An inspiration for Woody Allen’s sweepingly nostalgic, hilarious Radio Days (1987), Federico Fellini’s Roma begins objectively, with Fellini’s voiceover intruding on a patently artificial set, and proceeds to vignettes from his childhood in Rimini, which includes his introduction to Rome. Dictator Mussolini still runs Italy when Fellini, now 18, visits Rome, staying at a bizarre boardinghouse in the early 1930s. The film fuses, then, objectivity and subjectivity, Rome and the Rome of Fellini’s mind, reality and reverie.
At night a teeming outdoor eatery finds the boy experiencing—an older Fellini remembering—a profusion of sights and sounds (and smells) that puts one in mind of the explosive portrait of London, likewise including grotesque elements, during the St. Bartholomew’s Fair in William Wordsworth’s autobiographical The Prelude. “In Rome we say,” one of the horde at the same table says to the stranger, “everything you eat turns to shit.” Later, in long-shot, a flock of sheep is led across an otherwise deserted city square. The camera approaches a solitary streetside prostitute anxiously waiting for a trick to appear. We jump ahead to present-day Rome in rainy daylight, where a pair of prostitutes—actors—are being filmed. Of course, the previous lone prostitute also was an actress in a film—the film we’re watching. It’s night and still raining, and the film crew is still at work. The traffic stall in front of the Coliseum: Is it real or staged? Next day, young people ask Fellini about the film he is shooting: Is the interview real or staged?
Extraordinary passages follow, including a haunting journey through corridors of the Rome subways suggesting an archaeological descent into the unconscious. An uproariously funny ecclesiastical fashion show brings to fruition the gag of Anita Ekberg’s priestly attire in La dolce vita (1959).
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