Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Notes on Cinecittà

“Cinecittà is a symbolic and beautiful fortress: outside is Hell, while inside its walls fairy tales are told, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny.” -Marcello Mastroianni


Luigi Freddi (1895-1977), an Italian journalist-turned-politician, had an obsession with modernism as much as he had with the movies. He was one the key thinkers in Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, as long as art was concerned. Freddi meticulously researched the United States and numerous European film capitals to find for the studio the most modern architectural designs and technology available.

Luigi Freddi

His greatest innovation by far, however, was coordinating the construction and establishment of La Città del Cinema, or Cinecittà, where officially opened by Mussolini on 28 April 1937. It contained on its vast property the most technologically advanced facilities needed for filmmaking: sets, costumes, editing and dubbing facilities, sound stages, and the possibility of constructing ample exterior sets. Although its primarily concern was modernizing the industry and centralizing the means of production, the promotional campaign concentrated instead on its impending role in glorifying the Italian empire through diffusion of its cultural production. Financed by state money, it nevertheless remained under private ownership until 1939, when the state assumed total control of its administration. Cinecittà gradually became the center of the film industry: between April 1937 and July 1943, approximately 300 full-length feature films (over two-thirds of total production) were in some part made or produced on its premises. [1]


The planning and construction of Cinecittà on the outskirts of Rome after 1934 was a project that had just as much to do with Rome’s emergence as a center of filmmaking as it did with the city’s rapidly solidified position as hub of an emerging national political and cultural economy. Cinecittà was also integral to a new map and network that was extending Rome’s purview; for instance, Cinecittà’s construction on Rome’s outskirts was a concrete part of new programs for reclaiming the land around Rome. In this regard, Cinecittà pertained to a program of planning and constructing “model” cities in the provinces and of redesigning Italian cities (and the “ancient city”), making them more suited to the national space of distribution. [1] But still this question remains unanswered that a film studio could be model for a real city? In context of Italian cinema we can trace back the skeptical answer in Antonioni's L'avventura (1960). Claudia and Sandro's search for their lost friend leads them to a ghost town outside of Catanisetta. Composed in cubic geometries, with simplified classical forms like a set from Cinecittà or any other film studios. Empty towns in nightmare sequences always remind me of the nature of a film studio. Yet, The L'avventura town, build in Mussolini's era, is nothing but a unrealizable fantasy of community and a relic of dangerous dreams. While Sandro, who is a architect, wonders why such a well-built place was never occupied, Claudia remarks on a similar town in the distance - or is it, as Sandro interrupts, a cemetery?



Cinecittà, in a wry twist of fate, like Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, one of the premier European film schools, which Mussolini also instigated, became hotbeds of freethinking cinéastes that as soon as fascism fell, stopped shooting at the studio and moved out on the streets and riverbanks of Italy, used amateur actors, and that was the birth of neorealism. Yet, their landmark cinema may have ironically owed its life to the talent collected in the institutions engendered by Mussolini’s blind ambition. Many of important future directors and scriptwriters worked at Cinecittà or on Vittorio Mussolini’s journal Cinema, including Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica, Alberto Lattuada Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Giuseppe De Santis, and Luchino Visconti.


“Cinecittà a ‘mythic zone,’ the core of my film-loving dreams.” -Dario Argento

In 1937 only 32 films were produced in Italy and Hollywood studios enjoyed nearly three-fourths of the Italian market, compared with only 13 percent for Italian productions. The increased production was not enough to saturate the demand of the Italian market. But in 1938, when American films were refused distribution as a result of Fascist government’s institution of a monopoly for the distribution of foreign films, the market was all for Italian cienma and Cinecittà. With this trade barriers against Hollywood films, by 1942, the number of Italian films produced increased to 117 with Italian production accounting for over 50 percent of the domestic market.

Add captionQuattro passi fra le nuvole (Alessandro Blasetti, 1942)

But Cinecittà always was borrowing many from Hollywood, especially its standard genres. And despite this inner connection with American studio system there was big differences between finished projects. For instance, whereas the American war movies of the early 1940s are optimistic and end up with their heroes triumphing over adversity, nearly all Italian versions turn out badly; pilots are killed or maimed for life; submarines cannot surface; guns jam. In Cinecittà , only three of more than twenty propaganda war films had a happy ending; two are ‘colonial films’ in which natives, naturally, are slaughtered, the third celebrates the heroism of the Spanish nationalists in Toledo.

Why did strict censors not ban sad stories suggesting to Italians that they had virtually lost the war? "We are faced again with the inconsistency of the Fascist regime, so fussy over little things that it would make a director change two words in his script, but unaware of how devastating the depiction of defeat could be," suggests Pierre Sorlin. [3]

Thanks to the spirit of the nation, the fascist regime’s demands did not equal those of the Nazi government on the German film industry or Soviet demands on Russian filmmakers. On the whole, the regime only encouraged Italian directors to make films that depicted Italian life in a positive light. [2]


“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...” -Jean Renoir
In 1943, Italy surrendered and the Germans took over the country. They looted Cinecittà, and the film production facilities were moved to temporary accommodation in Venice. Over the next two years, Cinecittà was subjected to Allied bombing. Following the war, between 1945 and 1947, the studios of Cinecittà found a new use as a displaced persons' camp.

Cinecittà recovered slowly. By reaching 1950s Hollywood producers were attracted to Italy as a location by American tax loopholes for producing films abroad. The technical expertise of Italian set designers attracted big budget Hollywood productions to the Cinecittà studios in Rome renowned for the artistic abilities of Italian set designers and wardrobe technicians. This influx of activity known as “Hollywood on the Tiber” allowed many Italian technicians an opportunity to gain the experience and expertise essential to the boom in Italian film production in the 1960s. Big budget Hollywood studio productions — Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) or co-productions such as El Cid (1961) —were filmed partly in Rome’s Cinecittà studios with the active participation of Italian designers and assistant directors. For example, Sergio Leone co-directed the peplum disaster film and Italian box office hit Sodom and Gomorra (1962) with Robert Aldrich, but obviously uncredited. This tradition of reliance on Italian craftsmanship has continued sporadically and would reappear decades later when actor/director Mel Gibson came to Rome to enrich his film The Passion of the Christ (2004), a film shot largely in Cinecittà, or when Martin Scorsese picked the studio for his Gangs of New York.

Docks of New York set from Gangs of New York, made at Cinecittà

"I’ve always felt that Cinecittà has a special magic because of all the great films that have been made there. For the many years that I had been thinking about Gangs of New York, I always imagined it would be created with an aspect of the Italian artistry that I saw and experienced in Italian films when I was growing up,” remarked Martin Scorsese when he transferred his unit to Italy to create a New York in Cinecittà.

Today, Cinecittà is suffering from what any other studio or film idustry is suffering from, but as Martha Nochimson points out, " if Cinecittà has survived war, censorship, and fire*. Why not globalization, too? "

*A 2007 fire destroyed 3,000 square meters of Cinecittà sets (out of a total of 400,000 square meters).

[1] Re-viewing fascism, Italian cinema, 1922–1943/edited by Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo.
[2] A new guide to Italian cinema / Carlo Celli and Marga Cottino-Jones
[3] Italian National Cinema 1896–1996/ Pierre Sorlin.
[4] The Cinecittà Pentimento Effect: A Firsthand Account / Martha P. Nochimson

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