For the American directors who flocked there, Italy’s Cinecittà was the place where the Artistic Dreams Came True. A look at the studio’s legendary history and auspicious future.
October 4, 2002
By Chris Nashawaty
Photo Editor: Denise Sfraga

Federico Fellini, master of the Cinecittà universe, on the set of Satyricon.

The name Cinecittà means "city of Cinema." But ever since this fabled Italian movie studio opened its wrought-iron gates 65 years ago, it has spawned so many legends that simple translation doesn't begin to tell the story. The first American directors to make epic pilgrimages to this sprawling stucco complex on the outskirts of Rome in the early '50s called it Hollywood on the Tiber. But for their leading men and women, it was more like a Roman-holiday playground. And to a few unlucky producers, Cinecittà became synonymous with runaway budgets -a place where lire went up in smoke like clouds drifting out of the Vatican chimney during a papal election. But perhaps Terry Gilliam, who directed The Adventures of Baron Munchausen here in 1987, has managed to sum it up best, calling Cinecittà "that faded old terracotta bitch-seductress of the great, famous, and mad."

Choose your poison. Call it what you will. Either way, Cinecittà is as much a piece of Hollywood history as the mythic backlots of Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros. It's where Charlton Heston staged the greatest action sequence ever filmed. It's where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ignited a tabloid tinderbox as they boozed and brawled in the studio's dining room. It's where cool cat Marcello Mastroianni and come-hither Anita Ekberg flirted and frolicked in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. And, thanks to all of the above, it's where the term paparazzi was coined.

White Telephones and Kitchen Sinks

By the mid-'30s, Benito Mussolini looked toward Germany and realized what his Fascist regime in Italy was lacking: a propaganda machine. Il Duce dispatched his son to Hollywood to take notes on America's dream factories so he could replicate them in Rome. Opened in 1937, Cinecittà remains an architectural jewel frozen in amber from that period. Its 99-acre lot is a fusion of deco Hollywood glitz and Fascist-era minimalism, where its sleek and signature low-slung terra-cotta bungalows are ringed by lush green umbrella-topped pines.

Out of this fashionable setting came fashion-conscious movies. The earliest films -what would later be called Mussolini's "white telephone" films- featured ritzy accoutrements (like those telephones) and posh lifestyles few Italians recognized in their own daily experience. But as WWII's battlefield moved to Italy, Cinecittà was bombed by the Allies from above and looted by Nazis on the ground. By 1944, the studio had stopped film production entirely and was being used as a makeshift refugee camp for Italians fleeing from the south.

Martin Scorsese, who recently spent seven months at the studio filming Gangs of New York, grew up studying the films made at Cinecittà. And he notes how America -intent on punishing Italy for siding with the Nazis during the war- closed the studio down in 1945, forbidding films to be made there. He also points out the irony of that ban, which forced Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica to go into the streets to make films such as Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief. The result was the birth of neorealism, one of the greatest periods of Italian cinema, where Mussolini's white-telephone escapism was replaced with raw, kitchen-sink truth. Says Scorsese, "They had no sets and no actors, but they still said, 'Let's go shoot! We can still make movies!"

By the late 1940s, Cinecittà's gates reopened. And soon Hollywood productions lured by cheap labor and tax incentives designed to save Italy's weakened economy migrated to Rome to feed American moviegoers' appetite for lavish sword-and-sandal spectacles. No doubt the biggest of these was William Wyler's Ben-Hur, which arrived at Cinecittà in 1957. Said to have been budgeted at $7 million-a laughably exorbitant sum at the time-MGM's biblical saga took over the entire Cinecittà backlot. The biggest set was the Circus Maximus, where the film's showstopping chariot race would be shot, reportedly over five weeks at a cost of $1 million.

Before long, Ben-Hur's budget doubled. Also, its producer, Sam Zimbalist, died of a heart attack during production. Still, the movie would make $70 million at the box office and earn 11 Oscars, helping to save the financially ailing MGM. The next ancient epic filmed at Cinecittà wouldn't be so lucky…

Le Scandale

To this day, the Italian craftsmen who pedal around Cinecittà on creaky bicycles are careful not to wear purple on filming days. It's an old Italian superstition from the theater, and some of the old-time directors here are still touchy about it. Obviously, someone forgot to mention this to the violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, who wears the unlucky color in 1963's Cleopatra.

To be fair, Cleopatra was already off to an inauspicious start by the time the production got to Cinecittà in 1961. Filming had begun a year earlier at Pinewood Studios in England, only to be scrapped after 16 weeks. The film's first director, Rouben Mamoulian, had spent $7 million -already more than triple its first budget-and produced only 10 minutes of usable footage before he quit. Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over for Mamoulian. And when Taylor came down with a near-fatal bout of pneumonia (some papers reported that she'd died), the production was put on hold. Then, two new leading men, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, replaced Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd to play Caesar and Antony.

According to Franco Mariotti, a former Cinecittà publicist who's been on the lot since 1954 and remains a vibrant and garrulous link to its past, trouble was in the air from the moment Taylor arrived. He recalls that Italian bombshell Gina Lollobrigida was also there making a film. "They were two prima donnas who refused to meet each other," he says. "Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's love shack was intentionally put on the opposite side of the studio from Lollobrigida's dressing room." But that was nothing compared to the banquet the paparazzi were about to have laid before them as Taylor and Burton launched into an on-set affair so torrid it sparked controversy from the Vatican all the way to the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Both stars were married -Taylor to fourth husband Eddie Fisher and Burton to his wife Sybil. When they got whiff of what Burton later dubbed "Le Scandale," Rome's paparazzi displayed their ingenuity by going so far as dressing up as extras and sneaking onto the set to snap photos of the pair together. At first, some thought the news would be a publicity bonanza. But soon enough, the lovebirds were in no rush to come to the set, whiling away valuable shooting days drinking and dallying while Taylor kept pocketing $50,000 a week in overtime. Cleopatra was hemorrhaging money -$44 million when all was said and done.

And as Taylor and Burton's antics hit the tabloids, the Vatican branded the actress "a woman of loose morals," while a member of the U.S. Congress took her behavior to task on the House floor. Still, says Marioti, "the Italians were thrilled that Cleopatra was so behind schedule because it meant steady work and paychecks. It was a big party. We didn't want them to go."

At the end of the 2 1/2-year ordeal, Taylor was ready to trade in husband No. 4 for No. 5. And an exasperated Mankiewicz declared "If you want a textbook on how not to make a film, this is it!" After all that, Taylor refused to go to Cleopatra's premiere. The final humiliation, she said, would be having to see it. She probably did herself a favor -the film became a notorious failure. To this day, you can still see some of the crumbs of Cleopatra's lavish sets as you stroll the grounds of Cinecittà.

A gilded daybed for the Queen of the Nile lies within a few feet of a stack of pharaonic busts and sphinx statues, most cracked and weathered by time.

Ciao, Maestro!

It's impossible to walk five feet at Cinecitta without brushing with the ghost of Fellini. Anthony Minghella, who directed both The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley at the studio, speaks of Fellini's dogs still roaming the grounds. Turn the corner and a gargantuan head of Venus from Casanova rests on the backlot like a beached succubus.

When you enter the hangar that houses Adriano De Angelis' sculpture studio, a 10-foot-tall statue of Christ, spray-painted gold with its arms spread open, welcomes you. It's hard to make out at first, since it's covered in a fine coat of plaster oust, but it’s the same statue that hangs from a helicopter at the opening of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It may be the closest thing Italian cinema has to Dorothy's ruby slippers or Citizen Kane's Rosebud sled.

Fellini made all but one of his films at Cinecittà. And nowhere is his larger-than-life myth more alive than in the stoned Stage 5-the biggest soundstage in Europe. Scorsese still remembers the mix of awe and humility he felt the first time he stepped into the monstrous 31,000-square-foot hangar in 1979 to visit Fellini shooting City of Women. He recounts the feast he and his parents shared with the Maestro like a New York kid who's "You could just tell that he was at his happiest when he was on stage 5," says Scorsese. "There's no doubt you feel his presence there still."

Fellini (far left, with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno seated), filming 1970’s Satyricon.

Instruction his actors. The director’s psychedelic trip through the decadence of Nero’s Rome earned him a Best Director nomination. “All of Fellini’s films were like dreams he was trying to get out of his head,” says production designer Ferretti. “And Cinecittà was the only place that was big enough to hold his dreams.”

When Scorsese returned to Cinecittà two decades later to make Gangs, his office above Stage 5 was the same one Fellini used. "Going through those doors every morning and being hit with the feeling that 8 1/2 and some of the greatest films ever made were shot there, it's humbling. You just crawl onto the set. But it drives you at the same time." Echoes Minghella: "When I was shooting The English Patient there, I remember walking onto Stage 5 and I really, really felt that we were on hallowed ground. I couldn't have been more starstruck."

When Fellini died in 1993, the director's wake was held on Stage 5. Recalls his former assistant, an impeccably dressed man named Roberto Mannoni, "All of Rome waited on line to pay their respects. It took two days for all of the people to file through." As Mannoni says this, his eyes begin to mist up like those of a grieving widow.

Disneyland on the Tiber

Long after Scorsese and his Gangs crew packed up and returned to New York, the film's ornate 19th-century sets remain on Cinecittà's massive backlot like a ghost town. A towering Catholic church, a cobblestone reproduction of Broadway, and a once-bustling pier look like decaying skeletons-their scaffolding peeking out from behind chipping plaster. They were all imagined and built by Dante Ferretti, the six-time Oscar-nominated production designer who's been based at Cinecittà for 40 years. Ferretti, the closest thing to a Fellini heir at the studio these days, arrived here as a student in 1962 and remembers his first job at Cinecittà as if it were yesterday. "I was an assistant on Rossellini's Vanina Vanini. And as soon as I showed up I knew this is it. This is what I want to do, and this is where I want to be… I was born in Cinecittà."

Ferretti has worked on more than 20 films at the studio with such Italian legends as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ettore Scola. And both he and his crew are a large reason why American directors choose to film there. Still, as attached as he is to those decaying Gangs sets, he knows all things must pass. This is part of the job. But frankly, he seems a little happy that he won't be around when his Manhattan storefronts are ripped down to make way for Mel Gibson's upcoming film The Passion, about the last hours of Jesus Christ. The church he spent so much time constructing will soon be replaced by a replica of King Herod's palace.

All week long there have been Mel Gibson sightings at Cinecittà -even though no one seems to recall whether he was wearing purple when they spotted him. Meanwhile, over at the studio's new digital complex, Donald Sutherland is busy starring in an Italian film about the 1978 kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. He may not be Mel Gibson, but Sutherland's a Cinecittà celebrity in his own right, having made Casanova with Fellini here 27 years ago. And there are several other stars with films in various stages of production here, including Diane Lane's Under the Tuscan Sun and Maggie Smith's My House in Umbria. Heath Ledger's The Sin Eater recently wrapped.

It's a welcome invasion. Especially now, as countries in Eastern Europe are poaching more and more Hollywood productions with the same kinds of tax breaks and other financial incentives that first drew American films to Italy in the '50s. Even with the aging props from Cleopatra and Casanova sprinkled across the studio's lot, Cinecittà doesn't want to be known solely for its past.

According to Cinecittà's head of international marketing, Carole Andrè-Smith, the studio was purchased from the government and privatized five years ago. And she says its new owners have poured millions into modernizing its facilities. There's even talk of starting construction on a $200 million Cinecittà theme park to enhance the studio's reputation and put it on a par with Universal Studios in America. Says Cinecittà's general director Lamberto Mancini: "Imagine a place where we could re-create the chariot race from Ben-Hur. A living set. Yes, it was an American film, but it's our history."

Mancini smiles and looks out his office window, taking in Cinecittà's soaring pines and terracotta bungalows. "Look around, there's no studio as beautiful as this. It romances you; it has style. How do you say? It's magic."