It's lovely, isn't it? It's a classic story, for both Audrey Hepburn's character and Gregory Peck's. She explores the relationship between duty to others and her own happiness while he weighs up self-interest against love for another; and each achieves personal growth along the way. And I particularly loved the way that the ending didn't attempt to manufacture Disney-style against-the-odds happiness for them. In the press interview at the end, both got to say (in coded language because of the other listeners) what they needed to say to each other. But she had decided that duty to her country mattered more than her own happiness, while he let her know that he respected that, and loved her, and would keep the secret of their day together. It was lovely, and both of them were brilliant - as indeed were Audrey Hepburn's beautiful long swishing 1950s circle skirts!
It is so hugely different from insiders' views of Rome, though. Hepburn and Peck's Rome is a city of charm and delight, full of cafés, dances and tourist spots, and where the only poverty (Peck's) is mild, comic and temporary. What a contrast with, for instance, Ladri di Biciclette (1948), where Rome is a city of unemployment, desperation and squalor, and poverty is real and grinding and inescapable.
I think films about contemporary Rome have always been thus, though; in fact, so have novels and poetry. On the insiders' side, there are films like Roma, Città Aperta (1945), La Dolce Vita (1960), Mamma Roma (1962), and Roma (1972). On the outsiders' (usually American) side, there are films like this one, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Only You (1994) and the Olsens' When in Rome. (I'm sure there are loads more in both camps - these are just the ones I'm familiar with).
The insiders' films show the city as conflicting and complex - great yet also terrible. But the outsiders' ones use it mainly as a fairly simple symbol for culture and a device to prompt personal growth - as indeed it has also long served in novels such as Middlemarch (for Dorothea Brooke / Casaubon) and Portrait of a Lady (for Isabel Archer - whose plot arc is actually rather like the princess's in Roman Holiday). The result is that the outsiders' views of Rome are not really about Rome in any very profound way. They are about their characters' personal stories, and those stories could actually be driven in the same way by almost any setting with cultural status and plenty of beautiful and interesting things to do and see.
This doesn't necessarily make them bad stories - it's a valid thing to do with Rome, especially if you are viewing it as an outsider. And amongst the outsiders' films, Roman Holiday really is seminal. It was the first time Rome had really appeared as a tourist destination on the big screen, and the other films I've listed above are very much dependent on it, echoing particular scenes, like the Bocca della Verità scene, which have since become clichés of films of this type. One standard trope is missing, though - Roman Holiday does have a Trevi Fountain scene, but it doesn't include anybody throwing any coins into it. That particular tradition, of course, was brought to the popular consciousness the following year by Three Coins in the Fountain.
I should add that there are of course exceptions to the insiders / outsiders dichotomy I've drawn here, and the major one I know of is Peter Greenaway's Belly of an Architect, which manages to combine the strengths of both traditions. Perhaps that is why, as an outsider myself, it remains very firmly my favourite of all films about the city. But this one is definitely good too, and I'm glad I finally saw it.
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