A “dream factory” attempts to re-imagine its place in Italian cinema for the 21st century
Stepping out into the blinding sunlight of the afternoon after spending time in the dark, cramped and muggy underground of the Rome metro can be a shock to the senses.
Those senses are further put to the test as one climbs the steps out of the metro station after a long trip to the southwest of Rome where the legendary Cinecitta Studios are located. Its famous gates, which spell out the studio’s name stands out boldly from the crystal clear blue sky, standing sentry like palace gates guarding royalty.
And Cinecitta (translated literally as a ‘City of Film’ from Italian) has seen among the most famous of movie stars walk through its gates, among them: Sofia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable and Leonardo DiCaprio. It has played host to the most famous films of the 20th century – both Italian and Hollywood.
In many ways, it is part of entrenched studio system of the film industry: movie stars created by executives and a preference for big budget films over smaller independent movies. Even with its glorious history however, there was a dark period in Italian cinema, where creativity, story and production values were stifled.
But there is now a new movement taking place at Cinecitta; one that does not always garner glamorous awards nor hears the adoring cry of fans across the world but is as essential to the movie making industry as stars and directors. It comes in the form of the Cinecitta Digital Factory, a postproduction centre complete with state of the art editing studios, printing laboratories, audio and digital production services.
Like the city of Rome, Cinecitta is very slowly moving towards new ideas and of culture making rather than staking their entire reputation on the past.
The question now is, can the ‘Dream Factory’ as famous director Sergio Leone once called Cinecitta, be transformed by the ‘Digital Factory’?
“A Lost Cause”
Throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the Italian film industry prospered mightily. The 1960s are considered Italy’s “Golden Period” after the production of films such as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. By the 1980s however, the Italian film industry began to have a crisis on its hands.
“Something that was once a pride and joy for Romans and Italians had become something of a lost cause,” says Cinecitta press officer Carole Andre Smith.
The number of films produced slowed down dramatically (at one point, filming less than 20 films a year at the studios) and the quality of the films that were produced was dismal. They were known as “Mondo films”, exploitation films that featured excessive gore and violence; a far cry from the romantic image that Rome likes to pride itself on. The industry was in dire straits.
Massimo De Sanctis, a 54 year-old film buff who was taking of tour of Cinecitta studio lots remembered the films of the past: “It was like magic to me as a child, to see things I could only dream of right in front of me. And I knew that one day, I had to visit this place where they created so much greatness.”
But by the late 1990s, Italian film demanded more and talented directors and screenwriters responded. Cinema Paradiso won the 1990 Oscar for Best Foreign Film while Roberto Benigni won three Oscars in 1998 for Life is Beautiful.
“Winning those awards was a huge boost for the [film] industry and culture here in Italy. It felt like the tradition that already existed were brought back after directors who just wanted to shock but not entertain people forgot it. We as people had something to be really proud of again,” Smith continued.
Smith says that the renewal in the quality of films coincided with more government support in the form of tax breaks that drew in more foreign investment and allowed the way for big pictures to made once more. And with Cinecitta being arguably the most prominent movie studios in the country, the grounds began buzzing with activity once more.
How much of a comeback?
With the Digital Factory, Cinecitta is attempting to re-position themselves once more as an industry leader. The Factory is an unassuming building on the campus, bearing the examples of Italian rationalism, a type of architecture that was popular during the mid 1920s, combining clean, sharp lines and functionality.
Inside however, each room (the facility has 25 suites in all) hides rows of switchboards to control sound and picture levels as well as screens that take up entire walls of buildings for editing. It provides a refuge where the nitty-gritty of filmmaking is produced, the areas that do not always get the highest acclaim but where a picture is made or broken. It has drawn clients from all over the world and for the first time, independent filmmakers have made their past the gates and into Cinecitta.
“We believe that the next great filmmakers are out there and for Cinecitta to be a part of that is very important to our mandate. At this point we encourage all talented young directors and editors to come to use our studios,” said Smith.
Cinecitta appears to be serious about expanding the film industry as they have started an initiative called ‘Cinebimicitta’, an additional building the campus that is reserved for children who wish to try making their own short films, which are then showcased as exhibits around the studios. Cinecitta is not only looking for what is popular in today’s market but is clearly aiming to create a new generation of filmmakers.
However, there are doubts as to whether Cinecitta can break out of the mould of the big studio system. Portraying Cinecitta as a place that is ‘hospitable’ to independent filmmakers is not entirely true. The studios have hosted big productions such as the 2005 HBO series Rome and Martin Scorsese’s award winning Gangs of New York; both sets still standing as a point of pride when taken on the studio tour.
The campus is also enormous – featuring 64 buildings of numerous soundstages, workshops and even its own independent power station. The studios also feature Teatro 5, the favourite studio of Federico Fellini and still currently stands as Europe’s largest single studio, able to hold over 2,000 people.
In that sense, perhaps Cinecitta captures the cultural spirit of Rome in a way that is not entirely conscious. It is a microcosm for its glories and issues – incredible accomplishments and a romantic obsession with the past that makes moving forward difficult. Even with the Digital Factory and its youth programs, the old clichéd saying comes into play: at Cinecitta art mimics the real life of the cultural industry in Rome.
Both are still trying to figure out the future for good.