Whether for literature, theater or any art of storytelling, there can't be a plot without characters to drive it. Yet characters don't imply a specific plot and this might be the area where theater slightly surpasses literature, as an art of 'presence' and 'personalities' mirroring our condition. More than anything, it's a show, an invitation for eyes, for ears, for feelings. And emotions can do without plots.
And here we have Fellini draining his talent from the Antic Roman-Greek tragicomedy, Commedia del' Arte, Opera and maybe more than anything, from his Italian roots so devoted to fun and entertainment. More than any other director, Fellini understood the virtue of Cinema as a new form of theater, a show that doesn't rely on plots or screen writing techniques, he shoots first and we ask the question later. And what a show! Fellini will forever be admired and never equaled, thanks to his unique talent to inhabit his films with unforgettable galleries of characters: eccentric, larger-than-life, decadent, greedy, gluttonous, sensual, ugly, outcast, colorful faces with anonymous names and universal and timeless appeals. These people feel real because they FEEL. And we're so hypnotized by the images that we forget to care about a plot.
My repetition of the word 'plot' is only an anticipation of some rational comments on Fellini's "Roma" or, "Fellini's Roma", I must say. Yes, the film doesn't have a plot, even to those who set their minds for a surrealist tour orchestrated by the ultimate cinematic ringleader, Il Maestro Fellini. Even "8½" chronicled the very process of film-making from the author's boiling mind, even the previous "Fellini's Satyricon" was a take on a myth that had a story to tell, no matter how disjointed it felt. Even the nostalgic vignettes of "Amarcord" made a coherent ensemble, but "Fellini's Roma" has no focus whatsoever.
But does it need one when the scope is so large, when Rome is the main protagonist? Rome... such a myth of a city that it transcends all the periods, visions and artistic possibilities. The film is constantly inhabited by Rome's aura from Fellini's perspective, hence the title. For "Satyricon", it was a legal necessity to distinguish from two films with the same title, to establish Fellini's independence from the original myth. "Roma" similarly establishes Fellini's independence, except that this time, no other vision of Rome could ever compete with Fellini's or approach the town with the same masterful audacity.
Now, why a film about "Rome"? My guess is that it's one of the few privileged cities whose name evoke fascinating contradictions. "Rome is the city of illusions. Not only by chance you have here the church, the government, the cinema. They each produce illusions." This is Gore Vidal speaking in a memorable cameo and it's probably the closest rational conclusion that can come out of this mesmerizing mess. And "illusion" is the key word, whether it's the illusion of church that ignited the faith of generation of Italians without abjuring them from that lust for life and voluptuous bodies so rooted in the Italian lifestyle, for politics that have plunged post-War Italy into the darkness of fascism and yes, even Cinema doesn't escape criticism.
Behind Fellini's eye, Rome oscillates between dazzling magnificence and nightmarish decadence. Fellini appears twice, as a young idealistic man who discovers the town, eats some spaghetti with the population, goes to the music-hall or visits a brothel, and the older real-life Fellini discussing with the new generation of Romans on how to make an accurate portrayal of the city. And it's ironic how nothing changed much between these times, "O Tempora! O Mores", yet Mussolini's Italy was as noisy, lusty and turbulent as in 1972, and ironically, "Roma"'s self-referential aspect illustrates the fact that both embellishment and derision rely on caricatures, the very illusions Fellini admits in his own filmmaking process.
And illusion contributes to the film's most enigmatic moments: a parade of prostitutes tempting their clients, with sensual bodies to better hide the lucid tiredness in their faces, the scene followed by a sort of ecclesiastic fashion contest. Through the intriguing parallel, the iconoclast Maestro doesn't attack church but the myth of virtue that ignores the real sacred Trinity outside the Vatican border: life, love and lust. His fantasy vision works like a missing link between the eternal myth of Roma and reality. When thinking of Roma, we'll either have a vision of the Coliseum, of a fat Italian with huge bosoms serving a large plate of pasta on a summer evening, or maybe a beautiful red-haired and red-dressed woman sensually dancing at the moonlight of a lamppost, perhaps the greatest cinematic allegory of any town.
And if the film works without characters, it does as well without a plot because Rome is that sensual woman with a history, a present, a future and a past. You can't dig a subway tunnel without bumping on archaeological relics hidden in its prolific womb, like a woman who hasn't revealed all her secrets. And one of the most poignant moments occurs when engineers find Antic frescoes in a tunnel, preserved just as if they were painted the day before, before oxygen destroys them instantly. That's the price you pay when you have a clear glimpse on reality, imagining how Romans were would have been more salutary for its (or her) own history. And this is the power of imagination, of illusion over reality or any myth of grandeur.
No need for a plot when you have such a wonderful protagonist that encapsulates all the values Italians will forever stand for, and who more entitled than Fellini to share with us a part of his vision? And no need for specific characters when you have the Italians. A famous Italian actor, if I recall correctly, said something like "In Italy, there are about thirty millions actors, the rest of the population star in movies". This quote could have been the film's tag-line.
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