Moviemaker Magazine
Spring 2004

Cinema city: Rome’s eternal appeal
The "Hollywood on the Tiber" survives bombs, near-bankruptcy and blockbusters with bella figura





Ben Hur’s chariot rumbled here. Anita Ekberg’s little black dress wicked the waters of the Trevi Fountain. Neo-realism rose and fell like the Empire itself, forever imprinting Western culture. Rome – the Eternal City – continues its passionate affair with film, both on stunning city sets and in its legendary studio.

Cinecittà (pronounced chee-nay chee-TAH) means "cinema city" in Italian. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini founded the lot in 1937, aping Hitler’s über-efficient propaganda and Stalin’s movie machine.

The bombed-out studio shut in 1945, forcing directors onto the mean streets. Roberto Rossellini evoked Rome’s rags and Resistance in Open City (Roma Città Aperta). Shooting with natural light, salvaged film stock, amateur actors and a $20,000 budget, he created a landmark of cinéma vérité – and inspired neo-realism (aka The Italian School). Luchino Visconti's Obsession (Ossessione) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Bicicletti) further defined this movement, which lasted roughly 14 years.

The government began squashing left-leaning productions in the 1950s. Gritty truths gave way to gloss, earning Cinecittà the nickname "Hollywood on the Tiber". The budget studio fostered American feature films like Roman Holiday, The Quiet American, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis? and The Pink Panther.

Elizabeth Taylor first met her great love, Richard Burton, while filming Cleopatra here. And the world learned what to call the photographers pursuing the pair – paparazzi – thanks to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

The director captured many of the Eternal City’s most enduring cinematic images, including Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni drenched and clenched in the Trevi Fountain, and the fatuous fabulousness of the Via Veneto. He shunned locations and constructed lavish foam copies of monuments, including St Peter’s cupola, on the lot (Soundstage Five, Europe’s largest, was his preferred workspace for four decades). He considered the studio a temple of dreams: "For me, every journey starts and ends at the studios of Cinecittà ... It’s my ideal world, the cosmic space before the Big Bang".

Fellini wasn’t the only director seduced by this silver-screen siren. His compatriots include Michelangelo Antonioni (The Eclipse), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor), Peter Greenaway (Belly of an Architect), Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The 120 Days of Sodom), Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchuasen), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part III), Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Nanni Moretti (Dear Diary), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), Julie Taymor (Titus), Gus Van San (My Own Private Idaho), and Mel Gibson (The Passion of Christ).

Small wonder: Cinecittà claims to be the largest filmmaking facility on the European continent (in fact, "second only to Hollywood"). The 99-acre complex hosts pre- to post-production facilities on one lot, plus a 2000-year-old aqueduct and a 2000-AD shopping mall. The world-renowned craftsmen here have built St. Peters in 23 days (The Order) and Jerusalem in 17 more (The Passion of Christ).

Anthony Minghella reports that "the quality of the work and the quality of the crews and the entirely unearned sense of being part of the great Italian cinema makes Cinecittà irresistible." Martin Scorsese agrees: "Cinecittà has a special magic because of all the great films that have been made there. For the many years that I had been thinking about Gangs of New York, I always imagined it would be created with the Italian artistry that I saw and experienced growing up ... The sense of the place and the history and the spirit of it was inspiring and humbling."

Despite its current vogue – especially among American moviemakers – Cinecittà nearly lost the plot at the millennium’s end. In 1997, the government sold the ailing studio to private companies, captained by Diego Della Valle, who runs JP Tod’s, the Italian shoe company. A $25m infusion attracted Gangs of New York and Gibson’s Passion, but the studio only earned $3m last year. Big hopes lie with special-effects technology, pay-per-view television and a proposed Cinecittà theme park. Plus the lure of fine dining, as Carole Andrè-Smith, the studio’s director of international marketing, joked in the New York Times.

Gourmands and heavy-hitters aren’t the only ones drawn to Rome. Smaller productions honor the guerilla approach of neo-realism, working on location among the jumbled ruins of antiquity, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and modernity.

The Italians’ casual and carefree approach leads to humorous moments, according to experimental filmmakers. For The Lord and the Pork Barrel, director Vanalyne Green recalls"shooting in the Largo Argentina [an archaeological site] and realising that I was essentially walking in one gigantic cat litter box – just one big urine and faeces swamp! I had to throw away my shoes after I got home. I loved the kitties, though."

Dara Friedman gained an all-access pass to the zoo. "I wanted to film animals by candlelight – sort of a Caravaggio exercise," she explains. "Basically I could go into any enclosure I dared with a candle and my Éclair, totally unsupervised, in the pitch dark. I’m pretty chicken, so I stuck to the petting zoo, but the pig was very, very big and the donkey nippy."

She spent months exploring other animal instincts: couples courting on the Gianicolo Hill. "I felt like a bird watcher filming a nature program. The degree of unselfconscious, unscripted PDA was magnificent," Friedman says. The Miami-based video artist sometimes concealed camera gear in her newborn’s baby carriage, while capturing smoochers on the scenic overlook for Romance (2001).

"There’s loads of great analog film equipment still kicking around in Rome, but it’s also high tech. The depth and range of services is really great and, of course, everyone and everything is photogenic," she enthuses. On the downside: "No Production Guide exists in Rome, so I had to collect information by word of mouth. That’s tricky when language is a problem."

Locals, however, count on the "language of love" to carry the day. Mayor Walter Veltroni writes that "the city’s sceneries have inspired Roman directors: Rossellini, Scola, Moretti and Muccino, for one. But also directors who did not live in Rome felt the magic of these settings … This feeling of love between Rome and the seventh art did not fade with time.

"On the contrary, as in all true love stories – in which both partners keep improving and helping each other – Rome contributed to the great success of Italian motion pictures all over the world. And our cinema made the Eternal City universally known from a decidedly new and very different angle from the usual stereotypes."

Martin Scorsese says:
"The sense of the place
and the history and
the spirit of it was
inspiring and humbling."

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