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ROMA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dennis Christopher, Pia de Doses, Federico Fellini, Fiona Florence, Renato Giovanneli
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  December 13, 2016

Film **1/2

Roma is an imaginative, dreamy love letter by the master Italian filmmaker to his home city.  It’s also a film with no structure, no foundation, no framework, and no memorable characters.

Watching the picture, I felt myself elevated into an almost dreamlike state of consciousness.  My mind received and processed the images on the screen in heightened ways, and I often found myself scribbling notes without any awareness of what I was writing.  The film is packed with good scenes and ideas; yet I’m reminded of the quote from Vincente Minnelli’s  The Bad and the Beautiful, comparing a movie with strong ideas and no structure to a pearl necklace without a string.  It falls apart.

Fellini’s stream of consciousness approach to this film is both fascinating and infuriating, and in retrospect, I wished I had given up much earlier on my search for that illusive string holding the necklace together and recognized that all I was looking at was a pile of pearls.  Fellini’s romantic ideals come across in a film of reflections and impressions, but no absolutions.

Over the course of Roma, we see Fellini as a child, whose class is looking at slides of the great cultural and artistic accomplishments in the history of Rome.  This is interrupted by a misplaced slide of a woman’s behind, which makes the class erupt in delight while the teachers scream, “Don’t look!  It’s the devil!”  We also see Fellini as a young man, experiencing the pleasures and terrors of Roman life in World War II, where sex was plentiful and for sale, but the sounds of falling bombs accented every experience.

The modern Fellini, who narrates the picture and appears as himself, yearns for the olden days of his city, when the presence of the Catholic Church and the film industry meant something more to the citizens.  He reflects on the modern state of religion in a farcical fashion show scene, where models in the latest Catholic garbs stroll out on runways for the contemplation of a body of Cardinals.

There are scenes where Fellini skillfully mixes the bawdy with the innocent.  His ‘enhanced’ childhood memories are among them, such as the one bad girl reputed to sleep with everyone:  his memory is of a long string of men in line, waiting their turn with her in the back of a car.  She emerges from this car in a scenario of pure fantasy:  clad in red, and dancing upon the roof of the auto in front of a luminous street light (the image on the cover).

Other scenes, though technically well done, lose quite a bit in the translation.  There are moments of pure audio cacophony that quite simply can’t make a smooth transition into subtitles.  A boisterous theatre scene where the audience is heckling the beleaguered performers, or a scene in a cafeteria where the camera moves effortlessly in and out and among the crowds, or the brothel scene, where the women parade their wares like Party Lite girls.  I felt I missed a great deal in each of these portions of the movie, but until I learn to speak Italian, that’s the reality of it.

Other parts, like the introduction to modern Rome, are intriguing and frustrating.  We see Fellini and his film crew setting up an elaborate crane and traveling shot on the streets of the city.  It’s a beautiful day; his water cannons will provide the rain.  Next we’re looking at lights and objects through rain-blurred windshields.  Reality is distorted, in more ways than one, and shots of the crew in action continually keep us from buying completely into the illusion.  The ideas are rich, but again, the purpose is unclear.

Roma is a film rich in imagination, and not an unpleasant experience by any means.  Fellini’s love of life, his city, and its people create the energy that vibrates in every shot.  But the film lacks anything to make it coherent:  storyline, characters, a structure of cohesive time and space.  Fellini is a director reputed for his indulgences; but here is a case where a little more self restraint and attention to form might have served him better.

Video ***1/2

This is a very beautiful, very colorful high definition transfer.  There are telltale signs of aging in the form of marks, spots and other debris, but they’re mostly noticeable only at the beginning and during a few key dark sequences.  All in all, though, there isn’t that much, and what’s there isn’t distracting.  Coloring is very good throughout, capturing Fellini’s fantastic impressions of his home city beautifully, with good detail and crisp, sharp images.  Fans of the great Italian maestro should be very pleased.

Audio **

The uncompressed mono track, as most are, is perfectly adequate and unspectacular.  It’s free from noise and distortions, and dialogue and music are very clear, though dynamic range is expectedly limited.

Features ***

There is an audio commentary from an author of a book on Fellini, some deleted scenes, new interviews with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and friend Valerio Magrelli, archive images, and a trailer

Summary:

Roma is a perfect reflection of all the beauty and problems unrestrained imagination can create in a motion picture.  Filled with dreamy, lovely and unforgettable imagery, it’s nevertheless a film that buckles somewhat under the weight of its excesses and lack of skeletal structure.  Fans should (and will) embrace this good looking Blu-ray from Criterion; casual onlookers might prefer something a little more grounded.

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