Eight layers of sub-soil

Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972)

Apologies to hypothetical readers for my recent absence; dearly as I wish it wouldn’t, Stuff Happens.

Now, to Fellini’s sprawling, riotous portrait of Rome. As one might expect it’s neither wholly one thing or another, and you can never be quite sure what Fellini makes of the city; most likely because he isn’t sure himself. Like all those Luke Haines records about Englishness, once can discern attitudes of affection, pride, disgust, despair, pathos, pity, admiration all mixed up together without there ever being one overriding view.

A few weeks ago I wrote about his Amarcord, which was made shortly after this, and they’re very much of the same stuff. There’s no plot, or story, just a few episodes from the life of the city. Roma is bigger -skipping back and forwards in time- but harder to get into, as it dispenses with recurring characters. Watching Amarcord you felt like you got to know the townsfolk, you felt like one of them. Roma is not concerned with people (or at least, not with individuals).


Instead it’s a meditation on the city, Fellini’s own relationship with it, its own relationship with its past. When you’re living in the streets that once housed Julius Caesar, Cicero, all the Popes, how do you fill those boots? The city to which all the known world once bowed is now a provincial capital whose people are earthy and gaudy with a relish for the vulgar. On every street corner stands a reminder of their majestic ancestors; they just amble along and make the best of it. What else is there to do?

It’s very Italian of course, everyone shouting and gesticulating at once as the camera circles an outdoor restaurant table. Often the subtitle doesn’t bother trying to pick out a phrase from the cacophony of familial shouting matches, screaming babies, boisterous kids and singing street minstrels. You really do need to be in the mood for all of this, and I’m not sure I was. The bulk of the film, once it’s got into its swing, is a series of unconnected set pieces; although lush and technically impressive, they had a tendency to go on a bit.

After sombre neo-classical titles with a sombre neo-classical Nino Rota score, cyclists cross a bleak winter landscape and the camera hones in on an ancient road sign informing us that Rome is 340km away. The following sequence is absolutely a dummy run for Amarcord; a flash through brief scenes from Fellini’s provincial childhood. We have the wide-eyed trips to the local cinema, the tempestuous left-wing father, the bumbling/authoritarian teachers with a crucifix and framed photo of Mussolini on the wall.

We may still be in Rimini at this point, but Rome looms large in the imagination. A long-winded history teacher tells children of the geese who saved Rome, and leads a caped & capped class across the Rubicon on a field trip (muttering ‘alea jacta est’ to himself all the while). At the dinner table, the father throws a fit when everyone else stops to kneel; the radio is broadcasting a Papal blessing. At the cinema, the family are open-mouthed at a film recreating gladiatorial combat.

One woman in the crowd has a big hat and furs- soon we see a dreamlike sketch, autumn leaves swirling in the wind, as she peeks out of a car and sees a long line of clients waiting their turn. There’s a fair bit of location in the film but it’s mostly big studio sets which give it the feel of one of those old Hollywood musicals. As a result, like most Fellini it’s a film that’s suffused with a love of film. The final shot dealing with the hometown has men gathered around a bar raconteur, listening with eagerness. “Tell us all about Roman women, Carlo…”.

Cut straight to a chaotic crowd scene at Termini station; film posters, soldiers, sailors and con-men waiting to greet the gullible visitors. We follow the young Fellini, a pretty boy in a white suit, as he picks his way through the boisterous crowd. He boards a tram and the camera shows off churches, fountains, imperial ramparts; then butcher’s vans, singing housewives beating rugs. It’s a vibrant city and an open-air museum at once. Our boy enters an apartment block and introduces himself at the house where he will be staying; the first of the extended set pieces.

A maid shows the lad around a flat which seems never to end; there are any amount of grannies huddled in drawing rooms and any amount of screaming children and babies. As the maid gives a tour, a boy sitting on the toilet keeps calling “Come quick mama, I’ve done it!”. We meet a laybout son, a Chinaman, a few actors (one of whom repluses Fellini with a jingoistic speech about war, Abynissia and the Mediterranean), and the terrifyingly obese Signora, who receives her new guest from bed. “Don’t get any ideas about the maid”, he is warned.

That evening Young Fellini steps into the street, where all the locals are dining at restaurant tables; they insist that he joins them. Waiters carry heaped plates of pasta; the menu is all offal, intestines and snails. Street musicians serenade the diners -an old lady follows with a collection plate- and little girls sing ribald songs safe in the knowledge that their parents can’t be bothered to give them a clip round the ear. Later it’s silent; a flock of sheep led past a palace, and damaged statues standing in the fog as whores get in and out of cars (very Almodovar).

Fellini now catapults us into contemporary Rome, with a cut to a toll bridge and a voiceover asking “What of Rome today?”. Rota spins some jazzy organ as we watch a film crew setting up a crane mechanism on a busy Roman M25. There follows an elaborate traffic scene with an obvious debt to Godard’s Weekend. It’s raining heavily and the film crew drive along, encountering cars, tanks, a coach of Napoli supporters, horses, men carrying wheelbarrows. Hippies and whores thumb for lifts at the roadside. As night falls there are dead cows, an upturned lorry in flames, firemen cordoning off the scene. The lens is smudged with rain as the camers peeks into diverse car windows. Things culminate with a huge traffic jam beside the Colosseo.

As the camera reaches over a cluster of trees to reveal the city skyline on a sunny day, we see the very cameramen hoisted into the sky, communicating via loudspeakers. In the park, middle-aged American women spill out from a tour bus and a medallion-sporting predator offers to take their pictures. The film crew are pestered by an old man who lecures them on how old Rome has disappeared and they must not indulge “filthy hippies, perverts or trash”. When he’s said his piece, they are beseiged by students; “We don’t want another film with the same banal, usual views of old Rome”. Not liking what he sees, Fellini turns back to the 1930s.

Garishly-dressed chorus girls perform in a music hall. In the stalls a boy hits a fat man on the head with nuts, then feigns sleep. The acts are rubbish and bored men alternate between heckling and reading the newspaper. A child pisses in the aisle and his mother dismisses complaints (“they’re only little angel drops”). As a particularly woeful mime struts his stuff, the men throw a dead cat onto the stage. The next act is interrupted by a propaganda newsflash concerning the successful defence of Sicily against the Allies; no-one seems very bothered. An air raid signal sends them packing into a bunker, where Young Fellini chats to a blonde German singer who shows him photos of her husband and child. As they are sent out at dawn, she invites him back to her place.

The following set piece is the best; in 1972, the film crew watch workmen are building a subway. The job has no end in sight, as every time they come across a potential historical find work has to halt for two months whilst the archaeologists have a sniff around. There’s a hollow behind a wall, which they gently prod at with their drills, uncovering the interior of a perfectly preserved Roman house- Augustan or earlier. There are beautifully coloured frescoes, busts and sculptures. The workers and filmmakers gingerly step inside and walk around, awed by their discovery. Contact with the air from outside causes the frescoes and sculptures to disintegrate before their very eyes, a fag-ash white spreading across the walls. It’s heartbreaking but it’s the one moment of undisputed magic in this film. Cut to a sea of hippies with acoustic guitars, topless girls bathing in fountains and snogging their black boyfriends.

Next up is a 30s brothel, which two pissed soldiers identify by its red door. The camera turns the corner into a tiled corridor, where a mass of men watch prostitutes come down the stairs, each leaving with a customer. The best ones go quickly and soon it’s a procession of old, ugly women strutting their stuff. “Can’t you get it up, boys? Are there no real men here?” A lot of the men seem to be content with a browse. At closing time, two madams turn to the camera and smile; a nice touch. Making post-coital small talk in a fancy red bedroom, Young Fellini asks his whore if she’ll come on a date with him.

Pointedly placed after the brothel is perhaps the weirdest scene in all of Fellini; a sad old Princess welcomes a Cardinal and other aging society types into a dusty old hall, which is the setting for an “Ecclesiastical fashion show”. Nuns and priests sit around a catwalk and watch ever more ridiculous models; monks on rollerskates, priests with bikes, bishops whose robes and hats are covered with flashing mutlicoloured bulbs and look like disco flooring. A harsh, dramatic score is heard as the show climaxes with a Charles Hawtrey lookalike done up as the Pope, on a throne with enormous kaleidoscopic effects on the wall behind him. It’s all played with a straight face, so the belly laughs aren’t outright and there’s something unsettling about all the silliness.

Christmas in Rome; lights everywhere, markets, music, a boxing match, crowd scenes in the streets. Gore Vidal is disclosed amongst outdoor diners and tells us that between the church, government and cinema industry, Rome is “the city of illusions”. Soldiers with batons drive the hippies from the piazza, as one diner laments the “permissive laws” that have allowed such “lazy scum” to flourish. Fascism has left its mark and Fellini is decidedly sitting on the fence as regards ’68.

The film ends with twenty or so youths on motorbikes; at night they speed round Rome’s fountains, the camera spinning to take in all the architecture.  Past the Spanish Steps and statues of emperors, past the Colosseo, and out of the city. The contrast is striking but what to make of it?

Roma is an odd film which feels sad yet celebratory. The (lack of) structure gave it a flabby and undisciplined feeling, but perhaps Fellini wouldn’t have been able to conjure the sequences that do astonish (such as the ruined frescoes) if he hadn’t given himself such a free hand. With no regard for characterisation, the film needed to have a lot to say about Rome and I’m not sure we were given enough. Compared to Amarcord, it was meandering and disappointing.


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