TV MOVIE: Sabrina Goes to Rome (1998)

Sabrina Goes to Rome (USA, 1998)
Directed by Tibor Takács
Starring Melissa Joan Hart, Eddie Mills, Tara Charendoff, James Field

Most films borne out of TV series are used as a means to bookend their characters. The Inbetweeners Movie and a host of lesser British offerings stake their entire appeal on the characters stepping out of their comfort zones into what may be their last adventure. It's a tactic that regularly backfires, with audiences being sold short with the plot and constantly bothered by the televisual nature of the script and visuals.
But alongside this group of films is another, smaller camp of offerings which tend to be more successful, or at least more bearable. These are the films which are made in the middle of a series' run, either as a necessary slice of canon, or as a compression of past plot points to pull in new audiences after the show becomes successful. Sabrina Goes to Rome is not as successful in this regard as, say, The X-Files, but it is reasonably good fun given its made-for-TV status.
The first thing to say about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that it is not designed to pull in any new fans. If you're already a fan of the series (as I was growing up), you'll recognise almost everything that made it so much fun and adjust to the few details that are different, such as the European setting. If, on the other hand, you are coming to Sabrina for the first time, you may get something out of it, but chances are you'll enjoy it less than if you'd seen a couple of episodes.
That said, there's very little about this film which makes it a vital part of the Sabrina canon. Unlike the Doctor Who TV movie, which attempted to reinvent the show's main character, the plot of Sabrina Goes to Rome is almost completely inconsequential. It doesn't have any influential bearing on the arcs of individual seasons of the show, nor does it run roughshod over the canon like many of the Doctor Who specials. It is, to use a motoring term, nothing more than an optional extra for the fans.
The second thing to say about this film is that it just avoids the trap of so many American films set in Europe, namely resorting to national stereotypes to make its main characters either stand out or seem superior. The film does lean on stereotypical notions of Italian food, and it can't resist throwing in plenty of shots of the Colliseum or people on scooters. But it's not quite in the same league as Sex and the City 2, whose vulgar tastelessness was as baffling as its utter lack of self-awareness.
Because the film was made primarily for US audiences who were already fans of the show, it doesn't feel the need to pander too greatly to British or European expectations of what the show should be like. Despite the immensely cliched depiction of its British character (more on her later), it's still very much the same tone as the TV series. There's still the odd but irresistable balance between the loopy, offbeat 1960s appeal of Bewitched and a more modern sensibility driven by 1990s pop culture and a mainstream version of teenage angst.
But while the TV series had the ability to be dark (or at least mysterious) every once in a while, Sabrina Goes to Rome is as light and frothy as a cappucino. While there is a mystery element to the plot, the film is predominantly a comedy with romantic elements, and even when the characters change into animals or go back in time, it's handled in a very Austin Powers, brain-at-the-door manner.
Rather than demonstrate the breadth and depth of its characters, like The X-Files film did, Sabrina Goes to Rome is an extended episode with a lot of the stakes removed. Not only is the plot self-contained, but the stakes are along the lines of a half-hour episode, and the jokes are broadly similar. The only noticeable difference lies in how the moral of the story is conveyed, with neither of Sabrina's aunts being present to guide her on her travels.
In my review of Conspiracy, I talked a lot about how the production values of TV movies today are on a par with the top-end offerings of Hollywood and Europe. We no longer live in an age when you can guess where a piece of footage was intended to be shown by looking at its aspect ratio (TV is traditionally square, while film is widescreen). But while this is great for new offerings, it does have the affect of making TV films that were once visually acceptable look very dated.
For its day, Sabrina Goes to Rome looks okay. Director Tibor Takács is an unremarkable but competent TV director, having helmed several episodes of the revived series of The Outer Limits. But even by the standards of the later series, the visuals are uninspiring; the colours feel washed-out and the lighting is substandard in places. The most noticeable problem is the special effects; they were fine in the TV series, but on the big screen they look really cheap and unconvincing.
When it comes to the characters, the film is much of a muchness. On the one hand, it suffers greatly from the absence of many of the series regulars; the conflict between Sabrina's aunts was always one of the highlights of episodes, and none of the mortals react quite so well to Sabrina's evasive behaviour as Harvey did. In this vacuum, Tara Chanderoff (later Strong) is unconvincing as the incompetent Gwen, and Eddie Mills is largely unmemorable as Paul. That only leaves Salem, who is reduced here from a witty source of one-liners to having a one-dimensional obsession with food.
On the other hand, the film does feature Melissa Joan Hart in her prime, managing to lend credibility to the most ridiculous of situations - or at least doing so for just long enough before things move on. She's clearly having a lot of fun, particularly in the period drama scenes, and her natural charisma prevents the whole plot from collapsing into a feeble mess. While her performance isn't enough to completely redeem the film, it is the aspect which most makes it watchable.
The only other characteristic to note about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that its story is driven primarily by women. This was true of the series too, but series driven by women who are actually written as women are disappointingly rare. For all its shortcomings, the film does give us a strong female lead who is intelligent and resourceful enough to drive the plot forward under her own steam. Sabrina's romance with Paul is almost incidental, which both makes the plot more innocuous and prevents the film from being just another romantic comedy in which the woman takes a passive role.
Sabrina Goes to Rome is an innocuous TV movie which is watchable by virtue of being so similar to the series that inspired it. The fact that it is so inconsequential in relation to the wider arc of the series might lead one to conclude that it is actually pointless, but Hart's performance is ultimately enough to make the experience worthwhile. While it falls short of the heights reached by individual episodes, there are many worse ways to wile away one's time.


NEXT REVIEW: Accepted (2006)