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Rome on Film

The Fellini Museum

"The Widow" would not see us. The Widow was a man named Mannoni, and it was at his discretion that one could visit the Fellini Museum at Cinecittà. (Cinecittà was founded in 1937, under Mussolini's government.) Everyone at the studio called him the Widow because of his singular devotion to his former boss, Federico Fellini. Protecting the Fellini flame was his entire job.

The Fellini Museum, I'd been told, included a replica of the director's office, exactly as it existed at the time of his death in 1993. It was like one of those ancient castles one sometimes hears about that get transported stone by stone from the European countryside to someone's backyard in Connecticut or Hollywood. Except that, in this instance, it got moved from one room on the lot to another. One could say it was no longer his office, but a stage set of his office, which, given the context, seemed appropriate. This was a movie studio, after all. Artifice was its business.

I very much wanted to see the Fellini Museum. Day after day we made pilgrimages out to Cinecittà, and day after day our request was declined.

It is in Fellini's films that the city of Rome is most persistently present, conspicuous, self-conscious, over-the-top, perverse, and beautiful. He is also the filmmaker whose movies most often concern themselves with the act of making movies in Rome. Fellini's Roma, for example, features a camera crew trying to record images of modern Rome while evidence of the city's past incarnations keep intruding. Fellini stated that its inspiration was a dream. "I dreamed I was imprisoned in an oubliette deep under Rome. I heard unearthly voices coming through the walls. They said, 'We are the ancient Romans. We are still here.' " (I, Fellini.)

That phrase echoed through my travels in the city. To view the Mouth of Truth—and the long line of tourists in front of it—was to wonder whether we were all here to see the artifact or to see the thing that Audrey Hepburn stuck her hand into. "We're the Roman movies," said the voice. "We're still here."

Owen Wilson's Roma

One night i went to a dinner party at an apartment overlooking the Piazza Navona, just a few blocks from the Hotel Raphaël, where I was staying. The room was dark, and the table was low to the ground, everyone sitting on cushions. The host had decided to be adventurous and have a Chinese dinner. To come all the way from New York in order to encounter pineapple chicken in Rome seemed a bit cruel, but the table was beautiful, the faces around it glowing in the candlelight. I sat between Owen Wilson and Tom Dey. We were the Americans.

At the far end of the room, a large painting hung on the wall shrouded in darkness: an impish baby looked over the shoulder of a nude woman. There was some dim blue sky in the background. I heard some mention of "Tiziano."

I asked, almost as a joke, if the painting was a Titian, and was told yes, it was. Just a few months ago one like it went for $15 million.

Owen Wilson launched into a story about his day that made everyone laugh.

He had been invited to an advance screening of The Passion of the Christ. He showed up in jeans and discovered that he was the only member of the group of 20 or so people there who wasn't a priest.

"It was a little awkward; they were all in robes," he said. "And there were some armrest issues with the priest next to me. I mean, it's a long movie."

From what I'd seen, Wilson was a walking bubble of positive vibes and American good cheer moving through Rome. In Trastevere a couple of American college kids sprinted up to him with a DVD of Zoolander in hand, breathless from having run back to their place to get it. He made mock noises of horror at his partially nude body, signed his name, and then melted into the crowd. He carried himself with a pleasant ease—striking up conversations with strangers in bars, riding around on his bicycle.

Wilson was shacked up in a sprawling bachelor pad overlooking the two fountains of the Piazza Farnese. It was strewn with books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up and Leslie Epstein's San Remo Drive. There was also a foosball table.

One day I went to his place with a DVD of Fellini's Roma. I wanted to show Owen and Tom the famous last scene, in which a mob of motorcyclists drives through the city at night. It's a long silent shot and a spectacular little tour of the city, with familiar sights—the Capitoline Museum, the Colosseum, the Forum, and many other monuments—all lit up in a strange, unfamiliar spotlight.

Claudia Ruspoli had a part in that film and told me that the summer Fellini shot it she had dreams of the city illuminated. "Rome used to be a dark city, the monuments unlit," she said. "When Fellini shot Roma that summer, the monuments were all lit and we saw them at night for the first time. Beautiful!"

Tom, Owen, and I watched Roma. My eye kept moving from the dark circus-like images of Fellini's night scenes to the Piazza Farnese outside, all sunlit and idyllic. The back and forth was a bit like the movie I was watching. Film and life echoing back on each other.

I thought of something that Mark Pollard, a graphic artist in the Life Aquatic art department, had said: "When you're in Rome, the Fellini movies seem a lot less surreal. They just seem like life."

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