© 2014 by James Clark
As the metropolis of a high-impact socioeconomic power, Roma—like New York, London, Tokyo and Paris—has been cinematically scrutinized for the better part of a century. Invariably the City would have come into play in the course of a clearly defined protagonist (or two) bidding for plenitude in a world making plenitude a long shot. On the subject of Rome, we have, for instance, Roberto Rossellini’s, Rome, Open City (1945), wherein a woman, played by Anna Magnani, is destroyed by a home turf poisoned by fascist distemper. Seventeen years later, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his film, Mamma Roma, starring, Magnani, seeks to rain all over the post-War Italian (economic) miracle—depicting Rome as a vicious arena of self-serving money-madness and cruelty. But the star has other ideas and injects into Pasolini’s pedantic slam-dunk some tough de-fence of the elusive improvisational treasure she lives for. Joining this play of contentious cityscape, we have an installment with Magnani once again present, namely, Federico Fellini’s aggressively branded, Fellini’s Roma (1972). Scant months before her succumbing to a cancer she would have known to be terminal, she speaks to Fellini (who is off-camera) for only a few seconds; but that is enough to have her (this time with the full encouragement of the auteur) once again part of a game-changing force.
Magnani’s at death’s door and Fellini is far from the attention-getter he was in 8 ½. So who’s minding the store? Definitely it’s no one captured on camera. Fellini’s Roma is a cinematic singularity insofar as it dares to be almost absolutely awash in dismissive perversity—the better to capture a real state of affairs of arguably terminal oblivion. Unlike more conventionally-structured film narratives, there is no persona to marvel or even care about; but rather a seemingly endless stream of largely farcical dissolution. Before engaging specific events, therefore, with a view toward what is at stake here, we have to pick the lock maintaining a hegemony of seemingly Eternal nihilism. This we can begin to effect by noticing that a child and then a young adult, both passively floundering within the action’s early scenes (in the 1930s) of virtually clownish waywardness, go unnamed but are clearly the same person. (We see the little boy wide-eyed as a train departs a little station; then, on the heels of that, we see a train arriving and a wide-eyed young man tastes his first moments as an adult in Roma.) We can travel from there by noticing that the stacked deck of Mussolini’s 1930s as depicted by that transfer (that would be XVI, in view of the godsend that occurred in 1922) is overtaken (though putting in a few other spicy recurrences) by various stages of a film shoot in the early 1970s, wherein, over and above the brief interview with Magnani, there are a couple of Hitchcock-quick comings on the scene on the part of Federico (Fellini) himself, leaving us to understand that he is the outnumbered and invisible protagonist and that the entire film in its multifaceted interplay with the Eternal City is the action of struggling for the necessary new, in the spirit, if not the intentional register, of Mamma Roma.
Rather than trying to make sense of the tiny uprising—being swamped by an Eternity of self-delusory pretense—from out of a simple-minded march covering, in order, the narrative’s beginning, middle and end (it’s not at all that kind of story), we’ll cite a surprising initiative that vividly transmits why we should not underestimate the perhaps quixotic structural reinvention of an endeavor that seemed to be doing pretty well by basic protagonistic means. Popping up in our face, after a chronicling of the former youngster’s memories by age-apt expressivity, there is a burst of summer-resort sunlight and a sprawling highway toll gate with its take-off range. Immediately linked to that, we notice a film crew getting ready to rock. The soundtrack rather peculiarly opts for peppy organ riffs that evoke a sea voyage. These craftspeople directly impress us as leading a vagabond existence, seemingly more at home in the open country than on a congested, noisy urban perimeter route. With a camera angle putting into overdrive the spaciousness of the roadway implying endless miles to be covered, we are alerted to reference to another, quite different passage. Here we get one of those brief glimpses of Fellini, at the outset of his glorious gamble to break the bank of frozen assets. He asks an assistant, “How long will it take?” (in fact an Eternity; but the answer, from the happy-go-lucky staff, very likely too bucolic for the wild ride ahead, which includes an overturned truck and bloody livestock on the pavement, is, “…a minute…”). As the highwaymen, at work on more subversion than they ever dreamed of, press on (complete with a towering boom crane for the right perspective on what poetic magic is going to occur within a swirl of automotive motion) to a very different track from Mamma Roma’s workplace—but informed by a similar passion for shooting out the lights—Fellini’s voice urges, “Do your stuff!” And we have reasons to do some stuff with the scene just emerging. One of Fellini’s associates, actress, Anouk Aimee, went on (after his Rome story with a protagonist, La Dolce Vita ), to help launch the career of Jacques Demy, with his Lola (1961). Was this not, however, a very different voyage? In specifics, yes. But in its often remarkably gentle and funny malaise and longing, no. And, with his Roma story on tap here, five years after Demy’s, Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)—a Rochefort with wall enhancements echoing here by way of advertising posters, and an underground pocket of ancient frescoes—Fellini (who loved to pretend he knew nothing about the films of others—once quipping, when asked to list his 100 favorite movies, he’d never even seen 100 movies) projects the often light-hearted Demy vehicle, which begins with a boom perspective ride on a soaring bridge by a group of carnies having driven their equipment onto an enormous flat-bed ferry en route to the seaport city of Rochefort. And there goes the putative lack of focus and traction in this episodically puzzling “disappointment.”
For good measure, there is an umbrellas-eliciting rainstorm during this filmic sweep of the outskirts (building up to a flash flood all over the vast pavement [far more turbulent than the tranquil, in fact, seas of the earlier film’s ride]; they also pass a garage with its illuminated “Shell” signage and emptiness; and that brings to bear two features of the Federico kids: first, movie posters, at a theatre where the little guy attends a Mussolini-approved ancient Roman film “epic”—one poster, for Greta Garbo, having enough graphic wobble to evoke Catherine Deneuve, who starred in both Young Girls and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; and, second, the handsome, placid, well-groomed young man (another Roland Cassard, a figure appearing in both Lola and Umbrellas) in an air raid shelter, seated by a lovely blonde, who invites him to her home—“You can rest a little with me…”—going on to explain that her beloved is off somewhere in the war, in the Wehrmacht. A big black sedan, recalling Cassard’s, packing a dangerous-looking guard dog in the back seat, is part of the soggy traffic jam. The film crew, consisting of that giant-giraffe of a mobile camera placement, shielded, somewhat, from the elements by plastic sheeting (vaguely recalling Surrealist giraffes on fire), and a directorial group in a car nearby, is overtaken by, severally: a convoy of tanks, recalling the military base in Rochefort; motorcycle police, in white, like those who accompanied the carnies and their traffic-jamming paraphernalia; a riderless white horse (there being two, ridden by carnies, on the roadway in the sky). It, in turn, overtakes dead animals from an overturned truck, reminding us of the murder and mutilation obtruding within a generally sunny course of aspiration in the town of Rochefort.
That stream of endeavouring to whip up the new (also including, on the freeway, a small truck with its tarp blowing wildly, like a broken sail, blowing us into the murderous and urgent maelstrom of Fellini’s own La Strada) radiates outward in ways confirming the subtlety and depth of Fellini’s mobilization in the (often assumed to be disappointing) wake of his double coup d’eclat (master stroke) in the form of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. The punishing counterpoint of old and new here—so readily discerned that it seduces the unwary viewer into believing he or she is being offered re-heated leftovers—provides much more than punishment. But its nuances have to be carefully freed from a simplistic foreground. One quick tipoff of the complexity we face concerns the major note of Mussolini’s fascist state, hemming in the quite nondescript visitations of the two younger Federicos. The film begins with a dark, wintry landscape—not very unlike what we see in abundance in La Strada—where three old ladies (one with a scythe) push their bikes along and one tells the others that relatives having bailed out to America are condemned to food that comes out of a can. This bit of national pride by invidious comparison cues up the provincial primary scholar being, along with his classmates, informed by a draconian resort to the glories of ancient Rome as supposedly the key to an unprecedented, efficacious modernity. The teacher barks out, “I won’t tolerate any disorder… Silence… Order… Order and silence!” This point about “disorder” is taken up by a subsequent episode where the now-young-man, living in Rome, sits in a music hall with arts-maven friends who look down their nose at the fascist-approved wholesome entertainment (one purporting to be a disciple of kinetics connoisseur, Marcel Proust). Also in the audience are three young men, far less sanguine and privileged than the matinee-idol Federico, who rudely interrupt what bores them on the stage. One of them is eventually taken away by undercover State Police. But the highlight soars far beyond this tit-for-tat. Some of the state-approved entertainers are actually magical (in however modest a way). One of Federico’s prissy friends, beholding a young singer, mincingly dismisses her performance. “Whatever happened to talent? I feel sorry for that poor girl…” But, with the Judy Garland-like performance (by this diminutive brunette) of “You Stole My Heart,” the wags quieten down (their hearts stolen), they become intent on her performance and are unmistakably at one with the far less restive crowd in giving her warm applause. Similarly, with a set reminiscent of the battleship context of the Fred and Ginger vehicle, Follow the Fleet (1936)—another of those supposed, according to propaganda, cheap American products, a group of zesty chorines—though far from Fred and Ginger-level dancers—charm the folks, with nary a catcall. (A few minutes before, the restless boys gathered up and threw a dead cat at a performer who seemed very predictable, quite mechanical. Later in the show, a trio of gals delivering an Andrew Sisters bit of pizzazz have the whole audience [save for the hard-core Prustians] rolling their head and shoulders, like contented kittens.) That that performance of fantasy militarism is interrupted by an air raid; and that, back at the little kid’s hometown, an oldster observed, “Now we’ve got another meany, by the name of Mussolini…”;(and even though, earlier in the show, the performance is interrupted by a smug bulletin from the battlefront wherefrom we learn that the invasion of Sicily has been repulsed), do not in fact press matters into the kind of claustrophobic anomie so rigorously pursued in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. Instead we have here corruption brimming with charms, precisely the delicious ingredient of the films of Demy.
Thus the scene, where the newly arrived dreamboat hipster Federico joins a neighborhood dinner party wafting through the sidewalk cafes, provides a rich tapestry of delicate, earthy resolve and boorish greediness. A buxom Roman Mamma latches onto him, tells him, “The devil takes whoever eats alone,” and she and a friend steer and share a meal with him—they with lip-smacking piquancy that spills over to broad innuendo; he, in his trendy white suit, with polite appreciation which spills over to ulterior motives of arts pertinence and glory. In the midst of this instalment of the arrestingly divided resilience of a populace under the dominance of shallow ideologues, Fellini lets fly (in this, one of his cinematographic initiatives peculiarly without a solid on-screen figure by which a viewer could make some reflective headway) a chain of fireworks emanating from diners hungry for more than dinner. Someone complains, “I told you not to let him eat tripe. He’s had a fever ever since.” One of Federico’s dinner dates tells him, “Something’s been sitting on my stomach since yesterday morning.” But she remains full of fun and she eats with gusto. A little girl, thinking to be entertaining, mechanically rattles off some limericks. Though smiling fixedly, her sadness and anxiety are palpable (One of her lines is, “The sheep turned out to be rams.”) A bit later we see a herd of sheep going through that now deserted piazza. Quite a bit later we have a Pope visiting, in the middle of the night, a palazzo; a scene framed by a sampling of brothels, one of the fancier ones frequented by the charmer in white. Almost as if convened by that desperate to please little girl, the palazzo has filled up with what must be the full staff of the Vatican, and there is a machine-sharp fashion show for clerical garments, giving us the same kind of queasiness as the limericks coming from her, who resembles Alfalfa, from the Our Gang movies (Alfalfa eventually being a murder victim). To round out this important thread—surely the film’s most accessible scene—there is this skirmish between a couple, after he has induced her to come down to dinner (from a balcony overlooking the restaurants), thus abandoning her solitary beholding of a dynamic that somehow repels her. “Verna the Sulker has arrived!… You silly stupid shit!”/ “You’re the stupid shit.”
The film shoot—now spearheaded by a young blonde assistant director—switches investigative locale from the highway to the subway, more specifically, the excavation of a new line for the Rome system. Unlike the tempest and overt menace of the gridlock (there is, in the toll-road passage a remarkable episode of those trapped in the jam being briefly illuminated by lightning flashes and the red lights of emergency vehicles, whereby, from lewd finger signs to feral faces contorted by murderous hatred, they constitute an army of the criminally insane), the intrepid snoops—sort of a revered, more formally educated, less salacious and more technically advanced version of paparazzi—plunge into a mine-digging process, with its more detached whirring drills and roaring ventilation equipment. The day Federico’s crew enter this Dante-invoking precinct, there is the unearthing of a treasure—a house from the glory days of Rome, more than 2000 years ago. The foreman (“We’re forced to be archaeologists… Rome is unpredictable…”) announces, “We’ve run into another hollow spot…” “Hollow” is a remarkably volatile substance here, and the episode (of filming, as filmed by the guy gone AWOL) deals out a museum show with more avenues of scrutiny than college-formed personnel could imagine. The dig is prefaced by reference to the area’s having “an underground river…” Hence the surface institutions and monuments spared by the highway are here, metaphorically/cinematically in the process of being exposed in their infrastructural earthiness—an exposure that poses far more virulent challenge than merely looking askance at “Meany Mussolini.” (We’re headed for another cinematic coverage—namely, of the contemporaneous hippie phenomenon—of giving the “new” a chance. And from what we see forming up in what we’ve touched upon, you can forget about many cheers for that facile army. Demy’s less than benign response to that trip, in Model Shop (1969), would be another point of convergence [in this convergence-seeking project] of seeing such “innovation” as essentially another crock.
The “flame-cutter” drill (a distant cousin of the recently uncovered mammoth tusk brought to the surface and temporarily decorating the entry point) delicately punctures what was once someone’s living room wall, someone with the wealth of money and care to have the large room and anterooms enhanced by fresco portraits and vignettes, and sculptures—presences, looking out at the young filmmaker and her associates relishing the windfall, that aren’t exactly thrilled by what the modern-era paparazzi and the long-ago neighbors are apt to bring to the table. The impasse accruing to this brush with the unexpected is not readily fathomed. And the invaders don’t have long to ponder it in this form, because the “fresh air” being expertly applied to the up-to-the-minute project promptly eats away at the ancient pigments. The diminutive film crew chief had remarked, “It’s as if they were staring at us.” Then, on realizing those stares are about to disappear forever, she becomes distraught, repeating herself in a way recalling Gelsomina’s distress (in Fellini’s La Strada) at what happened to the Fool. “Do something! Do something!”
Something is done, by this film. But because it’s not done by a protagonist (like Gelsomina) we have a mammoth job in bringing it forward. The scenario helps, and in quite a big way, by following up this surprising sense of loss by some less than unique self-satisfied manifestations essentially (not absolutely) oblivious to those reservoirs of mystery untouched by trendsetters like the Pope and the hippies. As mentioned, that incumbent of a process of following the fleet (the big [causal] guns), performs what is clearly not his first middle of the night visitation to a palazzo the sole resident of which is the Princess Domitilla, in widow’s black, a Siren to a monarch oppressed by an erosion of power. (“The world should follow the Church and not vice versa… I’ve just today met with a delegation that wants to tell the Pope how to do his work…”) Her staff prepare for the event by dusting off portraits of saints, not nearly as compelling as those frescoes. (More awkward coincidence consists of the roll call of some other hectic night spots, two brothels, actually, where bravado stands in for efficacy and composure. At one of the fun houses, the girls adopt the cheek, but not the chutzpah of Mamma Roma when still in control of the track. “Babies! You afraid of Mamma?” One of them recalls that Magnani role, at the nadir of the protagonist’s career. “Who knows why we live, and why the fuck we die?” The cool young Federico becomes infatuated by a rather chic number, named Bruna, the implication thereby with Mamma Roma’s Ettore’s gaucherie puncturing the hype, “…sophisticated places which would make your heart beat with fear and excitement…”) The Princess laments, to herself, “I’m sorry to leave this life in a city which is no longer home… The Rome I knew was different. People were nicer, more respectful… Friendship with the Church is lost…” (Near the outset of the film, little Federico’s father has his dinner interrupted by the ladies of the household insisting on listening to and praying with an address by the Pope, on the radio, and he inveighs, “Drop dead, you old bat!”) Though clearly regarding the Church as now a hopeless repository of a past about to be even less telling than the frescoes (The Pope asks for, “A mint to freshen my mouth”), the Princess has arranged for a pep rally of sorts, in the form of a theatrical display of new slants on clerical garb. The upshot is a biliousness of empty shells, a masterful and daring descent into that special Hell exuded by reactionaries stunned into peculiarly toxic mawkishness (think Pasolini’s Salo) by their raging fears. The hostess rounds out the retreat with a wax facsimile of a long dead divine. (“He’s come back!”) The pandemonium amongst the octogenarians here (the Pope having fallen asleep near the outset) reminds us of the phony visionary tots in La Dolce Vita. (There is a delicious duo with nuns’ wimples [headpieces] the size and shape of ravenous seagulls, designed to show bouncy wings. [The routine is called, “Little Sisters of Purgatory.”] And voila, we see through to Delphine and Solange, the Young Girls with their enormous sun hats, upsetting that apple cart, and then again reminding us how steep a climb there is to real ecstasy).
The latter scenes of Fellini’s Roma include that film crew, hoping for interesting action from the then-recently conspicuous cult of poseurs concerning grace (upon which the pointless stunts of the divines cast their edifying light). Right after the extinguishment of the frescoes, we have Fellini`s voice-over, as his team films such modern apparitions sunning themselves like a colony of seals, on the Spanish Steps. “For them, love is certainly not as complicated as it was for us…” Rather than being lulled into seeing yet another instalment of all the foibles to be seen in the Eternal City, I think we must see this self-serving nonsense as bringing to an incisive denouement something quite different from the revelations of his early film successes—namely, a devastating isolation befalling anyone vigorously countering mainstream history, where Roma has shone so powerfully. Rather than a nostalgic, whimsical resignation in face of hordes, dubious at best, Fellini’s scoping the sweetheart fringe of social interplay makes so bold as to include scoping the dubiousness that that sweetness will lead anywhere. And the means of bringing all this to a memorable juncture is Anna Magnani.
There is a holiday celebration, the streets are lit up, the outdoor cafes are hopping, with calories and saccharine minstrelsy (on the order of, “Arriverderchi, Roma”), hippies are parked on their asses, as usual, cops are pushing them around, as usual, and a professorial martyr is scolding (and getting busted by) the latter for abusing the former, as usual. Gore Vidal (living in Rome because of something he noticed—and then forgot) is allowed to rise to the irresistible bait of the camera and unremarkably seems to be impressed by his own (naturally fatuous) statement, “Rome is the City of Illusion. We’re getting near to the end of the world.”
This night of anything but joy mercifully does shut up, long after midnight, to allow a bid for something special. Another woman in black, but in engrossing contrast to Princess Domitilla, walks along a dark frontage of ancient palazzos, and Fellini takes over the soundtrack at this point. That mudslide of “festivities”—“Hey Deadheads, where you going? Why not come here and eat?”—has cued up a spotlight upon someone unique, someone we need to see in all the epochal passion which carried her to inscrutable (unscripted) lengths in Mamma Roma. “This lady you see walking along the wall of an old patrician palazzo is a Roman actress, Anna Magnani… [She arrives at her door and looks back at her old friend]. In a way she’s a symbol of the City itself… She-Wolf, Vestal Virgin, noblewoman and fish-wife… sober and festive… I could go on until tomorrow morning…” Confronted by the only real soul-mate in that mad and maddening city (Demy being distant, impossible and phantom)—a soul-mate not long for this world—Fellini talks too much, scarily sliding into Vidal territory, and tarnishes the magic moment. Her face is a mixture of disappointment and appreciation of the silent darkness; she replies with the quietest playfulness, “You better go and get some sleep, Federico…” He, now immersed in a jag of being his own worst enemy, takes on the register of one of those celebrity news-hounds interviewing a big blonde in La Dolce Vita: “Can I ask you a question?” She, cruelly lucid and lovingly playful, manages for herself, for him and for us a graceful exit, “No, I don’t trust you [She might have been thinking, “Soon he’ll be crying…”]…Ciao! Buonanotte…”
The coda to this finale shows hordes of motorcyclists (somewhat less self-destructive than Mamma Roma’s Ettore, and massively less buoyant, less seriously kinetic than the motorcycle carnies in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort). They roar through the ancient streets like triumphant Barbarians; then they reach the highway and disappear in a night embracing their benightment.
Early in her career, Anna Magnani became known as La Lupa (She-Wolf). Hence the irony of the process of Mussolini’s indoctrinating children under an umbrella called, “Sons of the She-Wolf” (reaching back to the mythic advent of Rome by Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf). As Mamma Roma reveals, Magnani is more particularly a lone wolf, pretty much in the cross hairs of a populace reflexively savaging (more or less casually) depths and mysteries (quite a different thing from sentimental perversity). (Both the earlier rainy highway and the last gasp Barbarian highway pass by the Coliseum.) Fellini, for all his communicative chutzpah, has richly disclosed in this film his own aloneness, flubbing a brush with a sensibility that most matters to him to develop, and linking to a figure—Demy—having, like him, worked with Anouk Aimee and Marcello Mastroianni: a friend of a friend. His virtual disappearance from the upshot of his fervent cares (and when on camera—as with the “progressive” students [more placid cousins of the noisy Communist demonstrators on the freeway]—a clichéd [hopefully hidden in ambiguity] conciliator: “I think a person should be true to his own nature”) is all of a piece with his producing a film that is more a memo in a bottle sent from a desert island than a media Blitz by a Boss-City god. As such, Fellini’s Roma would be that desert island, brimming with brief, semi-tropical promise which withers to nothing, like the frescoes. He shoots onto the screen, from one of the vaudeville entertainers, a verbal instance of the SOS flares his crew sends up during the tempest—“If you ask me this guy was born before he was conceived…” A reflective skyrocket, indeed. But he’s far from convinced that the likes of the Judy Garland herald and the rather bloated, of-the-past version of the Andrew Sisters, “The Three Kants” (Man!), also on the bill, have what it takes. As a gregarious pro, he’s gone on to leave us much to probe in his later endeavors. Let’s leave him for now mooting two avenues, if not about any communion, at least about providing solitude with some solid nourishment. A stage hand at the music hall asks a colleague, “Hey, Orestes! Gimme a hand!” [Orestes being about madness and purification]. And Fellini describes the hellish toll road as circling the City like one of Saturn’s rings.