Julio Medem’s previous films have often explored dark relationships between people, of secrets and desires that consume lives. Sexual obsessions and violent pasts pepper narratives that unfold like steamy mysteries, where the lives of a few spiral out to affect the many. Room in Rome shares the same themes of exploring passion and uncovering secret pasts but in a way that is far more low-key and intimate than his previous works like Lovers of he Arctic Circle (1998), Sex and Lucia (2001) or The Red Squirrel (1993). Indeed the primary cast has been stripped back to two characters with less than a handful of minor supporting roles.
On a balmy night in Rome two strangers meet on the eve of their departure from the city, throw caution to the wind and decide to spend a night together without future ties. Alba is open about being a lesbian but Natasha is unsure of her sexuality, especially given that she is due to be married within the week. As their inhibitions melt away the pair begin to reveal more intimate parts of their lives, safe in the knowledge that their relationship will be a fleeting one.
The limited cast in one location scenario is hardly a new one and is generally used as an exercise in how to construct tighter (and often cheaper!) narratives in a way that does not appear theatrical. The Duel Project (2004), David Lynch’s Hotel Room (1993) and, to some extent, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) all pare their narratives down to concentrate on character development with varying degrees of success. Room in Rome keeps the cast to a minimalist two (bar an extended sub-plot involving room service and an occasional glimpse of another guest at the hotel) and, like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2005), confines its action to a single night. The camera toys with the idea of departing from its sole location but never escapes the room, even as it cranes over the balcony or threatens to travel down the corridor. Given the constraints Medem has placed on his film it is surprising that his two leads are quite so obviously codified for simple identification – Alba, the self confessed lesbian, is darker skinned, has short cropped hair and wears trainers (and hence is masculinised) while light-skinned flowing haired Natasha, ostensibly the heterosexual female of the relationship, wears a dress and heels. However, as matters progress it becomes clear that neither of them are being entirely open with the other, after all they are still strangers.
Loving Strangers, the wistful song that accompanies the film, succinctly describes events – each only knows the name the other has given them and even their nationalities are suitably ambiguous, Alba is apparently Spanish and Natasha Russian but their communication is almost entirely conducted in English. There is no doubt, however, that their passions which are strong and uninhibited. Despite established cinematic signs that this is a romance, albeit fleeting, Medem ensures that the gentle ballads, light classical music and blossom framing devices that establishes the pair never breaches their intimacy – Natasha and Alba’s lovemaking are unaccompanied by a distracting soundtrack to ensure that these moments are as breathless to the audience as to the participants.
As with Medem’s previous films the use of location as defining the characters, of the landscape framing emotions, is apparent even as film itself appears restricted. For a film set in a single hotel room, Room in Rome is surprisingly global, not only through its use of multiple languages but also in the characters’ outlook. In this internet age a single room is not a constraint to seeing the world; the pair use a laptop to pinpoint where their lives have taken them thus far.
Room in Rome is an engaging look at passing passion, a frank and intimate portrayal of female sexuality unburdened by commitment. If at times the characters and their situations feel a touch contrived this is offset by the assured way that Medem crafts his set-ups and the open and daring performances of his two leads. A fascinating experiment in intimacy.