The entrance to Cinecittà, nine kilometers outside the city center along Via Tuscolana, remains the original one, characterized (and dated) by the rounded architectural lines typical of the twenty year Fascist period. Beyond this entrance lies a mythical place, a happy invention all the way down to its name, which literally means “Cinema city” and is one of the few successful neologisms in Italian –a language that doesn’t much lend itself to lexical novelty. Once upon a time you got there by the “local” tram; the last part of its route ran through open countryside, with ancient aqueducts, the bluish profile of the distant hills, and a few flocks of sheep happily grazing and providing colorful scenery. In his 1987 film Intervista, Federico Fellini described the brief journey and the tram’s arrival at the end of the line in the middle of the countryside: “I was a little disappointed when I saw the long perimeter walls and those reddish, barrack- line buildings. They looked like some kind of hospital or hospice”. According to legend, on filming days the great comedian Totò arrived extremely early at Cinecittà; one morning he arrived so early that the studio gates were still locked. Seeing him pacing outside the door, the watchman hurried over, yelling: “I’m coming, Totò”. The actor wasn’t at all pleased, and replied: “I insist that you call me Prince.” Antonio De Curtis, better known as Totò on the screen, naively expected throughout his life that he had the right to be addressed as “Imperial Highness”; he was, after all, a descendant of the Byzantine throne and its royal emperors. Over time he added aristocratic and imperial names to his own, including Gagliardi, Griffo, Focas, and Comneno. In this case, however, it was the watchman who had the last word, as he promptly shot back. “There are lots of princes, but only one Totò”. The rebuttal was satisfactory, and from then on the clever watchman was allowed to call him Totò.
The Roman movie studios were a Fascist creation. In September of 1935, Cines, the old production studio on Via Veio, in the neighborhood of San Giovanni, burned down. In those same years the political importance of cinema was becoming clear, in addition to its creative and economic potential. The fire on Via Veio provided the needed impetus, and an area of about 124 acres on Via Tuscolana was set aside for the new Città del Cinema (Cinema City). Its construction was a miracle of efficiency: the foundation stone was laid on January 26, 1936, and the whole complex was inaugurated fifteen months later, on April 28, 1937, even though not all of its departments were completed. Mussolini was able to claim with pride “The cinema is our strongest weapon”. The dictator had made radio and cinema the two most powerful propaganda tools for reaching the broadest masses, and the people responded: in 1941, 424 million cinema tickets were sold – every Italian, the elderly and children included, went to the movies at least ten times that year, on average. The importance of controlling television now is just an extension of this earlier phenomenon.
In 1937 nineteen films were produced at Cinecittà, the most famous being Mario Bonnard’s Il Feroce Saladino (The Ferocious Saladin), starring Angelo Muscio and inspired by a revealing social phenomenon of the day – the dogged hunt for the figurines found in packages of Buitoni and Perugina products. Saladin marked the debut of actress Alida Valli, and a bit part of a few one-liners was given to a promising young man, Alberto Sordi, unrecognizable in his lion-skin disguise. There were 48 films made in 1940, and fifty nine in 1942 despite the terrible war. In October of that year the English launched their offensive against El Alamein, which fell despite the heroic Italian resistance. That defeat was the prelude to the collapse of the entire African front. The best directors worked at Cinecittà in those years. The thing we want to explain here is how important it was for the city of Rome to be home to one of the most important movie studios in Europe.
It can easily be said that the attraction between Rome and film-makers was a mutual one. It was a reciprocal influence – the movie business changed the city and vice versa. The capital empowered Italian directors to make films true to the times both in the most obvious sense (war movies in times of war, fascist films in the fascist period) as well as in a more profound way. They were able, for example, to gather and transform on-screen certain aspects, moods, and needs, making them into stories and thereby elevating them to national characteristics. The period films of Alessandro Blasetti – La Corona di ferro (Iron Crown), La cena delle beffe (Dinner of Fools) – were the silver- screen equivalents of those neo-Gothic fantasies so common at the beginning of the twentieth century and which had such an impact on literature, theater and architecture. The following decade commedia all’italiana, the so-called Italian style comedies of the 1960s, reflected the widespread sense of well-being, as well as the first symptoms of change in the tradition and moral tenor that accompanied the seemingly sudden and unprecedented postwar prosperity. As for the present day, the small, intimate stories of current Italian cinema demonstrate on the one hand a refusal to compete with the immense productions of the American movie business, and on the other hand attest to the rediscovery of the sentiment and the personal, private world.
In the shattered, poverty-stricken Italy of the late 1940s and early 1950s, return to normalcy was slow. And yet the cinema, like so many other sectors of the national economy, experienced and explosion of vitality. It was as if the richness of talent and the desire to tell a story had been strengthened by the country’s distress. If we can talk of “neo-realism” film shot in the streets with actors often take from the streets, it’s due at least in part to the unavailability of the studios at Cinecittà; movies had to be made what there was – the impoverished reality of an Italy crushed by war. There are also many great films of that period in which Cinecittà tells its own story, and thsu the making of cinema became cinema in itself. Consider Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, starring Anna Magnani as the nurse Maddalena Cecconi, in which the famous director Alessandro Blasetti, playing himself, seeks a young girl to cast in a film. Maddalena makes every possible sacrifice, personal and economic, to get the daughter, Maria, into the audition. Upon succeeding, she secretly goes to watch her daughter’s screen test being projected, and as Maria sobs with fright on-screen the film crew mockingly looks on. In the end the girl gets the part, but, in a surprising display of dignity, Maddalena refuses the contract she’d struggled so hard to get. The movie would’ve been little more than a nineteenth-century throwback (it was made in 1951) were it not for Magnani’s powerful performance and film’s foresight into the seductive power of spectacles. Television arrived three years later, and packs of girls and their mothers would come to sacrifice all their dignity just to be able to participate, no matter how marginally, in the media dream.
If Cinecittà had been built in Turin or Milan, Italian Cinema, even with the same directors, would have been completely different. The city provided a unique mixture of kindness, wiliness, and cynicism, and its citizens had a great talent, however fraudulent, for improvisation. The Americans took care of redoubling our illusions and choosing Cinecittà for several Pharaonic productions set, for the most part in ancient Rome. The war was just over, the first true general elections were held on April 18, 1948, and at the same time the great stars of Hollywood were descending on the hotels of Via Veneto, the residences of Parioli, and villas along the Appia Antica. They passed through Rome in multitudes throughout the fifties: Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov and Ava Gardner, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Katharine Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, and Frank Sinatra. Clarck Gable came too, though he’d already seen Rome as a machine gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress during the bombing of July 19, 1943.
A law made it impossible for the profits earned by American film producers to be exported from Italy. The only real choice, then, was to reinvest on the spot in new films. This increased both the opportunity for work and the demand for films set in ancient Rome. Quo Vadis? (Where do you go?) was made in 1951; it was adapted from the famous novel by Henry Sienkiewicz (winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 1905). This film, with its bland sensuality and happy ending, was the official beginning of a type that would soon have Charlton Heston driving a team of four horses in Ben Hur, Elizabeth Taylor reincarnated as Cleoptara in the film of the same name (an immense production with 26.000 costumes alone), Gordon Scott burning his hand in the role of Muzio Scevola, Richard Harrison cutting a magnificent figure in the Invincible Gladiator, and Jack Palance providing the face and muscles for Revak in The Barbarians.
And what about Rome – the real Rome, the one inhabited by Romans – how did it react to this flood? From an economic point of view, the monies these American productions invested made work for several thousand people including workmen, technicians and extras. They were massive operations, and each film needed thousands of extras. Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler, had a cast of four hundred people and cost fifteen million dollar (in 1958!). 120 horses were bought in Yugoslavia for the chariot race, a scene that cost a million dollars alone to shoot. The director of the second unit was a young Italian named Sergio Leone (Lion Serge in English), later famous for his spaghetti western that launched the career of Clint Eastwood. Wyler won an Oscar, and the film swept up a total of eleven Academy Awards. Beyond their economic impact, these sword-and-sandal films created and helped diffuse an image of Rome around the globe, and contributed to its comeback as a great tourist destination.
William Wyler cast Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn as the stars of a delightful romance in his 1953 Roman Holiday. It was just syrupy enough, and used all the capital’s most famous places as a backdrop. The two lovers, aboard a Vespa, visit and admire all the sites – with Audrey as the amazed princess-in-hiding, and Peck playing the sweetly pedagogical tour guide. For years afterwards the number of American tourists increased, just as it would later with the release of La Dolce Vita (The sweet life). As obliging as the images of the capital in Roman Holiday, they were essentially false, as are most images in romantic fables. And yet Wyler was able to show Roman ruins as the really were, as true, solid stone. The remaking of Ancient Rome focused on its most popular symbol, the Coliseum. Millions of people, and not just Americans, learned to see it as the classical monument par excellence, with its ancient, weathered arches worn away by time, battered by fires, and scarred by other vicissitudes. It became the icon of the city, just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Part two of this story soon on this blog.
You might be interested to read also:
- Bread and Circuses – about the making of the Colosseum