Fellini often invokes themes of how we understand the narrative of our life - our memories, fantasies, dreams all become blended into some sort of logical whole. Here he explores Rome as a city of myths and illusions. The Fascists (who taught him as a child) presented ancient Rome as an ideal, as the eternal statement of civilised values. Yet the Rome they venerated was frozen in alabaster statues and decaying architecture. The Fascists' own illusion of permanence was to be rapidly swept away, yet they live on in the child's (now the man's) memories as a frozen statue of Mussolini.
Education for Fellini was regimented by the Fascists and the Church. The Church, of course, also venerated Rome as the eternal city, the heart of the Church. Rome, it seems, had eclipsed Christ.
And Rome dominates so much of popular culture - the cinema still celebrates gladiatorial epics. Fellini contrasts this with the popular culture of Roman vaudeville, a lengthy vignette playing on the bawdiness and vulgarity of the theatre going masses ... so different from the elegance of high culture theatre!
"Roma" is delivered in a series of vignettes, images, flashbacks, sketches which capture both Fellini's own memories of the city and some of its 'classic' representations. It is, we see, a living city, but one which Church, State, tourists and academics are trying to ossify, to reduce to an institution which can be controlled and used to justify power, history, politics, culture, religion, life itself.
For Fellini, Rome is a circus - and not the crumbling ruins of the amphitheatre. It is a living, ever changing circus of real life, of vivid imagination, of intellectual discovery and popular culture. It cannot be defined, it cannot be explained. It lives by day, it lives by night.
We dive beneath the city streets to find engineers tunnelling, building a new subway system. Every so often they have to stop as they unearth more archaeology. Every time they stop, the archaeologists are called up to preserve, to save, to delay and postpone. Finally, the tunnelling breaks through into a room resplendent in beautiful Roman wall paintings. As the onlookers watch, the paintings crumble to dust. Sic transit gloria.
And in the end ... the city is given over to youth. Late into the night, the city is taken over by young people on motorbikes. It's fun. It's a playground. It is a living international city, not the dead hand of history. The beauty that was Rome has decayed, as must we all. Fellini celebrates life, and so does "Roma".
Many have criticised the film (as well as others from the same era, particularly Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, Fellini-Casanova and The City of Women) as being trivial, meandering and self-indulgent, all of which are true, but certainly the element of indulgence and theatrical abstraction (as well as a penchant for the outrageous and arcane) was always part of Fellini's appeal. Here, the previous hints of free-form abstraction, is taken further, with all semblance of story removed, so the film, unlike his previous two films Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon, which were abstract and sprawling but still had a sense of character and plot, Roma instead, wanders along from one scene to the next, with no real focus on character (although there are many faces that reoccur throughout) and nothing in the way of narrative momentum. Now, this will undoubtedly be a problem for some viewers who require a sense of pace or meaning to their films, though, for those of us still interested in what Fellini has to offer, regardless of content (or lack, thereof), it is perhaps best to think of the film as a collection of scenes to dip in and out of at random.
As was the case with many later-Fellini, the film has a number of intoxicating set pieces scattered sporadically throughout, amongst the most impressive being an epic fashion show replete with the trademark Fellini grotesques, social and political commentaries and a fair bit of sniping, sycophantic star-worship. Other standouts, with the film traversing a number of different time periods, include a reconstruction of Rome during the reign of Mussolini, a heated traffic jam on the autostrada and a lengthy documentary-like scene following a group of archaeologists searching through Rome's labyrinth of subway systems. There are a variety of other set pieces scattered throughout the film that probably warrant some sort of mention, but they just didn't resonate with me as highly as they have with certain other viewers.
However, that's one of the great things about Fellini-Roma, with the director stringing together a series of impressionist sketches that will no doubt conjure different moods and emotions in whoever watches the film. As was apparent right from the start with Fellini, was his ability to evoke a certain time and place through his images, set-construction, sound-design, and overall iconography... and that's certainly evident here. Of course, like all of the director's work from this period, the film won't be to all tastes, with many no doubt despairing of the filmmaker's seeming indulgence, pretension and wanton disregard of character and narrative. However, if you treat the film more like an episodic tapestry (or travelogue) to dip in and out of, then you're sure to get a lot out of Fellini's majestic, carefully orchestrated imagery, bizarre cavalcade of clowns, freaks, geeks and weirdoes (not to mention the usual barrage of buxom ladies), and a collection of cameos and in-jokes from a variety of Fellini regulars.
For my money, this film isn't quite as essential as 8 ½, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita or ...And the Ship Sails on, though it does rank alongside the sentimental La Strada and the similarly episodic Night of Cabiria (I'm not sure whether or not I prefer Casanova over this... I'd have to see both films again) and is much better than the free-form bombardment of Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon and The City of Women (in my opinion, at least). Regardless of the comparisons to his previous films, Fellini-Roma is still an enchanting film with some astounding moments of visual spectacle to compensate for the overall lack of plot. Probably a worthwhile purchase for die-hard Fellini fans, though those new to the director's work would be better off starting elsewhere.
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