Cinecittà... seductress of the great, famous and mad.
I think I must have been one of the latter, for she welcomed me in,
embracing me with a warm Cheshire Cat smile.


- Terry Gilliam -


Just a few kilometers off the centre of Rome lies Cinecittà, the greatest european film studio, where the sound of Ben Hur's chariot and the laughter of Fellini still echo. It has created legends and illusions, and has been a haven for cineasts for now more than half a century. Interestingly, just as films reflect an underlying reality, Cinecittà's history and turmoils have allways been closely tied to those of Italy's.


The Birth of Cinecittà : Duce e Luce

The studios were built in 1937 under the orders of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, with the intention of promoting Italy and the current fascist ideals through cinema. The whole city was designed to be a complete centre of production, from set-building to cinematic post- production. Within six years, almost 300 films had been made at the new studios, most of which were "black films", propaganda-filled documentaries and newsreels produced by L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE). Pro-fascist pictures such as Carmine Gallone's Scipio L'Africano (1937) were used to justify Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and Augusto Genina was hailed the nation's "warrior bard" for features like Lo Squadrone Bianco.

But Mussolini also wished for cinema to be a distraction, to entertain and uphold the consensus, so after The Alfieri Law was implemented to assist and promote home-grown film production, Cinecittà started to produce what were to be called telefoni bianchi or "white telephone" films. As a result of this, half of the Italian features that were produced during the war were lighthearted, amusing pictures. Romantic comedies like Mario Camerini's Il Signor Max (1937) and Mario Mattoli's Ai Vostri Ordini.

Behind all this façade however, the war continued, and in 1943, Italy surrendered and the Germans took over the country. The Nazis looted the studios, which were later subjected to a year of Allied bombing. Finally, in the years between 1945 and 1947, Cinecittà was turned into a refugee camp with its old movie sets being used as elemental housing materials. The difficulties with poverty and identity, combined with the lack of both funding and access to cinematic facilities, resulted in Roman directors taking the streets. Pictures were filmed in the ravaged city's remains and shot in natural light with a non-professional cast. This was the beginning of the cinematic genre known as Italian neorealism which, in itself, was a rejection of the contrived plots and artificial stories of the national cinema established under Mussolini. Italian film-makers started to disassociate themselves from the escapist and rethorical spectacles of the Fascist Era to produce some of cinema's most marvelous works such as Roberto Rossellini's war trilogy: Roma Città aperta ( Rome Open City ) (1945), Paisà (1946) and Germania anno zero (1947) as well as the canonical film of the neorealist period, Vittorio de Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1948).


Post-War Cinecittà : Hollywood sul' Tevere

Despite its International intellectual and cinematic influence, Neo-realism only accounted for a fraction of the pictures made in post-war Italy. In 1949, government officials legislated against films presenting an unfavourable picture of Italian life ( the Andreotti Law ), the ban on foreign films was lifted and subsidies were offered to purveyors of comedies that would appeal to large audiences. The studios thusly begun a production of rose-tinted melodramas which succeeded exceedingly well and, in the mid-fifties, Cinecittà was producing more than 200 movies a year. At that time, a whole new generation of actors and flamboyant divas made their appearance: Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni emerged alongside many American stars in projects that earned Cinecittà the nickname "Hollywood on the Tiber".

Simultaneously in fact, the real Hollywood begun shooting films at the famous Italian Studios once they realized the cost of production and labor were lower in Cinecittà. Popular Sword and sandal movies were the new fad, starting with the release of "Hercules" (1958), starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves. In the same vein, period films were made shortly after, like Mankiewicz's Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra(1963). American audiences grew more receptive to sixties Italian films as well, and directors Sergio Leone and Fellini got International recognition with spaghetti-westerns starring Clint Eastwood and the flamboyant Oscar-winning film La Strada (1954), respectively. Federico Fellini's later film, La Dolce Vita (1960) was also awarded at the Cannes Festival and is often regarded as the quintessential film of 1960's cinema.


For me, every journey starts and ends at the studios of Cinecittà... It's my ideal world, the cosmic space before the Big Bang.

- Federico Fellini -


Despite the so-called "economic miracle", life was not so sweet for most people in Italy, as poverty remained and the threat to liberty posed by terrorism, the mafia, and corruption continued. In the early 1970s begun the era of the so-called "student movement" and the new generation of young film-makers, like Ettore Scola and Pier Paolo Pasolini ( the enfant terrible of Italian cinema) started shooting films which were of a much more political nature. The colonial aspect and the international students riots of the late sixties, were also mirrored in socially provocative films such as Gillo Pontecorvo's La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers).


Cinecittà in the 70's and 80's: Gialli e Gommina

As television turned people away from movie theatres, and political movements took the streets for protest, the films directed in Cinecittà started to acquire a more radical note. While Bernardo Bertolucci examined the legacy of fascism in Il conformista (The Conformist) (1970) and Elio Petri chronicled the class struggle in La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven, 1971), film director Francesco Rosi explored the ramifications of crime and civil unrest in Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses, 1976).

Cult director Dario Argento at the time was highly concentrated on the giallo production of Cinecittà ("giallo" as in yellow, the color of crime novel paperback editions in Italy ). These gialli followed the suspense tradition of detective fiction with added scenes of violence and excess. Later the studios produced more gore-spattering horror films such as Argento's Suspiria (1977) and Lucio Fulci's Zombi II (Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979), both of which were a major influence on the American Nightmare movies of the 1980s.

The influence of television was so great that by the end of the 70's, cinema admissions plunged, and movies filmed at the studios took a new direction, adopting televisual styles with renewed emphasis on close-ups and dialogues. This eventually brought to fame comedians Carlo Verdone and Roberto Benigni who started acting in dialect comedies.


Present day Cinecittà : Il Rinuovo

The studios saw a major upgrade of Cinecittà's facilities and equipment, including the building of Cinecittà Digital and the expansion of the studio's restoration capability. It was still producing around 100 pictures a year when it was declared that Cinecittà was close to bankruptcy at the end of the 1980's. It was subsequently privatized by the Italian government and started hosting TV shows and producing series. Italian cinema struggled in the 1990's but studios survived by filming American big productions such as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" trilogy and many Scorsese movies. One of the city's most recent feature has been HBO's "Rome" which happened to be entirely shot in Cinecittà from 2004-2007. On August 9th 2007 the set caught fire and destroyed a huge part of its surroundings but fortunatly, damage due to the accident was not irreperable.

Today, more than 70 years after its founding, Cinecittà remains a vital working center and the biggest production community outside of Hollywood.




Sources: Cinecittà Studios - http://www.cinecittastudios.it
BFI archives and articles by David Parkinson - http://www.bfi.org.uk/
RAI International - http://www.italica.rai.it/eng/cinema/multimedia/telephones/cinecitta/locandina.htm

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