— by Georgeta G — “Cinecittà is a magic word”, famed Italian costume designer and three times Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti once said about the film studios located in southeast Rome. And who can argue? So many great dramas have been enacted at Cinecittà, the cradle of Italian cinema, since its inception almost eight decades ago. A tour of Rome that includes a visit to the legendary studios of Cinecittà, literally meaning The Cinema City, allows one to walk the same ground as many famed directors and beloved big-screen icons.
Cinecittà is the place where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode that scooter during their adventurous Roman Holiday (1953), where Charlton Heston drove a four-horse chariot as Ben-Hur in one of cinema's most famous sequences (1959), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton started their tumultuous liaison while filming Cleopatra (1963), Clint Eastwood brought ponchos back in fashion while masterfully dodging bullets for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), where once upon a time Robert De Niro embodied a Prohibition-era gangster and where, come spring, Ben Stiller will perfect his famous Blue Steel pout in Zoolander 2 (2016). Does that sound exciting enough?
In fact, with such a remarkable parade of names, one would be forgiven for thinking this is Hollywood we are talking about. And that wouldn’t be too far from the truth, as in its heyday, between 1950s and 1960s, Cinecittà was dubbed Hollywood on the Tiber due to the large number of international productions being made there. Tiber, or Tevere, in Italian, is a major river that runs through Rome. For the Italians though, this is the place where the history of Italian cinema was written, through the genius of legendary directors Federico Fellini, Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Sergio Leone and many more; and the grace of Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni, among many others.
But Cinecittà’s beginnings could not be more remote from the glamour of Hollywood, be it that on the Tiber. The studios were founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937, with the purpose of boosting home-grown film production and promoting the fascist ideals of the day through cinema. “Il cinema è l’arma più forte” the Italian dictator famously said, which roughly translates to “cinema is the mightiest weapon”. Within six years, more than 300 films had been made at the studios, which were designed as a complete centre of production. After the fall of the fascist regime the Italian Neorealism movement gained speed and its most prominent exponents, Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, De Santi and others made here their landmark films, ushering in the The Golden Age of Italian Cinema. However, some of those movies were made on the streets of Rome, often with amateur actors, as Cinecittà was subjected to Allied bombing and later, for two years after the end of World War I served as a displaced persons’ camp.
Nevertheless, Cinecittà’s power to bring stories to life has inspired a lifelong fascination with the studios. “First time I came to Cinecittà, I was thirteen years old: when they opened the gate, it was like stepping through the door of the dream factory” Sergio Leone, largely credited as the creator of the Spaghetti Western genre, once reflected. Federico Fellini, who shot almost all of his films at Cinecittà, including his influential classic 8½ (1963), confessed to having developed a certain “psychological affinity” with the studios. There, “one can breathe the mysterious process of creation”, Fellini said of Cinecittà’s atmosphere. His most revered film, La Dolce Vita (1960), which he wrote and directed, is still considered one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time.
By the 1950s, Cinecittà had become very attractive to American production companies in search of cheaper production costs, qualified workforce and eternally blue skies. Kind of ironic, considering that only a decade prior the fascist regime had banned all English words from the Italian language! Starting with the epic Quo Vadis? (1951) and romantic comedy Roman Holiday, shot two years later, Hollywood stars began descending on the city on the Tiber. Hollywood’s love affair with its European twin, already at the time the largest European film studios, continued successfully for over a decade, but, as all great liaisons, eventually weakened. The last big production shot at Cinecittà, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), saw Dante Ferretti design sets reproducing 19th-century New York which included a five-block area of Lower Manhattan and a section of the East River waterfront. More recently, Wes Anderson shot his 2004 homage to French diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou almost entirely at Cinecittà studios. But, by the looks of it, a revival might just be on its way, and Cinecittà has shown it can rise from its own ashes - quite literally sometimes - as for instance, after the 2007 fire which destroyed a part of the studios.
The Cinecittà studios, located on Via Tuscolana, no. 1055, can be visited everyday, except for Tuesdays. Currently Cinecittà offers two group tours: the first has a duration of approximately one hour and includes a visit to Teatro 5, Fellini’s favourite studio, a place Fellini called his “home”; the second one, with a duration of at least two hours, gives access to the iconic sets of the Oscar-nominated Gangs of New York.
A Rome Tour that includes a stop by Cinecittà is bound to add to your experience a whole new dimension. Surely, you’re up for something special, especially if you’re a film lover. Now, it’s quite likely you won’t love it just as much as Fellini, who famously said: “when I’m asked what is the city I would prefer to live in and they tell me about London, Paris, Rome… I say, in the end, if I have to be honest, Cinecittà”. But do squeeze in a tour of Cinecittà between your tour of the Colosseum and a tour of the Vatican, (as they’re both on the same metro line, A, identifiable by the colour orange) for it will make your Rome experience even more enjoyable.