Love fades, as the elderly rando trudging groceries through the New York streets says to Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall.” Woody Allen’s a good person to rope into a discussion of Federico Fellini. Woody made one full-on homage to Il Maestro (“Stardust Memories,” his stab at an “8½”), and in "AH" he lets Alvy famously fantasize about bringing the pain to an obnoxious move line droog who dared speak ill of his post-“La Strada” CV. Well, time destroys everything, and right now it seems time has even destroyed the idea of Fellini as a cinema titan. Fellini, essentially, is no longer cool, not like Godard or Antonioni are now. “La Dolce Vita” and “8½” remain more or less untouchable. But our collective love for him has, at the very least, faded. Today there are probably more Obnoxious Movie Line Guys than Alvy Singers.
Far as Fellini goes, I was once an Alvy Singer, then I was an Obnoxious Movie Line Guy. These days I’m somewhere in between — though, to be honest, partly out of disinterest. That’s a big step down considering Fellini was my gateway into Serious Cinephilia. The first Great Classic European Film I ever saw, at the pimpled age of 17 (I was a late bloomer), was indeed “8½.” It blew my tiny mind, and through him I scoured my Nowhere, Pennsylvania Blockbusters (and, at my most desperate, Hollywood Videos) for Truffauts, Bergmans, Kurosawas, Tarkovskys and, of course, other Fellinis.
My mad Fellini love carried on and, as they say in Springfield, “embiggened” into the first half of undergrad. I even liked the widely unloved (and very #problematic) “City of Women,” to the horror of any roommates who wandered into the room. I long cited “La Dolce Vita” as my favorite ever film, and I rewatched it religiously, even on Saturday nights that would have been best spent engaging in the type of wild bacchanalias I was staring at on screen. I can’t entirely remember what I saw in them; surely one of the main draws of “8½,” for someone who grew up in future Trump Country, was it was unlike anything I’d seen before.
Maybe that’s why I turned on him; eventually I’d seen enough that the thrill of the new no longer sufficed. I’m not sure when it happened, but by 2004, during a theatrical reissue of “La Dolce Vita,” I found myself penning a semi-attack on it — not a pan, more like a measured critique of a film I once adored and now merely appreciated. I had moved on, waded into the far nether-reaches of cinema. I finally admitted that some Fellinis were total drags: “Juliet of the Spirits,” “Satyricon” — the very ones Obnoxious Movie Line Guy infamously (and maybe even rightly) called indulgent. Then I turned on the rest, save “Vita” and “8½.” I became the guy I once hated. Worse, I was proud of that.
This is a roundabout way of arriving at “Roma,” Fellini’s 1970 effort, newly reissued on Criterion. It was never one of my favorites; even in the heyday I found myself repeatedly checking the timer on my VCR, amazed at how much was still to go, yet plowing through regardless, out of respect. Fellini was never one for narratives, and even “La Dolce Vita” is really nothing more than seven parties, anchored by our journo hero’s nose-diving character arc. But “Roma” was really nothing more than episodes, pasted together, often with no connecting tissue. Part memoir, part city symphony, part whatever-the-hell, it’s a tour through the metropolis past, present and invented. There are recreations of Fellini’s memories, as a visiting kid, as a brothel-hopping youth. There are long hangs in outdoor restaurants, in rowdy movie theaters, at rowdier vaudeville shows, where the frenzied and heavily dolled-up performers return heckling in kind.
There are documentary stretches, too, or pseudo-documentary stretches, where Fellini observes hippies and gets a dining Gore Vidal to lovingly compare Romans to cats. (“They don’t care if you live or die.”) He descends into the subway system and observes as a buried ancient home’s frescoes wither from the air, disappearing into dust as the cameras roll. The most ostentatiously Felliniesque stretch comes late in: an “ecclesiastical fashion show” that starts silly (rollerskating priests! nuns with veils that flap like birds!) but turns increasingly sinister and anticlerical — like Fellini meet Bunuel.