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Woody Allen’s Italian midsummer night's sex comedy finishes first

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Woody Allen, who once declared, “I am at two with nature,” is smitten with great cities. New York is his first and enduring love, but in recent years he has also flirted with London (Match Point), Barcelona (Vicki Cristina Barcelona), and Paris (Midnight in Paris). In the catalog of European crushes, can Tirana and Vilnius be far behind? Though San Francisco is said to be the site of Allen’s current work-in-progress, his latest finished film is a valentine to another metropolis across the Atlantic.

Before he discarded it for To Rome with Love, The Bop Decameron was Allen’s working title. Like Boccaccio’s famous frame narrative, the film consists of linked vignettes: 1. An aspiring architect falls for his girlfriend’s visiting friend; 2. A retired opera director and his psychiatrist wife come to visit their daughter; 3. A newlywed couple from the provinces experience separate erotic adventures; 4. An ordinary Roman suddenly becomes famous for being famous. Lacking the urban intimacy of Allen’s New York work, To Rome with Love is a tourist’s awestruck view of the Eternal City. It sets its farce against the picturesque backdrop of the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Spanish Steps.

As if to concede that the film is froth, not much more nourishing than tiramisu, an older American architect (Baldwin), appearing as a meta-fictional ghost, provides ongoing cynical commentary on the platitudes that Allen piles on his plate. “She’s a self-obsessed pseudo-intellectual,” he warns a younger man (Eisenberg), but, listening to Monica (Page) prate about Camus, Rilke, and Dostoyevsky, we already knew that. An affectionate take on human folly, To Rome with Love is too concerned with the tribulations and triumphs of romance to take much notice of social crisis within the Eurozone.

Amid the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, more than one character suffers from what they call “Ozymandias melancholia.” The film is a sweet meditation on the fickleness and emptiness of fame. We see it when, in a parody of reality TV, a humdrum man (Benigni) is abruptly made a celebrity and just as abruptly abandoned by photographers and groupies.

To Rome with Love is less than the sum of its parts, but one part, at least, is brilliantly inventive. The retired opera director played by Allen himself is so impressed by an aria that his daughter’s future father-in-law sings in the shower that he insists on dragging the man — a mortician by trade — to a professional audition. Under studio conditions, he falters. However, the film concludes in triumph — a full-scale production of Pagliacci, with the lead tenor belting out his notes in one of the funniest and best executed Allen scenes in years, and one that suggests that, for all his homage to Italian maestro Federico Fellini, Allen’s heart still belongs to Singin’ in the Rain.

To Rome with Love

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Writ. and dir. Woody Allen; feat. Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page (R)

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