Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Roma

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Roma (1972)

The mark of a great auteur is the prominence of their directorial stamp. By 1972, Federico Fellini had produced the bulk of the work now praised as his masterpieces. The second half of his career, however, shows the director at perhaps his most audacious. The placement of his name in the title of three of his later films—first with Satyricon, then Roma and, finally, with Casanova—was not only a selling of the film on the director’s worldwide acclaim, but a shorthand signifier that these are Fellini’s visions of Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon, Rome, and Casanova. Perhaps Fellini’s most challenging work, Roma ostensibly lacks a central narrative and runs as a vignette-strewn dream, in which viewers experience Rome directly through the director’s eyes.

Thanks to The Criterion Collection’s stunning 2K restoration, Roma can be appreciated in all its bold, ingenious, original glory. The package includes additional footage cut for the film’s international release, which Criterion have included as a supplementary feature alongside various interviews and archival media.

 

Lessons in Abandoning Convention

While moviemakers may not always be privy to the funding that allowed Fellini to create such an unconventional work, the single most important takeaway Roma has to offer is that a film does not need to always follow the rules. Roma is unique in that it has nearly no central character—that is, with the exception of the titular city. Rather than shackle the narrative to the cathartic journey of a central figure, Fellini bounces in and out of a loosely (in the loosest sense) autobiographical narrative, in order to present snapshots of the city at different points in history. This isn’t necessarily “Rome,” it is Fellini’s Roma—as represented in the title.

Fellini’s choice, here, was bold, because despite his experiments with fragmented narrative in Satyricon, he risked alienating viewers by abandoning conventional narrative structure in a much more pronounced fashion. While mileage may vary, the end result is moving. Rather than be distracted by characters who embody their own struggles, viewers stay fixated on the city itself. We learn to see Rome through Fellini, and love the city’s splendors in the ways that Fellini desires.

Hippies look to the sun while a casual crowd observes on the Spanish Steps. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection

In an age of strict, conventional storytelling—even ruling in the independent film world—Roma serves as a blueprint for forgoing established norms in narrative structure and finding ways to develop a new form of storytelling. Roma cuts to the heart of the message in a succinct manner, with Fellini’s unorthodox method working to better highlight the central themes. Fellini trusted his voice over conventional technique. True, this method runs a greater risker for failure, but this is exactly what makes Fellini’s career so impressive. Even late into his career, Fellini was willing to take great chances in order to produce great work, and, for this, it remains why Roma is undeniably Fellini’s Roma.

Special Features

While Criterion’s edition of Roma isn’t bare bones, there are noticeably less features to wade through on this disc—though, what is provided helps to contextualize the film.

Of most importance for moviemakers is the interview with moviemaker Paolo Sorrentino about Fellini, with special focus paid to Roma and how the film has impacted Sorrentino’s own career. Hearing about how Fellini’s conceptual and cinematographic vision of Rome influenced works like The Great Beauty shows just how palpable a style Fellini harbored, and why more moviemakers ought to seek guidance in his work. Especially pertinent is Sorrentino’s reflection on the mies-en-scene and sound design of Roma‘s sequence on the Great Ring Road—a reminder that a “deliberate hodgepodge of events” can be employed to render the illusion in your film that “anything can happen in one afternoon, even when we know it’s simply impossible.”

Additionally, an interview with poet Valerio Magrelli features more personal anecdotes to help illuminate aspects of Fellini’s personality. Magrelli’s insights call attention to the parallels between the autobiographical tendencies of the poet and the endlessly self-scrutinizing approach Fellini takes with Roma and the majority of his filmic canon.

Rounding out the features included are a detailed audio commentary by Fellini historian Frank Burke and an essay by scholar David Forgacks, both of which underscore the film’s tension between objective notions of Rome and Fellini’s assemblage of the elements of the city he favors and privileges. Moviemakers interested in freely interpreting historically charged spaces will find much to weigh in on in Burke and Forgacks’ discourse on Fellini’s regionally-bound hybrid of sense memory and fantasy.

High Priests meet high fashion at the ecclesiastical fashion show. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection

The Takeaway

Roma is not Fellini’s greatest cinematic achievement. It lacks the engagement of , the visual splendor of Satyricon, or the whimsy of La Dolce Vita. But it is undeniably pulled directly from the mind of its director. Within Roma, moviemakers can find the courage to follow their own voice, regardless of where that places them in the scope of conventional structuring and cinematic devices.

Even if one were to view Roma as a failure, it brings something fresh and invigorating to the table; it’s a film that redefines the ways in which narrative can unfold and cinema can feature inanimate subjects. If you are to keep Roma at heart, it can teach you how to find ways to develop storytelling innovations and keep the seemingly stagnant industry evolving. With his signature witticism, Fellini best summed up what moviemakers stand to learn from him, and distills the essence of his career on the whole: “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole,” he once said, “it would be about me.” Filter the world through the only lens you can truly trust—your own. That’s what Fellini did. MM

Roma was released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD December 13, 2016. All images courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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