Fellini’s ‘Roma’ and the Polysemic Surreal

Fellini’s films are haunted by an absence, a pervading sense of loss, a mourning for the unattainable, and yet imbued with an effervescent sense of fun as well.

Federico Fellini
13 December 2016

There’s a part of me, deriving from my first encounter in my teens, that believes that Federico Fellini, F.W. Murnau, and Sergei Eisenstein are the epitome of filmmaking per se, or what some have referred to as “pure film”. Film, of course, is many things to many people. But much of what film does it shares with painting on the one hand and theater on the other. Like painting, film is concerned with the framed tableau, the depiction of form, and the semiotics of gesture. Like theater, film often involves the unfolding of narrative, the development of characters, and the concern for the moment of peripeteia.

On its own (that is per se), I believed in my misguided youth, film had its cutting technique, which arrived at an early maturity with the montage of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and its special approach to lighting, which is not derivative from the stage or from painting but that is caught up within the medium of film itself, a medium composed specifically of light being projected onto a screen. Film’s inimitable lighting effects were already being exploited by the Lumière brothers and would be brought to an early perfection in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926).

Fellini seemed to me to be able to bring these two elements together with a kind of perfection I found breathtaking. The harsh light of La Strada (1954) reveals the stark and violent social situation of that film in as beguiling and haunting a manner as the sensuous lambency of La Dolce Vita (1960) exposes the alluring but ultimately meretricious decadence of its milieu.

On the other hand, the movements of the camera coupled with the vertiginous editing technique are what make a Fellini film so immediately recognizable, so easily parodied but so impossible to properly emulate. Think of, to cite a personal favorite, Juliet of the Spirits (1961). We are constantly in motion. At every turn, there’s a new revelation, a new surprise. Fellini’s films have implicit corners within an open space so that every swerve of the camera lens reveals something heretofore hidden and unexpected. Every seemingly empty space is really a receptacle for our gaze and that gaze is always rewarded by the delightful emergence of surprise.

But that delight is tempered with a kind of horror and it’s this darker element of Fellini that continually drives me back to look again at films I know so well. Fellini is a celebrant of the carnivalesque. I employ the word “celebrant” in both major senses of the term. He certainly celebrates clowns and the variety show, but he’s also a participant in what he sees as the ritualistic elements of these entertainments. Like the celebrant of the Eucharist, Fellini seems assured that something will always be revealed within the carnivalesque, that an underlying truth will emerge. It may continually elude his grasp (and ours) but it must be there, his entire filmic enterprise is predicated on the belief that it is there.

This is where I think critics often get Fellini wrong. He has been repeatedly dismissed for what some view as the surface splendor of his work, its zaniness, its prettiness coupled with the startling moments of grotesquerie. Fellini’s films, these critics aver, are simply baubles — lavish and enjoyable, but ultimately trivialities that yearn to be something more and when they reach for pathos they devolve onto sentimental kitsch. But Fellini’s films are always haunted by something that awaits behind the images, a darker presence that somehow lends coherence to this mishmash of filmic impulses, scenes that end without culmination, and images that merely overwhelm the viewer with their voluptuousness.

Fellini’s films are haunted by an absence, a pervading sense of loss, a mourning for the unattainable. This comes across most clearly, perhaps, in his nostalgic films, the two most prominent examples being Roma (1972) and the justly celebrated and charming Amarcord (1973). Amarcord is the better artistic statement but Roma is Fellini’s finest expression of pure film.

Roma comes close to eschewing narrative altogether. There are three basic narrative strands: a small boy growing up in the provinces and being imbued with the legendary importance of the Eternal City; a young man moving to Rome during the initial phase of World War II and witnessing the frenzied ebullience of the city and its inhabitants; a filmmaker (Fellini himself when we see him, but oddly enough another man’s voice when we merely hear him) shooting a documentary of the city in the early ’70s, encountering hippies, conservatives, prostitutes, and various moments of the surreal.

However, none of these narratives are related in any coherent manner. Rather we get vignettes from all three but unlike in Amarcord, the vignettes of Roma never coalesce into a greater, meaningful whole. This is a film that emulates the city it takes as its subject. Rome is famously a city of layers: the modern, the Renaissance, and the ancient (to name only the main three). All three layers are present and visible but in different areas and from different vantage points. However, these areas are not strictly segregated. The Renaissance, ancient, and modern worlds are imbricated with one another. No layer is allowed to present itself fully. Each layer is interrupted by another. Rome, the open city, is also simultaneously the obscured city. It’s not a whole in the sense of a consistent entity. It’s endlessly rich in its fragmentation, in diffusion, in allusiveness coupled with its elusiveness.

The past is always present but not as a living past. It’s pure phantasmagoria. The past presents itself as a living component of the city but it merely haunts the inhabitants, looming over them with a greatness that is as much perceived and made myth as it is built on any genuine fact. The citizens have a nonchalant reverence for their city. They both admire it and disdain its pretensions. They are involved in endless, often obnoxious, play but they take that play with the utmost seriousness.

Perhaps this is the significance of the surreal ambiance that imbues Fellini’s work. It’s play, but it’s serious play. These wayward symbols are symbols in the truest sense of the word. They refuse to devolve onto allegory; that is, they refuse to submit to an economy of representation wherein each thing serves to embody one specific meaning, one particular referent.

A symbol in the true sense proliferates. It’s overdetermined and polysemic. It evocatively points beyond itself and its implications ramify to embrace the world of possibilities. A symbol is not indeterminate, but it doesn’t give up its import lightly. A symbol is Sphinx-like; it presents a riddle that is solvable but that requires our investment and demands our willingness to sacrifice and to fail.

To me this is the symbolic weight of surrealism in Fellini. These images are riddles that do not afford a singular solution. They connect to each other, they imply and suggest but refuse to tell. Because we are so settled in our way of viewing the world, these surreal symbols are designed to upset that security, to undermine our self-assurance, to destabilize our sense of normalcy (thus, the obsession with clowns and vaudeville, both designed to uproot the grounding of our conservative reliance upon a world we believe ourselves to understand).

And yet to take all of that in requires a manner of viewing that is always on the move. Fellini models the disquieting yet fascinating experience of the city with the endless movements of the camera. We are nearly always in motion, there’s always something more to see, more to reveal. Yet the truth of the film, that truth we can’t help but feel is right around some hidden corner, that truth that we recognize Fellini is yearning to grasp, remains beyond our reach.


Criterion Collection presents a Blu-Ray edition of Fellini’s Roma, showcasing the film in all its visual allure and bewildering enchantment. The disc includes several features such as an interview with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, an interview with Fellini’s friend Valerio Magrelli, and an audio commentary by film scholar Frank Burke.

RATING 7 / 10