I’ve heard that sex sells, but if it that was all it took, Julio Medem’s Room in Rome might’ve been afforded a theatrical release, rather than playing a few festivals before making an inauspicious DVD review (even a few months after that US disc release, it has yet to accrue enough reviews for even a Rotten Tomatoes rating). The film is a chronicle of a one-night stand between two women, though its use of nudity and sex is not quite as explicit, nor as expressive, as some of its closest recent relatives like 9 Songs and Shortbus.
The story unfolds in a limited timeframe: We first see Alba (Elena Anaya) and Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko) as they enter Alba’s hotel, from a shot that peers over the balcony in Alba’s room, and the camera never leaves that room, even when the characters do. We learn that both women are in Rome on vacation; they got to talking in a bar earlier evening, and now here they are in the hotel, seemingly unsure of what will happen next. Well, Alba, being a full-fledged lesbian, seems a little more sure, while Natasha, engaged to a man, is less so.
The movie starts out shadowy, in the dead of night, bodies half-hidden in darkness, gradually revealing more of Alba and Natasha as they open up to each other. By the time the movie reaches morning, shots of the two women caressing each other in the bathtub are jarring less from the explicitness than the bright, unshadowed whites making their first appearance in the entire film.
During the slow transition from shadows to sunlight, Alba and Natasha mostly talk and have sex, though they make some detours into in-room karaoke and playing with computer maps to show each other their homes. At its best, the movie has an affecting, empathetic way of depicting the excitement, hesitation, and awkwardness of a new relationship, especially one that crosses established lines of sexuality and may, for that and other reasons, have a fast-approaching expiration date.
But while Medem’s location, lighting, and concept are as spare as the women’s clothing, he also gussies up Room in Rome needlessly. For such an intimate exercise, the film has an egregious overscoring problem: not just with its background score, but a series of songs by Lourdes Hernandez, one of which, “Loving Strangers”, plays with a level of repetition that recalls “Everybody’s Talkin’” from Midnight Cowboy (now imagine if that song had been titled “Walking Hustlers”). Hernandez’s songs add little apart from on-the-nose commentary on the action, smothering the movie’s smallness rather than complementing it.
Medem may have been counting on music to fill in for gaps in the script. For characters in a talking-all-night movie, Alba and Natasha aren’t much fun to listen to; at times, their dialogue, mostly in English but with some dips into Italian and Spanish, sounds poorly translated, but it may just be the universal language of earnest portentousness: “Is this me? I can’t recognize myself,” one of them muses. Further muddling the movie’s conceptual simplicity is the puzzling side character Max (Enrico Lo Verso), a porter at the hotel, who fails to justify his presence as the only other character onscreen; if his point is to be pointless, Medem might just as well have left him out entirely.
In short, Room in Rome, despite that attractive simplicity, feels padded and drawn out. As beautiful as Anaya and Yarovenko are, lounging around the hotel mostly undressed, some of their scenes feel like nothing more than aesthetically pleasing timekilling, and their final moments together, while bittersweet and ambiguous, don’t match the charge of, say, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset films; they have physical attraction but not a whole lot of chemistry. Sex may or may not be able to sell itself, but after 30 or 40 minutes, it can’t do much for this relationship.