by Richard Brody, published on June 21, 2012|
Woody Allens new film, To Rome with Love, was originally titled The Bop Decameron, which would have set viewers up for a few things: An Italian setting, several disparate stories, and a kind of music thats new for Allen. With his jazz band (which is highlighted in Wild Man Blues), he plays Dixieland clarinet, and his movies are filled with that early style of jazz, along with ragtime, Gershwin, classical music, and show tunes. In Manhattan, one of the things he cites to his tape recorder among the things that make life worth living is Louis Armstrongs Potato Head Blues, from 1927 (the trumpet break that starts at 2:06 is indeed one of the seminal moments in recorded jazz). As for bop: heres Charlie Parker, in a live performance of Ko-Ko, from 1947; its intricate yet expansive modernity comes off as challengingly audacious to this day. The abandoned title heralded a new arrow in Allens quiver, and he shoots it far and seemingly wildly, yet true.
To Rome with Love is the kind of cavalierly unusual, freewheelingly inventive, devil-may-care movie thats the mark of a veteran filmmaker in a hurry to get his most exotic ideas out while there are still the means and strength to do so. In fact, the press of time is built into the movie, foremost through the character played by Allen himself, Jerry, a former classical-record executive and avant-garde opera director who is now retired and is miserable in retirement. (His wife, played by Judy Davis, tells him, You equate retirement with death.) Death was already on Allens mind (he comically dramatized his own in Scoop) and, in To Rome with Love, he rages against it, not with a tantrum of furious living but by means of art itself. Jerry the cowardly lion comes back with a great, guffaw-like roar in the face of his destiny and, in the process, alters the paths of others and tweaks the very history of his art form.
The idea is a crazy one. In its inspired lunacy, the film reminds me of the late films of Jean Renoir, particularly Picnic on the Grass, from 1959, in which the grand conundrums of nature and science are distilled into a loopy, caustically satirical, and robustly erotic frolic that, like Allens film, brings together a diverse array of characters and stories. Allen has always been a master of metaphor; hes the author of what is perhaps the most enduring one to arise from the cinema in the last thirty yearsZeligand, throughout his career, he has condensed a remarkable amount of experience in exemplary symbols, whether the synecdochic business in Manhattan with the tape recorder, the meta-games of Purple Rose of Cairo, the Catholic-conversion paraphernalia of Hannah and Her Sisters, the blind director of Hollywood Ending, or the entirety of Sleeper. In To Rome with Love, he comes up with a whole trove of some of the best recent cinematic metaphors, and they all tend in the same direction.
The fundamental idea of the movie is the fundamental issue of Allens entire careerthe blurring of boundaries between the private and the public, between the offscreen life and the onscreen personaland his two greatest inventions here both explore and exalt it with effervescent yet deeply substantive whimsy. Jerrys big comeback, the staging of operas based on a unique way of turning an amateur singer into a professional (the idea is too good to spoil), is very simply the rendering of the uneasily intimate as the most directly public sort of artistic performance. Its one of the bubbliest, giddiest, most hysterical, and most ingenious of Allens recent inventions, an idea, executed with perfect pitch, that hoists it to the top shelf of his gallery of symbols.
The role conferred to Roberto Benignithat of a mid-level clerk who becomes not a reality-TV star but, rather, a star on the basis of his merest realitycomes close to matching it in exuberance and is inseparable from it in significance. The character, Leopoldo Pisanello, is posed questions about his personal habits, such as what he eats for breakfast, and his answers are the subject of frenzied attention by journalists and viewers. Allen spins the idea with an extraordinary paradox: he isnt satirizing Italian paparazzi (a cinematic trope invented, after all, in Fellinis Roman cinema) or the countrys frivolous television shows, but, rather, ironically suggesting that what ordinary people eat for breakfast is a legitimate subject of eager and enduring fascination. The problem isnt the exaltation of ordinarinessits the fact that the ordinary person is unable to make sufficient use of the material of his life, which, looked at properly, would indeed suffice to make him famous. The quizzically non-comical and bourgeois Leopoldo could indeed be the subject of a novel or a moviethe proof being that hes the subject of To Rome with Lovebut, sadly, this clerk, having not fostered his own artistic imagination, is at the mercy of the unworthy excavators and exploiters of the popular press. What Allens alter ego, Jerry, accomplishes with a singer, Leopoldo, depends on others of less artistic merit to do for him. Were Jerry an artist, hed be able to make something of his personal life in a way that would outstrip whatever the reporters might sayand thats exactly what Allen himself has done throughout his career.
Theres a spectacular moment, at the end of an opera performance, when the camera is onstage facing out at a theatre full of wildly applauding spectators. It is as if the applause were for the viewers of the movie; as if each viewer, sitting in his seat, were momentarily given the adulation of a star in which to bask.
In To Rome with Love, Allen ranges throughout his career, from its beginnings through Scoop (which also has a character named Strombel). Theres an allusion to Annie Hall (Jerrys friend Max) and to Stardust Memories (the phrase Ozymandias melancholia); Judy Daviss presence evokes one of Allens greatest works, Husbands and Wives, and the movie even repeats a joke from Midnight in Paris. Theres something testamentary about this new movie, a passing-along of some crucial wisdom regarding how to live in the face of death. It emerges most clearly in the tale involving two of its younger protagonists, a young Italian couple who have moved to Rome from Pordenone (the home of a great silent-film festival) and who have their lives planned out in great detail but find that a little unexpected chaosand unexpected desiresintrude. Theres another wondrous momentin which the young woman finds herself suddenly unmoored in the middle of a plaza, when Allen does a full-circle pan, from the woman to the city in which shes lost and back to herthat blithely evokes the sense of life and opportunities slipping away, moment by moment. Few single shots have signified carpe diem as subtly as this, even as it launches a character on a new path in which to do so. Yet even here, the public and the private overlap in strange ways, and implicate the couple in games of secrets and lies that renders the question of public attention all the riskiercertainly a theme thats unavoidable for Allen himself.
Theres yet another character in the movie who performs: a young actress, Monica, played by Ellen Page, who, in a way, steals the film. Allen invests her with a capricious charm and an untapped power akin to that of Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, and suggests a wisely classical notion of art and lifeof the dangerous emotions and reckless behavior that are at the core of the artistic impulse the actors allure, and that are both the essential inspiration and the constant theme of art itself. Monicas divine madness is right at home in a movie that is one of Allens wildest, most scattershot, and frivolous. That it is also one of his most coherent, and deepest, that such a latecomer should lurch off in new directions, is all the more wondrous.