon, so be it, for it is a sojourn worth the undertaking.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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