To Rome with Love!

Woody Allen directing the sultry Penelope Cruz

 Another Cinematic Gem from Woody’s Workshop

     One never knows quite what to expect when attending a new Woody Allen flick.  But it’s a pretty good bet that no matter what the subject it will be handled with wit, imagination and uncommon intelligence.  And it will be riotously funny!  Those who plunked down their dollars to see  To Rome with Love expecting to find these signature elements in Allen’s unique approach to cinematic art, this writer among them, was not disappointed.  The audience at the Angelica Theater Friday night, which was packed with New Yorkers trying to find a cool place to escape the heat wave that had engulfed the city, was in a continual fit of laughter and intellectual titillation.

Like a good novelist, Woody’s film narratives are driven as much by the word as the image.  And the plots are complex and multi-faceted.  Another trademark of a Woody Allen film is that they are usually set in New York, in fact he has used the New York milieu as the back drop for exploring a wide range of complex human characters and situations the way William Faulkner used Oxford Mississippi as the setting for his explorations of the human condition.

One of the things that made Allen’s films unique is that they were set in New York and mostly populated with Jews; while Hollywood preferred other locations and hardly ever produced movies that explored contemporary Jewish life, despite the fact that the studios were dominated with Jewish executives, directors and screenwriters. From its inception Hollywood movie moguls preferred to make films for the general market, the Goyims, because it ws good for business.

But Allen’s last two films – Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love – departs from that format and were shot on location.  Just as movies like Bullets over Broadway, Brighten Beach Memories and Manhattan are love songs to New York his last two films spread the love to Paris and Rome.

As is usually the case when film makers go on location, Woody makes the most of the cityscapes of two of the world’s most beautiful cities.  Just as in Midnight in Paris Allen’s cinematography is lush, elegant and even sensuous.  He has a great eye for the captivating locales in a City.  His portraits of Rome are like representative anecdotes expressed in moving pictures.

Amidst the monumental architecture and ubiquitous art treasures of the “Eternal City,” Woody concocts an absurdist tale of star crossed lovers who blunder into wild sexual adventures without trying.  It is a statement about the role of happenstance, about how the best laid plans of mice and men can go haywire.

It is also a poignant statement about the superficial and fleeting nature of celebrity, the seduction of creative people by wealth, and their willingness to ignore their muse for money.  It is also a powerful statement about how great artists can come from all segments of society if they are encouraged and provided the opportunity to practice their art.   And how nobody knows which act the public will anoint. Allen’s film makes these profound observations with a combination of madcap humor, highly intelligent dialogue, and a unrelenting sense of the absurd.

All drama is driven by conflicts in the interaction of characters, and Woody Allen has a Shakespearian like understanding of this.  He recognizes that the play is the thing and writes complex stories; it is fairly impossible to predict what will happen. And his acute sense of the absurd further complicates the picture.  The great Afro-American novelist Chester Hymes, a master of the absurdist novel who spun hilarious tales, once observed that some writers had great technique but were afraid to use their imaginations; a shortcoming for which Allen can never be accused.

Woody’s imagination is off the chains and not restricted by reality.  At times his yarns remind me of the magical realist school of Lain American writers such as Jorge Amado and Garcia Marquez; where the fantastic is presented as normal.  The successful ageing architect who has travelled to Rome where he had lived as a young aspiring architect, played by Alec Baldwin is such a character, as he moves in and out of reality, counseling an aspiring architect on relationship issues.

This film is full of fantastic characters and surreal situations thrown together in such a way that out of chaos come’s clarity; we see that all glory is fleeting and the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, although people continue to believe it is.

To Rome with Love is a fitting title for this visual panegyric to the Eternal City.  It is a film rich in irony and absurdity; with an appreciation for the folly and foibles of human existence everywhere.  Among the many virtues of this film is the superb ensemble acting.  While Baldwin’s romatic seer is charming, and the beautiful Spanish actress Penelope Cruz is delightful as the happy hooker, it is the interplay of the cast that emerges as the star.

Woody has returned to acting in this film after a hiatus for a couple of flicks, reprieving his neurotic wisecracking nebbish character for which he is famous; his self-deprecating posture and excellent comic timing are flawless.  Added to the spectacular Roman ambience is Allen’s great taste in music, which is a critical part of all feature films.  I have never seen music employed to better advantage than in this film.

Using generous selections from the treasure trove of Italian popular and classical music, the film is enriched by the background sounds.  As is characteristic of his Oeuvre, Woody Allen approaches this film with the skeptical probing mind of a philosopher aware of the myriad contradictions and ambiguities of the human condition, enlivened by the sensibility of a highbrow clown.  Hence like most of his movies, To Rome with Love is both enlightening and funny as hell!

Alec Baldwin as the Mythic Relationship counsellor

Despensing wisdom about matters of the heart

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 30, 2014

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