To Rome with love, and a dash of opera

I saw Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome With Love, and I have to say that Vicky Christina Barcelona and Melinda and Melinda are still his best films of the last ten years. But Rome has its moments.

Allen plays a retired opera director Jerry who has always been “ahead of his time” and is itching to return to directing and discovering talent. “I did a Rigoletto in which everybody was costumed into white mice. I did Tosca in a telephone booth,” he says to impress his daughter’s future husband. The said fiance’s father is a mortician who, when in the shower, sings like Pavarotti. Jerry gets him to agree to audition in a recording studio, but the man flops and soon enough it turns out that he only sings magnificently when he is in the shower. Jerry isn’t deterred; he mounts a production of I Pagliacci which is traditional in every way but one: the lead tenor is permanently stationed in a working shower cubicle.

The film otherwise follows five or six couples in Rome and various kinds of troubles they get into. It’s an Allen film in which each of the couples is reconstituted back into their original form. Some of the characters are his recurring types: the glamourized sex worker (played here by Penelope Cruz with many overtones of Sofia Loren), the sarcastic and emotionally dry woman-intellectual (here the amazing Judy Davis, who is not only allowed to show her age but is also given some really good punchlines), the sexy young thing in search of herself (Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill), the fumbling, Chaplinesque little man (Roberto Benigni), the stud (Alec Baldwin).

But there are many twists on the familiar to keep you interested. Baldwin appears mostly as an imaginary figure that interrupts and makes fun of the process of falling in love between two younger characters. Benigni’s character becomes famous overnight without any explanation (“You are famous for being famous,” tells him his newly acquired chauffeur-slash-media theorist) and is being stalked by the paparazzi, autograph-seekers and TV cameras. Jerry’s future son-in-law is a Communist, a fairly normal occurrence in Italian multi-party system and municipal governance but never before seen in an American film. He is also played by the Adonis-lookalike, Flavio Parenti, so that’s another precedent box to tick off.

In other ways, the film is an homage to Fellini, not only to La Dolce Vita (paparazzi, fame, eccetera) but most of all to an early gem that involved both Fellini and Antonioni, the 1952 Lo sceicco bianco. In Allen’s film we also follow a recently married couple just arrived from the provinces to the big city that gets split by the circumstance and is kept apart for one entire day and night. Woody Allen’s reworking of the story is good until the final nonsensical scene with the woman of the couple and the robber, but it doesn’t matter: that Lo sceicco gained a new life, even if it’s in this imperfect way, may itself be worth the price of admission.

There is a bit of opera in the film and all of it is tenor-centric (and most of it performed by Fabio Armiliato), something of a welcome detour from the diva-centric, male-gaze-observing-a-female-singer operatic themes that usually make it into films.

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