The 1972 film Roma, by Federico Fellini, lies somewhere between his 1968 film Satyricon and his 1973 film Amarcord, not only chronologically, but creatively (The Clowns, from 1970, is a minor work, by comparison).
It is a picaresque film, as both the other films are, and has some of the heightened imagery and poesy of Satyricon, while possessing Amarcord’s humor and jabs at Fellini’s Fascist-era youth. That said, it is not as good a film as the two films that sandwich it for the very reason that it sits on that fence the two other films eschew. Whereas Satyricon was a freestyle adaptation from an ancient Roman work of art, with recurring characters in its vignettes, Roma is more of a travelogue crossed with memory, and the only constant within it is the city of Rome. The film was written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi, who collaborated on Satyricon, and, like that film, it is a visual orgy, filled with color and spectacle.
The two hour film is divided into a series of hallucinogenic vignettes admixed with golden memories that recount Roman history, Fellini’s past, and the present of the city. These narrative streams and themes bounce back and forth, as Fellini tries to embody the very concept of Rome as ‘The Eternal City’ of mythos (as opposed to the ‘city of illusions’ that American writer Gore Vidal calls it, in a late cameo appearance proclaiming Apocalypticism as a vision).
Early on in the film, after a primer on the city, the Rubicon (where Fellini’s teacher quotes Julius Caesar to them: ‘Alea iacta est’), and the Caesars, we are introduced to a young wide-eyed Fellini (Peter Gonzales Falcon) on his first visit to the big city, a technique redone with far less success a decade and a half later in the disastrous Intervista.
It is on the eve of the Second World War, after a childhood in his native Rimini, where Fellini has been introduced to films, art, and life. Rome is a city at ease with the European Apocalypse all about them, yet filled with some of the memorable grotesques who would inhabit the fictive Rimini of Amarcord. The residents feel the war will not touch them for the Allies would dare not bomb Rome because Vatican City is within its boundaries, and this would be a great offense to the Pope. They’re wrong, of course, but before we get any real dramatic or narrative payoffs the scene shifts. Throughout the film we get this rising toward a climax, only to be thrust in to another situation that either deflates or comments on the past scenes. Thus the film truly does inhabit a dream logic, which it wields with impunity.