Film Review: To Rome with Love

From the Eternal Woody, With Amore.

Woody Allen is the motion picture poet laureate of New York Jews and  since 1969 one of the most successful independent filmmakers in history.  With his 43rd feature length film, the 77 year old legendary actor/director returns to the screen in his familiar persona and with his recurring obsessions: The neurotic kvetching about death; shifting romantic entanglements; the lampooning of psychoanalysis; cultural commentary with pseudo-lefty politics; etc.  Of course, there are the usual Allen-esque quips and sight gags, as well as a golden cast only this maestro of indies could conjure up.

However, Woody’s newest movie once again finds the quintessential New Yorker far afield from his beloved Manhattan.  Since 2005’s U.K.-set Match Point, the Woodman has ventured forth to and been shooting on location in Europa.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris (Woody’s last — and most financially lucrative — film) were lensed in Spain and France.  His latest work, To Rome With Love, is his third with a major European city in the title, and it is no less informed by a sense of place than his 1979 classic Manhattan.

The latter opened with a glorious black and white montage of the town that never sleeps’ scenic sights set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and was this Manhattanite’s morale booster for beleaguered urbanites and riposte to the Daily News’ famous front page headline about the then-President’s response on New York’s fiscal crisis: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”  Darius Khondji’s cinematography in To Rome With Love is no less a visual love letter to the Eternal City, with sweeping panoramic shots of the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, etc.

Since all roads, of course, lead to Rome, it was only a matter of time before this world renowned filmmaker found his way there.  This Nero of neuroses’ all too human comedy has four totally separate storylines that may or may not be tangentially thematically related, something which has disconcerted some viewers and reviewers. Roberto Benigni — who skyrocketed to fame in America with his thrice-Oscar winning 1997 concentration camp comedy Life is Beautiful, then promptly precipitously plummeted out of sight — is, happily, back on the silver screen in a film intended for U.S. audiences.  As Leopoldo Pisanello, Benigni plays a pissant paisano who complains about being ignored, only to then be mysteriously thrust into the limelight and besieged by  paparazzi.  As the leaning tower of Pisanello experiences the perks and downside of fame, Woody concocts a clever commentary not only on the fickle nature of celebrity, but on Benigni’s audience-losing predicament offscreen.  It’s all the more in the know because the word “paparazzi” is derived from Walter Santesso’s character “Paparazzo” in Federico Fellini’s 1960 Roma-set masterpiece La Dolce Vita.

In the film’s subplot featuring Woody himself, he plays Jerry, a retired avante garde opera director yearning to make a comeback who is married to a shrink who is no shrinking violet, Phyllis (Judy Davis in her fifth collaboration with Woody).  Their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) is being wooed by a Roman attorney for the oppressed, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), whom Jerry considers to be a “Communist.”  Jerry muses that in his youth, he too had been “left” — but never a Communist per se, mainly because that would have meant sharing bathrooms.  He’s also concerned that his pro bono pro-proletarian socialist son-in-law-to-be won’t be able to provide for his daughter.

In any case, Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (tenor Fabio Armiliato), has a voice to die for, which galvanizes Jerry’s operatic aspirations.  There’s only one problem: Giancarlo can only sing under specific circumstances, and the resolution of this complication leads to what may be Woody’s wildest sight gag since that gigantic breast ran amok in 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask.  Phyllis’ Freudian profession also provides Woody with what is arguably his wittiest one liner ever — and that’s saying a lot.

Ellen Page’s Monica is the latest incarnation of the Allen-esque neurotic girlfriend, previously played on- and offscreen by his exes Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton (who perfected the bit).  Page’s angsty actress entices an architectural student studying abroad, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), into her antisocial network, as Alec Baldwin cracks wry world weary Woody-esque observations.  

In the fourth Italian-only storyline, Penelope Cruz’s voluptuous hooker Anna is anything but sexually inhibited.  In another critique of fame, newlywed Milly (Alessandra Mastronadri) is led astray by movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), while Milly’s husband Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) cavorts with micro-skirted Anna.  To Rome With Love has dialogue in English and Italian; the Italian-speaking actors are subtitled.

Quo vadis, Woody?  This film finds Woody Allen true to and in top form, at the peak of his creative powers, still making the world laugh while imparting a whimsical, rollicking, romantic sensibility, as the eternal Woody meets the Eternal City.  To Rome With Love was the opening night film at the L.A. Film Fest and opens in New York and L.A. theatres on June 22. Long may this emperor of humor and the human condition reign!

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