Better than any other art form, film reveals the nature of the world’s great cities. Even if you’ve never visited New York, London, Paris or Tokyo, movies have very likely given you a strong sense of those cities—from their streets and buildings to their personality and vibe.
Before I recently visited Rome for the first time, I felt as if I already “knew” it from having seen dozens of films shot on its streets, from the starkly tragic “Rome, Open City” to the grimly affecting “Umberto D” to the fizzily romantic “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
So during my weeklong stay there, I let six classic Italian films guide me to its iconic sights, and in the process, I saw stunning art, ate fabulous food and made unanticipated discoveries.
Anita Ekberg frolics in the Trevi Fountain in the 1960 film “La Dolce Vita.”
Americans of a certain vintage first “saw” Rome via “Roman Holiday” (1953), director William Wyler’s breezy romantic fable starring Audrey Hepburn as a duty-bound princess and Gregory Peck as an enterprising journalist. He whisks her away from her dreary royal responsibilities via a wham-bam tour of the city that makes pit stops at numerous scenic and historic locales, including the Trevi Fountain, Forum, Colosseum, Spanish Steps and a memorable cinematic moment at the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth).
At a café adjacent to the Pantheon, Peck quippily orders “Champagne per la signorina and cold coffee for me.” That original café disappeared long ago, but after a de rigueur visit to note the Pantheon’s dizzyingly spectacular engineering, you can now decamp to the mere-steps-away Caffe Tazza d’Oro for granita di caffe: shaved ice soaked in sweet coffee liquid with panna (whipping cream) on top and bottom. Then drink in Caravaggio’s dark, beautiful and mesmerizing trio of paintings depicting signal episodes in the life of St. Matthew at nearby San Luigi dei Francesi.
Audrey Hepburn clings to Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.”
On its surface, Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) faintly echoes Wyler’s film, as newspaperman Marcello Mastroianni trails Hollywood glamor girl Anita Ekberg. But at its heart, the film serves as Fellini’s corrosive indictment of a vacuous society besotted with celebrity, sensationalism and status.
Famous city landmarks flit by—the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Piazza di Spagna, Pantheon, Palazzo del Quirinale (residence of first, the pope, then the king, and now the president)—but the film’s most indelible scenes occur at the gargantuan, opulent and magnificent Trevi Fountain (in the real world, mobbed by a Benetton Nation of tourists day and evening, and probably best experienced just before dawn as Mastroianni and Ekberg do in the movie) and on the Via Veneto.
In “La Dolce Vita,” Via Veneto functions as a tony ground zero for the international jet set, perpetually staked out by predatory paparazzi; today, though, the stretch seems queasily clinical, chockablock with designer clothing and jewelry shops, posh hotels and upscale restaurants—evincing no real soul. For a vividly bizarre dose of the latter on Via Veneto, visit the Santa Maria della Concezione, whose crypt houses five chapels lined with decorative religious motifs (crucifixes, crowns of thorns) assembled from the bones of 4,000 dearly departed friars.
Do not forego a stop at the close-by Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini’s breathtaking marble sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” wherein the prototypical independent woman undergoes a, hmmm, startlingly graphic spiritual orgasm.
“The Bicycle Thief,” directed by Vittorio De Sica.
For a considerably less glittery portrait of Rome, screen “The Bicycle Thief” (1949), Vittorio De Sica’s bleak neorealist drama about an impoverished poster-hanger who desperately searches the city—with his young son in tow—for his stolen bike, essential to perform his job. Stops include a church, a whorehouse and Rome’s bustling Porta Portese public market, where the protagonist catches a brief glimpse of the thief.
Held each Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Travestere area, Porta Portese, a gargantuan flea market, falls somewhere between the chaos of a Moroccan souk and the decorum of a suburban American church bazaar. Aggressive hawkers bark the merits of their particular item: shoes, luggage, books, CDs, jewelry, handbags, toys, DVDs, housewares and every conceivable article of clothing. New merchandise, for the most part: all of it cheap, and, you can bet, cheaply made. A memorable sensory-overload experience, even if you don’t buy anything.
Afterward, reward yourself aesthetically with a stop at San Francesco a Ripa, one of whose eight chapels boasts another gob-smacking Bernini sculpture of a woman seized by spiritual bliss, “The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni.” Then reward yourself gastronomically with a rectangle of exquisite pizza—fresh, gorgeous, delicious toppings—at Forno la Renella, whose ancient oven burns hazelnut shells as fuel.
With 1958’s “I soliti ignoti” (known here as “The Big Deal on Madonna Street”), Mario Monicelli elbowed aside the solemnity of cinematic neorealism, inaugurating the era of Commedia all’italiana (Italian-style comedy), which adroitly combined gentle humor with social satire.
Brimming with a stellar cast (Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Vittorio Gassman, among others), “Big Deal” boasts a gang of putative jewelry shop burglars whose members move from ineptitude to ineffectualness to, ultimately, indifference, dispersing amiably, if no richer, at film’s end in the Piazza Armenia.
Their attempted heist was shot in teeny-weeny Via delle Tre Cannelle, wedged unassumingly between an L-shaped bend in central Rome’s mammoth Via IV Novembre. Descending a flight of nearby steps, enter the gateway to the vast Forum, classical Rome’s political/economic/legal locus, whose stately ruins of temples, arches, columns, and courts straddle block after block after block of Fori Imperial.
Next march west from Via IV Novembre to see the more compact ruins of Sacra dell’Argentina, four temples dating from the early 3rd century B.C. that now serve as a public cat sanctuary. From above, ogle cats sunning themselves on stubs of disinterred marble columns, then cross the street to drink a decadently delicious caffé completo (espresso, dark chocolate paste, whipped cream, cocoa powder) at Cafffe Camerino, its white crockery emblazoned with three red “f”s.
In addition to its glamor, charm and ancient allure, Rome, like any huge metropolis, boasts a seamier side. In his directorial debut, “Accattone” (1961), Pier Paolo Pasolini captured just such a place—the grimy tenements of the city’s Pigneto neighborhood. Relentlessly grim, the film pulses with a charged literary neorealism, depicting the downward spiral of a small-time pimp whose life of lassitude collapses when his lone hooker winds up in prison.
More urban than urbane, Pigneto has been claimed and invigorated—but not tidied—by artists over the past decade. A constant beacon, regardless of circumstances, has been Necci Dal, 1924, the restaurant/bar where Pasolini shot significant portions of “Accattone.” Hip without being hipster-ish, its shady front patio and rustic interior invite lingering over cappuccino and a flaky cornetto (the croissant’s Italian cousin) in the morning and a cocktail and a plate of fiori di zucca (fried stuffed zucchini flowers) in the evening.
Granted, it seems counterintuitive to visit a Roman suburb, but to see the almost alien landscape that Michelangelo Antonioni used as the backdrop for “L’Eclisse” (1962), you’ll need to hop aboard the city’s southbound Metro to reach EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma). A tale of alienation set in a context of materialistic grasping, “L’Eclisse” follows Monica Vitti and Alain Delon as they toy distractedly with a soulless affair. She tells him, “Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But then maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.”
Antonioni reinforces the numbing effect by framing his narrative with EUR’s “fascist” architecture. Begun under Mussolini and intended for completion to coincide with World Expo 1942, these buildings were discontinued because of World War II, and then finished—along with several new ones—by the original architects from the mid-to-late 1950s.
The austerely arresting structures hover throughout the film: an immense mushroom-cloud water tower; the spaceship-like Palazzo dello Sport; the 22-story Palazzo ENI office complex; and the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, whose arches mirror those at the Colosseum. In short, a severe, modernist otherworld, of which Delon notes, “I feel like I’m in a foreign country.”
Foreign to Americans, certainly, but Rome’s soulfulness, graciousness and cosmopolitan-yet-unpretentious nature made me feel completely at home, readily surpassing, not surprisingly, the city I knew only on film.
WHEN IN ROME…
Given the language barrier, actually seeing a film in Rome can prove tricky for American visitors, with most movies made in Italian or, in the case of foreign films, dubbed in Italian—and many of them mainstream fare. Mercifully, the following three venues show both Italian and foreign films, with the latter offered in their native language, while booking indie, classic and documentary works.
Casa del Cinema. Housed on the grounds of the vast and elegant Villa Borghese Park, on the north edge of the city, this multipurpose cinema center boasts three indoor theaters, one outdoor theater (for warm-weather use), a film library, a DVD-screening room, two exhibition spaces and various film- and book-related events. Plus, there is a bookshop and café. All screenings are free.
Nuovo Sacher. Vexed by inadequate film distribution, director Nanni Moretti established Nuovo Sacher in Trastevere for cineastes to see under-the-radar Italian productions, as well as similar foreign films, for extended runs. Like our own summertime outdoor screenings in Little Italy, this venue shows movies (from the previous year) in its open-air amphitheater each summer. Also on the premises: a bar and bookshop.
Nuovo Cinema Aquila. The city’s most daring film programmer, this three-story, glass-and-steel film and visual arts cultural center—repurposed from a 1940s movie house in the Pigneto neighborhood—presents a diverse menu of Italian and foreign indie productions as well as an array of film fests (deaf, lesbian and audio, among others). It features three theaters and a bar.