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Fellini’s Roma (1971)

Fellini’s Roma is an affectionate portrait of a city that is populated by the strangest of people – at least in Fellini’s eyes. He sees Rome as a baroque construction where history, culture, religion and voluptuous life meet and mix unceasingly.

The movie needs no dramatic storyline and has only one protagonist – Fellini himself.

In a series of episodes, he tells how he dreamt as a child of the alluring city, and how he arrived there as a young man in 1939. He tells of his first evening in the metropolis, stepping off the train at Roma Termini, finding a seat in a crowded trattoria, and standing in a queue at a shabby bordello.

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Fellini jumps to and fro between past and present, battles his way through the packed streets with a camera team in tow, visits a cacophonous wartime theatre, hangs out with the hippies on the Spanish Steps, sits in an air-raid shelter and meets a German girl.

In Fellini’s vision, Rome is an organic entity. At a dinner party, someone quotes a Roman proverb: “as you eat, so will you shit”.

The people are vulgar, obstreperous, argumentative, and noisy. They smoke, they sweat, their children piss on the floor of the theatre, and they only ever appear en masse.

In the young Fellini’s apartment house, there are an incredible number of sub-tenants: people push for room at the dinner table, gobbling snails and tripe. The hippies – playing love games – practically tie themselves in knots.

There’s no such thing as privacy and everyone takes part in everyone else’s life. The streets of Rome, says the narrator, are like corridors, and the public squares are like living rooms.

The Rome we see here is so heavily idealised that Fellini could find it only in the studio. Thus, he had an entire stretch of the Via Albalonga rebuilt in Cinecittà, including the trams. The real Rome appears only occasionally, above all at the end, as the camera accompanies a horde of bikers on their night journey through the city.

In one scene the camera goes underground to film the building of the subway. Like a monstrous worm, the drill bores through the entrails of the city. The engineer explains that Rome was built in eight layers and that a burial chamber has just been discovered in the fifth layer.

Suddenly they’re up against another hollow space – the drill breaks through the wall to reveal an ancient Roman villa – there are mosaics in the untouched baths and stunningly beautiful frescos.

Abruptly the paintings on the wall begin to fade and crumble to dust – they cannot survive contact with the air of the outside world.

What fascinates Fellini is the clash of opposites in Rome – antiquity and modernity. The old and the new. How the past permeates the present and how partial destruction is sometimes necessary to ensure the survival of the total organism called Rome.

Fellini cuts into the body of the city and takes a look beneath its surface, but he cannot grasp Rome as a whole. It never stops changing.

Fellini said, after filming, “this city is like a woman. You think you’ve had her, undressed her, heard her moan . . . but then you see her again a week later and you see that she’s nothing like the woman you thought you had possessed. In short, I still have the desire to make a film, another film, about Rome”.

Things turned out differently, though, and in his next film, Amarcord (1973), Fellini revisited the scene of his childhood, Rimini.

Fellini (Child)
Stefano Mayore
Fellini (18 years old)
Peter Gonzales
Compere
Galliano Sbarra
Princess Domitilla
Pia De Doses
Cardinal Ottaviani
Renato Giovannoli
Pharmacist’s Wife
Elisa Mainardi
Young Prostitute (Dolores)
Fiona Florence
Engineer
Marne Maitland

Director
Federico Fellini