Rome is a unique city. To be in Rome is to be surrounded by the silent monoliths of an ancient civilization while at the same time experiencing the clamor of a modern metropolis teeming with life. Rome is the perfect fusion of history and the present—an exhilarating hub of extraordinary culture, art, and cuisine.
“So much of the action and activity in Rome takes place outside, in its cafés and streets,” says Woody Allen. “It’s an amazing city just to walk in. The city itself is a work of art.” Rome is a city of very contemporary and sophisticated people as well as people who are very traditional. It attracts numerous visitors, from businessmen to tourists, all of whom are passing in and out of Rome and enjoying its delights.
For Allen it was a place that was too vast to be contained in a single plot. “I felt the city of Rome lent itself to a number of diverse tales,” he says. “It was pregnant with possibilities. If you stop a hundred Romans, they’ll tell you: ‘I’m from the city, I know it well and I could give you a million stories.’”
Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary Roman who suddenly and inexplicably finds himself to be one of the most talked about men in Rome. “Leopoldo has no talent at all, he’s a common, ordinary person,” says Allen, “he has no idea why he is being celebrated. He is quite aware that he is a nobody.
Leopoldo is at first totally bewildered and annoyed by all the attention he’s getting and then starts — without even realizing—to like it.” Says Benigni: “Leopoldo was happy and content before he was famous; he had a harmony in his life. But when his harmony is upset he becomes completely discombobulated, trying to understand what is happening to him.”
Still, there are telling cracks in Leopoldo’s seeming equilibrium before fame taps him on the shoulder, notably a moment where he longingly looks at a beautiful woman in his office. “He has no chance with a woman like that and he knows it,” says Allen. “Nobody cares what he has to say about anything, whether it’s the movies he sees or whether he thinks the Chinese are taking over the world, and certainly that kind of extraordinary woman is out of his class, until suddenly it all becomes possible.” As paparazzi start trailing him, Leopoldo soon realizes that everything he desires is readily available to him. “You do get seduced by fame,” says Allen. “Not necessarily always corrupted. Fame offers you a lot of opportunities that the average person never gets a chance to experience. So fame is a very seductive drug and it does work on him.”
While Leopoldo enjoys the attention and the beautiful women who now throw themselves at him, he is also exasperated by other aspects associated with his sudden fame. “You give up your privacy, you’re constantly hounded, and everything you do is looked at under a microscope,” says Allen.
Roberto Benigni, a true superstar in Italy, is all too aware of what the experience Leopoldo has is like: “My dream is to walk in the street normally, watching people and having coffee, having a pizza and talking with friends. I lose a part of my life and I can’t do that. But if this didn’t happen anymore, I’d be worried… it’s a contradiction.” Says Allen: “While there are many drawbacks to being well-known, I would have to say the perks outweigh the drawbacks. You can live with all that because what you get for it are a great many positive things.”
On the flip side of Leopoldo is Giancarlo (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato), a man who possesses great talent and yet is completely anonymous. A brilliant opera singer, Giancarlo sings only privately for his own enjoyment. He has never tried it in public. “One can never know what stimulates an artist,” says Allen. If the only place that Shakespeare can write is by sitting on a bridge chair in the middle of 42nd Street, for whatever intangible reason, that’s not something we may ever be able to understand. Giancarlo can only sing under very special circumstances.”
On the face of it Giancarlo doesn’t seem to care about fame, but meeting his future daughter-in-law’s father, Jerry (Woody Allen), changes everything. A former opera director who is unsatisfied with his retirement, Jerry feels that he never really made his mark on the world. “He’s tried some avant-garde things, but they didn’t work out and he’s never achieved the notoriety or the acceptance he was looking for,” says Allen. “He’s frustrated, and when he finally gets the opportunity to possibly cash in on Giancarlo’s talent, he grabs it.” At first Jerry must overcome the serious obstacle of Giancarlo’s leftist son—and his future son-in-law—Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), who is extremely hostile to the idea of his humble father being prodded by Jerry into the world of public entertaining. In his protectiveness, Michelangelo doesn’t stop to consider his father’s own wishes.
Says Allen: “I think that when people have a real talent, it demands expression. Sooner or later you want some communication of it. I’m sure Giancarlo is the same as anyone. He wants someone to hear his voice and have that relational moment where he sings and people are moved by it.”
Another character in the movie Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), while possessing no special talent herself does get to meet a gifted actor. Milly arrives in Rome from a provincial town with her new husband Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) in search of a new life in the big city. Everything depends on the impression they make on Antonio’s wealthy relatives, who are in the position to give him a high-level job.
To look her best, Milly sets out for a hairdresser, but gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine streets of Rome. At the same time, Antonio is surprised in his hotel room by the appearance of Anna (Penélope Cruz), a voluptuous call girl who mistakenly believes she has been hired to have sex with him. Anna has been told that Antonio is eccentric and will try to resist, so she refuses to leave. Protesting profusely, Antonio suddenly finds himself forced onto the bed and it is in this compromising position that his relatives find him when they arrive at the hotel room.
The only explanation that Antonio can come up with at the spur of the moment is that Anna is actually his wife Milly. Taking pity on him—and having been paid for the day—Anna agrees to go along with this story, and the relatives, although astonished that Antonio has married this indecorous bombshell, seem to accept his ruse. While Anna is willing to say she is Antonio’s wife, this doesn’t mean she will alter her behavior, which sets the stage for many comic situations. Says Cruz: “Anna is a very free spirit and she doesn’t have a social filter in her mind so she says everything she feels without ever worrying about the consequences.”
Meanwhile, as Milly is trying to find her way back to the hotel, she encounters two movie stars, Pia Fusari (Ornella Muti) and her idol Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). Milly is flabbergasted when Salta offers to take her out to lunch, and eventually, to his hotel room. “When a beautiful young girl comes up to any movie star and says, ‘I see all your movies and I’m crazy about you,’ he would have a very good chance of taking that girl to bed because three-quarters of the work is already done,” says Allen.
When Antonio is out for lunch with Anna and his family, he is stunned to see Milly at another table being wooed by Salta, which challenges his conception of her as an innocent, virginal girl. Later, at a party for the elite of Rome, Antonio finds out that Anna has a degree of notoriety, albeit one lacking Luca Salta’s prestige. Many of Rome’s top businessmen seem to know her quite well, and line up to make appointments.
Later, while taking a walk in the vast gardens during the party, Anna questions Antonio about his marriage. She scoffs at his description of Milly as a “Madonna,” intuiting that it is Antonio who is actually the innocent one. In her own unique way, Anna helps Antonio move forward with a heightened self-awareness. “Anna takes her job very seriously and with a lot of dignity,” says Cruz. “She is convinced that her services are therapeutic and that she does a great service to society.”