For the American directors who flocked there, Italy's Cinecitta was the place where Artistic Dreams Came True. A look at the studio's legendary history and auspicious future.

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated October 04, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

The name Cinecitta means ”City of Cinema.” But ever since this fabled Italian movie studio opened its wrought-iron gates 65 years ago, it has spawned so many legends that simple translation doesn’t begin to tell the story. The first American directors to make epic pilgrimages to this sprawling stucco complex on the outskirts of Rome in the early ’50s called it Hollywood on the Tiber. But for their leading men and women, it was more like a Roman-holiday playground. And to a few unlucky producers, Cinecitta became synonymous with runaway budgets — a place where lire went up in smoke like clouds drifting out of the Vatican chimney during a papal election. But perhaps Terry Gilliam, who directed The Adventures of Baron Munchausen here in 1987, has managed to sum it up best, calling Cinecitta ”that faded old terra-cotta bitch — seductress of the great, famous, and mad.”

Choose your poison. Call it what you will. Either way, Cinecitta is as much a piece of Hollywood history as the mythic backlots of Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros. It’s where Charlton Heston staged the greatest action sequence ever filmed. It’s where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ignited a tabloid tinderbox as they boozed and brawled in the studio’s dining room. It’s where cool cat Marcello Mastroianni and come-hither Anita Ekberg flirted and frolicked in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. And, thanks to all of the above, it’s where the term paparazzi was coined.

WHITE TELEPHONES AND KITCHEN SINKS

By the mid-’30s, Benito Mussolini looked toward Germany and realized what his Fascist regime in Italy was lacking: a propaganda machine. Il Duce dispatched his son to Hollywood to take notes on America’s dream factories so he could replicate them in Rome. Opened in 1937, Cinecitta remains an architectural jewel frozen in amber from that period. Its 99-acre lot is a fusion of deco Hollywood glitz and Fascist-era minimalism, where its sleek and signature low-slung terra-cotta bungalows are ringed by lush green umbrella-topped pines.

Out of this fashionable setting came fashion-conscious movies. The earliest films — what would later be called Mussolini’s ”white telephone” films — featured ritzy accoutrements (like those telephones) and posh lifestyles few Italians recognized in their own daily experience. But as WWII’s battlefield moved to Italy, Cinecitta was bombed by the Allies from above and looted by Nazis on the ground. By 1944, the studio had stopped film production entirely and was being used as a makeshift refugee camp for Italians fleeing from the south.

Martin Scorsese, who recently spent seven months at the studio filming Gangs of New York, grew up studying the films made at Cinecitta. And he notes how America — intent on punishing Italy for siding with the Nazis during the war — closed the studio down in 1945, forbidding films to be made there. He also points out the irony of that ban, which forced Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica to go into the streets to make films such as Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief. The result was the birth of neorealism, one of the greatest periods of Italian cinema, where Mussolini’s white-telephone escapism was replaced with raw, kitchen-sink truth. Says Scorsese, ”They had no sets and no actors, but they still said, ‘Let’s go shoot! We can still make movies!”’

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