The myth and mystique of Italy’s storied capital.
For the most part, writers and musicians get associated with specific cities. James Joyce is forever associated with Dublin, while David Bowie had his Berlin period. Probably because of the vagaries of film production, that’s not usually true to directors. Most of the names you’ve heard of worked in Hollywood, but very few took Los Angeles as a subject. But of course there are exceptions, and one of them is the association between Federico Fellini and Rome. Sure, part of it is that Rome is the capital city of Italy and the place where film production coalesced (most famously around the studios at Cinecittá). But Fellini often went above and beyond, making his films not only in Rome, but about Rome. This work, begun in films like La Dolce Vita and 8½, reaches its height in Roma, Fellini’s love-letter to the city that inspired him for decades. Criterion have continued their commitment to Fellini by giving Roma an excellent Blu-ray release.
Roma is an odd mix of comedy, drama, and documentary. It’s a series of vignettes that starts with autobiographical elements from Fellini’s own life (growing up under Mussolini) and then develops into a series of stories that share only the titular city. The main thread is about a pair of directors – one in the late 1930s and another in the early 1970s – that alternate, telling the story of Rome over the course of several decades.
If I had to point to the most Felliniesque of Fellini films – not necessarily the best, or the most popular, but the one that ticked the most number of boxes associated with Fellini’s long career as a director – it would be Roma.
First, of course, there is the city itself. Rome is basically a character in the film, and the city’s contradictions become the grist for the film’s narrative mill. On the one hand Rome is the “eternal city,” but on the other it was ravished by World War II. It’s the city of timeless art and beauty but also the city of carpe diem sensuousness and sexuality. Roma lets us see both sides of the city without attempting to resolve these tensions.
And of course, speaking of the sensuous and sexual, Roma ticks the Fellini box that loves women and finds brothels a necessary part of city life. The character of young Fellini visits both a brothel and a musical hall in his early years. Both are transformative experiences, waking the young director up to the world of sexuality and entertainment (which will be forever entwined for Fellini).
Those entertainments inspire one of the other major obsessions of Fellini – films that feature filmmaking. The most obvious example is 8½, but Fellini has always been a self-aware filmmaker. Roma follows the young director, offering a kind of autobiography of how he became a filmmaker (that combo of sex and entertainment) combined with a contemporary examination of Rome in 1972 by telling the story of a director making a documentary about Rome. Once again Fellini gets to play between the different levels of film and film-within-a-film, all while capturing his favorite city.
Roma also brings Fellini full circle. Though Fellini never directed a canonical Italian Neorealist film (though he assisted on several as a journeyman filmmaker), he absorbed many of their lessons. The focus on documenting a city and its people (by using non-actors whenever possible) continues in Roma. Much of the film, under the guise of a character making a documentary, shows us the city and its people. Most of the characters in the film are played by non-actors. It doesn’t have the same effect as neorealist films did in the late 40s and early 50s, but it does show that Fellini has been consistently mining the same territory for decades. And when the vein is this fertile, who could object?
In recognition of the Felliniesque nature of Roma, Criterion have continued their commitment to giving the director excellent home video releases. It all starts with the 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer sourced from a recent 2K restoration of the original negative. Damage isn’t a big problem, and detail remains strong throughout. The image has pleasing depth and clarity, with Fellini’s use of color shining through. The darker scenes look especially impressive, with good detail and little in the way of compression problems. The set’s LPCM 1.0 mono track in Italian is also excellent. Distortion and hiss aren’t a problem, and the film’s dialogue is always clean and clear. It doesn’t have the dynamism of more expansive soundtracks, but what’s here is good.
Extras start with a commentary by Frank Burke, who’s written a book on Fellini’s films. He’s a solid commentator who puts the film in context while also talking about its themes and production. We also get a pair of newly-commissioned interviews with Paolo Sorrento and Valerio Magrelli. Both artists have been profoundly influenced by Fellini and discuss how his work and his life inspired their own. There’s a 20 minute featurette that looks at the film’s promotional materials, as well as the original U.S. trailer. We also get almost 20 minutes of deleted scenes. The usual Criterion booklet features an essay about Rome and Fellini by David Forgacs.
If you’re looking for a tight narrative about the Eternal City, then Roma isn’t going to be particularly satisfying. If you’re looking for the earthier, sexually-explicit material that made Fellini famous in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you’ll find some of it here, but not as much as his earlier films would suggest. And if you’re looking for the kind of character-driven pieces that Fellini is known for, this isn’t the film to go to.
Roma might not be the film I’d use to introduce someone to Federico Fellini, but it is a film that occupies an important place in his body of work. Part exploration of his past as a filmmaker, part documentary on Rome in 1972, the film offers a beautiful portrait of a city from a master filmmaker. Thanks to Criterion, fans can enjoy the film in a wonderful presentation with some fine extras.