For a filmmaker who once got so much comic mileage about his fears of leaving his beloved New York Woody Allen, has flourished on his recent Grand Tour.
Fleeing the US (where his audience dried up in the wake of the Soon Yi affair) and landing in the arms of Europe (where he's worshipped), Allen has revitalised his career with a series of comic delights that celebrate its eye-popping locales - London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome - as much as his masterpiece Manhattan did his hometown.
But Allen has never been interested in the actual cities where his films are set. All are figments of his bookish and movie-ish imagination, which is why he shot Manhattan in black and white. "He adored New York; he idealised it out of all proportions," says Allen/Isaac in the film's famed opening narration.
Thus the gorgeous backdrop to the four fizzy, very funny and gorgeously photographed vignettes that constitute To Rome With Love has very little to do with the real world. Rather it's another of Allen's Fellini-esque fantasias (one story is directly inspired by the maestro's La Dolce Vita), surreal, borderline silly riffs on familiar Woody themes such as the fear of death, the vagaries of love, the fickleness of celebrity, the role in life played by chance, and genius and the unlikely people in which it resides.
It is also nice to see Allen back on the screen and married to an age-appropriate woman (sort of), the peerless Judy Davis, in the most amusing of the film's four intercut but unrelated episodes.
Allen and Davis play a long-time married New York couple who fly to Rome (bickering and bantering hilariously along the way) to meet their daughter Hayley and her new Italian boyfriend Michelangelo and his family. While visiting the future in-laws Allen's Jerry, a failed director of avant-garde operas (he once did Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice), hears Michelangelo's mortician father singing Puccini in the shower and is rocked by the beauty of his voice.
Jerry sees a chance to come out of retirement only to discover that the angel-voiced undertaker can only sing while soaped up and under a torrent of water.
While Jerry is figuring out how to exploit the operatic find of the age (his solution is inspired and insane) we move between three other tales.
One involves an American architecture student (Jessie Eisenberg) thrown into romantic turmoil with the arrival of his girlfriend's vivacious, free-spirited gal pal (Ellen Page); another is about a nervous young Italian businessman who through a series of comic confusions winds up with everyone mistaking a hooker (Penelope Cruz) for his young bride; and, in the slightest of the stories, Roberto Benigni plays an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds himself treated like a superstar by a voracious but fickle media pack.
Allen has been in very breezy mood since his dark crime drama Match Point (2005). But To Rome With Love is his frothiest film in memory, one that treats his familiar subjects with such light touches that they recall the knockabout comedies at the beginning of his career ("the early funny ones" such as the unduly maligned Stardust Memories).
Indeed, To Rome With Love is so light on its feet and the performers clearly having such a good time that even the dullest of the stories, in which the serious-minded future architect falls for the troublesome actress, has so much vibrancy, it feels like the work of a man decades Allen's junior. In fact, it feels like someone else altogether. Allen immerses himself so deeply in Rome and its culture that it might well have been made by an Italian director (in contrast Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris feel very much like classic Allen movies).
This is perhaps because Italian cinema, especially Federico Fellini and his taste for nostalgia (think Armacord and Radio Days) and satirising the demimonde (La Dolce Vita/Celebrity), has had such a big impact on Allen.To Rome With Love is Woody Allen paying homage to the cinema that has given him so much. And he does it with such a burst of amore you can't help but smile.