In Woody Allen's new film, To Rome with Love, he plays a small role as a retired opera director. His character is also, of course, someone with a strong sense of the transience of life and the inevitability of death - what else would you expect from a Woody Allen film?
Jerry is an artist of the avant-garde, and his psychiatrist wife, played with wry, amused detachment by Judy Davis, recalls some of his more unusual decisions: you did Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice, she says; you did Tosca in a phone booth.
As it happens, Allen says on the phone from New York, Jerry's approach is a little closer to home than you might imagine. Four years ago, he directed Puccini's one-act comic work, Gianni Schicchi, for the Los Angeles Opera. ''I was roped into it,'' he says. ''And originally I wanted to do it all as mice. But my art director, Santo Loquasto, said, 'You can't, that would be too tough, the singers won't like it'.''
He told Allen they wouldn't be able to sing in cumbersome costumes. ''I thought it would be funny, with big furniture and mice on stage. It was just a thought. But it was only the sheer commonsense of Santo Loquasto that meant that I didn't do it.''
Instead, he decided to use references to Italian cinema.
To Rome with Love premiered at Cannes this year and opens in Australia next week. Allen, who has taken the opportunity to shoot in Europe since Match Point in 2005, had wanted to make a film in the Eternal City for some time, and the funding came together very quickly. He wrote a script that involved four main plot strands, all from existing ideas that somehow seemed to work in a Roman context. It's a light, generous, buoyant work, more exuberant and comic than last year's Midnight in Paris, the movie that has been his biggest box-office success as a director.
The strands, he says, had various kinds of applications to the location. A story about opera felt right for a culture with a strong opera tradition. ''If I was filming in, say, Belgium, it wouldn't have been as natural a fit.''
A plot line about the tribulations of a newly married couple from a small town who are separated for most of the movie ''is [a] very traditional Italian tale. It could also have been French, it has a Gallic feeling as well, but it doesn't necessarily have a Swedish atmosphere.''
It's a bit different, he says, with another strand, starring Jesse Eisenberg as an architecture student and Alec Baldwin as a famous architect revisiting a part of Rome, that had significance for him in his youth. ''That could have been in the United States, in New York, or in many different cities. You just needed to be in a place where people visited you.''
And a fourth story, with Roberto Benigni as a man who becomes the unwitting focus of a kind of banal yet obsessive reality-TV phenomenon, ''could have played in the United States''.
John, Baldwin's character, an architect who has become celebrated for his shopping malls, is an enigmatic presence in the film, not quite like anyone else. It's not clear if he's a real person or a figure coming into contact with a younger incarnation of himself, or someone who prefigures what Eisenberg's young man, Jack, might become. He's certainly familiar with the emotional dilemmas Jack is experiencing, particularly the implications of his attraction to his girlfriend's intense, neurotic best friend (Ellen Page), and he gives him sharp, knowing advice - there are times when he seems to function almost as a kind of unconscious, reproachful self.
The lack of clarity, Allen says, is intentional. Yet he wasn't aware of exactly how it was going to play on screen. When he shot it, it became more ambiguous, ''less clear than I had seen it in my mind's eye. But I thought, 'OK, most people can enjoy this, they can attach whatever interpretation to it that they want'. There are any number of people who will see it the way I saw it, maybe some will see it some other way, because I failed to make it completely lucid. But as long as people were entertained, moment to moment, I thought that was all that really counted.''
To Rome with Love has many scenes with Italian dialogue and a strong core of Italian actors. Allen used an Italian casting director to help find the cast members, although Penelope Cruz - who plays a beautiful, well-connected prostitute who complicates a newlywed couple's life - made her own direct pitch. ''She called me and said, 'You know I speak perfect Italian?' I knew she wanted to be in the movie, and anything she wants, I'm ready to do.''
He also drew, as he has done for decades, on the expertise of casting director Juliet Taylor. ''It's an important relationship,'' he says. ''I'm always in contact with her; it's more than a casting relationship. She comments on my script when I give it to her to read. She's usually the first person who looks at my rough cut and gives me comments, and they are very often helpful.''
Directing in a foreign language, he says, ''is not as hard as you think. I can tell when people are doing a scene, when their emotions are right: the expressions, the body language, the energy. And when you have really great people, like, let's say, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem'' - who starred in Vicky Cristina Barcelona - ''I trust them, they're both very gifted, they're intelligent people, they knew the script. I let them improvise, and I don't speak a word of Spanish and, to this day, I have no idea what they were saying in certain scenes. But it didn't matter, because they were doing the right thing. As long as the emotion was correct, the words didn't mean anything.''
To Rome with Love might be a generous work, but it does have familiar intimations of mortality. Allen draws once again on a notion he used in Stardust Memories, an unfairly maligned work about a movie director struggling with reputation, intention, love and art. It is the condition he gives the name of ''Ozymandias melancholia'', a reference to Shelley's poem. It is ''a phrase I coined, a valid phrase, I feel, that expresses something fundamental that everyone experiences. That sense of futility over accomplishment. That no matter how great you are, how tremendous your stature is in the world during your lifetime, that you die and time passes, and everything is swept away.'' The Shelley reference, he says, clarifies it: ''I can't describe it as clearly any other way.''
He's already in the final phase of editing his next film, shot in San Francisco, which stars Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Peter Sarsgaard. ''I can't imagine any director would not love this stage,'' he says. ''Because you finally get to put your work together and see it, and you get to fix things. You get to make the film come alive. And it's much less strenuous than the shooting. That's day to day, out of doors, early morning, freezing weather, late nights. But editing is done in a comfortable room, you can relax, have coffee, put music in, take music out, experiment. It's an extremely pleasurable process.''
Yet, he adds, ''no film turns out the way you wanted it to''. Allen famously has had complete control over his movies, something he vowed he would ensure, after finding that his 1965 script for What's New Pussycat (directed by Clive Donner) was substantially rejigged by the studio that made it. Despite this, he says, control can only take you so far. ''You realise after two or three films that they are all going to be disappointments to you and you're not going to get what you wanted. This is just the way it is. But in the editing room, you can correct some of your blunders.''
And after this as-yet-unnamed movie, he's ''very ready'' to move on to the next project. ''After writing, casting, shooting, editing, mixing, colour-correcting, I can't wait to get on to the next thing. I have a number of ideas and I'm already starting to speculate a little bit.''
He doesn't yet know where he will shoot. For a man who once thought that New York was the only place he would ever want to make movies, the world has become his stage, and there is every chance it could be outside the US again.
''I've been offered a number of opportunities. Countries invite me to come and make films there all the time.''
After the success of Match Point, and trips to Barcelona and Paris, he's had invitations to ''China, Germany, Israel, countries in South America and Scandinavia. It leads you to paths of thought you might otherwise not have gone down.''
But right now Allen has to go, and it's not exactly a pleasant duty: it's a parent-teacher interview. As someone who had a miserable time at school, he still bears the scars. ''I love my kids and I love that they go to school, that's very important to us, but any time there's a parent activity, I can't bear it. I just do not like to enter a schoolhouse.''