Rome, the eternal city, has historically been as carnal as it has been sacred. Fellini won’t settle for one or the other; he uses scenes of carnality to symbolize a blessed state, and vice versa. Nothing could be more eternal, more patient, and more resigned than Fellini’s use of a weary prostitute standing beside a highway outside Rome. She is tall, huge-bosomed, garishly made up, and her feet are tired. She stands among the broken stones of the Roman Empire, expecting nothing, hoping for nothing. The prostitute, so often used as a symbol of fleeting moments and insubstantial experiences, becomes eternal; and the Church, always the symbol of the unchanging, the rock, becomes temporal. In his most audacious sequence, Fellini gives us an “ecclesiastical fashion show,” with roller-skating priests, and nuns whose habits are made of blinking neon lights. What is unreal, and where is the real? Fellini doesn’t know, and he seems to believe that Rome has never known. Rome has simply endured, waiting in the hope of someday finding out.
FELLINI’S ROMA was attacked in some circles as an example of Fellini coasting on his genius. I find this point of view completely incomprehensible. Critics who would force Fellini back into traditional narrative films are missing the point; Fellini isn’t just giving us a lot of flashy scenes, he’s building a narrative that has a city for its protagonist instead of a single character.