Roma is a movie that could only have been made by Federico Fellini and yet, it seems so different from the master Italian filmmaker’s other works. Released in 1972, a year before Amarcord, the film borders on documentary, but isn’t really one. It appears to be autobiographical on the surface, but doesn’t really follow Fellini’s life story. The beginnings of a plot are there, but the film often spends chunks of time away from a man playing a young Fellini.
When Roma starts, Peter Gonzales, a Spanish actor playing an 18-year-old Fellini, arrives in Rome by train. The camera follows him as he leaves, but Fellini finds interest in a woman at the train station. Is this woman related to the young man? The camera lingers on her, but the young Fellini walks right past her. She isn’t related to the main character at all. She’s just a vision that Fellini gives us as we move on to the next episode.
That early sequence defines Roma. Fellini’s camera finds fascinating images to give us, regardless of their impact on whatever plot there is. The director enjoys giving us a flavor of the city, a decade after La Dolce Vita and after the economic boom of the ’60s. He seems more optimistic that the city can survive economic turmoil because of its great personalities and people.
For example, we spend over 10 minutes at dinner with a group of people we only see in the film once. But it’s long enough to give us a feeling of the community of Rome. Fellini might be an idealist – I wouldn’t know the realities of Roman life in 1972, since I’ve never been there and I wasn’t around in 1972 – but he seemed intent to capture the last gasp of Roman life before it could be devoured by tourism and globalization.
Roma isn’t a complete “love letter” to the city though. He’s critical of the modernization that wipes away great frescoes from Ancient Rome when it builds subways. He shows just how ruinous highways have clashed with the city’s natural beauty. He finds humor in the city’s connection with the Catholic Church. The climax of the film is its epic Catholic Church fashion show, a way for Fellini to explain how a city consumed by fashion and consumerism can be the home of the Catholic Church.
You can tell Roma is in the hands of a master filmmaker because it never feels boring. It’s a fascinating film, even without a traditional plot. There’s so much to see in each frame and scene that time melts away. Calling it a two-hour travelogue or a film postcard will do it a disservice. Roma is a world unto itself and Fellini’s camera makes it a hard one to leave.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray for Roma was released on December 13, 2016, over two years after Masters of Cinema released an edition in the U.K. Both editions come from a 2010 Italian restoration. I haven’t seen the MoC version, but the Criterion version does have a green tint for most of the film. Obviously, I have no idea if Fellini intended this, but I didn’t find it all that distracting. Famed Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (All That Jazz, Fellini Satyricon, The Leopard) shot the film.
Here’s a rundown of the supplements:
- Commentary – Frank Burke, the author of Fellini’s Films, recorded a brand new commentary track for the film. He goes into the production and explains the themes throughout Roma.
- Paolo Sorrentino – New York University film professor Antonio Monda has been making frequent appearances on Criterion releases of Italian films and is the interviewer in two pieces on the Roma release. In the first, he talks with The Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino about Fellini’s influence on his own films and why he ranks Roma high on his ranking of Fellini movies. This is the more fascinating of the two interviews and runs about 16 minutes.
- Valero Magrelli – In the second interview, Monda talks with poet Valero Magrelli for about 18 minutes. Magrelli discusses his relationship with Fellini and his criticisms of Roma. This interview felt a little on the pretentious side, and was also difficult to sit through because of Magrelli’s striped shirt. It’s pretty hard to read subtitles when there’s stripes behind them.
- Deleted Scenes – This is an 18-minute reel of deleted moments from the film. While most of them are just brief moments that only Fellini would think of filming in the first place, there are two really important scenes that were left out of the international cut. One is a hilarious moment with Marcello Mastroianni and another stars Alberto Sordi. The celebrity cameos that made the final cut were Anna Magniani’s unforgettable scene at the end and a scene with Gore Vidal.
- Felliniana – No Criterion release of a Fellini movie would be complete without a gallery of promotional pieces from collector Don Young. It also includes photos from the rehearsal of a scene that was never shot. Unfortunately, this is presented as an 18-minute video rather than a gallery you can click through. (You can always fast-forward to see the photos a little quicker though.)
- “Rome, Fellini’s City” – The leaflet features an essay by professor David Forgacs that explains how Roma fits into Fellini’s filmography.
Roma is a surprisingly engaging film for a movie without a traditional plot. It’s an exploration of Fellini’s mind and how he saw the Eternal City. This is an easy film to recommend to Felliniacs (as Fellini fans should be called), but I would recommend seeing films like La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2, Amarcord or La strada before you reach Roma.