Rome is a city that can be enjoyed not only “in the flesh” but also on the “big screen”. If you have ever traveled to Rome, it is very easy to see why it makes such a great backdrop for many films. Rome by day, Rome by night, Modern Rome, Ancient Rome…whatever incarnation of the Eternal City you enjoy most can be seen in any number of films.
Especially significant is the fact that this week begins the 5th annual Roman Film Festival, Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma. This year will feature a screening of Federico Fellini’s newly restored La dolce vita as well as a showcase of several new American films (The Social Network, for instance), testimonials to actors and directors since passed and many other activities.
Like films discussed below, the festival is also not without its detractors and controversy. Many of the city’s residents have voiced concerns over the festival, arguing that public funds should be spent to solve the city’s problems: improving public transportation, helping with the restoration of many of the city’s treasures, traffic, etc. Others cite the failure of the festival to attract locals, the festival’s inability to fill seats and is often criticized as being too hollywoodiano, snubbing of Italian actors in favor of Hollywood (The first of the festival, the organizer’s failed to invite and involve Sophia Loren, one of Italy’s greatest actresses). The festival, to its credit, has improved since its debut in 2006 and has since earned from its mistakes. Whether you are for or against the festival, you cannot deny that the importance of film and cinema in Rome’s history.
Mamma Roma and the dark side of Rome
Mamma Roma is one of my favorite films because of its gritty and edgy story. It features Anna Magnani, a native of Rome and one of Italy’s finest actresses (she appeared in several American films, too!). The film was written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a controversial writer and director. Pasolini choose Magnani, who plays the main character Mamma Roma, because she personified Rome with her energy and vitality on the screen. Even Federico Fellini once remarked, “She is Rome” (Although after the film’s release, Pasolini decried his choice of Magnani in the title role, remarking that she lacked the skills to portray a character of that socioeconomic status needed for his film).
Magnani’s character introduces us to the seedier side of Rome, the Rome of the everyman and woman with its dangerous streets bustling with prostitutes, pimps and petty thieves. The film is an excellent example of the kind of changes that Italy and Italians were experiencing during the economic boom of the 1960’s. This film profiles the less glamorous side of Rome, a Rome that tourists never seen. Absent from this film is any kind of romanticized Rome – no Trevi Fountain, no Pantheon, no St. Peter’s Square – as Magnani’s character does her best to make something more of herself and for her son, Ettore. Pasolini uses the city’s suburbs for the backdrop of his film as a means of keeping the film’s main characters just far enough from Rome and the “better life” Roma could offer. Pasolini “traps” Mamma Roma in a sub-proletariat “existence” and creates a living hell for her – torn between her son, her safety and her livelihood. She tries, albeit in vain (although with the best of intentions), to escape her life of prostitution and to make a better living for herself and her son. Scenes of Trastevere and other recognizable areas, neighborhoods and sites of Rome make extremely brief appearances, but the film always manages to swing back to the fringes. Sadly, Mamma Roma fails in her efforts. Her son, Ettore, upon learning of his mother’s true profession, becomes disillusioned with her efforts, is arrested for petty thieving and dies at the end of the film that tragically mimics a crucifixion.
The Rome of Mamma Roma is certainly one that you will not find on postcards. Even the scenes in the film where Mamma Rome is in Rome, you see only briefs glimpses, often in the distance, of Rome. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is where Mamma Roma is strolling through the streets of Rome, having returned to her life as a prostitute. As she walks down a well trafficked Roman avenue, you see very little that concretely places you in the city, but, you still know you are in Rome. Her character is surrounded in darkness (yet the foreground is brightly illuminated), but you know you are in Rome because of the lanterns that barely illuminate the background. The Roman dialect and the characters encountered connect the film (and the viewer) to its location. Rome is nothing more than Mamma Roma’s place of “business”, and Pasolini goes at great lengths to disconnect us from our Rome.
La Dolce What?
Fellini’s greatest film, La dolce vita, stars Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, and Alain Cuny. Mastroianni plays the character of Marcello Rubini, a journalist who reports on activities of Rome’s high society. Mastroianni’s character becomes increasingly frustrated with his existence (becoming more and more debauched) as the film progresses, as he meets and interacts with the various characters of the film.
The opening scene of the statue of Jesus “blessing” the city as it flies overhead depicts two Romes: the “common” Rome with its working class housing blocks and the rich and privileged, represented by the sunbathing women (who Mastroianni’s character tries “to pick up” from the helicopter) on the roof of the luxurious apartment building. The film is a curious blend of religious imagery juxtaposed against Italy’s new modernity of fast cars, the economic boom of the 1960’s and a new morality (and decadence), where honesty, fidelity, trust and love are constantly questioned, twisted, abandoned and tormented.
The city of Rome depicted in this film mirrors Mamma Roma’s – the city being a prison and tormentor, especially the rich and famous, like the character of Maddalena (Anouk Aimée). In Mamma Roma we see a dirtier and less hospitable side of Rome. In La dolce vita a more hospitable and alluring side of Rome is portrayed with its bustling cabarets, cafés, nightclubs, and the “high life”. The beautiful side of Rome is not a mirage or “a spot on the horizon” but real and tangible. Maddalena and Marcello decide to escape the Rome of paparazzi and reporters in order to make love by hiding in the apartment of a prostitute they meet while driving through the city. Even Marcello, who remarks that Rome is a jungle with any places to hide, flees with Maddalena to the housing projects of Rome for their tryst, knowing all too well that while there may be places to hide, there is always a chance of being found by the photographers out to make a fast lira!
La dolce vita has one of the most famous cinematic scenes ever produced: the bathing scene in the Trevi Fountain with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and Marcello. Again, Fellini employs religious symbolism to make a point about morality, religion and modern life. It is in this scene that the ancient Roman struggle between paganism and Christianity plays out, as Sylvia and Marcello bathe themselves in the waters of the Acqua Vergine. Sylvia sways about in the waters, like a creature from Greek or Roman mythology, tempting Marcello to join her in the fountain. The beautiful and voluptuous Sylvia then anoints Marcello, as if baptizing him and cleansing him of his “sins”. Strangely and without, the waters of the fountain stop just as Marcello tries to kiss her, as if the fountain was expelling them from the like Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
The film continues with its curious mix of religious symbolism, misplaced morality and decadence. Even Marcello’s father is not immune to the lure of Rome and shows his fascination for his son’s work and his dalliances with the rich and famous women of Rome. His father, who comes to Rome on business, comes very close to cheating on Marcello’s mother with a showgirl, but he (fortuitously?) suffers a heart attack which puts an end to his romantic escapades, and his father rushes back home to his wife.
The film continues in much of the same vain and ends as Marcello is called to by Paola, a young woman he met earlier in the film while working his book. In that scene he refers to her as an Umbrian angel, not a symbol of Rome but one of another place, as if alluding to her purity. Her smiling face is a symbol of hope for our main character who might also eventually find happiness, even in Rome.
William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) is a beautiful film that explores the romantic side of Rome and coincides beautifully with the romantic aspects of the film – the passionate (but short-lived romance) between the characters Princess Ann “Anya Smith” and journalist Joe Bradley, played by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, respectively. Gone is the morbid symbolism of Pasolini and the quasi-reality created by Fellini. The Rome we see in this film is the Rome many of us who are foreign to the city see – the Rome of tourists and casual travelers. The Eternal City is exquisitely filmed in this movie as the eventual lovers meander through the streets of Rome. As they travel around the city, you see many of the city’s highlights: the Trevi Fountain, Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and dozens of other Roman locales.
The most famous scenes in the film are the Vespa ride through Rome, where the impetuous Princess Ann careens wildly through the streets of Rome, cutting off buses and cars, knocking over pedestrians and their bags, and disrupting stalls, and the “Mouth of Truth” scene. At the end of their Vespa ride, Hepburn and Peck find themselves at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin where the famous Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) is located. Legend has it that if a person tells a lie while placing their hand into the mouth of the stone manhole cover, it will bite off the hand of the liar. Hepburn’s character puts her hand tentatively into the mouth of the stone cover, and, of course nothing happens (much to her relief, as she has lied repeatedly to Joe). Peck’s character then puts his hand into the mouth and then playfully reacts as if the manhole cover were biting down on his hand. Moments later, he reveals that it was a joke (even though, he, too, has been lying). “Anya Smith” and Joe Bradley embrace, and this moment signifies a turning point in the film where the relationship between the two becomes more romantic. Many commentators connect their burgeoning love with the fact that the church contains the crowned and flowered skull of Saint Valentine – what better place for this important climax in the film.
At the end of Roman Holiday, a reporter asks Hepburn’s character, “Which of the cities visited did Your Highness enjoy the most?” The princess hesitates for a moment as she formulates her scripted, diplomatic response: “Each in its own way was…unforgettable. It would be difficult to…” Hepburn’s character then begins to hesitate and quickly reasserts herself, saying defiantly: “Rome; by all means, Rome,” she replies defiantly. The reporters and photographers all gasp slightly and begin to murmur to themselves, recognizing the gravity of her remarks – the princess of a major European power making such a bold statement! As the clamor subsides, she remarks:
“I will cherish my visit here, in memory, as long as I live.”
It is easy to see why Rome provides such an excellent backdrop for films of any style. From the seedy to the romantic, Rome’s history, art and culture have provided inspiration for many film directors. These films, even when their messages seem uninviting and harsh, tempt us to experience Rome on our own. Hopefully after seeing these films and many others, you will consider making your own Roman Holiday a memorable one!
Useful Film Apps & other notes:
If you’re looking for some film related apps, check out the IMDb app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Several Italian films can be streamed online via Netflix’s app, too. The Tribeca Film Festival also has an app, and they often screen Italian films. Last, but not least, TCM (Turner Classic Movie) has an app for those who like the classics!
Also, here is the scene where I describe Mamma Roma strolling down the Roman avenue