Fellini’s episodic romp through the space and time of the eternal city at the time of its release might have felt like an indulgent recycling of his usual cinematic themes hung on a disorienting episodic documentary-like narrative. And yet with today’s eyes, in the context of Fellini’s body of work, it’s an essential part of his filmography, a visual essay of Fellini’s lifetime of experience with the city, told as a typically brilliant choreographed dance of motion, light, and music.
Fellini’s Roma (1972) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Peter Gonzales, Fiona Florence, Pia De Doses, Renato Giovannoli
By Alan Bacchus
During one of the sequences, in which we follow a camera crew around town photographing a hippie student rally, we watch a group of bystanders discuss with Fellini himself their desire for the director to depict Rome with a modern sensibility. Fellini candidly admits he can only make a film from his point of view with his own unique peculiarities. Thus Roma feels like his final chapter of self-reflection after his notable pictures La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ .
The opening chapter takes place in the pre-War 1938, depicts a teenaged Fellini arriving in Rome for the first time and observing the strange and wonderful characters in the tenement housing community of his family. The episode is anchored by a stunningly visual sequence of the community preparing for and indulging a group meal on the evening streets. It’s a sequence featuring a hundred or so actors and background players choreographed with the hypnotic, trance-inducing thrill only Fellini can create.
Two other mesmerizing sequences stand tall in Fellini canon. First, a journey underground into a subway construction project, wherein Fellini and his crew get a glimpse of the massive engineering project next to newly discovered artifacts from ancient Rome. When the crew discover a lost chamber they are forced to stop digging to investigate. Unveiled is a pristine room full of wall frescos which upon exposure to the exterior atmosphere degrades and fades never to be viewed in his former condition again. It’s an astonishing sequence.
A papal fashion show and an early brother sequence showcases Fellini’s indulgence in garish pomp, but his scenes of brilliantly choreographed movements recall the cinematic elegance of 8 ½. In particular the final sequence which follows a group of motorcyclists through the streets and roundabouts of the city is gorgeous and supremely cinematic.
Fellini’s Roma is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection