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When considering the entire film career of Italian director Federico Fellini it would be unthinkable to discount the importance of Rome on his creative development as an artist and as a source of endless inspiration for him. And it was inevitable that he would one day make a movie about the eternal city, one that merged fantasy with documentary to depict a place that was a character in its own right.
Fellini Roma, released in 1972, was a continuation of the same approach he had applied to his previous film, The Clowns (1971), made for RAI-TV in Italy. The latter was an affectionate personal tribute to the circus and carnival tricksters of his youth, some frightening to behold, others comical and consummate artists of their craft. The movie blended surreal autobiographical recreations and non-fiction documentation into a unique type of cinema portraiture and Fellini Roma was a deeper exploration of this style that paid homage to a legendary city that served as muse and teacher for the director. "In Roma," Fellini stated, "I wanted to get across the idea that underneath Rome today is ancient Rome. So close. I am always conscious of that, and it thrills me. Imagine being in a traffic jam at the Coliseum! Rome is the most wonderful movie set in the world...As was the case with many of my film ideas, it was inspired by a dream." Film historian Fabrizio Borin reinforced this observation when he wrote that Fellini's "subconscious is Roman, and composed of progressive stratifications like the seven layers of earth below it."
Like many personal journeys, Fellini Roma travels toward its destination from the perspective of the past; in this case, an autobiographical memory of a classroom trip from his hometown of Rimini to Rome in 1931 which flows into a later memory of Fellini's return there as a young man in 1938 when his real education began. The movie then leaps ahead to contemporary Rome (in the early seventies) as Fellini and his often visible camera crew circle the city, hoping to penetrate its mystique, while capturing vivid sights and sounds of the rich culture there. In some ways, there are also too many ideas at work in Fellini Roma which accounts for its loose, episodic structure and lack of a traditional narrator to link all of the incongruous material together. Yet this sprawling, non-linear approach which jumps back and forth in time mirrors the chaotic nature of daily Roman life which is brimming over with all of the details that define the city - the massive traffic jams, the prostitutes amid the ancient monuments and side roads, the hippies on the Spanish Steps, the open piazzas and outdoor restaurants, the constant excavations of archaeological wonders, the tensions between the Church and contemporary culture, and the celebrities who make Rome their home.
Originally budgeted at $2 million dollars, Fellini Roma, like many of the director's projects, took longer and cost much more than the projected sum. Additional production money was made available from United Artists who signed on as the movie's U.S. distributor, joining Cinecitta and two other Italian production companies as co-partners. The film's production was predictably extravagant with Fellini re-creating aspects of Rome on the Cinecitta lot, including a 400 yard replica of the newly built Raccordo Anulare expressway that forms a circle around Rome. Other elaborate set pieces include past and present comparisons of bordello life, a counterculture clash between the police and youths at a street fair in Trastevere, the discovery of a first century A.D. Roman apartment with pristine frescos that are destroyed by exposure to the air, an ecclesiastical fashion show in which priests roller-skate around the stage, nuns model large, billowing habits, and a huge plastic Pope makes an appearance.
Gore Vidal, who makes a brief appearance in Fellini Roma, was approached by the director to be in the film because he was a well-known figure in the local literary scene (Vidal had been living in Rome since the early sixties). Gore agreed to appear on the condition that he was allowed to dub himself and "because I was genuinely curious to watch him work, and the best way to do that was to be his actor." Gore's experience was amusingly detailed in Hollis Alpert's biography of Fellini with the renowned novelist recalling his big scene in a crowded piazza. "There were about six tables, and two other long ones with food on them - rather disgusting piles of food, some real, some plastic, and I could tell from where he was positioned what the scene might look like. Realistic, but slightly off, with a little more food than you'd ordinarily have there, and the fish a little too big and too raw. He would ask me questions, and I would improvise my bit. He had me doing it over and over. I was in the middle of take five when all hell seemed to break loose behind us. I looked around. And there were four of the most beautiful white horses drawing an empty cart. 'Freddie,' I said, 'what the hell is that?' 'I don't know, Gordino. It looks nice. Don't you think it looks nice?'.....He kept adding things to the scene, then he would take them away, and finally the horses were gone. I suddenly realized that it didn't matter what I said, that I could be saying any nonsensible thing in my supposed interview, and that it wouldn't matter because I was part of his composition. What was in his head was the screen, and what happened in the square was happening to fill it up."
Fellini also invited actress Anna Magnani to appear in his movie. He recalled, "I knew she was very sick, but I also knew she loved to work. 'Who is going to play opposite me?' she asked. 'Your part is only going to be about a minute long,' I explained. 'Who is going to play opposite me?' she repeated. 'I never accept a part without knowing that.' 'I am,' I replied, thinking quickly. I assumed her silence was assent, since she was never silent if she disagreed. At the end of the film, we have a nocturnal encounter outside her front door. Magnani was a creature of the night who slept half the day and prowled half the night. She was a kindred spirit to the hungry Roman stray cats she would feed in the early hours, just before dawn. Off camera, I made a little fun of myself. 'May I ask you a question?' I say, concluding my lines, and she says, 'Ciao, go to sleep,' and then goes inside. The "Ciao" she speaks to me is the last line she ever spoke on the screen. She died just after that."
Fellini Roma was released theatrically in two versions; the Italian one was 128 minutes and the U.S. release print ran 119 minutes after the deletion of some footage featuring Italian actors Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi in Trastevere. The reception of the movie by both Italian and international reviewers was decidedly mixed. On the negative side were such comments as "Roma is a film that proceeds in stops and starts, sometimes slowing to a standstill, at others rushing forward at break-neck speed...Fellini fails to amalgamate these fragments, they escape his grasp..." (Sergio Frosali, La Nazione) and "For a director who has reached the extremes of fantasy, there seems no way forward along the same track. One longs to see him take a new direction - back, perhaps, to that mysterious organism, more complex than Rome itself, the human being." (Dilys Powell, The London Sunday Times). Pauline Kael wrote that "Some of the images are magisterial and marvellous, like a series of stormy Turners, but whenever there's dialogue or thought, the movie is fatuous...The picture reaches its nadir when he goes celebrity-chasing..."
There were just as many who championed the film such as French director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) who was particularly impressed by the final apocalyptic-like image of a horde of motorcyclists clad in black leather and black helmets, roaring through the city at night. "Nothing like it has ever been seen in the cinema," he proclaimed. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times called Fellini Roma "the most enjoyable Fellini film," Playboy magazine deemed it "a cinematic pearl," and Roger Ebert attacked wrong-headed misinterpretations of it by others when he wrote, "Critics who would force Fellini back into traditional narrative films are missing the point; Fellini isn't just giving us a lot of flashy scenes, he's building a narrative that has a city for its protagonist instead of a single character. The only sly thing is that the city isn't Rome - it's Fellini, disguised in bricks, mortar, and ruins."
For anyone who admires Fellini though, the movie serves as a fascinating road map to other movies by the director, both past and future. There are images and references that conjure up similar scenes in Variety Lights (1950), La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960) and Satyricon (1969) and his increasing interest in theatrical effects and stylized sets would continue in Fellini's Casanova (1976), City of Women (1980) and And the Ship Sails On (1983). At the same time, Fellini's reliance on autobiography would lead to a much more structured storyline for his next feature, Amarcord (1973), about life during the 1930s in a small coastal town modeled on his birthplace Rimini. It would be one of his rare commercial successes outside Italy and also be regarded as his last fully-realized masterpiece by many critics.
Fellini Roma would go on to win the Technical Grand Prize for the director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972. It would also earn a nomination for Best Art Direction (by Danilo Donati) from the BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Arts) and win the Foreign Film award from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
Producer: Turi Vasile
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi (both story and screenplay)
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Music: Nino Rota
Film Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni
Cast: Peter Gonzales (Fellini, age 18), Fiona Florence (young prostitute), Pia De Doses (Princess Domitilla), Marne Maitland (underground guide), Renato Giovannoli (Cardinal Ottaviani), Elisa Mainardi (pharmacist's wife/cinema spectator), Galliano Sbarra (music hall compere).
by Jeff Stafford
Fellini: A Life by Hollis Alpert (Atheneum)
I, Fellini by Charlotte Chandler (Cooper Square Press)
The Films of Federico Fellini (Citadel Press)
Fellini The Artist by Edward Murray (Frederick Ungar)
Federico Fellini by Fabrizio Borin (Gremese)