There is one scene in Fellini's 1972 film Roma that's always mesmerized me. Opening up onto a Roman piazza, we hear the sweet tinkling of a harmonica and loud, laughing children rushing past and around dinner tables packed with people. Family and friends are talking, eating, drinking, laughing, shouting, joking, swearing, singing - nothing happens yet we feel that it is life distilled to its very essence. So then it's also true to say that in those seven minutes, everything happens.
An older, big breasted woman with dark hair wears white and flirts with one of the young men she seats at a table. Someone in the distance, a man, stands up. A difficult woman who doesn’t know she’s difficult, is trying to decide what to eat. Her stomach, she shouts, has been upset since yesterday. Her young daughter is fooling around in the background. Another mother sits with a fat baby on her lap, telling the father not to let the child eat tripe again. Near them, a young woman looks forlornly into blank space.
Guffaws of laughter overwhelm. The tram passes through momentarily disrupting our listening-in. Men salute each other and start to sing. And there's a woman above it all, sulking, slowly fanning herself and looking out onto the tables from a balcony across the piazza while her brother shouts at her to come down.
For most of this scene, the camera pans smoothly & slowly, like a head that's turning. For this reason, we have the sense of being a participant in this chaos of eating-out. The camera is moving the way we might if we were there.
But the position of observer is also always a lonely and distant one, and so we are also detached from the scene. This paradox the scene puts us in, a part of, and apart from, is not unlike the writer's experience of the world, or most likely, any artist.
In fact, this scene is the closest thing I've ever seen that comes to capturing what it's like to be me, in a crowd, an artist looking at the world. It's overwhelming. It's thousands of stories to be told, glimpsed at only momentarily.
Only one character in this scene confronts us (I resist even using the word character because the scene feels so real).
She's a tiny old lady with dark, leathery skin that's been illuminated by a spotlight. In the shadows next to her, are all people who tower over her. They are bent over their bowls, slurping pasta silently then she looks up from her own bowl and sees us. She sees you. Her gaze is unwavering. She stares back, and it's unclear what the stare means.
Should you feel ashamed for this intrusion? Not only because she isn't any of your business, but because, in the moments before she noticed you, did you impose a story onto her, a feeling, pity her? In this way, you wonder if you've misinterpreted every story here, invented it yourself, as each new character was revealed to you.
Or is she the mirror to your gaze, the artist's gaze temporarily imposed upon you by the film itself, at times cold and distant but also brave and open? Do you see yourself in her? Is she the artist, or are you?
And so the little old lady's gaze never wavers. It's the camera that cuts elsewhere. No time to linger on any one person when there's a world full of stories. But whether these stories are witnessed from an accurate perception of the world or created through a false one, this the scene cannot answer for us.