The Cinecittà Pentimento Effect: A Firsthand Account
by Martha P. Nochimson

Cinecittà as portrayed in  Nine

Cinecittà as portrayed in Nine

2009 was the seventy-second anniversary of Cinecittà, the famed film studio in Rome. Built at the behest of Benito Mussolini in 1937 for the greater glory of Italian Fascism, Cinecittà was intended to function for his government as a sort of armory of the public imagination. Mussolini’s rationale for governmental underwriting of moviemaking was encapsulated in his slogan, “Il cinema è l’arma più forte” which roughly translates into “movies are the mightiest weapon.” But in a wry twist of fate, from the beginning Cinecittà, and the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, one of the premier European film schools, which Mussolini also instigated, were hotbeds of freethinking cinéastes, such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Ready to rock with neorealist cinema as soon as fascism fell, they did not shoot at the studio but on the streets and riverbanks of Italy. Yet, their landmark cinema may have ironically owed its life to the talent collected in the institutions engendered by Mussolini’s blind ambition

Cinecittà is a mysteriously complex analog to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem in which a traveler narrates the story of finding in the desert the fragments of an oversized statue of an ancient tyrant. On the pedestal of the fallen sculpture, the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!,” comments on the futility of military aggression. Cinecittà as well suggests the absurdity of Mussolini’s grandiosity but also resonates with the other theme of Shelley’s poem, that the despair of dictators is the miraculous hope of art; flowers may thrive where conquest has failed. Indeed, adding insult to injury, immediately after the fascist collapse, Cinecittà housed hundreds of displaced persons, and thus became a shelter for the victims of fascist aggrandizement. Many of the temporary residents were called on as extras in the films of the postwar period. In due course, Cinecittà, specifically its monumental Studio Five, became the turf of Federico Fellini, surfer of dreams, leaving in the dust all traces of Italy’s darkest years, the Ventennio, 1922 to 1943.

In fact, the climax of the typical tour of Cinecittà is a visit to Fellini’s office, moved intact to a more practical site from the top of Studio Five, the largest single soundstage in Europe (there are some which equal its size in combination with other soundstages), where Fellini, the de facto Cinecittà godfather, had established his command post for films like La dolce vita (1960), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and the hallucinatory television studio phantasmagoria, Ginger and Fred (1986). Although it might be expected to have a mausoleum-like aura, the Fellini office resonates vitality. The overstuffed leather chairs and couches seem to await the arrival of the director and his associates. His desk is covered with headshots—not the ones that were there at the time of his death, but representative photos—and seems ready for business. Even though his famous hat and scarf are entombed in a prominently featured glass case, I couldn’t shake the sensation that Fellini would come barreling in at any moment.

On its seventy-second anniversary, Cinecittà sits where it first was built on the suburban fringe of Rome, cars whizzing by outside its gates on the via Tuscolana, the 2007 fire that destroyed 3,000 square meters of sets (out of a total of 400,000 square meters) notwithstanding. Within its gates, low California style bungalows dot the terrain, painted in Italian terracotta instead of American white. Despite its origins in Mussolini’s fevered head, Cinecittà has an air of lightness and could not be less fustian. It is also an ironic inversion of the early influences of Luigi Freddi, Mussolini’s point man in the construction of Cinecittà, whom Carole Andre-Smith, Director of International Marketing and Public Relations, calls its true father. Freddi was as obsessed with modernism as he was with the movies; he meticulously researched the United States and numerous European film capitals to find for the studio the most modern architectural designs and technology available. But Cinecittà has, in important ways, turned its back on Freddi’s modernist preoccupations. Its genius today and throughout its history has been the part it plays in the epic filming of the past and the terrain of the boundless imagination and its unfathomable shapes.

A monument to the studio’s ability to bring the past to life can be found just beyond the bungalows in the massive standing sets of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York(2002). Its “cine-streets” are lined with small, Federal style, nineteenth-century buildings which bear legends of the businesses they house, and even theatrical placards advertising Our Mutual Friend, alluding with historical accuracy to a New York production based on Charles Dickens’s 1865 novel—a slight anachronism since Gangs is set in 1863. The facades are now somewhat dingy; eight years and more have passed since Scorsese brought his brainchild to life on these studio-fabricated cobblestones. But they are ready to be refitted for new productions. As is the neighboring gargantuan “port area” from Gangs, still sporting a huge blue screen behind its two standing vessels and a dockside still dressed with appropriate, if worn, port items: carts, rope, raffia baskets, barrels, and the like. Cattail weeds wave lazily around the stationary boat hulls in an area that Scorsese once filled with water, and the blue screen sags. But it takes no more than a second for the mind to refill this space with a crucial, vivid scene about a third of the way through the film of immigrants pouring from the ships and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis), Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) in tow, feuding with Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), while the Union recruiters waylay the disoriented immigrant men to sign contracts that will catapult them into the Civil War.

Rome is the abode of the double vision, the pentimento of the past bleeding through its present realities in every section of town. The Eternal City. On the Palatine, the Park Avenue of the ancient republic, naked brick structures which once housed the great Roman nobility challenge the visitor to clothe them mentally in the marble, frescoes, and statuary of which they were denuded during years of neglect and conquest. So too, the Forum. So too, Cinecittà: the eternal studio in the Eternal City. Its past is always available just under the surface of new productions in preparation. The action of Gangs of New York plays endlessly in its now empty sets. And just around the corner Fellini’s La dolce vita is, in a manner of speaking, still there, too. Standing across the road from a congregation of technicians drinking coffee from paper cups and consulting clipboards is the model of the statue of the Christ that was suspended from a helicopter in its opening scene. As the workmen confer, the statue whispers to anyone who will listen of Fellini’s cinematic portrait of the pentimento of Rome, its ceaseless adaptations and transformations of ancient structures. Right next to the statue of Christ, murmuring more enigmatically, is a huge metal horse from some saga of ancient Rome. Maybe Ben-Hur (1959)? Cavernous Studio Five yawns silently in the distance, while a half a dozen men in jeans and T-shirts fiddle with some kind of puffy white cotton stuff that is supposed to go into a metal frame. But it is more alive with the stuff of which the dreams of Marcello Mastroianni, and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988) are made, as Catherine Lowing, Assistant to Carole Andre-Smith, talks us through the elaborate productions the studio has housed, flipping the pages in her view book to display numerous evocative photographs.

Cinecittà is open, by special appointment only, to journalists, scholars, and production professionals. No one walks through it alone, although that kind of unmediated communion with the “Cinecittà pentimento effect” would be the dream of many a cinephile. On the other hand, there’s much to be said for being spirited through its byways by Catherine, who carries the keys to the iron gates toward which the typical tour heads after a ramble through Studio Five. Through the gates, there are partial vistas of an enormous “ancient civilization” set complete with a ten-foot-tall statue of a god reminiscent of Neptune rusticating in a wheelbarrow, its left hand missing some fingers; a short Egyptian obelisk; and a set of columns, the facade of a temple, as weighty, in appearance, as those presumed to have stood in ancient Rome. The lock, surprisingly low tech for this high-tech dream atelier, is a version of the standard model students buy for their gym lockers, but its simplicity of form is amply made up for by its stubborn resistance to Catherine’s key, and the fact that a supply of security guards is only a cell phone call away. There’s a comic moment in which we seem to be kids breaking into Farmer Jones’s tractor and backhoe compound, but a few steps beyond the wrought iron barriers we’re in a haunted kingdom, a ghost town of old temples so quiet that the breeze blowing the blades of grass between the paving stones is an event. The mind, no matter how rational, reels with the effect of this place. All the more so the morning I was there, when, suddenly, something moved in the shadowy interstices between a couple of mammoth temple columns. With the sun in our eyes, we seemed to be looking at a Felliniesque ghostly man-shape (or maybe a time traveler from the television production Doctor Who, which has also set up shop here) unthreatening but also distinctly out of place. In visitor mode, I’m charmed. Catherine, however, is on the alert, especially when a small, bright light flashes. No one roams here alone, and no one takes pictures without express permission. Between Catherine and the security guards, the lone figure is soon removed. (The pedestrian explanation for this moment came later: the gentleman was only part of a production company.)

Stray visitors to this set are rare, but not the sensation of larger forces at work. A German director who films international commercials at Cinecittà, whose name Carole Andre-Smith is hesitant to disclose, claims to feel the presence of ghosts when he works there. A similarly unnamed, but well known I am assured, Italian director likes to walk around Cinecittà for the “vibes,” and Dario Argento has said that he considers “Cinecittà a ‘mythic zone,’ the core of my film-loving dreams.” But the majority of responses to this studio suggest a sense of comfort rather than the occult, a feeling conducive to creativity. The most striking of these endorsements comes from Marcello Mastroianni, who has been quoted as saying that “Cinecittà is a symbolic and beautiful fortress: outside is Hell, while inside its walls fairy tales are told, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny.” More moderately, Jean Renoir has said, “I am happy to work in Cinecittà and what I appreciate most of this magnificent studio is the technical and labor staff. For three months I felt I was at home...” Gina Lollobrigida too has spoken of feeling “at home,” and Liliana Cavani has praised Cinecittà as a place where “it’s possible to achieve completeness spurred by the enthusiasm and artisan spirit of the people who work in its structure.”

From a more logistical point of view, let’s say that Cinecittà offers a negotiation with the omnipresence of CGI, a place in which it can be blended with actual large-scale sets, allowing for the copresence of real action with digital effects. Since 1973, when CGI was first used in Westworld (Dir. Michael Crichton), critics, scholars, and journalists have been predicting, and even announcing, the end of the epic film, the end of the live-action war film, the end of the cast of thousands in cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), for example, with its huge phalanxes of extras mobilized for its brilliantly colored and masterfully choreographed battle scenes, and its actual incineration of sets in front of rolling cameras, has been judged to be the last of a dying breed. But actually, Ran employed a combination of real action and special effects, and Cinecittà offers a perfect location for those who wish to ignore premature reports of the death of the large-scale production without losing the advantages of advanced technology. Gangs of New York, which Scorsese began to shop around in the 1970s, called for a casts of hundreds and vast vistas of real actors in motion and was considered impossible to make until 2001, when the two major reasons it was repeatedly turned down by producers gave way. The first major obstacle was the notorious tyranny over American filmmaking of the most simplistic ideas about genre—satirized in Barton Fink (Dir. Joel Cohen, 1991) when studio head Jack Lipnik (Michael Lerner) reduces the genre of wrestling pictures to “You know, big men in tights.” This kind of attitude blocked Gangs because it didn’t contain, you know, men in fast cars shooting machine guns. The daring to expand on genre limits was provided by the likes of of a restless Leonardo DiCaprio, hungry to make a significant presence onscreen in one of its two leading roles, and producer Harvey Weinstein. It was Cinecittà that gave Scorsese the answers to his second conundrum, the production dilemma: Where can I make it and for how much? Eventually, with a principal photography budget of $85 million, Gangs was shot at Cinecittà with the help of its stable of craftsmen set builders. (Although Cinecittà boasts of a world class capability for set building and design, it no longer maintains its own costume shop because Rome contains so many first rate costume workshops, that productions can clothe their actors at a better price by contracting out.)

Although other large-scale films made by important directors—such as Mervyn Le Roy’s Quo Vadis (1951), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1983), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987)—have availed themselves of the blessings of Cinecittà, the prominence of the Gangs standing sets have led some to see Scorsese as the inheritor of Fellini’s crown as reigning, though still living, spirit. But whether or not this is so, Cinecittà is undoubtedly the reason for the tone and mood of Scorsese’s film. What it would have been had he shot it under more constrained conditions or had he been forced to resort to CGI alone for the sense of epic scope is, of course, imponderable. Whether Scorsese would ever have accepted such production conditions is unknown. Debatable, too, are the differences in the quality of moviegoing experience between events directed in real space and events fabricated through editing and mechanical manipulation. That said, an excellent case can be made for the excitement of what Scorsese accomplished at Cinecittà in the way of conveying the dimensions of an historical epoch, not only in the port scene but also in scenes scanning the diverse, colorful, crowded streets of New York’s Five Points, and the congested (to say the least) slum living conditions of the Old Brewery. The movie argues eloquently for the results of combining blue-screen technique with live action.

The economics of Cinecittà are another matter. The studio fell on hard times in the 1980s, and a privatization process was begun in 1997 to save it from bankruptcy. The process was completed in 1998. Reports differ slightly about what percentage was sold to private entrepreneurs, somewhere between seventy-three percent and seventy-five percent. The remaining percentage is retained by the Italian government. Trade papers record a generous infusion into the studio from private investors of forty million euros, which has paid for, among other things, a large-scale modernization of Cinecittà’s digital postproduction capability, now the most cutting edge in the world. Yet, it is impossible not to wonder if the refurbishments might have made it difficult for innovative independents with small budgets to work at this historical studio. Even Nine(2009), which has quite a large budget, chose to do most of its principal photography at a variety of other locations in Italy and England for less money instead of at “the House of Fellini.” Director Rob Marshall made one exception, and sprang for a few scenes shot at the Cinecittà gates between Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis)—the new version of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni)—the Fellini figure in this latest metamorphosis of 8 1/2, and Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman), a nordic version of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), Guido’s Mediterranean girl goddess in Fellini’s landmark film.

Perhaps the vicissitudes of large-scale international economics are inevitable these days. Cinecittà, however, has survived war, censorship, and fire. Why not globalization, too? And already a new pentimento effect is linking it to the glory days of Fellini, through two productions that both include many layers of relationship to the inscrutable giant of Italian film. A television series adapted from a book about the life of Sophia Loren’s mother, La mia casa è piena di specchi (My House is Full of Mirrors), slated for airing on Italian television in 2010, has been shot at Cinecittà, with Loren, who worked with Fellini on Boccaccio ’70 (1962) and who treasured him as an inspiration, cast in the leading role. Nine, somewhat symbolically, set cameras up at the gates of Cinecittà for its adaptation of the musical Nine, an adaptation of 8 1/2. Can you hear Fellini and Mastroianni chuckling in that great Studio Five on high?

Martha P. Nochimson, an Associate Editor for Cineaste, is the author of five books, including Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (2007) andThe Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997). She has just published World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 2