Rome: As seen by Federico Fellini and Ettore Scola
“I wanted to make this film a long time ago, but I feared comparison with Fellini’s Roma”, Ettore Scola confessed after the advance screening of his latest film “Gente di Roma” (The People of Rome), which opened the 20th Europa Cinema festival in Viareggio, Italy. In view of the fact that the festival also showed a series of films by Federico Fellini to mark ten years since the death of this great artist, a series which also naturally included Fellini’s tribute to the ‘eternal city’, Ettore Scola’s fears were perhaps justified. Nevertheless, his portrait of Rome and its inhabitants is so unlike the one Federico Fellini created over thirty years ago, that it would hardly occur to anyone to place these works side by side. Fellini presents the viewer with an image of Rome as it remained locked in his memory from his youth, reshaping these reminiscences with his creative imagination. He was not looking for a testimony incorporating the insignia of the historical, sociological or political documentary; he left us with a work in which the material is filtered through his exceptional poetic sensibility. His “Roma” is a city of contradictions, a place where the noble encounters the lowly, the aristocratic is seen with the proletarian, the ancient with the modern, all with remarkable force. We might recall the drive sequence round the freeway orbital, constructed entirely in the studio so that the filmmaker would have complete control over the action he wanted to portray. Then there’s the episode with Romans feasting at street tables in the evening, rounded off with the melancholic motif of a tram winding its way through a hushed district, late into the night. Or the colourful scene from the brothel contrasting with a clerical fashion show, where the nuns model their habits on roller-skates. Fellini’s vision of reality interested him more than a slice taken from real life: he wanted to portray the atmosphere of a city displaying clear signs of decadence but, at the same time, brimming with life.
It is perhaps this trait which conceivably links Fellini’s film with the work of Ettore Scola. The creator of such famous films as “C’eravamo tanto amati”, “Una giornata particolare”, “Terazza” or “Ballando, ballando” always distinguished himself not only for his much more realistic approach to his material, but also for his political outlook. This is also manifested in the film “Gente di Roma” which – like Fellini’s “Roma” – is constructed upon a series of episodes. Ettore Scola’s daughters Paola and Silvia worked with him on the screenplay, and the individual sequences are arranged chronologically from the early morning to late at night. Each is different, however: documentary elements merge with fiction, events of a choral character featuring amateurs alternate with scenes whose dramatic effect is intensified by the mastery of the professional actors. Some of them, in fact, play themselves: in a short episode, Stefania Sandrelli plays with her small granddaughter in a children’s playground before she is picked up by a car in which she starts going over her lines.
In tiny, lightly sketched stories, the film captures the characteristic traits of modern times and the typical attitudes of Romans in their attempts to cope with them: in the introduction to the film, we see a husband leaving for work early in the morning and later we catch him as he takes out his packed lunch and starts eating it – he has not had the courage to admit to his wife that he has lost his job. Then there is the superb episode in the restaurant, where the son lists the merits of old people’s homes to his elderly father, for whom there is no longer any room at home, while the aging man hovers between defiance and defeatism. Moving, yet wholly unsentimental, is the episode about tests being conducted for Alzheimer’s disease at a Roman clinic. An important role in the film is given over to the phenomenon of the Roman attitude to immigrants: The scene where an established immigrant explains to a fellow bus passenger how racism manifests itself in Rome, culminating in the statement that Romans claim “we aren’t racist, it’s just that you’re black”, is truly compelling. On the other hand, Ettore Scola (who is not a native of Rome but has spent almost all his life here), emphasises the fact that, here, racism does not smack of aggression as in other places, since Romans have been accustomed to barbarian invasion from way back, and so they perceive outsiders more with indifference; without being aware of it, they assume certain traits of the cultures of immigrants who are themselves thus able to become integrated among them much more easily than elsewhere.
Scola’s film captures the everyday face of today’s Rome, with all its contradictions, but without passing judgement. An example of this might be the scene from the “Gay Village” where vice unites with ordinary human desire for love. Not all the episodes are equally convincing nor original, however: for instance, the more mundane scene in which a mother loses her son during a demonstration and later finds him, or the rather protracted episode set in a cemetery which seems somewhat inappropriate in the context of the film as a whole, nevertheless ostensibly inspired by Dostoyevsky.
The film was made using digital photography, with a camera crew headed by Franco Di Giacomo, and the music was written by the celebrated Armando Trovajoli. The Italian premiere will not be held until 30 October.
© FIPRESCI 2003