Fancy a slice of Hollywood on the banks of Rome's Tiber

What could be more melancholic, extravagant, alienated, operatic and deeply strange than Italian film? Try turning Italian film into a theme park, writes Christine Smallwood.
Fancy a slice of Hollywood on the banks of Rome's Tiber

If you had asked me before I visited Rome to free-associate off the phrase ‘Italian cinema’, I probably would have said something like, “Antonioni-Fellini-Bicycle Thief-little boys-poverty-whore-mother-sex-women’s mustaches-death.”

As the great-grand-daughter of Sicilians, jokes about women’s mustaches are something I really can’t get enough of. I might have further said, thinking of Fellini, that Italian cinema is a cinema of extravagance and fantasy.

I might have added, thinking of Pietro Germi, that Italian families are lunatic asylums of which, if they are lucky, the patients will one day become the wardens.

I might have further added, thinking of Antonioni, that brooding and alienation and despair are attempts to remake that oppressive familial reality.

I might have finally added, remembering Visconti, that the Italians’ imagining of southern Italy as a polluted backwater of mustaches lost in time gave rise to fascinating experiments with depth of field.

Many of these associations have to do with Cinecittà, Rome’s most famous film studio. Before Mussolini founded Cinecittà in 1937, 80% of movies screened in Italy were American. Between 1937 and 1943, the studio produced 279 films (nearly half of which were comedies, perhaps because Il Duce was a known fan of Laurel and Hardy), but after the war, production ceased; the Germans looted the equipment and the studio was used to house refugees.

By the early 1950s, American dollars were back. It was cheap to shoot in Italy, and the location was divine: perfect golden light, a short drive to the sea. Besides, it was fun to work in Rome. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton flaunted their affair up and down Via Veneto.

Alongside the Americans, of course, worked Italy’s most famous directors. These were the glorious decades of Italian filmmaking — of Rossellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Visconti, Leone, Pasolini and Fellini, who kept an apartment at Cinecittà.

The sheer size of the studio — 86 acres, piazzas and offices and postproduction facilities and a huge backlot to hold thousands of extras — made it perfect for lavish dreamscapes like La Dolce Vita as well as big-budget spectacles like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra.

Until the spaghetti western took over, Cinecittà also churned out peplum, swords-and-sandals epics that were operatic spectacles of wide-screen heroism and full-colour romance. They starred bodybuilders and were big at the drive-in.

Extravagance, of course, is what Italy is all about. Extravagance is the Roman Empire and Berlusconi’s bunga bungas and the fashion industry and the papacy. Extravagance is taking all of August off when your country is in a recession. Extravagance is also what Cinecittà, at its height, was all about.

Perhaps the greatest homage to Cinecittà comes in Godard’s Contempt, which came out in 1963. Early in that movie, a French screenwriter named Paul arrives at Cinecittà for a meeting with an American producer.

The American, whose name is Jerry, is financing a film version of The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang, who plays himself. Cinecittà, which should be a bustle of set-building and prop-mastering and principals in blue eye shadow, is desolate.

“What’s going on?” Paul asks the producer’s assistant, a girl in a mustard-coloured sweater.

“Jerry fired nearly everybody,” she says. “Italian cinema is in trouble.”

One of the jokes here — that Italian cinema couldn’t survive without an almighty chequebook — isn’t funny anymore. The studio has been largely privatised — the state owns only a 20% share, plus the land and facilities — and operates at a fraction of its former pace.

A few years ago, Cinecittà’s owners decided that the studio’s legacy was more lucrative than investing in the studio itself.

So they did the sensible thing: They announced plans to open a luxury compound on the Cinecittà lot and to build a theme park, Cinecittà World, about 30 minutes from Rome’s centre. Three months of protests and picketing followed; three workers went on hunger strike. Cinecittà employees feared that Cinecittà World foretold the end of studio production and, with it, their livelihoods.

The problem was that by building a monument to something that wasn’t actually dead, people got the idea that it was. There’s a fine line between celebrating a legacy and burying it alive.

One overcast morning this past August, I waited in the shadow of Temple of Moloch for the gates of Cinecittà World to open. As the minutes passed, a crowd of perhaps 100 Italians amassed, all taking pictures of each other. At the stroke of 10, grey fog spumed across the turnstiles.

We scanned our tickets beneath the monster’s jagged teeth and crossed over to an old-timey set of New York City.

An empty stage loomed, suggestively, at the end of the block. Moments later, gunshots popped and men in trench coats scuttled from doorway to doorway. Music blared. Everyone was taking pictures of everything.

A small gaggle of high ponytails and broad chests bounded onstage, stretching and smiling as Pamela Lacerenza, a contestant on the first season of The Voice of Italy, sang triumphantly into a microphone. The song went something like “Cinecittà World, I love Cinecittà World, Cinecittà World, yeah!”

To a certain sensibility, such a scene represents a nightmare of existential alienation. Imagine how Antonioni would shoot it: overcast skies, barren fairground, rides that no one is lined up for.

Now imagine what Dino Risi would do: kerchiefed nonnas doing the twist, bachelors leering at any leg in sight. The truth is that my day at Cinecittà World wasn’t like either. It was more mundane.

It was like this one reel that Cinecittà made to advertise itself in the 1930s, in which a gust of wind blows down the set walls and four actresses who had been sipping afternoon tea out of china cups suddenly find themselves in the middle of an unremarkable empty field with the fallen remnants of their make-believe world lying inert around them.

I wandered. Tucked next to the kids’ zone, at a long tent, a woman was holding a clipboard with one hand and handing out olive-green helmets with the other. She explained to me, mostly with gestures, that this was Aquila IV, a World War II-themed attraction. Ah, I said to myself.

This must be a ride based on a classic Italian war film that I have never seen! How interesting! I took a helmet and joined the group inside what turned out to be a submarine.

An actor in a white T-shirt and a shaved head shuffled us into a line and yelled, ordering us to bend over and touch our toes: “Up. Down. Up. Down. Faster!”

We were naval recruits. We moved through the submarine, and in each hold, a new scene unfolded. We marched. I was commanded to turn a wheel. “Faster, faster!” We said, “Sì, signore.” At the end, the captain shook a toilet-paper roll in our faces. Something had happened in the bathroom.

I was confused. Was the purpose of this attraction to pretend to be a member of the Italian navy in World War II? This seemed an unfestive and politically unpalatable activity for a family park.

It wasn’t something that the Germans would do, for example. It wasn’t until I met up with my guide, Cynthia, that I got an explanation. Aquila IV is indeed a World War II attraction, but the point is not for guests to imagine themselves as fascist seamen.

The Aquila IV submarine is from the set of U-571 (2000), an American movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Jon Bon Jovi, which was filmed at Cinecittà.

Aquila IV is an exception. By and large, most of the attractions and rides of Cinecittà World don’t directly reference specific films. There’s no “Rome Open City” reenactment, no “8 1/2”-themed Tunnel of Love.

This is because Cinecittà doesn’t own the rights to most of the movies that have been shot on its grounds. So unlike Universal Studios, with its Transformers 3-D and Simpsons and E.T. rides, all the attractions at Cinecittà World are generic.

Cynthia used the word “homage” a lot. The drop tower called Erawan, for example, is decorated with a giant elephant. This, she said, is “an homage to Bollywood.”

Most of Cinecittà World’s sets were painstakingly designed by Dante Ferretti, who worked on Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” also filmed at Cinecittá.

Besides a New York set at the park, there’s Ancient Rome, anchored by the Roman Aqueduct and a self-serve cafeteria, and the western-themed “Ennio’s Creek,” named for the composer Ennio Morricone.

Authentic Morricone music plays on that street, but it’s hard to hear over one of those rides often found outside grocery stores, where a kid sits on a horse and spins around while “Dixie” tinkles.

Giulia, a Venetian teenager, was crestfallen at the lack of “spectacles.” She warned me off the show “Audition,” and I took her advice. Instead I attended “Enigma” (the “e” is backwards), the park’s marquee event. Dancers in skintight suits did tricks with giant boxes to a pulsing electronic soundtrack.

A vague plot took shape. We travelled to ancient Rome, the Wild West and outer space. A doll came to life and grew 40 feet tall and sang an aria. A video projection of an elephant charged. “The End?” the screen asked. An actor in a white suit draped a red scarf around his neck and took a seat in a director’s chair, his back to the audience. A man behind me caught the reference. “Fellini,” he murmured, audibly.

“Enigma” had taken place in one of the former studios of megaproducer Dino de Laurentiis. This is because Cinecittà World is located on what used to be the grounds of Cinecittà’s rival, a studio de Laurentiis opened in 1964 called — seriously — Dinocittà. One of the first films shot there was John Huston’s “The Bible,” which called for the construction of five separate arks.

Cinecittà World will close or it won’t; either way, films will continue to be made. And the only place to find movie history will be, as always, at the movies.

The scene at the beginning of “Contempt” continues with the French screenwriter and the girl in the mustard sweater trudging towards the green door of Cinecittà’s Teatro 6. They find Jerry, the American producer, exiting the studio, shielding his eyes against the sun. Jack Palance plays it to high stormy heaven.

He is in a tragic mood. “Only yesterday there were kings here,” he says. “Kings and queens, liars and lovers” — his voice rises to a crescendo now — “all kinds of real human beings” — here it breaks — “feeling all the real human emotions. Yesterday I sold this land. And now they’re gonna build a five- and ten-cent store . . . on this, my lost kingdom!”

“It’s the end of cinema,” the girl translates.

“I think cinema will live on,” Paul says.

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