So you struggle to save up for months, survive a brutal flight and assorted transportation nightmares, and finally settle in Rome, where many of the world's finest historical and artistic treasures await you. And then the first thing you see is ten cats diligently working over their privates with mealy tongues.
There's a feline population problem in Rome these days; an abundance of the furry, curious creatures who were brought to the land long ago to be celebrated, only to find their usefulness worn down, now reduced to a nuisance situation that appears to be growing more potent by the year. The cats have been reduced to the social level of rodents and, with over 200,000 strays roaming the land, the outlook is grim for these meowing accidental tourists.
"Cats of Rome" is a documentary detailing the fight to keep these critters alive, spending six months with the Torre Argentina Roman cat sanctuary. Here in a makeshift shelter, the cats are offered some form of relief from the everyday world, where they can be cared for, protected, and, if the stars align, adopted.
Staffed by a group of stressed volunteers, Torre Argentina struggles every single day to keep their operation afloat. Facing a lack of support and funding from the government, the sanctuary relies on the kindness (and deep pockets) of strangers and the mercy of the elements. For them, this is not simply a job but a calling: a chance to protect the innocent in a world that can be unrelentingly cruel.
The hardships of the sanctuary trying to keep the dream alive is the subject of the documentary, but "Cats of Rome" is also curious about a small number of locals, who spend large amounts of time and every penny they earn toward the care of the feral felines. Of course, some of these folk tango dangerously with the disheveled "cat lady" stereotype, but their intentions are pure, even in the face of disconcerting social dysfunction. Frankly, these fringe warriors are a more interesting topic for the documentary to chase, simply because they're as tempestuous as their cat "children."
Cat lovers might have trouble with this feature. While hosting a wonderful story of kinship flowering in the face of overwhelming adversity, the furry stars of the show aren't always allowed a happy ending. Footage of the cats at play or basking in their enclosed surroundings can be fascinating from an animal psychology standpoint, but we also see disease and neglect tear the felines apart, resulting in blindness and other more severe mutilations. It's not easy to watch, but it's important to "Cats of Rome" to hammer home the point that these felines lack a bright future, and shelters like Torre Argentina are working uphill trying to make sure these creatures have a loving advocate.
Presented in full frame, "Cats of Rome" hasn't been shined up for its DVD debut. A low-budget documentary, the DVD resembles a VHS experience, with image softness and various video artifacts present.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio mix is just as limited, and while the interviews are easy to comprehend, there's little to no depth in the sound field.
A still gallery (2 minutes) shows off the sights of Rome and more of those pesky cats.
Deleted/extended scenes (23 minutes) offer an expansion of the Torre Argentina world by introducing subplots that further the human element of the sanctuary. Tangents covered slightly in the final cut are also included. Nothing revelatory here, outside of some more time spent with the shelter's only canine resident.
"Can You Help the Roman Cats?" (30 seconds) has the narrator of "Cats of Rome," Keith Burberry, shilling for the www.romancats.com website, where visitors can purchase swag and adopt cats from anywhere in the world.
The objective of "Cats of Rome" is to offer the sanctuary some publicity and put the issue of Roman cats out there for the world to see. It's a low-tech production, but the messages are clear: cherish your pets, make sure they've been fixed, and support your local shelter because, in the case of Torre Argentina, they might be the only organization who cares enough to fight day and night for the lives of animals who otherwise would be left to fend for themselves against a harsh, uncaring world.