To Rome with Love opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)

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Woody Allen’s screenplays find their origins in a drawer full of scribbled notes, but the four seemingly unrelated stories that make up To Rome with Love are not random scrap paper ideas.

Instead, they are explorations of the themes of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s famous opera Pagliacci (or Clowns). Some cursory Web-searching reveals that Pagliacci is a perfect fit for Allen’s themes, if not for his lifelong identity: This is the opera where that whole sad clown thing comes from.

Allen’s movie mirrors Pagliacci from the beginning, with a character addressing the audience. Pagliacci features a stage on the stage, and To Rome stages an opera (in snippets) within the movie. The opera performed in To Rome with Love happens to be Pagliacci, executed by a retired opera director (played by still-got-it Allen, himself the director of a one-act for the Los Angeles Opera in 2008) who discovers a reluctant opera star when he hears his great pipes in the shower. This thematic framing story is the best of the stories in the movie, and not coincidentally the silliest, as white soapsuds replace the makeup that the Pagliacci character of Cano applies as he prepares to play the clown (the pagliacco) in the play within his play.

The song Cano sings while putting on that makeup is about his responsibility to take the stage as a clown even though he’s just found out that his wife is cheating on him: “Put on your costume/ powder your face./ The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.”

This idea of navigating the line between playing a character and being one’s real self is central to Allen’s movie. In one strain, a small-town couple fall into extramarital affairs as the wife is seduced by an actor (because of the parts he’s played) and the husband has to pretend a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) is his wife because of mistaken identity. In another, an average man named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) becomes a star for no reason. Leopoldo isn’t too sympathetic a character, as he complains about his random fame while taking advantage of it. In Pagliacci‘s prologue, the audience is told to be considerate of the actors’ feelings, because they are people, too. Allen flips this idea: Leopoldo, having fallen from fame is told by his former chauffeur that it’s always better to be a celebrity than a common citizenin other words, quit your whining.

The story in To Rome that has the most involved tangle with Pagliacci and role-playing is one in which an American architecture student falls victim to the superficial charms of his girlfriend’s best friend. In the opera, Cano leaves his wife behind to go drinking, despite a villager’s joke that she’ll have an affair if left alone. In To Rome, Sally (Greta Gerwig) leaves her boyfriend Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) alone with sexy actress and intellectual faker Monica (Ellen Page). Though Jack is not a cuckold but rather a cheater, like Cano he gets warned of an impending affair. A version of his older self (a funny Alec Baldwin) tries to keep Jack away from Monica, but given Allen’s light-hearted fatalism, Jack is destined to fall for Monica (also an actor) even though her life is a transparent performance.

Allen makes a great game of using a grand stage to play out the petty interactions of his misguided lovers. Much of Allen’s work is about getting through the sadness of life by being able to laugh, as Cano must play the clown during his personal crisis. Pagliacci uses a curtain behind a curtain to tell a tragic story, while Allen uses light comedy and a golden, idealized Rome as an ironic sheen over the amusing pettiness of his characters’ problems. He could have gone one step further and used the same title as Leoncavallo. After all, the opera was not named for the one pagliacco played by Cano, but in the plural, and Allen’s misguided lovers would be as at home in a movie called Clowns.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Summer stars.”