Fellini's Roma Review

Funny, stylish, bold, colourful and lively, Fellini’s Roma is a fantastical, yet deeply personal vision of the director’s home city of Rome. Often threatening to alienate his audience in his later films with personal obsessions and heavy symbolism, with Roma Fellini reined in all his indulgences and applied all his skills and experience to make a warm, nostalgic picture, with similar fictionalised autobiographical elements to his later Amarcord. Roma is as much a personal celebration of one’s home town as Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan, which Fellini’s work obviously influenced to a large degree.

It is Woody Allen’s Radio Days however that comes to mind most while watching Fellini’s Roma. The depictions of childhood and family life at the beginning of the film heavily influenced Woody Allen’s warmest and most nostalgic film. However, even Allen’s familiar depictions of a Jewish family in depression hit New York are no match for the large and boisterous Palleta family and the frenetic pace of life that the young Fellini, a budding journalist who has just arrived in Rome, is thrown headlong into. In a brilliant and memorable mid-section, Fellini evokes memories of the variety shows of the late thirties, a hilariously wild and funny section that most strongly recalls Allen’s memories of the Radio Days of the 1940s.

At the beginning of the film we see Fellini as a young man, arriving at the train station in Rome, a station that is haunted by historical figures in a modern city that lives side-by-side with its history. The film doesn’t follow any strict chronological order, jumping from the 1930s to the present day of the 70s. From the start of the film where the director is portrayed as a young man, the film jumps to the present day showing the director making the film on the road into Rome. From the hippies of the early seventies gathered on the Spanish Steps, to the colourful old-style brothels of the city, and the construction of a modern subway uncovering frescoes in a 2000 year-old Roman house, modern day life is frequently contrasted with old.

The film cannot be judged therefore from the point of view of plot, direction and acting. It is a personal celebration of what the city of Rome means to the director, with its history, its huge variety of life – life as a circus (a constant theme in Fellini films), in its richness of character and variety, constantly moving from one act to the next. Again in Roma we have another of the director’s tremendous gallery of faces, a parade of wonderfully bizarre and sometimes grotesque characters. The film is not exactly documentary in style, mixing realist elements with impressionist visions of fellow passengers seen through the rain in flashing lights, alongside traffic jams and road accidents.

No Fellini film would be complete without some reference to religion, nor indeed would any film that claims to be an examination of the city of Rome. In a surreal fashion show we see nuns in colourful habits and bishops in neon garments parading on the catwalk for bishops, cardinals and assorted clergy, in a merciless parody of the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic church and its influence. The film ends with a wild motorbike ride past the statues, monuments and piazzas of the city.

The picture is presented letterboxed in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, so it cannot be zoomed to 16:9 on widescreen televisions without cutting off the top and bottom of the picture and some of the subtitles. The quality of the picture nevertheless is still superb. Reasonably clear of grain and with few marks or scratches, the image is warmly coloured with vivid reds and strong blacks. It is a pity that it is not anamorphic, but it is still remarkably good.Good, clear subtitles are provided and are optional. The film is divided into 16 chapters, which means some quite long sections, but they are well divided matching the distinct episodes in the film.

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is quite dull and flat. Loud passages are rather noisy and discordant. It doesn’t present any real problems though and is certainly adequate for the most part.

The only extra on the DVD, the two and a half minute trailer covers the huge variety of images seen in the film. As is common in American trailers for foreign films, no scary foreign languages can be heard on the trailer.

Fellini’s Roma is a brilliant evocation of childhood memories and a wonderful celebration of a unique city that is personified as much in its inhabitants and life-style as in its history and monuments. All these elements are skilfully interwoven by a legendary director at the height of his powers. The DVD release is a pretty much barebone release from MGM, lacking an anamorphic transfer, but it is pleasing that they have at least come up with a good quality print that serves the film well. Fellini’s Satyricon has also been released as part of MGM’s World Films range, and at a budget price both these films are certainly worth investigating on DVD.

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