I don't know if this a great movie, but I really enjoy it and I've enjoyed it for many years.
I suppose this movie is now best known for the famous ecclesiastical fashion show, a remarkable piece of anticlerical satire that is as unsettling and haunting as it is funny.
What I think people mostly miss in this scene these days is another dimension which is there throughout the whole movie, the complicated relationship between Roma Antica and Roma Moderna. The show takes place in the grand palazzo of the Principessa Domitilla, one of the survivors of the dying Roman nobility, now living alone in her great ancestral palace with her aging servants. She lives grieving over her fading memories of an irretrievable past. History and personal memory become all tangled together in the Eternal City.
The same is true for Fellini himself who appears repeatedly in this mostly plotless movie. Part of the movie is about him making the film. His own memories of his youth in Rome are woven throughout with his larger meditations on the city's history and its present. He contrasts his own personal memories of arriving in Rome as a young man in the 1930s in a crowded and chaotic Stazione Termini with today (the movie was released in 1972). In this scene, we are arriving in Rome in the present (1972) by way of the Autostrada. This is probably the most dramatic and visionary traffic jam in the movies.
The city's ancient past and its messy present collide in one of the most poetic scenes in the movie, a tour of the city's ever-under-construction subway. The construction stops as they discover a huge hollow that turns out to be the remains of an ancient Roman house.
And how do the Romans themselves come across in this movie? Well, they don't come off very well, whether in the 1930s of Fellini's memory or the present of 1972. They are rude, crude, and comic. Here's a collection of scenes from Fellini's memories of Rome on the eve of World War II. There's no translation, but I don't think you will need it. Some of the scenes take place street dining during holidays (this still takes place) and in a Roman music hall on amateur night (a tougher crowd than The Apollo).
As rude and lewd as these folks from Fellini's younger days are, his attitude toward them ultimately is one of deep affection. The music hall scene turns out to be taking place on the very day of the Allied invasion of Sicily. The announcement stops the show. The night at the theater ends with an air raid, a reminder of the terrible suffering all of these same people would endure after Mussolini was toppled in a coup and the Germans invaded. There are little hints here and there of the underlying menace of state surveillance throughout these scenes. One man is unobtrusively removed from the theater by the internal security police in plain clothes. There's a chilling scene in an air-raid shelter when an off-hand comment at the expense of Il Duce is ruthlessly and publicly squashed.
The scenes of hippies, tourists, and protesters in Rome of 1972 present both a contrast and a continuity with the scenes set in the 1930s. People, Fellini suggests, are more estranged from each other now, but ultimately, Romans remain the same as they were in the 1930s and throughout the city's long history. If these scenes remind me of anyone, it is the photographer Weegee. His screaming high contrast flash photos of New York life in the 1940s can be every bit as grotesque as anything in Fellini's movies, but also full of affection for the very eccentric people he photographed, and for the city's unstoppable vitality.
The movie ends with this tour of the city's monuments at night from the back of a motorcycle. Veduti di Roma ...
Piranesi, up yours!
I've loved and obsessed over Rome my whole life. I've only visited the Eternal City once. I spent 4 days in Rome in 1988. I loved it. I hope to go back some day and spend more time there.
It is fashionable these days to describe Rome as a palimpsest, a text that is continually erased and rewritten. I think that's a better description of New York than Rome. New York is always erasing its past to create its present. I like the description by Kenneth Clark, the late art historian and director of the National Gallery in London. He called Rome a great compost heap of hopes and ambitions. And indeed you can see the layers on the pile in Rome to this day, from the imperial ambitions of the ancient Emperors to the hopes of medieval German Emperors to somehow bring back the old glory to the global ambitions of the Popes to Napoleon to Vittorio Emanuele to Mussolini to today. They are all piled together in a great magnificent heap that continues to nourish imaginations all over the world. And Romans have survived the worst from Nero to Hitler, dancing on their graves, knowing that they will still be around long after the old tyrant's monuments are crumbling and sprouting bushes, long after the Cause for which they stood is discredited and forgotten.
"When the Colosseum falls, Rome falls, and when Rome falls, the world falls."
Piranesi, The Arch of Constantine and The Colosseum