- Boccaccio and the Seventh ArtThe Decameronian Films of Fellini, De Laurentiis, Pasolini, Woody Allen
When Woody Allen gave the provisional title “Bop Decameron” to the film that would ultimately be released as To Rome with Love, it is unlikely that he was thinking about the timeliness of his allusion to Boccaccio in the run-up to the celebrations of 2013. And even though the Decameron did not remain in the film’s final title, the Boccaccesque influence was obviously a major factor in the film’s initial conception. In fact, I find it especially significant that in moving from the French setting of his previous film, the lovely Midnight in Paris, to the Italian one, it was Boccaccio who immediately came to mind as his narrative Muse, or at least as his tour guide for this journey into contemporary italianità.
Though the film was a critical success in the U.S., it received less than enthusiastic reviews from audiences within the bel paese. “Your Italy is superficial, full of escorts, where Italians come across as nonexistent people,”1 thundered one journalist, oblivious to the central tenet of Woody Allen’s cinema—that his films are, for the most part, exercises in specularity—playful and ironic stagings of his on-screen persona in communion with the autobiographical self. As Allen fans could have clearly anticipated, To Rome with Love is not about The Eternal City, nor Italy, nor Italians in general, but about what Italy triggers in the creative imagination of the great auteur. “Watch how this fantasy of italianità will play out on the screen of my mind,” he is saying to us, “and see how this image, manifested in the narratives of my characters, taps into the fond Italianate associations cherished by us all.” To do so, Allen unabashedly exploits every possible cliché about the pleasures of living and loving “Italian style,” and for starters, he accompanies the opening credits with the supremely evocative and cheesy strains of “Volare.” Taking the song’s lyrics to heart, [End Page 267] he announces the film’s flight pattern—a takeoff into “Woody Allen” realms of fantasy, into his personalized world of imaginative free play, as triggered by the very idea of journeying to Rome with love.
On the surface, the film’s links to its original Decameronian conception seem weak indeed. Boccaccian plots are nowhere to be found among the narrative strands of To Rome with Love. In formal terms, we can see the film’s episodic quality as a nod to the structure of the medieval text—the division of the narrative into four distinct stories, each with its own cast, its own genre, its own unique register—reflecting the Decameron’s organization into multiple discrete racconti. Unlike Boccaccio’s work, however, Allen’s film further subdivides each story into smaller fragments and cross-cuts between the four separate plots so that we are continually shuttling between them in a way that foregrounds the specificity of cinematic language: that is, we are constantly made aware of the workings of montage, and hence the presence of the arch-storyteller behind the screens. In this, To Rome with Love has more affinities with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the masterful adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, than with Decameron-inspired cinematic works that tend to respect the structural integrity of each tale as it unfolds in filmic time.
But it is in the license to imaginative free play that I would like to locate the source of Allen’s inspiration for making a film set in Italy “with love.” The stereotype of Boccaccio’s writings as romps in the medieval hay—with lusty maidens eager to assert the existence of female sexual desire and the narrative agency to act upon it—certainly does apply to the characters depicted by Penelope Cruz and Ellen Paige (the exuberant “escort” Anna and the loquacious siren Monica, respectively, of Allen’s film), but I would argue that a deeper impetus, embedded in the Decameron’s pages and enshrined in the overall literary legacy of its author, is what impelled the filmmaker to undertake this volo, this journey into the “Italianate” possibilities of...