There is a scene in Roma where some students approach Federico Fellini in the Villa Borghese park and challenge him about the film he is making—the film we are seeing. One asks whether it will have “an objective point of view” and deal with contemporary issues: education, factories, housing. Another says, “We hope we’re not going to get the usual shabby, easygoing, messy, maternal Rome.” Fellini replies, “I think one should only do what one finds congenial.”
This dialogue, like the rest of the script, was written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi, and it slyly anticipates what Fellini knew he would be accused of by some critics: avoiding the real city, dealing in stereotypes that would appeal to the film export market. At the same time, it does convey his own feelings about Rome. The ideas of the city as “easygoing” and “maternal,” a mother-city, were ones he often repeated. He himself was born in a provincial coastal town, Rimini, and moved to Rome in 1939, when he was nineteen. When he made this film, he had been there for over thirty years, so he could be described as an outsider-insider. But his own mother, Ida, came from Rome, and he called the city an ideal mother, one who has so many offspring she cannot devote herself to each and lets them do what they like. As a result, Rome, he said, was “a city of idle, skeptical, ill-mannered children,” but Romans were also very attached to family.
Roma has a loosely autobiographical structure, but the autobiography is semifictionalized. It opens in Rimini, with a series of short sequences set around 1930, during the time of Fellini’s childhood, all of which point in different ways to Rome and to the rest of the film. Rome in these sequences is seen from a distance and through the filters of the school and various media: the ancient Rome of Latin texts, slide shows, theater (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), and silent gladiator movies; the modern Rome of Fascist newsreels and the Pope on the radio. The boys gaze wistfully from behind a gate at the express train bound for the city as it stops briefly at their station without letting passengers on or off. The action then jumps forward about ten years. Italy is about to enter World War II. One of the boys is now a young man (played by Mexican-American actor Peter Gonzales) arriving in Rome for the first time. He steps off the train in a crisp white suit, with longish hair and dark glasses, like an alien from another time and place, and takes a tram to a family apartment that he will share with other tenants.
It is here that Fellini’s personal vision and memories of Rome begin to replace the mediated images of the earlier sequences. The apartment is a microcosm of the city as he envisaged it: familial, unruly, corporeal. All ages and social types live under the same roof like a chaotic extended clan. Gastric and gastronomic functions abound. The radio blares music, babies cry. A man flushes the toilet and imitates a speech by Mussolini; a Chinese tenant makes pasta; a large-breasted woman dries her hair; the obese landlady in bed warns the young man that this is a God-fearing household, not to be profaned. The cacophony and “gastro-sexual” atmosphere, as Fellini called it, continue into the next sequence—the meal in the street—where the food being served includes some of the dishes Romans ate that Fellini found both fascinating and disgusting: snails, pasta sauce made with calves’ intestines, a pig’s head complete with eyeballs. Later we will see the audience at the variety show behave like those “ill-mannered children,” insulting the hapless performers onstage.
The scene with the students takes place in the third time level of the film—the present, 1971, during which the film is being shot—and Fellini is reminding his audience that it is not an objective account of the city but an assemblage of what he finds appealing or interesting in it. In one sense, the point is obvious and hardly needed to be made. All city films are selective. From Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) to Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), they pick and choose certain places or neighborhoods, frame some views and exclude others, and have some kind of narrative shape, however loose. But Fellini’s Roma is different, with its hybrid form and jagged structure. It is a hybrid in that it mixes various kinds of film: contemporary observation with semifictionalized private memory, pseudodocumentary with pure fantasy. It is jagged because, after the opening sequences in Rimini, it moves backward and forward between time levels and alternates sequences that run on for a long time—like the dinner in the street, the variety show, and the ecclesiastical fashion parade—with very short vignettes lasting twenty or forty seconds: the opening shot of the road at night with the marker “Roma Km 340,” which peasants in silhouette walk past while chatting in swirls of mist, and the shot later on of another road, similarly lit, dotted with ancient statues and a broken column, where a prostitute steps out of a car and zips up her leather boot.
There is also a rather open and improvised quality to the film, particularly in the contemporary parts. When it was finished, Fellini said ruefully that he had “the strange sensation of not even having scratched the surface” of the city. There were many other places in it he could have filmed but did not. He originally wanted to include a sequence set in the Cimitero del Verano, the huge cemetery outside the ancient city walls, where living Romans commune with their dead relatives (again the large Roman family), but he dropped the idea at the last minute. He also trimmed the film, at the producers’ request, to reduce the running time for international distribution, eliminating, among other scenes, cameos he had shot of Alberto Sordi and Marcello Mastroianni in the Trastevere sequence (these are included on this release). As for the story, such as it is, we do not know what happens to the young man after the scene in the brothel when he offers to meet the prostitute again. His narrative is left hanging, and the film moves back to the modern day and stays there. At the end, there is no real narrative closure. The film just goes out on a shot of a large group of motorcyclists riding through the city walls toward the coast.
It is true that Fellini had made open and episodic films before Roma, but Roma is open in a more radical sense. One can see the difference clearly if one compares it to his next film, Amarcord, released just one year later, in 1973. Amarcord is also made up of episodes, some of which are like freestanding short stories, but it is tightly scripted by Fellini and Tonino Guerra, with a lot of dialogue, with all the action unfolding in one place and time, and following a recurrent set of characters to whom we get attached. There is even a narrator who speaks, smiling, to the camera. Amarcord was Fellini’s most successful film of the decade, both commercially and critically, and it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. There are several moments of warmth and empathy in Roma too, but altogether it is a more experimental film and more challenging for audiences, a mixture of story and montage of attractions, like the fashion parade or the motorcycle ride.
Roma is also a film that belongs to a particular moment, not just in Fellini’s career but in the history of Rome and of cinema. He had already directed or worked on several films set in and around Rome, and each of them had captured a different aspect of it at a different time: Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945), for which Fellini wrote some of the dialogue, The White Sheik (1952), Nights of Cabiria (1957), and above all, La dolce vita (1960). Shot in black and white, the last of these shows the city as it was at the height of Italy’s postwar economic boom. New residential districts were being built, the streets were starting to fill with cars and motor scooters, and roads and sports halls were being constructed in preparation for the 1960 Olympics. American actors were still hanging out in the cafés and bars of the Via Veneto and being hounded by photographers, as they had been throughout the fifties, when the Hollywood studios were shooting epics at Cinecittà (Quo Vadis, Ulysses, Ben-Hur) and other stories on location (Roman Holiday, Three Coins in the Fountain, Seven Hills of Rome). La dolce vita shows the prosperous new Rome, but it also shows its dark underside: the housing project where the prostitute lives (echoing the locations of Nights of Cabiria), the vacuousness and superficiality of the partying crowd, the suicide of the intellectual, Steiner. And the film had a hard time with the censors. The orgy scene was considered scandalous, Anita Ekberg’s priest dress blasphemous.
By the time Fellini shot Roma just over a decade later, everything was different. The end of the boom had been followed in 1964 by a recession and then, in the late sixties, by the students’ and workers’ protest movements, which were particularly intense in Italy. The students’ remarks to Fellini reflect something of that climate, albeit in muted form, but it is also present in the scene where the police attack the young hippies in front of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which in the later seventies was to become a meeting place for drug users. The era of Hollywood on the Tiber was over, but some American artists and writers were still living in Rome (like Gore Vidal, who appears as himself toward the end of the film), and mass tourism had taken off. Censorship was also more relaxed by 1972; nudity and violence were now common in Italian films. The church does not seem to have taken particular offense at the sequence of the ecclesiastical fashion parade, though its satire is merciless. In all these respects, Roma is very much of its time. It also alludes to two other changes in the cityscape that had intervened since La dolce vita: the completion of the outer ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare (the final section of which had opened in 1970), and the construction of the subway network, which had started in 1964 and progressed in fits and starts thereafter.
Yet it is important to recognize that almost every aspect of Rome that this film captures is in some way filtered through artifice and elaborated by fantasy. This was consistent with Fellini’s idea of projecting his personal vision of the city, but it was also to do with his preference for reconstructing real places on studio sets, which enabled multiple takes and more sustained work with actors and gave his director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno (who worked on eight of Fellini’s color films), greater control of the lighting. The street outside the restaurant was built on Stage 5 of Cinecittà, its largest soundstage and the one Fellini always used. Tramlines were laid, and a real tram was driven past the actors. After the meal is over, there is a haunting series of nighttime shots done on that set, with an intense blue light (ostensibly produced by an arc welder repairing the tramline) throwing shadows of yelping dogs onto the walls. Much of the sequence on the ring road, which starts out looking like a documentary, was also shot at Cinecittà. Fellini had several hundred feet of road built on the back lot, next to the set used for westerns, by the same construction company that had built part of the real road. This allowed him to create surreal images like the white horse running between the cars, or the accident with dead cows on the tarmac. Some of the shots in this sequence were copied from ones Fellini and Rotunno had created in Toby Dammit (1968), and there is the same music by Nino Rota.
The subway tunnels and the drilling equipment were also built and shot on Stage 5. Fellini had initially thought of filming on location, and Rotunno remembered doing some shots there, but during the reconnaissance led by the chief engineer, Fellini said, “We need to redo everything in Cinecittà. We can’t set up the lights here.” Light, Zapponi said, was essential to Fellini’s style; it was his syntax. As reconstructed in the studio, this sequence is one of the most haunting in all Fellini’s work. After the drill pierces a wall with a hollow space behind it, the engineer and camera crew enter a buried Roman villa. As they look at the frescoes painted on rectangular columns, with the sound of howling wind coming from the tunnel, the colors fade before their eyes and ours. The effect was obtained by applying a transparent varnish over the paintings that turned white when high-power resisters inside the columns were switched on and emitted heat. The scene is a condensed encounter between two Romes: ancient civilization and modern technology. Those freshly painted faces remained sealed from time, but on contact with modernity they are immediately destroyed. There is an echo here of the final shots of Fellini Satyricon (1969), where the characters we have been watching appear as painted images on the ruined walls of a building on a cliff top buffeted by the wind. Both sequences poignantly evoke the death of ancient Rome, and also the evanescence of cinema itself.
David Forgacs is Zerilli-Marimò Professor of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University. He is author of the BFI Film Classics volume on Rossellini’s Rome Open City. His other contributions for Criterion include the commentary for the release of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert and interviews for Fellini’s La dolce vita and Antonioni’s Le amiche. He has also done commentaries on Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione and The Leopard (BFI) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Arrow Films).