The Critical Reception of ‘To Rome With Love’ Abroad
“Woody Allen trips over the Eternal City. Between caricatured characters and tired gags, Midnight in Paris is lights years away”: this is how Valerio Sammarco on cinematografo.it describes Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. In Italy, the movie was criticized and scorned mainly for its (bad) use of Italian stereotypes – a common trope in foreign comedies set in Italy (as, for instance, in Under the Tuscan Sun). It is interesting therefore to see how the movie and its “caricatured characters” are perceived outside of Italian culture. In fact, as we will see, there is little complaint about stereotypes, while most of the bad reviews point out flaws in writing, direction and form – especially when it comes to homages to Italian auteurs, like Fellini. However, it should be noted that there are scattered acclaims too, that tend to interpret what Italians perceive as bad stereotypes instead as a smart use of clichés, with a touch of magic realism, ultimately serving the purposes of cine-tourism. Also, almost all foreign critics seems to have a taste for puns on Italian food.
Thierry Méranger, in Les Cahiers du Cinéma (n. 681, September 2012), gave To Rome With Love two stars, explaining that: “Even if the recurrence of stereotypes may manage to get some smiles, we have to acknowledge that […] the homage to Italian comedy does not work”. In Positif (July 2012), analysis of the film takes another turn, as Grégory Valens focuses more on Allen as an auteur and, in so doing, he defends the repetition of its tropes: “Isn’t it a great auteurs’ right to play relentlessly the same music, to work without rest on characters and effects, to still haunted again and again by the same obsessions?”.
If highbrow French critics can be indulgent at times, the trade and general press is not, pointing out, with varying degrees of harshness, the film’s flaws and the writer/director’s faults.
Isabelle Boudet in Les Fiches du Cinéma (n. 2027, 3 July 2012) has a mild opinion: “In four stories, Woody Allen mixes, with more or less verve, Jewish humor with the Italian loquacity. A minor Allen, offering some ‘al dente’ comedy.” Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde has a much stronger view, calling To Rome With Love “a fake ensemble movie”, noting that “beyond the feeling of confusion and of relative casualness that emerge, it does not possess any actual coherence”. For that matter, Antoin Prioul in Première refers to “An ensemble comedy affected by the worst symptoms of automatic writing and Allenian chronic weakness, which we see in every one of three of his movies”. As for the cine-touristic soul of the film, in Télérama Louis Guichard writes that Allen’s “recipe shows its limits. The game with touristic clichés is much less smart than usual […]. And it lacks direction, and a subject”.
The efficiency of the “auteur-effect” singled out by French critics is downplayed in most British analysis, as reviewers tend to argue for Allen’s downfall. For instance, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound (22:10, Oct. 2012) talks at length about the movies’ four stories and themes, to conclude on a general decline in the ultimate effectiveness of the director’s comedy: “There is a particular quality to the laughter that one hears in the theatre during these late Woody Allen movies, which seems a beat too slow and a little too faint to be wholehearted or really spontaneous”.
Other than that, however, the focus is mainly on location, form and content. As Jonathan Romney in The Independent argues, one of the film’s main flaws lies in its clichés, which are laid thick and in an unsophisticated way: “Vicky was would-be sophisticated, and Midnight in Paris flattered its viewers with in-jokes about bohemian, twenties Paris: both were luxury amusements aimed at the same audience as those upmarket cruise ads in the New Yorker. But the new film is more for retired Midwestern coach parties, a cinematic souvenir T-shirt of Rome as the capital of opera, vino and amore”. Robbie Collin in The Telegraph goes further when it comes to authenticity and stereotypes: To Rome with Love isn’t one of Woody Allen’s worst films; it’s four of them. […] Allen’s vision of the Eternal City is about as authentic as a ham and pineapple pizza”. It should also be noted that, in 2016, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin and Tim Robey ranked it as one of the worst movies by Woody Allen.
However, there are a few exceptions to this negative criticism. Phillip French in The Guardian connects the movie to positive sides of nostalgia and cultural tourism, as well as the omnibus film that was so popular in Italy in the ’50s, going as far as to say that “Woody Allen channels the spirit of Fellini with four engaging tales of sex, celebrity and married life”. In Empire, Lorien Haynes contextualizes the movie in the director’s filmography, arguing that Allen uses a European city once again as a springboard to discuss its clichés, fusing them with nuances of its own: “Woody Allen’s latest looks like a Euro-pudding but isn’t quite one. Yes, it’s shot through with a peaches-and-cream palette, accompanied by ‘the two Vs – Verdi and Volare’, but given half of it actually is in Italian, it truly feels like an early ’70s indigenous farce – yet it reaches beyond being a straightforward profiterole”.
Reviews in the United States are mixed but mostly positive, although even the most favorable ones are mild. For example, on the one hand, Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter points out that “Allen the writer-director has gone tone-deaf this time around, somehow not realizing that the nonstop prattling of the less-than-scintillating characters almost never rings true […]. For the most part, the characters are too stupid and blind to their own follies to accept even in this farcical context”. On the other, Peter Debruge in Variety connects the movie to Allen’s visions and tradition, describing it as frisky and frivolous, a “pleasantly diverting, none-too-strenuous arthouse excursion [that] feels like a throwback to Allen’s short-story anthologies, with the added pleasure of seeing a game cast play along.”
In Allen’s case, it is worth considering the local, New York Press as well, which seems to be more enthusiastic than the trade press.
A.O. Scott in The New York Times explicitly titles “When in Rome, Still and Anxious New York Intellectual” – hinting at a Woody Allen that has not lost his verve. He also downplays the movies’ flaws: “The limitations of To Rome With Love, as frothy as the milk atop a cappuccino, are finally inseparable from its delights. Some of the scenes feel rushed and haphazardly constructed, and the dialogue frequently sounds overwritten and under-rehearsed. But this may just be to say that we are watching late-period Woody Allen. Complaining would be as superfluous – though also, perhaps, as inevitable – as psychoanalysis.”
The New Yorker offers two views on the movies, both extremely favorable. Richard Brody praises once again the author’s work: To Rome with Love is the kind of cavalierly unusual, freewheelingly inventive, devil-may-care movie that’s the mark of a veteran filmmaker in a hurry to get his most exotic ideas out while there are still the means and strength to do so. David Denby, with the emblematic title “That’s Amore”, describes the narrative as “light and fast, with some of the sharpest dialogue and acting that [Woody Allen]’s put on the screen in years. The picture, a Roman idyll, gently but surely moves back and forth between romantic comedy and satirical farce. We’re in the realm of miraculous transformation – transformation through sex, ambition, chance, and fame that suddenly and unaccountably lands on someone’s shoulders like a ton of baked lasagna”.
Interestingly, in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and following the sexual abuse allegations made by Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter, the discourses around To Rome with Love have resurfaced in the last couple of years. In particular, in 2017, Ellen Page wrote on Facebook that working on To Rome with Love was the “biggest regret” of her career, claiming that she felt pressured by others who told her “of course you have to say yes to this Woody Allen film”. In 2018, Greta Gerwig stated that she regretted working on the film as well, and would not work with Allen again.