When in Rome: Movies from the Italian Capital

Slide 1: Introduction

To mark the forthcoming release of The American, Focus Features’ hitman movie starring George Clooney which is set in the Italian region of Abruzzo, FilmInFocus has designated Rome, Italy’s capital, as its latest Movie City. The Eternal City, in addition to being one of the oldest and most historically rich metropolises in the world, is a hub for filmmakers who have used it not only as a location but also a character in their movies for over a century. As you will discover in the following slideshow, Rome was the setting for where the most expensive silent movie ever was shot, the inspiration for the Italian neorealist explosion in the 1940s, and a city which directors – from Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini through to Nanni Moretti and Ferzan Özpetek – have relished defining and redefining in their work.

Slide 2: Ben-Hur (1925)

Back in the early days of Hollywood, location shooting was almost unheard of, so it was highly unusual when the Goldwyn Company decided to film the 1925 version of Ben-Hur in Rome. At the time the movie rights were acquired in 1922, the novel by Lew Wallace had become a Broadway hit and the play’s producer Abraham Erlanger sold them to Goldwyn for a king’s ransom, plus a large cut of the profits and creative control of film. This deal led to a disastrous, prolonged and unbelievably expensive production, which began in the Eternal City in 1923 and ended in Hollywood in 1924, after the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (During the filming in Rome, the cast and crew congregated with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who at the time was reworking The Great Gatsby, and his wife, Zelda.) Over the coursed of filming, five directors worked on the movie (including the only credited helmer, Fred Niblo), the original Ben-Hur was replaced by Ramon Navarro, and there were a number of on-set accident, including a horrific crash during the filming of the chariot race. Annoyed by the slow, careful way the riders were treating their horses, Erlanger had offered $100 to the winner of the race; inevitably, there was a crash involving multiple horses, some of whom subsequently died. (The footage, however, was used in the film, and was even recreated for the 1959 remake.) Finally finished in 1925, Ben-Hur played like gangbusters at the box office, but the final $4 million budget (making it the most expensive silent movie ever) and the points deal with Erlanger meant that MGM actually lost money on the film.

Slide 3: Open City (1945)

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City – made in 1944 just after the Nazis had been forced out of Rome – first introduced the world to Italian neorealism. Rossellini, along with co-writers Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidea, utilized the city to great effect in their tale of members of the Italian Resistance living under Nazi occupation. While interior scenes were shot on hastily created studio sets on the Via degli Avignonesi, Rossellini filmed on the streets as much as he could, on the Via Casilina and in the Piazza di Spagna. The scene where partisans protest the arrest of the two of the film’s central characters, Resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Paliero) and Francesco (Francesco Grand-jacquet), the fiancé of the film’s heroine Pina (Anna Magnani), fittingly takes place in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (also known as the Colosseo Quadrato, or “Square Collesseum”), a piece of architecture built by Mussolini to honor him and his fascist beliefs. Open City was released in Rome in September 1945 as the Italy’s capital still bore the scars of war; it went on to film the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival the following year, and was Oscar nominated for Best Screenplay in 1947.

Slide 4: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Another milestone in Italian neorealism, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, continued what Rossellini had started by bringing cinema to the streets of Rome. In his 1948 movie, all of the action takes place in real locations in the city, while the characters played by local non-actors. The plot revolves around Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man who has just got a coveted job putting up posters around the city but is thrown into despair when his bicycle – which is essential to his job – is stolen on the Via del Traforo (just a stone’s throw from where Rossellini shot interiors for Open City). Following a fruitless pursuit of the thief, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) walk the streets of the city – via such landmarks as the Porta Portese flea market and the Stadio Flaminio soccer stadium – on their long quest to get the bicycle back. Despite being rooted in the specificity of its location, De Sica’s story had a transcendent universality, as the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther noted in his 1949 review: “Although he has again set his drama in the streets of Rome and has populated it densely with significant contemporary types, De Sica is concerned here with something which is not confined to Rome nor solely originated by post-war disorder and distress. He is pondering the piteous paradoxes of poverty, no matter where, and the wretched compulsions of sheer self-interest in man's desperate struggle to survive.”

Slide 5: Roman Holiday (1953)

William Wyler was one of about 60 assistant directors working on the disastrous chariot race on the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, so he was no doubt aware of the perils of shooting abroad, far from the familiarities of the Hollywood system. Nevertheless, Wyler decamped to Rome in the early 1950s to make Roman Holiday, a delightful romance starring Audrey Hepburn as a princess who ends up alone and incognito in the Italian capital. Hepburn’s princess is taken in by American journalist Gregory Peck, and the two fall in love as he shows her around the city, providing a perfect opportunity for Wyler to show the city and all its tourist attractions. The two travel around on Peck’s Vespa, visiting the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Tiber, the Colosseum, and La bocca della verità, the “Mouth of Truth,” a marble statue of a face that, according to legend, bites off the hands of liars. (There, Peck pretends to have lost his hand, causing Hepburn to scream; her fright was real, as he hadn’t warned her about the gag.) The huge success of the movie not only paved the way for Wyler to return to Rome later in the decade to shoot his own version of Ben-Hur, but started Hollywood’s love affair with Rome. The very next year, Three Coins in a Fountain once again showed audiences that Rome was a city of love, while over the years films like Gidget Goes to Rome, Only You and When in Rome have only reinforced that image.

Slide 6: La Dolce Vita (1960)

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita captures Rome at a moment when the Eternal City was embracing a new metropolitan modernity; the film opens with a helicopter flying over a Roman aqueduct, carrying a statue of Christ to the Vatican, but focuses on the decadence of the new generation of Roman residents. Fellini’s movie vividly depicts Rome and its nightlife, memorably capturing the romance between jaded journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) and film star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). “Rome is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” said A.O. Scott in a recent video piece on La Dolce Vita for the New York Times, “but it has never looked better than in the black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Otello Martelli.” The irony is that much of the Rome we see on screen was not the city itself, but detailed sets recreated in Cinecittà, Rome’s great movie studio. Even famous locations, such as the bustling Via Venteto and St. Peter’s Basilica, were seemingly cheaper or easier to fake than shoot for real. What was certainly not faked was the film’s iconic sequence in which Ekberg and Mastroianni wade into the Trevi Fountain: the scene was shot in the winter and Ekberg (a tough Swede) stood in the freezing water in her sopping dress without complaint, though apparently Mastroianni required a wetsuit under his suit to keep out the cold.

Slide 7: Accattone (1961)

When Pier Paolo Pasolini made his debut as a film director with Accattone in 1961, he had already made a splash with two controversial but successful novels, Ragazzi di vita (Rent boys) and Una Vita Violenta(A Violent Life), and had co-scripted Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. His novels had presented an unvarnished depiction of the lives of criminals in the borgate (or shanty towns) on the outskirts of Rome, and he now returned to this world in Accattone. The film is a portrait of the life of the eponymous antihero, a pimp and beggar, and is partly set in Pigneto (where Anna Magnani’s Pina lived in Open City), an area described by Pasolini as “the crown of thorns that surrounds the city of God.” In both Accattone and Mamma Roma, his 1962 sophomore feature, Pasolini showed the other side of Roman life in the impoverished suburbs of the great city. “Having lived close to one of the borgate when he first arrived in Rome in the early 1950s,” writes Gino Moliterno at Senses of Cinema, “Pasolini had become fascinated with a world which he saw as pre-industrial and almost primordial, a world still enveloped in an epic-mythical dimension, a world marginalised and left behind by history and progress but thus one of the few environments still resistant to the blandishments of the neo-capitalist consumer culture which Pasolini sensed was rapidly bringing about a complete “anthropological transformation” of Italy through a destruction of its traditional peasant-based culture.”

Slide 8: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In 1970, 30-year-old film critic and screenwriter Dario Argento directed his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and transformed the streets of Rome into the setting for a new, compelling form of horror film. Argento’s work is referred to as giallo filmmaking, a term that describes a stylish horror or psychological thriller employing bold colors, graphic violence, nudity, striking music, and elements of melodrama and Grand Guignol. (Ironically, the word is not used by Italians, who simply call these films “thrillers.”) The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American expat writer living in Rome who is struggling with writer’s block and considering leaving the city when he witnesses a man in black leather attacking a woman in an art gallery. Sam is prevented from leaving town by the police, who believe the assailant he saw is a serial killer, and soon finds that he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are the ripper’s next targets. Argento’s use of Rome was, as Roger Ebert  explains, specifically designed to show the audience less than they will be comfortable with: “We keep following the hero into dark rooms, dark alleys, dark parks, dark corridors and dark basements. And that makes us very uneasy.” Shot at the Incir De Paolis Studios (now simply called Studios) in the Portonaccio quarter of the city, the movie also has a major plot point which revolves around the city’s zoo, where the titular bird resides.

Slide 9: Caro Diario (1993)

Acclaimed Italian auteur Nanni Moretti broke through as a force in international cinema when he won Palme D’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival for his documentary-style triptych Caro Diario (Dear Diary), a movie in which he appears as (a version of) himself. The first and third of the film’s chapters are set in Rome (the middle section takes place in the Aeolian Islands), but the first, entitled “On My Vespa,” showcases Moretti’s home city particularly vividly. In it, Moretti zips around a relatively empty Rome on his scooter – everybody is out of town on their summer vacation – going through the neighborhoods of Garbatella, Casalpalocco and Spinaceto. Filled with Moretti’s musings, this section is also about cinema and cinema-going: Moretti goes to the movies a number of times, including Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film he dislikes so much that he personally tracks down the critic who recommended it, and bumps into Jennifer Beals just after he’s been thinking about Flashdance. The segment ends with Moretti’s pilgrimage to Ostia, an area on the outskirts of the city, and the now-overgrown field where Pier Paolo Pasolini (a kindred spirit of the similarly nonconformist Moretti) was assassinated in 1975. “Oddly, he never states why he wants to visit the site, or what he thinks or learns there; we simply regard the killing ground, and think our own thoughts,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the film.

Slide 10: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Rome, just like many other cities in the Mediterranean, is a playground for the rich, so it’s not surprising that it plays a significant part in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first novel about high society con man and killer Tom Ripley. In Highsmith’s book, Ripley expresses just how important Rome is in terms of how he wants to be seen by people: “Rome was chic. Rome was part of his new life. He wanted to be able to say in Majorca or Athens or Cairo or wherever he was: ‘Yes, I live in Rome. I keep an apartment there.’ ” In Minghella’s movie, the first scene in Rome takes place in the Piazza Navona, by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, while Matt Damon’s Ripley – after killing Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and then assuming his identity – returns to the city and stays at the St Regis Grand Hotel and then an apartment in the Palazzo Costaguti. The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was also partly shot at Cinecittà Studios, additionally features a scene at Café Dinelli in the Piazza Di Spagna, where Ripley engineers a meeting between Meredith (Cate Blanchett), Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport).

Slide 11: Facing Windows (2003)

Turkish-born director Ferzan Özpetek went to study at La Sapienza University in Rome in 1977, and from that point on the city has been his home. Since 1997, when he made his directorial debut with Hamam (aka Steam: the Turkish Bath), it has also been the setting for his movies. One of his most successful was 2003’s Facing Windows, a story about a couple, Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Filippo (Filippo Nigro), whose marriage is on the rocks who encounter an old homeless man with amnesia (Massimo Girotti) on the Ponte Sisto (a 15th Century bridge spanning the Tiber), and decide to take him in. For Özpetek, the locations are a very important aspect of Facing Windows, with the most significant of these being the former Roman Ghetto a segregated area set aside for Jews where Simone, the old man, once lived. “I am fascinatedby these places, the Ghetto, Donna Olimpia, Testaccio, and by their past and the joys and sorrows they’ve witnessed,” Özpetek said in an interview. “The walls of ancient cities like Rome are impregnated with memories and this has been a strong influence on the script.”

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