Sunday 10 August 2008

Roma (1972)

Fellini is never the easiest filmmaker to fathom, but this is apparently a looser, less traditional film, even for him. In fact it has no plot to speak of, so it's difficult to compare it to anything. He doesn't give us a story beyond the story of the city itself, but even that only in impressions. Fellini shows us in broad strokes what the city was when he first experienced it in the early forties, and what it is now, now being the early seventies. In doing so, he also shows us what it has been, throughout its long history, again in both reality and impression, how it has changed and how it is likely to change further. As such this is far more of a painting than a film.

Fellini can be found on screen in this film as himself in the 1972 documentary sections of the film, though he's mostly portrayed as an 18 year old by Peter Gonzales Falcon, new to Rome from rural Italy in the early years of the Second World War. The film divides out into rough sections but there are themes that run throughout. Much of the fun here is identifying what Fellini is making comparisons between. He's obviously comparing the way he arrived in Rome by train to the way people arrive in modern days via motorway and he's obviously highlighting the importance of food to Romans throughout, but what else?

The film is broken down into sequences, with a deliberate shakeup of timelines. One sequence looks at how the Varieties worked during early wartime, complete with hecklers, tap dancing electricians, fights and interruptions for war bulletins. One heckler throws a dead cat onto the stage. A mother gets her young son to empty his bladder in the aisles. It all ends abruptly with an air forcing everyone into a shelter, where the young Federico ends up with a German singer. However this is less about the Varieties per se and more about what a typical night out in Rome was thirty years earlier. The comparison is to the demonstrations and police brutality we see in the seventies, where the youth hang around the fountains and the steps and get into trouble even when they're not getting into trouble.

Back in the forties there's sexual exploration via prostitution, but instead of actual sexual encounters, Fellini shows us the crowds waiting for the hookers to be free and take their clients on up the stairs to bed. We see the low class cheaper end of things where this is something of a cattle market and we see the higher class end where everything is more polite and every now and then there are interruptions while an unknown VIP takes the lot. It's very voyeuristic so the comparison here is presumably to the surreal and grotesque fashion show that Fellini provides using the bizarre theme of ecclesiastical garb. Quite what it means I'm not sure but it's certainly striking.

Fellini was always a master of surreal visuals and this fashion show is only the most obvious. More subtly, there are recurring visuals throughout. I especially noticed children doing bizarre things with their tongues and very large people. They are everywhere here, from the large to the truly Rubenesque and on up to those who wouldn't seem out of place in a circus sideshow. One looks suspiciously like Tor Johnson. There's so much else here that I have a feeling that each viewing would highlight different visuals, but this time through I especially appreciated the rush to gain newly freed up seats at the cinema, the men playing cards in the back of a removals truck and young Federico's first house in Rome where there are new people everywhere he looks.

I also loved the use of colour, again something Fellini has proved time and time again that he is highly inventive with. One long scene uses the red lights of emergency vehicles to highlight a wide variety of car passengers stuck in a motorway traffic jam in the dark and in the rain. Another has an antiques dealer working on a large piece of furniture outside his store, in an alley lit up orange by a kid playing with a bonfire. Possibly the best has the blue light of a welding torch light up a recently deserted city street at night, with magical shadows.

There's great use of shadows in a tunnel in the early morning sunlight too, and in the long scenes underground looking with a documentary eye at the work being done to dig subway tunnels. These link the present with the far past in a fascinating and unconventional way. Not everything is so successfuly though, as some of the documentary style footage leaves much to be desired, or so I feel after just a single viewing. It's always dangerous to comment on Fellini after only one viewing. After one viewing I didn't appreciate the full majesty of La Strada, let alone something as unconventional as this. Gore Vidal appears as himself in street footage that may or may not have him sitting next to a young Cassandra Petersen (long before her Elvira days), but I have no conception what these scenes mean or how they contribute to the picture. For now this is the least of the eight Fellinis I've seen, but however much it's overshadowed by his other work, it still has much to offer.

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