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Glories of Rome: nine of the Eternal City’s most timeless films

This article is part of a guide to Rome from FT Globetrotter

Beauty always has a secret; another story to tell. So it has been for generations with Rome and cinema. On movie screens many feet high, no city has ever looked so splendid — or became as synonymous with gritty neorealism. One Rome on film was a lavish playground; another, all hard edges. (And the overlap between them was vanishingly small.) Meanwhile, a third Rome appeared on screen in disguise: the soundstages of the fabled Cinecittà Studios in the south of the city — host to countless movies, 51 Oscar winners among them.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon Prime

Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ © Album/Alamy

A helicopter carries a plaster figure of Christ like a mad blessing over sunbathers and high-rises. So begins the hymn of Federico Fellini to his muse. We could fill this whole list with Fellini: the panoramic Roma, the soulful Nights of Cabiria. But more even than those movies, something telling about La Dolce Vita lay in its reception in the city itself, stunned at the mirror held up to it in this endlessly sly portrait of glamour and decay. The Roman premiere saw Fellini spat at — before the film caused a sensation at the city’s box office. It made Rome the ultimate cinematic city, actual landmarks recreated as sets in Cinecittà. (Although in the famous scene of Anita Ekberg cavorting in the Trevi Fountain, both were entirely real.)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and (in the US) The Criterion Channel

Hollywood cameo: a poster of Rita Hayworth is pasted to a wall in Rome in ‘Bicycle Thieves’
Hollywood cameo: a poster of Rita Hayworth is pasted to a wall in Rome in ‘Bicycle Thieves’ © Everett Collection/Alamy

If most of La Dolce Vita was confected on soundstages, the essence of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was the streets it took place in. Some were far from familiar sights — the film begins in the scuffed suburb of Val Melaina. But war-battered central Rome features too as a place of treachery and danger, with the luckless hero Antonio cycling to work down Via del Corso towards the robbery that gives the film its title. (Hollywood has an ironic cameo too — a poster of Rita Hayworth being put on display when the thief struck.)

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)

Where to watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime and iTunes

Catch me if you can: Matt Damon in ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’
Catch me if you can: Matt Damon in ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ © Everett Collection/Alamy

Rome through the eyes of others — first novelist Patricia Highsmith then director Anthony Minghella — makes the perfect stage for a definitive outsider’s tale. The city is just one stop in the story’s Italian tour, but the Roman backdrop feels darkly fitting at a crucial moment: Matt Damon’s Ripley masquerading as the man he killed, living out a gilded life that happens to be someone else’s.

Rome, Open City (1945)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and (US) The Criterion Channel

Neorealist drama ‘Rome, Open City’ portrayed life in the Italian capital under Nazi occupation
Neorealist drama ‘Rome, Open City’ portrayed life in the Italian capital under Nazi occupation © Ronald Grant Archive

Filmed in January 1945, the neorealist classic Rome, Open City looked back to occupation — but hardly back at all. Just six months had passed since the Nazis had fled the capital; war in Europe was ongoing. The shock of verité in every scene and shot of the city was only heightened by the ordinary Romans gathered by director Roberto Rossellini as his cast. They acted on no soundstages: Cinecittà was being used a refugee camp. If the young scriptwriter Federico Fellini gave the film a dash of melodrama, it also changed the role of truth in movies forever.

L’Eclisse (1962)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and (US) The Criterion Channel

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s ‘L’Eclisse’
Alain Delon and Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s ‘L’Eclisse’ © Collection Christophel/Alamy

Michelangelo Antonioni made a star of the city’s financial centre in the stylishly cynical love story L’Eclisse, set in the middle of the postwar economic miracle Il Boom. If every city privately longs to be Rome, how many stockbrokers yearned to be Alain Delon’s blankly charismatic Piero? Except, of course, the money never makes him happy, dogged by ennui and disconnection. More than any other movie here, Antonioni gave top billing to the architecture of modern Rome, foregrounding the strange clean lines of the EUR district.

The Great Beauty (2013)

Where to watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

MC Hammock: Toni Servillo as socialite Jep in ‘The Great Beauty’
MC Hammock: Toni Servillo as socialite Jep in ‘The Great Beauty’ © Photo 12/Pathé Films/Alamy

Tourist, beware. In the first moments of Paolo Sorrentino’s satire and celebration The Great Beauty, a sightseer photographs Rome from the Janiculum Hill. Then he collapses and dies — overcome by the sheer wonder before him. But too much magnificence is not a problem for Jep, the sleek socialite at the centre of the story. Like one side of the city made flesh, he exists only to circle through nightlife and high life, luxury and sensuality, Rome a joyride of nonstop opulent fun. (With anything less attractive conspicuous for being absent.)

Roman Holiday (1953)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in ‘Roman Holiday’
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in ‘Roman Holiday’ © Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

The sometime alias of Cinecittà and 1950s Rome in general — Hollywood on the Tiber — never felt so fitting as when applied to Roman Holiday. With an Italian crew on hand, American star power descended in the form of Gregory Peck and new-face-on-screen Audrey Hepburn, jumping traffic on a Vespa before visiting the Mouth of Truth and Colosseum. But amid the glorious escapism, the eternal two-sidedness of Rome endured. While Hepburn played a princess, the script was written under an assumed name by Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted as a communist back in the US.

Dear Diary (1993)

Where to watch: Blu-ray/DVD and (US) Amazon Prime

Nanni Moretti explores Rome on a Vespa in ‘Dear Diary’
Nanni Moretti explores Rome on a Vespa in ‘Dear Diary’ © TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Another adventure on a Vespa, director Nanni Moretti’s breakthrough film came steeped in Rome and movies. It finds him riding through the deserted backstreets of the city in August, giving a personal guide to the city while reflecting on cinematic matters including but not limited to the influence of Flashdance. There is also a pilgrimage to seaside Ostia on the edge of the city to honour a giant of Roman film, Pier Paolo Pasolini. For visitors hoping to run into Moretti, he owns the cinema Nuovo Sacher near Porta Portese, with outdoor screenings staged in the summer.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

When in Rome . . .  pretend to be in 19th-century Manhattan: ‘Gangs of New York’
When in Rome . . .  pretend to be in 19th-century Manhattan: ‘Gangs of New York’ © TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Not a trick or a typo, but a tribute to how a city as singular as Rome can become any other it wants. Martin Scorsese spent a lifetime idolising Rossellini and Fellini — and when he came to make his epic of a vanished Manhattan, he crossed the Atlantic to do it. The Five Points slum and Paradise Square were reborn on giant sets at Cinecittà Studios.

Which films whisk you to Rome? Tell us in the comments

Cities with the FT

Glories of Rome: nine of the Eternal City’s most timeless films

FT Globetrotter, our insider guides to some of the world’s greatest cities, offers expert advice on eating and drinking, exercise, art and culture — and much more. Find us in Rome, Paris, Tokyo, New York, London, Frankfurt, Singapore, Hong Kong and Miami

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