Having already immortalised the eternal city on film in the classic La dolce vita (1960), Italian maestro Federico Fellini concocted an even more flamboyant ode to his beloved Rome in (what else?), Fellini’s Roma. By the early Seventies, la dolce vita turned sour casting the city into a mire of crime and social unrest and as the decade wore on, a hotbed of international terrorism. Here, Fellini reflects this nascent sense of unease through the prism of fantasy and nostalgia, contrasting the Rome of his childhood dreams and youthful misadventure with the then-contemporary attitude that the city was losing, or at worst already lost, its spirit.
It is a plotless string of semi-autobiographical vignettes satirising reality though more specifically evoking a Rome of the mind drawn from memories, myths and outright flights of fancy. Fellini structures the film much like the cartoonist he used to be, crafting short yet vivid sequences like gag panels in a comic book with larger-than-life protagonists that are caricatures rather than characters. These colourful cartoon grotesques are the heart and soul of both Roma the movie and city. In a celebration of community, Fellini cleverly emphasis how food, music, sex and cinema (or more broadly speaking: spectacle) are eternally re-enacted rituals that bind them both to the ancient Romans and the then-dominant hippie movement. Towards the movie’s end, as a horde of baton-wielding police officers boot the flower children off the piazza, Fellini implies the establishment have lost sight of the communal spirit of Rome.
Opening briefly with scenes detailing Fellini’s boyhood fascination with Rome, which include a charming scene where he and his family visit the cinema, the first narrative thread follows the twenty-something Fellini (Peter Gonzales) as he rents a room at a bustling tenement house, partakes in a gargantuan outdoor feast with some lively fellow diners, visits a brothel to glimpse a parade of typically Fellini-esque (there really is no other word for it) prostitutes and takes in a memorable vaudeville show where performers face possibly the world’s least appreciative audience who hurl insults and dead cats (!) at the stage. Fellini does not wallow in nostalgia as the scene climaxes with a sudden air raid, detailing the panic and confusion wrought by the war as well as the omnipresent evil of fascism.
The second strand unfolds in mock documentary fashion following the real Fellini as he sets about making - hey! - this very film. We see the maestro quizzed by left-leaning students who insist he not gloss over the social injustice plaguing contemporary Rome and middle-aged conservatives worried his film will tarnish their beloved city. Along the way there is a quite extraordinary, symbolic road trip where it seems the entire history of Rome is speeding down the motorway and a remarkable, melancholy sequence where a construction crew unearth an ancient mural that vanishes when exposed to the elements, commenting on the transient nature of civilisation.
As a showcase for Fellini’s virtuoso technique, Roma is undeniably dazzling as he pastiches an array of cinematic styles, incorporates all the familiar tourist landmarks but in a wholly unique and unfamiliar ways whilst audaciously recreating the sights and sounds of the eternal city on some amazing Cinecitta sets. Regular production designer Danilo Donati excels himself with the astounding sets and costumes, most infamously the fashion show comprised of priests and nuns in ecclesiastical pomp which stands as a delicious send-up of the the excesses of the Catholic church. However, the film does not hold together as compellingly as Fellini’s subsequent masterpiece, the even more personal Amacord (1973). The central concept of Rome as an ephemeral city in a state of perpetual flux is not strong enough to sustain the rambling non-narrative. While the film offers plenty to dazzle the senses and a whole lot of food for thought its self-satisfied undercurrent of despair, surmised by a cameoing Gore Vidal describing Rome as the perfect place to watch the decline of civilisation, remains off-putting.