Actors, Actresses, Whore and Catholics

At the Cheri Complex

THIS IS FELLINI'S Rome, no one che's, and it is no place you can go. Roma may have the trappings of documentary but it has the flesh of sheer fantasy. It has no more to do with the public, historical Rome than Fellini Satyricon had to do with Petronius.

No one, after all, has ever seen a traffic jam under purple skies and whiplash rain--while a lone white stallion threads through the maddened crush--and an empty rocking chair balances a spread umbrella--and on the roadside an enormous pahllic stone keeps company to a vast vaginal entrances--and a movie crew dangles precariously from a careening crane--all culminating in a thousand car jigsaw squeeze outside the Colleseum exploding with volcanic glare. No one.

But Fellini's Rome is his hallucination, constructed out of studio parts on a million dollar budget. It is to be the city of his imagination, something mythic, and anything so conventional as reality is drastically out of place. So the documentary surface is mere bare-faced pretence. The film moves in a sequence of discreet setpieces--imaginative sashays from bordello to palazzo, now nostalgic, now futuristic--a self-conscious patchwork of familiar imagery in a new extravagance. Fellini is banking on the strength of his own sensibility to hold all the elements together, and the film is as interesting, as inconsistent, and as idiosyncratic as the Fellini personality.

So is the abortive narrative that surfaces now and again, the autobiographically-tinted story of a young provincial come to wartime Rome A Texan named Peter Gonzales plays the young Fellini, and he is innocent to the point of validity, wandering wide-eyed through love and squalor. It is a half-hearted attempt to provide some thread of continuity, but Fellini tires of the device, leaves his personal stranded in love with an enormous whore and lapses back into the documentary pose.

INTO THIS STREAM of Roman consciousness. Fellint deposits all his favorite imagery--sex and food and puffed-up preening, actors and actresses, whores and Catholics His young provincial gapes at a boarding house harem of freaks: a bloated beauty in raven locks, a garrulous has-been actor, and the lady of the house, a mound of spongy gray flesh-presiding over it all like some claphantine idol Fellini lingers nostalgically over the bizarre figures of his youth. The inevitable bulging whores strut before an ogling crowd; gesticulating Italians gorge themselves at a gala outdoor banquet. The bordellos, churches, and cafes can't contain these Romans. and they spill out into the streets, faces twisted into the shapes of their grotesque histories.

Fellini's emotional center is in the past, and he feasts on the frivolity of his Romans. He re-creates Jovinelli, a proletarian vaudeville, and here the Romans for the first time take over a film rightfully theirs. The ribald workmen are hungry for sex and sentiment. They drool at drooling dancers, swoon at the strains of middle-aged tarts, and taunt the futility of a fourth-rate comic. Vaudeville was a battle between this brawling crowd and their amateur entertainers, to which Mussolini and his war were secondary attractions.

Then Fellini's attention turns again, and he makes a feeble attempt at wartime documentary. The cater-wauling crowd scuttles at the sound of an air-raid siren, while the camera cuts to a panicked woman running down a deserted Roman street as shells explode in the distance. But every time Fellini comes close to confronting political reality, he shies away and returns with relief to the philandering life of Rome. He is content with an imaginative evocation of the sordidness of fascist Italy, but anything like explanation or analysis is far removed from this documentary.

PERHAPS THE MOST embarassing scene in a film of too many embarassing scenes is a stagey confrontation between director Fellini and a contingent of radical students who insist that the film include an economic analysis of the ills of contemporary Rome. Fellini smiles disarmingly and mutters something about the need to address personal problems before tackling social crises. Maybe no one has a more interesting subjectivity to indulge than Fellini, but self-indulgence on this grand scale tends toward incoherence. This is personal journalism driven to the limit, the reporter reporting himself. And, inevitably, Romabecomes a film of moments, some as brilliant as anything Fellini has ever done, others tedious failures.

Probably the best of these moments is a scene of an ecclesiastical fashion show. While stone-faced church dignitaries hover in their seats, two black-cloaked spectres of the Inquisition pound boogie woogie on an ancient organ; and dutifully announced in the best fashion-show style roller-skating, bicycle riding nuns and priests parade by in the most outlandish of costumes: black satin for novices, immaculate turtle dove, neondecorated vestments and portable stained-glass windows. It is an orgy of Vatican decay, crowned finally by the entrance of the Pope himself, ossified and immobile, wheeled in on a huge golden throne, as the audience erupts in hair-pulling paroxysms of faith. But more is involved here than the obvious satiric bite. On the far side of sacrilege. Fellini has made an uneasy peace with the Church, ignoring questions of dogma, celebrating the wildest extremes of artifice. Ornate trappings, once the symbol of Church power, are now the tomb of its ruined power.

But from as completely realized a scene as this. Fellini turns blithely to a tiresome sequence of a festival in Trastivere that culminates in a staged police bust of students. The camera crew then 'happens' across Gore Vidal, pontificating on the Decline and Fall of the Western world Fellini has run out of subject matter here; he has nothing in particular to say but innumerable ways of saying it. The film has no narrative, character, theme or even central emotion around which to structure events; it runs on the whimsy of the Fellini imagination. When that strikes fertile ground, there are whole minutes brilliance, and when it is lost, the film is lost.

FEILINI LONG AGO secured his place in the film patheon, and even so imperfect a film as Roma doesn't begin to jeopardize that, Roma, it is safe to say, will neither add to nor detract from Fellini's reputation. Its successes are as large as its failures are obtrusive. It is, in short, an astonishingly inconsistent film whose hits manage to outnumber its misses, but only just barely.

It may be that Fellini's nemesis is reality itself, finally grown bizarre enough to challenge his imagination. So he strains to outdo the exotica of everyday reality, and in the straining finds himself an alien in the modern world. He doesn't know quite what to make of industrial advance, youth culture, and political ferment. He stares at those phenomena with confusion and regret and would willingly retreat to the more secure confusion of more hallucination.

It's all a bit exasperating, a rococo grandeur that has grown somehow galling, for it is the disease of a talent bankrupt for substance. Fellini has lost his sense of connection. The camera flits over the poverty-ridden, the deformed, the filth and litter of fascism and war, turning the plagues of Rome into perverse filmic display.

For Fellini finds the decay exhilarating and embraces impending doom beneath the surface. In the final sequence a troop of goggled motorcyclists roar through the rubbish of Rome on a joyride, anonymous heralds of catastrophe. Fellini whirls his camera through the city on one last dazzling tour before speeding off, after the cyclists, out of the cuts into the darkness, greeting the apocalypse with an empty grin.