At one point in Fellini’s Roma, a dreamlike pastiche of vignettes featuring famed Italian auteur Federico Fellini’s impressions of Rome, the director appears (as himself) to supervise the crew that’s making the movie and to chat with bystanders who worry that the director’s vision of their beloved city will be too extreme. In voiceover, Fellini provides the translation for a concerned Roman citizen: “He is afraid that in my film I might present [Rome] in a bad light. He is telling me that I should show only the better side of Rome—her historical profile, her monuments—not a bunch of homosexuals or my usual enormous whores.” The citizen’s angst is only somewhat justified. While Fellini does inevitably feed his appetite for images of grotesque prostitutes with two elaborate sequences depicting auctions at brothels (one high-class, one not), Fellini’s Roma runs the gamut from crude to sophisticated. As the director explains in the opening narration, the movie doesn’t feature a narrative, per se. Rather, it’s a series of sketches.
Fellini’s Roma begins with snippets from the director’s childhood in the Italian countryside, where Rome was spoken about as a magical place far away. Later, the movie cuts to a re-creation of Fellini’s first visit to the city. Then, finally, the movie drifts into a succession of random scenes. Long stretches of Fellini’s Roma are filled with aimless montages of architecture, meals, and scenery (much of which is viewed from moving cars). Everything’s shown through the director’s unique prism, meaning that ethereal textures of light and smoke pass through scenes while actors occasionally wear exaggerated makeup and behave in stylized ways. Still, a travelogue is a travelogue, so the “neutral” scenes in the movie are only so interesting. Meanwhile, the extreme vignettes—during which Fellini indulges his predilection for cinematic opulence—often reflect style in search of substance. One of these strange scenes, for instance, depicts a fashion show presenting flamboyant new uniforms for cardinals, nuns, priests, and even the pope. As elaborate as this scene is, it feels expendable.
Conversely, the handful of scenes that are executed with comparative restrain seem to work best. In one impressive sequence, Fellini re-creates the chaos at an average performance at a variety theater circa the early 1940s. Even though this bit features such vulgarities as teenagers masturbating in their seats and a mother encouraging her young child to urinate on the theater floor, Fellini beautifully describes the contours of a community’s ecosystem—the families, hecklers, louts, and performers sustain each other. In the film’s most magical sequence, an underground work crew burrowing a train tunnel discovers a centuries-old chamber filled with gorgeous painted frescos, only to watch the fresh air that enters the chamber age the frescos instantly. Moments like this one remind viewers how masterful a storyteller Fellini could be whenever he wasn’t trying to live up to his reputation as a provocateur.
Fellini’s Roma: FUNKY