Paris, the City of Light, might top romantics’ list as the best place in Europe to find love. But Rome, the Eternal City, isn’t too shabby either, offering would-be lovers an exceptional backdrop for all things romantic. After all, there would be no romance were it not for Rome—a truism Woody Allen explores in his latest offbeat ensemble dramedy about the glories, agonies and incongruencies of love and sex.
John, a celebrated American architect, has returned to Rome some 30 years after suffering a stinging romantic failure there as a college student. While his wife and friends head off to see the city’s fabled sights, melancholy John meanders the narrow streets where he once lived … and bumps into young Jack, an architect student who reminds John more than a little bit of his younger self.
Jack invites John to his apartment, where he lives with his earnest-to-a-fault girlfriend, Sally. She quickly announces that her best friend, Monica, is flying over after a nasty breakup. Sally describes her friend as “sweet, funny, neurotic and interesting,” with a “sexy vibe” that guys just can’t resist.
In that moment, a subtle, fantastical shift occurs: John moves from being Jack’s new acquaintance to assuming a role like that of a Greek chorus commenting on a hero’s situation. “This situation is fraught with peril,” John tells Jack (advice obviously drawn from personal experience). And so it is—something the sweet, funny, neurotic, interesting and sexy Monica proves the moment her plane lands.
Similarly fable-esque shifts from the mundane to the sublime to the ridiculous are happening all over Rome, it turns out.
Jerry, a retired opera director, has traveled to Rome with his wife, Phyllis, to meet daughter Hayley’s fiancé, Michelangelo, and his family. It turns out that Michelangelo’s humble undertaker father, Giancarlo, has a remarkable talent: When he’s in the shower, he sings like Pavarotti. Soon Jerry hatches an elaborate, preposterous plan to create an opera featuring Giancarlo singing … in the shower.
Leopoldo is a dedicated family man who could not be more average. The next thing he knows, a horde of paparazzi suddenly descends upon him for no reason. Red carpets, TV appearances and sexual dalliances with actresses ensue in short order.
Newlyweds Antonio and Milly have just arrived in Rome for their honeymoon and, they hope, a high-paying job for Antonio via his influential Roman relatives. But things go strangely awry when they get accidentally separated. Antonio ends up with a sultry prostitute named Anna who’s been paid to meet his every need. Milly gets lost in the city, winds up on a movie set and gets seduced by her favorite actor.
If all of that sounds equally confusing and unlikely, well, it is. Welcome to yet another Woody Allen movie.
By film’s end, the fantasy sequences of most of its characters have faded and things have returned to the status quo. Leopoldo is (mostly) thrilled to be able to be with his family again without the hounding of a hundred photographers. (“The curse is lifted!” he tells them.) Antonio and Milly (who’ve both committed adultery) decide that the simple life they enjoyed in their backwater Italian village is more agreeable than what they’ve encountered in Rome. Jack realizes that capitulating to temptation with Monica was a mistake, and that the steadier, less frenetic love Sally offers is more likely to yield happiness in the long run. As for Giancarlo, he decides that the limelight of opera isn’t for him.
In all of these ways, the film suggests that the fulfillment of wild fantasies isn’t likely to make us any happier than our normal, mundane everyday existences already do.
When Phyllis advises Jerry to calm down during a turbulent airplane landing, he quips, “I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence. You know I’m an atheist.” Indeed, Jerry is fixated upon, and fearful of, death. And several conversations with his wife touch on that subject—but without any sort of satisfactory spiritual conclusion.
We glimpse a Catholic wake that includes someone carrying a statue of Christ. Anna alludes suggestively to being very familiar with the Vatican. She mocks Antonio’s sexually inexperienced wife as a “Madonna.” Leopoldo tells his wife that a reporter asked him whether God exists, to which he replied, “I don’t know.”
Antonio and Milly have just checked into their hotel when she tells her new husband that she wants to get her hair done before meeting his relatives. She leaves, and Anna shows up in an outfit revealing significant cleavage and leg; she tells Antonio that someone has paid for her to pleasure him for the day. It’s a case of mistaken identity, but Anna won’t be dissuaded. She’s forcing herself on top of Antonio when his relatives barge in.
Anna then accompanies Antonio for most of the film, pretending to be his wife. She talks to him about his sex life with Milly, and it’s ultimately implied that she and he have sex. (We see both adjusting their clothes afterward.) Antonio is horrified that he’s committed adultery, but Anna tells him it’s no big deal. Her way of thinking seems to win here, since Antonio is eager to show his wife some of the skills Anna taught him.
When presented with temptation by way of movie star Luca Salta, Milly spends some time in a bathroom debating out loud which choice she’ll regret more: committing adultery or not sleeping with a famous actor. She picks the latter and decides to go for it. Then, when interrupted by a thief, she casually has sex with him instead. (We see them begin to kiss.)
Leopoldo and his wife are shown in bed. He and a group of co-workers ogle an attractive woman who’s implied to be at the sexual beck and call of their boss. Later, Leopoldo is shown in bed with her. (We see her cleavage and bare shoulders.) He talks about having had sex with many admirers and movie stars, sometimes three or four at a time.
Monica’s first conversation with Jack involves intimate, detailed confessions about a three-month affair with another woman and how she was unable to convince her last boyfriend, who was gay, to choose her over other men. Eventually Jack and Monica have sex in a car (which we see rocking).
Desperate to revive his faded fame, Leopoldo drops his pants and starts talking about his boxer shorts (a topic of conversation with an interviewer earlier in the film). Giancarlo is repeatedly shown singing in the shower with the glass obscuring his midsection. Women in bikinis occupy one scene. Anna encounters many of her regular “clients”; one man talks about the underwear he wants Anna to wear for him. And we hear various comments about sex, “making love,” orgasms, etc.
The thief who accosts Milly and Luca holds them at gunpoint. Giancarlo’s wife tries to attack Jerry with a large cake knife, and Jerry grabs his wife to use her as a human shield. A newspaper review of Jerry’s new opera suggests that he should be “beheaded” because of how “imbecilic” and “moronic” it is.
One f-word, four uses of “bulls‑‑‑.” Ten misuses of God’s name, half that number for Jesus’. “H‑‑‑” is interjected. A character is twice labeled a “schmuck.”
Wine shows up at most meals. Monica gets drunk on it (which leads to her tryst with Jack). She mentions having had “a Scotch and three Ambiens” to help her sleep on the plane. A movie director is said to be addicted to drugs. Anna says her father sold drugs.
We see Leopoldo popping pills out of a small, unmarked bottle, at least in part to deal with the stress of the paparazzi. Antonio also takes unspecified pills after he and Milly check into their hotel room.
Jerry is rudely critical of Michelangelo’s convictions and his passion for helping the poor, labeling him a “communist” and “do-gooder.” Monica brags about how she loves to do illegal, risky things as she (and others) break into the ancient Roman baths during a thunderstorm. When Monica receives news that she’s gotten a part in a movie, she starts talking about how much weight she’ll have to lose, even though she’s already very thin.
Woody, Woody, Woody.
That’s pretty much what was going through my head as I walked out of To Rome With Love.
How can someone have so much insight in one area and seemingly be so blasé about the outcome of destructive choices in another?
Woody Allen has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what makes people happy. Do fame or success or illicit sexual encounters fulfill us? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, virtually everyone in this film repudiates those oft-taken paths to would-be happiness by the time the credits roll. The small, faithful, mundane things are what make us happy, Allen seems to say, not having our wildest fantasies fulfilled. We saw it in his previous cinematic outing, Midnight in Paris. We see it again here.
Simultaneously, the significance and potential consequences of these characters’ sexual choices are breezily understated, if not dismissed altogether. A man who’s apparently had lots of sex outside his marriage returns to his family as if nothing’s happened. A newly married man and wife both commit adultery, then carry on as if nothing’s happened. A college student who’s cheated on his girlfriend also seems inclined to act as if, you guessed it, nothing’s happened.
The overarching message? Everyone cheats, and sex isn’t really that big a deal.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.