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Cinecittà: Rome’s Factory of Cinematic Dreams

“For me, Cinecittà has replaced the world”

Federico Fellini

Some call it “the factory of dreams”. Federico Fellini described it as his “ideal place, the cosmic void before the Big Bang”. Through moments of glory, international fame and deep crisis, Cinecittà–the City of Italian Cinema–has shaped the perception of Italy around the world. And like many other modern cultural institutions in this country, its birth is inextricably linked to the political agenda of the fascist regime

It’s the mid-1930s in Italy. Benito Mussolini has been ruling the nation for over a decade. He aims to create an Italian colonial empire and in 1935 invades Ethiopia, a move that results in international alienation and pushes the country even closer to Nazi Germany. At the time, in every Italian movie theater, newsreels–the cinegiornali–present Mussolini as a strong, modern leader, exalting his persona and the fascist agenda. 

“Il Duce”, a lover of cinema, understands this art form’s influence: “Motion pictures are the most powerful weapon” he once proclaimed. Not surprisingly, he likes Italian epics set in Ancient Roman times (e.g. Cabiria, 1914); surprisingly, he enjoys American westerns and the comedic Laurel and Hardy movies. 

In a very anti-autarchic way, he famously loves any film starring American Anita Page, the “girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood”–so much so that he has proposed to the actress several times.   

The idea of creating a state-of-the-art film studios complex just outside the capital, to challenge the influence of the American film industry, shapes up. From the very beginning, Cinecittà was to be the main gear of a war machine which had propaganda as its primary goal. The whole project aimed to affirm Italy on the world stage as a cultural and modern power.

Inspired by Universal Studios Hollywood and built in only 15 months (a record time, considering the international economic sanctions burdening the country), Cinecittà opens in the spring of 1937. Mussolini in person presides over the inauguration, in the presence of a festive crowd. 

The complex is truly innovative. A propagandic newsreel describes it as “a bright affirmation of Italian technology and architecture”. Cinecittà features 73 buildings, including studios, offices, restaurants and even two pools for filming in the water.

Mussolini can now fulfill his obsession of giving back the power of the Ancient Roman Empire to Italy–at least on film. The first Cinecittà production is a blockbuster set during the Third Punic War. Scipione l’Africano (Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal, 1937) employs monumental scenography, 10,000 extras and 2,000 horsemen. The analogy between the Roman general Scipio Africanus, conqueror of the ancient African city of Carthage, and Mussolini, who has recently annexed Ethiopia, makes one cringe.

Scipione L'Africano

The film is a flop. It turns out that Italians are preferential to romantic comedies about wealthy characters living in opulent Art Deco interiors. Often set improbably in Hungary, a conveniently distant place to stage extra-marital affairs, the cinema dei telefoni bianchi (white telephones cinema) becomes the most prominent genre at Cinecittà; La Casa del Peccato (The House of Shame, 1938) is a particularly good example. (White phones, considerably more expensive than the traditional black ones, were powerful status symbols.)

Thanks to protectionist laws and economic incentives, the studios work at full steam for a matter of years, but the magic is soon lost. At the end of WWII, Cinecittà is bombed and partly destroyed. The studios are left abandoned and are subsequently used as a displaced persons camp. 

In the same months as Roberto Rossellini is shooting Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) in the actual streets of the capital, American films, long banned from the regime, are poured back into circulation. Gone with the Wind (1939) arrives in Italy after a six year delay and it’s soon clear Hollywood films are going to overcome the already-struggling Italian movie industry. 

The Italian government, now a Republic, takes action. By law, profits made by foreign film studios in Italy must remain in the country and can only be reinvested in projects that support the national film industry. Faced by the decision between leaving their money in Italian banks or reinvesting it by filming in the country, foreign production companies unsurprisingly opt for the latter. After all, shooting in Italy is low-cost, and Cinecittà’s workers are highly skilled. On top of that, American film stars are encouraged to take up residence in Italy for tax purposes. 

Hollywood begins to move “on the Tiber”: it’s the beginning of a season of unprecedented affluence and glamor for Cinecittà and Rome. The power couple Tyron Power and Linda Christian choose the city to celebrate their wedding in 1949. It’s in Rome that Federico Fellini meets Anita Ekberg; Audrey Hepburn finds her second husband; and Liz Taylor falls in love with Richard Burton (who’ll become her fifth–and sixth!–husband).

The big American productions focus on epic, historical dramas: Quo Vadis (1951); William Wyler’s colossal Ben Hur (1959), whose chariot race sequence famously takes three months to shoot; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), the then most expensive movie ever made with an estimated cost between 31 and 44 million dollars.

The film industry gives work to roughly half of the population of Rome. But it’s a system that isn’t immune to criticisms: Luchino Visconti denounces its rapaciousness in Bellissima (1951), the story of a stage mother ready to do anything to ensure her little daughter a role.

But more than with any other directors, Cinecittà has been associated with Federico Fellini. “With Cinecittà, as with the circus, a kind of identification is attributed to me. Usually it’s a direct responsibility as if I had invented them, as if it were I who put up the tents, who built the studios,” Fellini once stated. 

La Dolce Vita (1960) is mostly filmed inside the studios: Via Veneto, the epicenter of the Roman glam nightlife, is conveniently rebuilt in situ in the famous Studio 5. “For me, Cinecittà has replaced the world,” Fellini stated. “I shoot in the studio to express a subjective reality, purified by contingent realistic elements, which are useless: it’s a selected reality.”

I Vitelloni, Giulietta degli Spiriti, Fellini Satyricon, I clowns, Roma, Amarcord, Casanova, Prova d’Orchestra, La città delle donne, E la nave va: Fellini shoots most of his films at Cinecittà to the point that throughout the 1970s–during a prolonged decline for the studios–the myth of the studios is kept alive almost single-handedly by the director.     

In the meantime, Cinecittà has opened up to TV and commercials. It’s the most obvious way to ensure its survival after the big production companies relocate elsewhere in pursuit of lower-cost locations.

There are a few exceptions: at the end of the 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola shoots the third episode of The Godfather (1990) at Cinecittà. And Martin Scorsese brings back “Hollywood on the Tiber” for his Gangs of New York (2002) at the beginning of the 2000s; Manhattan’s historic Paradise Square, a spot long since gone beneath ritzy high-rises and government buildings, is resurrected in Cinecittà’s studios.

Although considerable, these productions are episodical. The zeitgeist has shifted in favor of TV. During the filming of Scorsese’s movie, a couple of paparazzi are caught loitering around the super secretive set. Interrogated by the production, they confess what they’re really after is to steal some shots of the first Italian Big Brother house which has been built nearby.  

Yet today, Cinecittà is still associated with divas, VIPs and success. The studios are now partially visitable and in 2014 opened an amusement park inspired by their legacy, featuring some original set designs (including the epic Cabiria, 1914).    

Throughout its many incarnations, from propagandic tool to symbol of economic recovery to Roman attraction, Cinecittà has achieved its goal (whether or not in the way Mussolini intended): from award-winning films to cult classics, the studios have spread the prestige of Italy around the world.