Federico Fellini’s Roma begins with a bright, red title card emblazoned simply, but boldly, with the film’s title then takes us on something of a history lesson. Gently informing us, of course, about the old city of Rome and her beginnings, taking in the assassination of Julius Caesar, religion and Catholicism, Mussolini and World War II and undoubtedly memories of Fellini’s own childhood, this sequence acts almost as a prologue to the rest of the movie. So, pay attention, class. Today’s lesson is the city of Rome.
We see a young man arriving at the city’s train station in 1939, played by Peter Gonzalez, looking somewhat anachronistic in contemporary (for the 70’s) white suit and thick hair-style. He gazes in wonder at the hustle and bustle of the busy station and its many faces and characters then makes his way to some lodgings. He dines in the busy piazza, takes in a lively theatre show and visits an ‘up market’ brothel. The young man is Fellini himself at the age of 18 and these are his first flirtations with the city which would enrapture him.
Another sequence brings us to the 1970’s and to the roads in and around Rome and, in particular, the ring road which surrounds the city. Here, our senses are bombarded with images and sounds of the chaos and queues of people in cars. Lights flash, horns roar and the heavens open as we are witness to Fellini’s own film crew at work. Life and death, it seems, are frequent travellers on this highway.
We also go beneath the city and to the excavation works readying the underground for the planned metro train system. We travel with an archaeological team to see the old Rome being bulldozed aside to make way for the new and watch two thousand year old frescoes crumble with exposure to the newly opened atmosphere. Progress comes at a price.
The finale, if we can call it such, begins by circling back to religion but takes the form of a bizarre catwalk fashion show with displays of all the associated regalia for ecclesiastical tastes. Swishing Sisters, head-flapping nuns, roller skating cardinals, cycling priests and more are on show. It is a dark and powerful sequence which builds to quite a climax before we are off, al fresco again, and to a traditional Roman festival, the Festa de’ Noantri, where things are more sedate. Briefly. Gore Vidal makes a cameo appearance as we dine with the Roman bourgeoisie in the piazza, entertained by rioting youths on the street and then finally we take a night time tourist ride through the famous city with a motorcycle gang. A boisterous end to a heady journey.
I must first admit to being a Fellini virgin, having seen only snippets of his work. La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ are both on my hitlist but it falls to Roma to be my first foray into this master’s filmography. Part travel documentary, part stage play, part surrealist dream/nightmare, it is a movie, to this reviewer, defying genre. This is ‘no genre’ film-making. Personally I found it interesting as opposed to enjoyable. At times it reminds me of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and its haphazard, drug fuelled dream state and, bizarrely or no, during the chaotic ring road sequence, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its aural and visual assault came to mind, such is the ferocity of the sound and visual mix. At other points I’m reminded of the later films’ which Fellini has undoubtedly influenced. I see Tornatore’s, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and I see Argento’s, Profondo Rosso. Roma is surely nothing less than a love letter to the city in which Fellini made his home. Certainly not for all tastes but a tantalising dip into the waters for those who wish to explore.
At the beginning of the film we are told we are watching a restoration of the international cut. Fellini shortened the length of the film after its initial screening and it is this cut which has been restored. Pleasingly, it all looks very good. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect and given a 1080p transfer, this must be the best Roma has ever looked on home video. Colours look natural and, particularly in the catwalk sequence, are vivid and bright. Blacks are good and clarity and detail come through nicely, even in dark lit or night time scenes, of which there are a few. Contrast is solid and there is no damage or corrections apparent to my eye. Roma was filmed, of course, on 1970’s film stock and this is apparent in the overall look of the film, however, this is not to its detriment. Roma looks quite magnificent.
Eureka have given us a few audio options on this release. Lossless Italian and English 1.0 dubs and also a music and effects track. I opted for the Italian dub, as I am wont to do, and it’s a fine sounding track. Dialogue is crisp and clear and sonic overload is reached on a few occasions, all the better to dizzy the senses. Music comes through beautifully and the score, again during the catwalk sequence, is big and brooding. A cursory listen to the English dub finds it, surprisingly, to be quite good, though I’ve yet to sit through the music and effects track.
Extras are rather slim for this release but are interesting. First up is a 15 minute chat with Chris Wagstaff on Fellini, the production of Roma and the film itself. Wagstaff is a low key and amiable speaker and, being a lecturer of Italian studies, provides a wealth of information on the background of the film. Next is a collection of deleted scenes removed after the initial screening which will be of most interest to the purists. Two of them are of note however, as they feature cameos by Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi, both well known Italian actors at the time. Quite how one would sell a movie like Roma in a trailer is well beyond my ken but more imaginative minds than mine did indeed come up with both an Italian and an international trailer to promote the film and they are both presented here for our perusal as the final extra material. There is also an excellent booklet containing a new essay and some fascinating photographs.
Perhaps not the best place to jump into the canon of Fellini, being a personal paean to a city that obviously fascinated him, but a worthwhile watch nonetheless for those open to narrative free cinema. Looking good, sounding fantastic and with a smattering of extra goodies this is another very good Eureka release for The Masters of Cinema Series.