After directing more than 30 films and docus, Ettore Scola embarks on a portrait of his city which, like “Fellini’s Roma,” looks a lot like self-portraiture. However, the focus of “People of Rome,” unlike Fellini’s, is not on uncovering catacombs and brothels but on evaluating the denizens themselves in relation to Rome’s history and politics. Its humorous bits, its compassionate view of the poor and its generous views of city squares and monuments should catch the fancy of foreigners, sparking scattered sales. But pic is still very much Scola Lite.
Film stresses the city’s increasingly multi-racial character, its frustrated housewives and problems of unemployment and the elderly. However, it has a tendency to veer into illustrated sociology while it struggles to connect fragmented observations on the beleaguered but still-beloved capital.
Main peculiarity is pic’s coupling of a semi-docu approach with the kind of non-realistic staging and dialogue typical of Scola comedies, from “Down and Dirty” to “The Dinner.” An ensemble cast of pros and non-pros relies mainly on the professional thesps to carry scenes like the long-winded opener on a bus, where an obnoxious black journalist (Salvatore Marino) tries to forcibly interview an indifferent Roman youth (Valerio Mastrandrea) about racism.
The ethnic theme recurs as the scripters — Scola himself, plus daughters Paola and Silvia — struggle to show that “Romans” are a happy mix of natives and foreigners. Apart from the exceptions, that is. Bit in which a racist barman (Antonello Fassari) kicks out a black customer is a poorly conceived morality tale.
The same could be said for the story of an old Jewish lady who, on her way to go shopping, faints when she sees German soldiers loading Jews onto trucks. It’s only a film shoot, and the crew discovers the woman has a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. Echoing Scola’s “Unfair Competition” (2000), which dealt with rise of anti-Semitism in the ’30s, the scene again underlines the film’s social correctness, while leaving something to be desired dramatically.
Pic’s standout sequence is a comic-tragic skit in which the irascible Arnoldo Foa, ordering his “last supper” in a Roman trattoria before his son takes him to a rest home, insults waiters and fellow diners to hilarious effect. The bit owes its success to Foa’s maliciously perverse perf as much as to more subtle scripting.
Less successful is when “People of Rome” becomes pure documentary. In one sequence, residents of a home for the elderly are tested for Alzheimer’s disease; in another, the film crew visits Rome’s happening Gay Village and a few other public events (ballroom dancing, a rock concert).
Where Fellini’s 1972 film was able to spotlight Anna Magnani, the actress who symbolized the Roman spirit, here Stefania Sandrelli is called on to cameo as her joyous self, playing in the park with her grandson before being driven to work on a film set. Maybe time has worn away the city’s passion and intensity, or perhaps the role of women has changed, but there’s no special magic here.
Sequence thematically links with a scene shot during a massive anti-Berlusconi rally in Piazza San Giovanni. While director Nanni Moretti is rousing enthusiasm from the podium, a young mother briefly loses her son in the crowd; her joy at finding him again becomes indistinguishable from her politically-motivated excitement.
Though the Democrats of the Left, Scola’s party, are shown at their best, one interesting omission is the Vatican, certainly a basic constituent of Roman life. Not a cleric, not a nun is visible in the whole film. (Scola shot material on the Vatican’s beatification of the founder of Opus Dei, the hyper-conservative lay organization, but ended up cutting the scene.)
Shooting on HD24P digital, lenser Franco Di Giacomo doesn’t conjure up much atmosphere: At gala premier screening caught, film looked unnaturally bright. Still, Armando Trovaioli’s score, a surprising mixture of soft jazz underlaid by traditional Roman songs, provides a boost.