In his 44th film To Rome with Love, Woody Allen plays Jerry, an opera director who travels to Italy with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet the parents of their daughter’s fiancé. Jerry is retired and officially out of the game, but when he hears his soon-to-be in-law (played by the celebrated Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower, he becomes obsessed with turning the undertaker into an opera star.
To Rome with Love, which opens Friday, marks the first time Allen has acted in one of his own movies since 2006’s Scoop. The film is also the final stop in his recent European tour, during which he made pictures outside the United States in various countries (Spain, England, France) where he was offered financing. Allen spoke to The Miami Herald last month, during the week of the NBA finals — he correctly picked a Heat win in five games — about Italy, opera and acting:
Q: Early in the movie, Judy Davis tells your character “You equate retirement with death.” She’s annoyed that Jerry can’t relax and is still thinking about his career. That line could certainly apply to you. You’re 76, and this is your 33rd film in 31 years.
A: I have friends who have retired and are having a wonderful time. They travel to Europe; they go fishing; they go on cruises; they love it. And then there are other people who retire and just stay home and watch television and have nothing to do. I’m that guy. If I retired, I’d be sitting around watching baseball games. I don’t want to do that. So if my health holds out, and I continue to raise money to make movies, I’m going to keep making them. The activity is good for me. It can’t hurt me. It gets me out of the house, and it provides a distraction against gloom.
Q: Most of the movies you’ve made in Europe have been valentines to the cities where they are set. But To Rome with Love also feels like a love letter to Italian cinema.
A: That wasn’t a conscious decision, but I can see why you would feel that. I grew up watching European movies, and so many of them were Italian. I loved all those filmmakers — Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Mario Monicelli — and that sort of seeps into your pores. It’s like listening to a jazz musician you love, and then when you play, you sound like that musician.
Q: The movie has a vivacious, spirited tone. You play around with time and chronology without explaining things. It feels even more fantastical than Midnight in Paris, which already was a fantasy.
A: Barcelona, London, Paris — all these cities have very strong personalities. But Rome inspires you differently: The incredible amount of ancient ruins juxtaposed with modern architecture, the fact that the Romans are so vibrant and outgoing … in other countries, people live indoors. In Rome, because of the weather, everyone is always out of the house. It’s a country that loves living and food and music. Even the president [Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi] was having parties with these young girls, and the people still loved him!
I was so inspired that I couldn’t figure out which story to tell. First I thought “This one,” then “No, this one.” Finally I decided to make one movie with a lot of stories in it. I couldn’t keep it to one, because the city has so much vitality.
Q: You directed a staging of Gianni Schicchi for the LA Opera in 2008. Is that where the inspiration for the opera plotline in the movie came from?
A: Directing the opera for me was kind of an accident. I really didn’t want to do it at first. I was kind of pressured into it by Placido Domingo, who I know, and Mark Stern, who is the head of the opera there. I told them yes, and then I kept putting off for a couple of years, until I couldn’t put it off any longer. I was hoping I’d be dead before I really had to do it!
Q: You got great reviews for it, though.
A:It turned out to be a very pleasant experience. Everyone in the company was helpful, and it was very successful, and now they’re doing it again in Italy. And when I was thinking of a character to play in this movie, I thought of a crazy opera director, because now I knew what the concerns and terminology of that world are.
Q: The cast of To Rome with Love includes many famous Italian actors, but the biggest name of all is Roberto Benigni. He plays an ordinary man who suddenly becomes famous and must deal with the loss of privacy. The role feels like it was written specifically for him.
A: I actually didn’t have much hope he would be in the movie. Roberto wasn’t interested in films any longer. He was doing a one-man show of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. When I finished the script, I thought he’d be the perfect actor for this role, so I sent it to him in the hopes he would consider it. And he said yes! I was completely thrilled, because it gave another chance to work with another icon of Italian cinema.
Q: You also cast Ellen Page as a seductive and predatory actress who comes to Rome and immediately steals her best friend’s boyfriend [played by Jesse Eisenberg]. That was imaginative casting. I had never thought of her in that way before.
A; I wanted someone who was not sexual in a heavy-handed way. If I wanted an overtly sexual actress, I would cast someone like Scarlett Johansson. There are many actresses who blind you by how sexy they are. Ellen is a very sweet girl, but she can project something complicated and mysterious. You don’t know too much about her — she gives you this neurotic feeling — but you know that sex with her would be an interesting experience. I didn’t have to direct her: All I did was cast her. She took these monologues I gave her and did wonderful things with them. It was a treat to watch her in the dailies.
Q: You won your fourth Oscar this year for Midnight in Paris. The movie also became the biggest hit of your career. You often say that you don’t really care how your movies are received by the public. But it must feel pretty good when one of them connects with the mass audience.
A: Yeah, sure, it makes you feel good. But I have to admit it is a happy accident. It’s not something that I can control. I try to make each picture the best I can. Audiences like some of them a little bit, some they like an awful lot and some they don’t like at all. Midnight in Paris, they loved. They turned out to see it en masse. I was delighted. And then I just move on to the next one. I’m lucky. It’s a very nice way to spend your life.