Fellini's Roma

Fellini’s Roma (1972 Italy 128mins) 35mm

Source: Potential Films Prod. Co: Ultra Films, Les Productions Artistes Associés Exec. Prod: Lamberto Pippia Prod: Turi Vasile Dir: Federico Fellini Scr & Story: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi Phot: Giuseppe Rotunno Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Art Dir, Costumes: Danilo Donati Mus: Nino Rota

Cast: Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, Gore Vidal, Anna Magnani, Alberto Sordi, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.

[Barthélemy] Amengual has given a profound definition of… [the] originality of spectacle in Fellini, with no distinction between watching and watched, without spectators, without exit, without wings or stage: less a theatre than a kind of giant Luna Park, where movement, which has become movement of world, makes us pass from one shop-window to another, from one entrance to another through all the cubicles.

– Gilles Deleuze (1)

You may love or detest his work: but no one is left cold by it.

– John Russell Taylor (2)

Situated between the equally autobiographical The Clowns (1970) and Amarcord (1973), Roma is, surprisingly, one of Fellini’s most neglected and under-analysed works. Many critics baulk at the sketchy, self-indulgent quality of the film and the extended temporality of many of its most breathtaking sequences (several of which are amongst the most memorable in all of Fellini’s cinema). I want to argue that Roma is amongst Fellini’s most free-form and vibrant works, exemplifying and extending his career-long preoccupation with the carnivalesque corporeality of Italian street-life, as well as the vestiges of community and heterogeneity found within the director’s often insular and singular display of cinematic imagination and ‘subjectivity.’ Also, through its retreat from the somewhat turgid themes of tortured self-expression and the existential grain of contemporary life, found in more celebrated works such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), the film becomes more open to the spontaneity of ‘life’ and the heightened cavalcade of compositions and experiences that are the most exemplary qualities of Fellini’s cinema (though thankfully avoiding the sentimentality of a film like La Strada [1954]).

Even in its more strained sequences, such as the ecclesiastical fashion show, Roma displays an extremely witty, brilliantly choreographed and gaudy visual style; a phantasmagoria of heightened performance, projected light and amplified sound. The film’s ‘openness’ to life also contributes to Roma being amongst Fellini’s noisiest films, the post-synched sound of the Italian studio enabling the director to create a fugue of shouting voices, traffic noises, snatches of the sounds of popular culture and Nino Rota’s wonderful music. (It is the quality and volume of this overlapping sound and layered dialogue which seems to have most influenced Martin Scorsese – a renowned Fellini admirer – in his portraits of Italian-American life). In fact, Roma is a film that is noisy on just about every level, creating, in the process, a vivid sense of community. Despite the overwhelming presence of the key leitmotifs of Fellini’s cinema – garish bodies and faces, women’s backsides, larger-than-life characterisations, the actual or doppelganger presence of the director himself – Roma is, along with such other mid-period works as Toby Dammitt (1968) and Amarcord, for those who don’t generally care for the director’s more portentous and gaudy work.

At the very beginning of Roma we are shown a roadside marker representing the distance from Fellini’s boyhood home of Rimini to Rome. This simple, darkened, wind-swept image has a mercurial quality, situating and embodying the episodic qualities of the film that is to follow. This image establishes the basic subject of the film (Rome envisioned in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1970s), the notions of time and distance which play upon the city’s representation (Rome as seen by a boy from the provinces and looked back on through time), and instigates a series of images whose indexical status seems uncertain, their function as signs of either autobiography, subjectivity or documentary fidelity undecided. (Although this is definitely a re-presented, almost hermetic image it carries with it a reference to an external reality, a possible actual marker situated outside Rimini. In this sense, it is akin to the more general correspondences drawn between Fellini’s ‘Roma’ and Rome in the film). Such an autobiographical impulse, subjective undercurrent or indexical uncertainty seems to be a general quality of Fellini’s cinema. As Gilbert Adair suggests, “rarely, in the history of a medium reputed to be of collective, collaborative inspiration, has a series of films been so intimately, exclusively, identified with the man who directed them.” (3)

Roma is a film of memory restaged, but in a fashion quite removed from the associative flow of past and present to be found in a writer like Proust. Fellini’s film insists upon the continuity of past and present, the writing and continued significance of one within the other; signified directly by the underground tunnel which rapidly encounters the historical layers of the city built one atop the other. But this is seldom a melancholy or straightforwardly nostalgic film. In one of the film’s most celebrated set pieces in which a construction crew uncovers a perfectly preserved ancient Roman home, we are given a tantalisingly brief glimpse of beautiful frescoes and statues whose stoic faces seem to be looking back at us, visages of a piece with those we encounter in contemporary Rome. But Fellini always insists on marking lived experience and the ravages of time, and once revealed to the pungent air of contemporary Rome the artefacts quickly take on the weathering and age that their 2000 year embalming has forestalled. This is a great image of what preoccupies Fellini’s vision of Rome, essentially a city in which the past is both inaccessible and ever present, a history or legacy that is both quixotic and abundant through its signs of physical decay. One can see the layers of the past in many of the film’s images but this is equally a ‘vision’ that one can smell and hear (the noise I discussed above is in fact multi-sensory).

In Fellini’s world there is never a clear distinction between past and present, subject and object, what is being ‘documented’ and what is being ‘retold.’ Although segments of Roma do hold a documentary quality they cannot be moved outside of what might be called Fellini’s projected consciousness; an overarching sensibility which warps the indexical nature of what we observe or renders impotent the stand-alone qualities of any image or sound (and Fellini’s and Leone’s cinemas are remarkable for the ways in which they register the re-presented nature and status of their filmic worlds). For example, ‘real’ people such as Anna Magnani and Gore Vidal magically appear in the present day sections of Roma, but their ‘characters’ seem more fabricated than many of the bit players who dance through the frame. Similarly, the staging of the city itself is often breathtaking but landmarks such as the Coliseum seem as composed for the film – in fact, they mostly were – as Jacques Tati’s high-rises in Play Time (1967) or Leos Carax’s eponymous bridge in Les amants du Pont Neuf (1991) (each of which can be seen as hyperreal extensions of the cities they ‘occupy,’ constructions which allow the more perfect control of their cinematic representation). It is no mere marketing ploy or sign of megalomania that Fellini’s name often appears as part of the title when this film is cited – purely and simply what we are watching is Fellini’s Rome, an ecstatic, apocalyptic and vital vision.

Fellini’s cinema is sometimes difficult to take, overstuffed with flesh, voices, movement and colour. But the greatness of Fellini’s vision also lies in the abundance of his worlds, teeming with life, surreal views and a cacophony of sounds, smells and images; worlds which must be surrendered to if one wishes to appreciate them. Even on a cursory view, it is plainly evident that Fellini’s cinema is amongst the most carnal and corporeal in the history of the medium. In keeping with this, Roma is packed with images of characters gorging themselves on food or images, moments of supreme visual spectacle, men ogling women as they walk by. For a film so concerned with the body and the possibility of sex it is also surprisingly chaste; we are twice shown a parade of prostitutes but are never privy to the more intimate outcomes of the transactions that we witness. Thus, although Roma gives to us a real sense of a physical world it seldom moves past the confines and visual limit of the spectacle it is staging. Nevertheless, Fellini also communicates a remarkable sense of both contemporaneity and immediacy, of a world which, as we are watching, is passing beyond the frame. Although Roma is episodically established as a kind of memoir which situates its teller within most of its scenes, it is much more preoccupied with multiplying perspective than following the vision and knowledge of a particular character. For example, in the long sequence staged at a war-time vaudeville show we only really notice the central protagonist (the young Fellini?) at the very end. Thus, despite the often hermetic quality of the worlds Fellini creates, Roma also gives off a potent sense of worlds and characters we never see or only glimpse at the margins of the ever-shifting frame.

I’ve often thought that Fellini’s weakness lies in the stories he tells and the characters he creates, that these often dilute his power as a stager of pure spectacle and associatively linked filmscapes. In this respect Roma and indeed, Rome, can be seen as perfect vehicles for Fellini’s more spectacular and less conventionally grounded vision. Throughout Roma we see characters who interact with the spectacles that are set before them; schoolboys responding eagerly to a pornographic slide slipped into a dry Roman history, the vibrantly physical give and take of a ’30s Roman cinema audience, or the bawdy heckling of a vaudeville show. Roma is crammed full of sequences in which bodies are on display (to the camera or in-film observer), where people watch other people, and audiences are caught up in the vicarious but corporeal spectacle of twentieth century popular culture. But this interaction never really operates as a model for how we, as an audience, should react. Unlike Tati’s Play Time, Roma operates as pure spectacle, a work of imagination, ideas and invented forms that engulfs and shades the city it purports to represent. The final moments of Tati’s film – where the soundtrack lingers long after the image has faded – are meant to send us from the film and out into the world, taking the phenomenological and perceptual experiences we have encountered and taken part in out into the everyday world that surrounds us. Roma‘s final fade to black – as a group of motorcycles leave the inky black, hauntingly luminescent city – signals the end of both the film’s spatial-temporal realm and of a kind of consciousness. You need to take the experience and lessons of Tati’s film out of the cinema with you. The value of Fellini’s cinema is more immediate. Roma is not a cerebral, perceptual or necessarily profound journey, but it is an immediately physical and emotional immersion in the here and now, the there and then.


  1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989) 89.
  2. John Russell Taylor, “Federico Fellini,” Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The Major Film-makers, vol. 1, ed. Richard Roud (New York: The Viking Press, 1980) 347.
  3. Gilbert Adair, Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of One Hundred Years of Cinema (London: Faber and Faber, 1995) 152.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

Related Posts