Although his work exhibits his fascination with foreign directors, like Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, and Federico Fellini, Woody Allen now shows signs of becoming himself an international filmmaker like those he admires and imitates. His last several pictures have been set in Britain, Spain, and France, and now, in "To Rome With Love" he employs a mostly Italian cast, a considerable amount of Italian dialogue, and of course the title location of the Eternal City.
Within that setting the director tells a number of stories, all of them essentially comic, some involving the American experience in Italy, others strictly Italian. Unlike Robert Altman, a master cinematic architect, he shifts from one narrative to another with scarcely any attempt to link them physically or thematically, so that the movie resembles something like an anthology of separate works connected only by their common location.
The nearest thing to a major narrative deals with that archetypal romantic encounter of America and Europe. A pretty young student named Hayley (Allison Pill) falls in love with a charming Italian lawyer, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti); their engagement brings her mother and father (Judy Davis and Woody Allen) to Rome to meet the prospective groom's family. That situation allows for the director to display his familiar persona — the neurotic, bumbling, timorous straight man who reacts and sometimes overreacts, in this instance to a foreign country, people, and customs.
Another story also involves a couple of Americans, Sally (Greta Gerwig) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who live together in Rome while pursuing separate studies. By accident Jack meets a well-known American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisiting the neighborhood where he had lived as a young student himself many years before; in keeping with the director's tendency to introduce fantasy into ordinary situations, Baldwin becomes a kind of spiritual mentor to Jack, magically appearing everywhere in his life and providing cynical advice about falling for Monica (Ellen Page), an insufferably phony friend of Allison's.
Along with his penchant for feeble fantasy, the director surrenders to his frequent temptation to venture into pure absurdity. One ridiculous episode shows an ordinary Roman citizen, Leopoldo Pisano (Roberto Benigni), finding himself famous for no reason whatsoever, a celebrity invented by the media, the darling of journalists, the subject of endless commentary, and the sexual partner of several beautiful women. Like many of Allen's gags, the joke goes on too long, growing less and less amusing and finally ending in utter nonsense.
A more elaborate absurdity grows out of Allen's character Jerry, a retired opera director, discovering the wonderful singing talent of his daughter's prospective father-in-law, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato); when he learns that Giancarlo can only sing in the shower, he stages a "Pagliacci" featuring a portable shower for the tenor, followed by a "Rigoletto" with the same gimmick. The critics rave over the singing, but call Jerry an imbecile, an Italian word which he doesn't realize means exactly the same thing as the English word.
The film features more exaggeration and silliness, but as the Italians say, basta, enough. Throughout his career, in all of his films, whatever their quality, when in doubt, Woody Allen goes for a gag, a practice that describes much of the nonsense in "To Rome With Love." At the same time, perhaps because of his reputation as some sort of intellectual as well as an actor's director, he always attracts big names to his works, which explains the presence of Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, and Roberto Benigni.
The real star of the film, however, is the city of Rome, which all the characters celebrate in one way or another and which the brilliant cinematography captures with a gemlike precision. The camera wanders at various speeds all over the city, beginning with the exuberantly elaborate Victor Emmanuel monument, which Italians call "the wedding cake," and adding the storied structures of antiquity, like the Forum and the Colosseum, along with the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, St. Peter's, the famous piazzas, and the stunning vistas from a number of points. The picture's visual poetry perfectly reflects the place; I have never seen so beautiful a representation of that remarkable city, which redeems the script's weakness and foolishness, and which will probably inspire even more tourists to visit Italy.