Screening Log #68: To Rome with Love (2012)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni, Alessandro Tiberi, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz, Ellen Page, and Fabio Armiliato




Retirement offers an opportunity for people to indulge themselves in the things they may not have done enough while they were working: relax, travel, garden, jet ski, sky dive, play chess, watch television, collect stamps, whatever. The conventional narrative is that people work hard for the majority of their lives and earn retirement as a sort of reward, but old habits are hard to break and the vacuum left when work is no longer a part of the daily routine can be unsettling for many. It took my father five or six years following his retirement before he settled into a new routine and began filling his days – and the back yard of his home – with gardening. For other retirees travel takes the place of work. Whether by RV or cruise ship or airplane, some people seek to see the places they’ve been curious about but were prevented from seeing by work; some people look to return to places they long ago left when life intervened. Surely there exist some people for whom the vacuum of work is inescapable, wherein the oppressive crush of free time takes shape as a slow and smothering demise.

In this late period of his career, Woody Allen seems to be attempting to both have his cake and eat it too. Allen and his films have swept across Europe, from London to Paris to Barcelona to Rome, allowing him to spend time in these mythologically and romantically rich locales while staving off retirement and a less directed – pardon the totally intentional pun – life. His latest, To Rome with Love, offers four separate narratives set in Rome. Each of these films is tonally very similar to last year’s Midnight in Paris, with Allen’s typical wit and self-deprecation mixed (to varying strength) with both a sense of romantic nostalgia for the past and a pragmatism that looks to deflate the nostalgia balloon no sooner than it has been filled.

Framed, and entirely unnecessarily, by short soliloquies by men-on-the-street of Rome – I suppose the first soliloquy, coming from a traffic conductor loosely, if too easily, connects to Allen’s job directing the film’s narrative traffic – the film then follows the stories of Hayley, Alison Pill, and Michelangelo, a young couple who fall in love and whose courtship to engagement is glossed over until Hayley’s mother Phyllis, Judy Davis, and father Jerry, Woody Allen, a retired opera director and music industry man come to meet Michelangelo’s family. Michelangelo’s mother speaks little English and his father, a mortician, naturally, sings opera gorgeously, but only in the shower. The direction of this story becomes axiomatic once Jerry hears Giancarlo, Fabio Armiliato, singing in the shower and his proclivity for poorly received and odd/avant-garde stagings of classic operas becomes known. This is all complicated by Michelanglo’s socialist leanings wedging themselves between Jerry’s desire to share/exploit his father’s talent and his father’s desire to fulfill one of his life long dreams.

This narrative intercuts with another story involving an architect, John, Alec Baldwin, who happens upon what turns out to be his younger self, Jack, Jesse Eisenberg, while wandering Rome looking for his old neighbourhood. Jack lives with his girlfriend Sally, Greta Gerwig, who has invited her friend Monica, Ellen Page, to stay with them after a breakup. Monica is an attention seeking sort and a shallow poseur of an intellectual who beguiles with her open sexuality and Jack’s attraction to her seem to be unavoidable. In a gesture of cloying magical realism becoming familiar in Allen’s writing, John regularly interrupts the interactions of the three to interject the sort of 20/20 hindsighted wisdom that most certainly goes ignored as events unfold.

The third narrative involves Leopoldo, Roberto Benigni, a completely average Roman middle management type who one day, inexplicably, becomes famous. His vignettes follow his rapid rise through celebrity, the way it complicates his daily life and elevates his trivial actions – what he has for breakfast, his morning shave, etc. – into intensely consumed public knowledge. As he becomes more accustomed to celebrity he grows used to the advantages it gives while also shrinking from the intense media scrutiny that it provides.

Finally, the film follows a young married couple Antonio, Alessandro Tiberi, and Milly, Alessandra Mastronardi, as they are separated on a day when Antonio is to meet the influential business associates of his uncle for a prestigious position with their firm. Through a series of accidents, Milly is separated from Antonio and cannot make it back in time, having a run in with her favourite actor when she wanders onto a location where they are filming and Antonio is accosted by a prostitute, Anna, Penélope Cruz, who must pretend to be Milly while Antonio goes about his important meeting. Via the jigs and reels of their adventures, both Antonio and Milly gain a new appreciation for their partner while broadening the boundaries of fidelity to include extra-marital affairs so long as the information gleaned from them leads one back into a deeper relationship with your spouse.

Broadly, Allen has given himself a wealth of narrative material to work with (as my word count to this point can attest to) and there are moments when his dialogue gives bloom to clever quips and jokes that are undeniably his own. Allen, however, never really does much of anything with the material he has given himself to work with. As with Midnight in Paris, his moralizing limps through the film, ranging from speciously irresponsible, as with Antonio and Milly, to rotely pedantic, in his inane “observations” on the nature of celebrity in the sections involving Leopoldo. While he is able to employ the gorgeous architecture of Rome periodically, it done in such a superficial manner that the film could very easily have taken place in any European city with a modicum of historical cultural influence. The acting, likewise, ranges from suitable – Benigni is well-suited for his role but is given the absolute least compelling material to work with – to oddly wooden – Baldwin’s first scene is especially stilted and unnatural – with the large majority of the acting falling under inoffensive. The film’s largest, and fatal, flaw is its complete refusal to work toward anything interesting beyond the very lowest hanging fruit.

As in many of his past films, To Rome with Love carries a certain suspicion of the upper middle-class bourgeoisie about it. Allen pays lip-service to class concerns while superficially undercutting his own tendency to flaunt his fluency in high culture – the review of Jerry’s production of Pagliacci calls him an imbecile which he, naturally, misreads. This strategy also insulates Allen from a similar reaction to his film to some measure, embedding a built-in response to criticisms that may be leveled at the film. The erudite socialites Allen once viciously skewered in earlier films had their European travels and sensibilities kept as off-screen abstractions, affectations that posed an assumed superiority. Here, and throughout his most recent volley of films, Allen reveals his own complicity in these pretenses through concrete half-gestures. His recent work cements that the real shame of these pretenses to culture isn’t so much that one simply goes to Europe, but, rather, that one so willfully avoids meaningful engagement with its places beyond superficial signifiers.


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