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Eternal City of Rome is real star of Woody Allen's new movie

ROME — Woody Allen's newest movie, To Rome With Love, casts big names like Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis and Allen himself. But there is one exceptional star: the Eternal City. • "This city is really special," Hayley (Alison Pill) says to her fiance, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), as they stand on a terrace overlooking the Spanish Steps, one of Rome's famous attractions. "I could stand here all night, it's too beautiful." • Woody Allen's Rome is beautiful, clean and sunny, a city shining in pristine beauty with no hint of real-world problems like Italy's financial crisis. But while the movie offers an anachronistic and nostalgic postcard portrayal of Rome, Allen also goes beyond the city's best-known locations to capture the unconventional atmosphere of neighborhoods less familiar to tourists like Sant'Angelo, Garbatella and Rione Monti. • The movie, released in Italy in April and across the United States last weekend, opens with the imposing Victor Emmanuel II monument in Piazza Venezia. Because of its shape, the monument, inaugurated in 1911, has been given pejorative nicknames like "wedding cake" or "Mussolini's typewriter." The colossal construction has often been dismissed by locals as an unsuccessful attempt to restore classical Rome, but Allen uses it to set the stage, stationing a policeman there to introduce the city as a still and eternal witness to four stories of intrigue, love, sex and adultery.

The square is where Hayley, a young American tourist, and Michelangelo, an Italian lawyer, accidentally meet. She is looking for the Trevi Fountain and he offers to bring her there. They spend the day together wandering through the city's beauty and predictably falling in love.

Making a city look beautiful and romantic is a hallmark of Woody Allen films. New York shined in three decades of Allen films starting in the 1970s, especially Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where rain-slicked streets added much to the plot and architect David (Sam Waterston) gave viewers (and the sisters) a tour of the city's most celebrated buildings. Last year's Midnight in Paris had travelers and dreamers champing at the bit to get to the City of Light. Before that, the bustling city Barcelona and Spain's bucolic countryside were more than inviting in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and various movies set in a very attractive London (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream) set up his series of postcards from Europe.

While To Rome With Love might not be receiving as enthusiastic reviews as Midnight in Paris or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the city gets glowing remarks. For those who've traveled there, they'll see many familiar sites.

(Read Tampa Bay Times movie critic Steve Persall's review at movies.)

The central characters of the second story, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), are a young married couple who have just moved to Rome from a small town in the south of Italy. Milly gets lost in Rome's chaotic streets as she searches for a hairdresser to give her a less provincial look before meeting her husband's new co-workers. Her terrible sense of direction gives Allen the opportunity to show a wide area of Rome, starting with Milly's wanderings through the Piazza del Popolo, one of the city's most scenic entrances, featuring an obelisk brought by emperor Augustus after his conquest of Egypt, twin baroque churches and a marble fountain with Neptune and his Tritons.

From there, Milly walks through the Campo dei Fiori neighborhood, asks for information at the Area Sacra (sacred area) of the Argentine, where Julius Caesar was said to have been murdered, and finally finds herself in Piazza Mattei, a small square in the heart of Sant'Angelo. According to a popular legend, the turtle fountain in the square was built in one night by Duke Mattei to conquer the heart of a young lady who lived in the palace in front of the square.

As the melody of Arrivederci Roma — a song about a tourist who falls in love with Rome and cannot bring himself to leave — plays, the movie shifts to the narrow and picturesque streets of Trastevere. A neighborhood of artisans' homes and workshops since Roman times, Trastevere has in more recent decades become a fashionable district filled with restaurants, espresso bars and clubs.

Allen then switches from magnificent imperial buildings, the nostalgia-inspiring ruins seen from the Palatine, to the modernity of the Music Auditorium built by Renzo Piano in 1995, and the English gardens and neoclassical temple of Villa Borghese.

He completes his vision of the city by showing the more local and unconventional locations of La Garbatella and Rione Monti. La Garbatella, often missing from tourist guides, looks like a small village with gardens, low-rise houses, and popular bars and taverns. It has a local, authentic urban feel that places like Trastevere lost as they became more cosmopolitan.

Rione Monti, once a haven for artists, criminals and prostitutes, has also lost its dark side with an influx of tourists, but a sense of nostalgia remains. "It was dangerous when I was a kid," said Massimo Berardi, 36, owner of a quaint restoration shop. "But it was also very beautiful, very characteristic, with a lot of colors, and artisans' workshops at every corner.

"Now they are almost all gone, which leaves that sense of nostalgia, that popular atmosphere, that only here, at La Garbatella and at Tor Pignattara, you can still find in Rome."

Despite Allen's efforts to write a love letter to Rome, the movie was poorly received in Italy. The local press has dismissed it as embarrassing, superficial and not funny, and the Italian public also has given it a thumbs down, although it did well on its opening weekend at the box office as curious filmgoers checked it out. The Hollywood Reporter said it took in 2.8 million euros or $3.7 million opening weekend in Italy, making it the top-grossing film in the country with the highest opening-day total for any of Allen's films in Italy; it also pulled in huge audiences in the United States despite mixed reviews and a limited release its first weekend, debuting with $379,371 in just five American theaters the weekend of June 22.

But even with the superficiality of the stories and lukewarm reviews, Allen's glowing portrayal of Rome has not gone completely unappreciated.

"Despite the criticism, I still think it's very nice what Allen tried to do with this film," said Valeria Vecellio, interior designer for the cinema industry in Rome. "Whether the result is a beautiful movie or, as in this case, a superficial and ironic experiment, it's nice that he decided to pay his loving homage to Rome, one of the most beautiful cities in the world."

Eternal City of Rome is real star of Woody Allen's new movie 07/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 13, 2012 3:29pm]
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