There comes a point in every great maximalist filmmaker’s career when they effectively max out. They push their particular brand of cinematic extravagance, whether it be visual opulence, graphic violence or melodramatic theatricality to its limit, often in a work that tests the dedication of even their most fervent acolytes. De Palma did it with Scarface, Tarantino did it with Django Unchained, Visconti did it (best) with The Leopard. And Federico Fellini did it with 1972’s Roma.

By now known better for his recent string of bright, bawdy, surreal cinematic romps than his earlier, more conventional character-driven dramas, Fellini embarked upon this most esoteric of passion projects with the visionary determination of a man who could practically do no wrong. The artistic flourishing of European and Japanese cinema in the preceding 20-odd years had finally spread Stateside; his newfound sense of experimentation was now in vogue on both sides of the Atlantic and he had freer reign than ever before to go full throttle Fellini on his audience. Roma was to be his love letter to his chosen home city but it was also to be his love letter to himself and all that he had achieved and could achieve in the medium of cinema.

The movie is indeed esoteric and distinctly, unmistakably the work of Fellini – it’s all heaving bosoms, raucous family interactions, cheeky comedy, grand old architecture, lavish fashions, sumptuous rustic cuisine, all under the imposing gaze of the Catholic church. A procession – at one point, literally a procession – of largely unconnected scenes, largely lacking in plot or ostensible purpose, it’s instead the great director’s impressions of his city splattered wildly across a two-hour canvas. It’s like a tapestry of disparate elements, or a patchwork; more like a cinematic mood board than a fully-fledged movie itself.

That quality alone makes it unique – no, Fellini was never known for his tight hold on plot, nor for his steady grip on tone but Roma boosts his frenzied frivolity to its most heightened expression yet, a state he’d never quite return to again. For, much as it was always destined to be among his more divisive movies, this was also to be among his least warmly received. One can entirely understand why this is such a unique movie, given that it’s an experiment that even a filmmaker so suited to its tenets as Fellini can’t quite pull off. It’s vivid and affable, full of memorable imagery and never too pious nor too sure of itself to stray too far from its director’s signature ribald sense of humor. But memorable imagery and a good-natured attitude aren’t enough to sustain an entire feature-length movie and Roma too regularly drifts away into ephemerality to make a convincing case for its unusual format. At some point, you start to crave even the suggestion of narrative direction, a suggestion that never materializes.

Perhaps the movie is worth the endurance test of its watching purely for the sights Fellini has to show us, sights we might never have seen had he settled on something more concrete to tell the story of this most historic place. The closest he gets to that is a depiction of his own arrival in Rome in the 1930s as Mussolini’s tyranny was leading Italy ever closer to war. Otherwise, there’s a couple of sequences involving a film crew in contemporary Rome, making a movie about the city – very meta, yes, though really just another refracted self-portrait, just as the ‘30s-set scenes tell the unremarkable story of a younger Fellini through the people he met and the things he did and saw. There’s the bedridden family matriarch in the rowdy apartment where he lodges, croaking sternly at him from beneath her bedsheets; there’s the assortment of colourful locals dining out upon his arrival, picking through one delicious dish after another. The sights get only richer the further Fellini travels from continuity, however, like the camera crew on an articulated crane under a clear plastic sheet, navigating the GRA traffic during an evening downpour, or the astonishing spectacle of a clerical couture show preceding the arrival, seemingly raised through a trapdoor, of the pope himself, perched upon a throne, emanating radiance like some cosmic pharaoh.

If that’s all suitably jaw-dropping, there’s too much in Roma that’s likelier to lower one’s eyelids than one’s jaw – a cacophonous vaudeville sequence seriously straining the patience of the viewer and inadvertently exposing the slight shallowness beneath this whole enterprise. By the early 1970s, Fellini’s status was so great he could make just about any movie he wanted to, a privilege he exploited to typically extravagant ends. But, even for a great maximalist such as himself, sometimes poverty breeds creativity; the grandeur, the splendor, the excess on display in Roma is all excess for its own sake, extraordinary craft and magnificent creativity but with a dearth of supporting weight beneath it. It all flits off the screen as swiftly as it arrived; the movie flits from one’s memory with a similar swiftness. Fellini maxed out with Roma, the apotheosis of his stylistic maximalism, justly among the less well-remembered of his films yet often thrillingly full of the finest fruits that style had to bear.

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