Roma (1972). A germane opportunity to return to an underestimated crepuscular masterpiece, to which, sadly, not all roads have necessarily led since.
I was recently sitting at a café telling my friend, the one-time feature filmmaker, self-published writer and dilettante extraordinaire Patrick de Selys Longchamps, about my enthusiasm upon seeing the film at one of Paris’s repertory theaters this summer. This prompted a fascinating anecdote. Back in the days when he was a dashing, independently wealthy aspiring filmmaker, Patrick had used family connections to spend a day on a Federico Fellini film set, where he reportedly learned much more than he had in film school. The year was 1971 and the film was Roma.
Patrick enthusiastically recalled witnessing Fellini at work, his meticulous approach and authoritative search for perfection, in this case with an elaborate tracking shot across the crowd of diners eating ‘al fresco’ in a typical Roman street filled with restaurants. While the result on the screen might convey, to the inexperienced eye, the appearance of a merry ebullient mess of hungry Italians captured spontaneously (it is its greatness), everything here was rehearsed to the minutest detail, from each of the extras’ positions, timing and movement, to focus pulling. It took a whole day of work to set up this one sweeping tracking movement across the crowd. By the time the crew was ready to shoot, it was late at night already and the residents of this popular neighborhood started complaining about the bright lights and noise generated by the production. The police showed up on the set to stop work for the night, but Fellini was not to be denied his shot: after a brief discussion, growing impatient, the mercurial director exclaimed some insult in Italian and slapped the agent who had dared slow down his work—worse even, threatened to interrupt it as it was picking up and finally acquiring its desired shape. Any other man, probably, would have been arrested and thrown to jail for the night. But this, after all, was Federico Fellini, and at the peak of his artistic powers and reputation as a world cinematic genius, to boot. The policeman left the premises, the shoot was resumed and the shot successfully completed. On the screen, it is one of the many instances of seemingly effortless bravura featured in the film, which is a majestic experience, imperious and, like Fellini, possibly tyrannical and even punishing—but in a sovereign, legitimate way, like a bolt of lightning that the common mortal will admire and thank the Gods for.
Roma is composed of a mosaic of episodes, all connected through electrifying non-sequiturs, rarely returning to previously visited locations, and set in a variety of timescapes, divided among Fellini’s youth in Fascist Italy and the director’s everyday life and entourage in the early 1970s. It constitutes the zenith in the new turn the Italian director’s aesthetics had taken at the time. Initiated in 1969 with another film set partly in Rome, Satyricon, it was continued with equal aplomb (but gradual declining rigor and power) in films such as Amarcord (1973), Casanova (1976) up through And the Ship Sails On (1983). In Roma, Fellini depicts a city that is in turn sublime and decadent, the ideal locale for powerfully evocative images alternating realist and oneiric tones in quick succession, one of the artist’s trademarks. Often, scenes segue into one another almost unexpectedly, even if the general structure is of a progressive lengthening of sequences culminating in the 10 minute long clerical fashion show—one of the summits of Fellini’s collaboration with genius set and costume designer (and notorious substance abuser, something probably in evidence, here) Danilo Donati and legendary composer Nino Rota. In its climax, this hypnotic scene borders on the hallucinatory, as the audience of decadent aristocrats and high rank clerics bow in awe and ecstasy to an uncanny and bespectacled impersonator of the Pope dressed in a garish illuminated garb. Or, where the pomp of the church meets the garishness of the carnival, and a stark critique of idolatry is hammered home. The scene also rhymes and parallels the somewhat sickening parade of grotesque prostitutes in a cheap brothel earlier in the film. All three universes ultimately blend together, as Fellini’s Rome is the Rome of the spectacle, but also the Rome of dirt and decay, of vulgar yet oddly poetic attractions while death and tragedy are at hand, something nowhere better encapsulated than in another one of the film’s centerpieces: the music-hall sequence. In this long and multi-layered sequence, and while the more interesting drama and comedy unfolds in the audience and orchestra pit, half pathetic, half inspired performers do their best to keep the ‘show’ going, as fascist Rome succumbs to the Allied forces’ bombs. The film’s politics are thus never left behind, with the director’s brilliant ridiculing of fascism’s histrionic nature and liberal democracy’s inner contradictions clearly at the fore. Fellini may actually be ultimately less tender with the present than the past, as the nostalgic tone of the film would seem to call for: Italy’s operetta fascism seems less disturbing than the indifference of a dining bourgeois crowd looking on as the police beat a group of peaceful hippies to vacate some historic landmark. All the while exhibiting his intelligent libertarianism, Fellini conducts a corollary self-critique, allowing for his motto, ‘be faithful to yourself’ to take its full expression.
Roma is striking in its apparent refusal of adopting any leading character—even the young Fellini (Peter Gonzales) is only one among the very many characters seen just in passing. It would be incorrect, however, to consider that Rome herself is the main character here, just as it is to state that there is no guiding principle or real structure to the film. Articulated, like a poem, around motifs and themes, of course, Roma also boasts another form of narrative progression. An obvious trajectory is that moving from early childhood to old age (even if this is not done in any strict chronological manner), but there is also a fascinating work at play in the film in terms of modes of enunciation. At first, it seems as though the film is a monological affair—Fellini looking at himself and at the object of his love. Yet things are not that simple, being instead of a different, dialogical nature. The stronger the artifice, the more particular and personal a reminiscence, the more we feel as though we can relate to it. As a consequence, the dialogue between the discreet yet overbearing narrator/image-maker (Fellini) and the viewer makes for a tremendous, almost overpowering experience, allowing us to experience our own childhood (but also to gaze into future departures of all sorts) and our own city of choice through Rome. In this, the film is creating a new connection between techniques of literary modernism and cinema. Many parallels can be established here, from the masters of English modern novel and its stream of consciousness to Proustian recollections. But credit must be given where it is due: the genius behind the genius here is almost certainly the problematic Curzio Malaparte, a writer as admired by some (he was among Stanley Kubrick’s professed favorites) as forced into the vaults by the literary establishment and academia for his discomforting lack of political allegiance. His wartime recollections, deformed and magnified through imagination, yielded a score of semi-grotesque and unforgettable characterizations and representations such as in the extraordinary Kaputt and its companion piece, La Pelle. This way of blending recollections and a strong sense of authenticity with fabrication and a satirical emphasis on details is clearly at play in Fellini. Malaparte’s striking images drawn from wartime Italy have also had a lasting, if substantially repressed influence on another major Italian film director, for that matter. Roberto Rossellini actually plagiarized entire passages of Malaparte’s La Pelle in Paisa and clearly references him in passages of Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948). It is not by chance that Jean-Luc Godard elected Malaparte’s beautiful Capri villa to shoot his aptly titled Contempt (1963).
As far as references and intertext go, Roma relates most strongly to two other Fellini films: the pessimistic, resigned yet elegiac tone vis-à-vis lost opportunities in the vibrant eternal city reminds one of La Dolce Vita (1960), while stylistically the film’s treatment of childhood recollections announces Amarcord (set in the director’s native Rimini), with which the opening part of Roma shares a great many attributes, also in terms of tone and casting. But unlike Amarcord, Roma is not exclusively composed of burlesque if poignant reminiscences: it proposes a dual, internal and external view, negotiated formally through the grotesque and parodic bits, and a more ‘objective’ quasi-documentary (yet just as heavily composed and rehearsed) vision of the director and his world. More the latter than the former, indeed: this is Fellini’s Rome, a most personal and idiosyncratic vision, which reduces or derides the ‘academic’ glory of yore. The Rubicon is shown as a small stream whose crossing hardly invokes a fateful or irreversible action; and Julius Caesar is played by an old overly made-up thespian, revered but clearly way past his prime (Fyodor Chaliapin Jr.). As for historical monuments, they are expedited through a slide show shown by a priest to schoolchildren, until the photograph of a naked woman, placed in the sequence by some mischievous hand, short-circuits the proceedings to the children’s irreverent glee.
La Dolce Vita, Roma, Amarcord: all three films (but they are hardly alone in this case in the director’s corpus), riding on their episodic structure, are powerfully invested in the female body and the mother figure, although the latter is always relegated to the fringes of the narrative, indispensable yet covered up, as if in a gesture of respect. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) compares Rome to a warm jungle where one can hide easily, clearly attributing feminine and womb-like qualities to the city. In one of Roma’s comical scenes, a young Fellini, freshly arrived to Rome, discovers an intricate apartment on a sweltering hot day, peopled with children of all ages, and whose mother is a huge obese slob (at first only heard, as if hidden or displaced) who can’t move out of bed. Roma, whose opening music evokes a sad, brooding lullaby, also invites the spectator to discover the entrails of this city where a multitude of unforgettable women come and go, some grotesque and some mesmerizing. Much like the city, women are endowed with a familiar mystery that men never seem to possess. In this sense, the image that captures the film best might be that of the silhouette of a woman under a bridge at night, in extreme long shot, her shadow as dark as her body, standing still yet filled with the anticipation of the moment, while a siren alerts the people to take shelter from the impending bombings. The stillness and the tension of this tableau are rendered palpable yet elusive, visible yet unknowable. As another silhouette runs to the woman and causes her to motion again, her movements might be panic-stricken and filled with dread, they are nonetheless graceful and intensely captivating in their quasi abstract quality.
It is impossible not to conceive of Roma as an allegory for femininity and motherliness, something announced already in one of its memorable posters (the Romulus and Remus she-wolf replaced by a slender woman on all four and boasting three breasts), but this interpretation does not suffice to explain the film’s appeal. The latter resides also in one of the best meta-commentaries ever made about cinema. The overt references to the proscenium are numerous, here: from stage and cabaret representations to the actual screening of a 1930s peplum that the whole family religiously rushes to. But more importantly, the film embodies the real spirit of cinema in its virtuosic use of movement. Two sequences are little else: one composed of shots of the highway in the rain and the Roman roads, witnessing the heavy traffic and its own brand of sublime while also revealing Fellini and his crew on the car from which the camera and its crane are suspended; and the closing episode, where roaring bikers circle around Rome before leaving town and into the night.
In movement—this very essence of cinema—we find the inevitable corollary: time, for which Rome serves as the paradoxical crucible, as when modern highways and antique buildings are made to co-exist, or old American tourists dress pretty and arrive in flocks, more so to be picked up by young Italian gigolos, making them forget their age, than to photograph ruins that allegorize their own process of decay, and will survive them nonetheless. After all, as Gore Vidal puts it in one of the ‘candid’ interviews the film portrays, Rome is the city where life and death co-exist to the point of becoming non-differentiated. The city becomes a haunted place of a myriad of geological layers of history and stories, which appear as though in a cross-section before us in the contiguity of peace-and-love professing hippies sitting next to the Coliseum. Time, but also tenses are played with here in a variety of ways: the past and present, and perhaps the future, too. In eternity they are all blended and become meaningless. The scene in which bulldozers and drills dig the Roman subway and unearth a Roman villa is a fine illustration of this conundrum: as air penetrates the previously interred place, it destroys the beautiful paintings on the walls. Here the paradox of a time that can be captured and yet cannot escape its own passing in a purportedly eternal city evokes a perpetual present that is also perpetually effaced or covered up, offering a not-so-distant geo-historical equivalent of Deleuze’s crystal image. In a brief yet unforgettable appearance, Anna Magnani, the eternal Mamma Roma, in her final screen role, captures this paradox: refusing to grant an interview to Fellini, she is still captured by his camera. The cinematic icon, this quintessential Roman woman, fierce and nurturing like Romulus’ wolf, although 64 at the time, has the energy of a young woman, married to the experience of a lifetime. Magnani (1908-1973) appears before us like an antique statue suddenly endowed with the gift of movement, rich with a thousand years of experience and the admiration of spectators, a second before it freezes again forever.
Combining the heathen element of epiphany through art (found most clearly in Satyricon) with the angelic intervention of an icon (such as Giulietta Masina’s look at the camera at the end of Nights of Cabiria; 1957), Roma is almost inexplicably, miraculously touched by Grace. Better than any other Fellini film, it combines sheer beauty with grotesque ugliness, cultivating in the process the essence of the Italian master’s cinema, intensely pure and intransigent, fun yet filled with regret, one that we watch with a smile, while a tear wells up our eyes, as this is a cinema of what is lost, and can only be retrieved in the symbolic realm.
Forty years after its release, twenty years after Fellini’s death which it announced better than any other of his films, Roma might have emerged as his most personal and, perhaps, greatest cinematic achievement.
Jeremi Szaniawski holds a PhD in Film Studies from Yale University. The author wishes to thank Michael Cramer for his assistance in editing this piece.
 Inspired by Fellini, Patrick directed a remarkable, if uneven, adaptation of Georges Bataille’s ‘L’Histoire de l’oeil’ (Simona, 1972). When the film was confiscated by the Italian authorities on counts of obscenity, Patrick had to resort once again to his family connections, which led directly to the Pope’s confessor, in order to obtain the church’s benediction and a prolonged distribution in the Peninsula. Reportedly, the film, now lost, made a lot of money before falling in the hands of some distributors of ill repute.