Rome is the city of illusions. Not only by chance you have here the church, the government, the cinema. They each produce illusions...
—Gore Vidal, in Fellini's Roma
All the buildings at Cinecittà are a pale brown. The Italians are very good with brown, with the color of sunlight at the end of the day, but this brown was a bit drab. The place felt run-down. At Cinecittà there are no palm trees. Instead there are huge pine trees, and lying everywhere on the ground are pinecones the size of small pineapples.
The sprawling campus of a film studio bears a strange resemblance to an archaeological dig. Here was a medieval street, the façade held up in back by scaffolding. An enormous version of a 19th-century bicycle lay propped beside a building, as though a giant had just run inside to use the bathroom. We passed Teatro 5, the largest soundstage in Europe, where Fellini shot most of his films.
Finally, at the back of the studio, we came to a cement water tank. Oceans, lakes, and rivers had existed here on film, but now it was empty, no deeper than a wishing well. Along its rear was a replica of New York City's waterfront, circa 1863. The faded wooden shanties took me by surprise until I remembered Gangs of New York. In the middle of the tank was the surreal sight of a boat's prow pointing directly upward.
"That's Wes's boat," Tom said.
"I guess there is a scene where it sinks," I said. "I mean, given the angle."
I wandered around the Life Aquatic sets. The mood seemed to be good, though the production was getting a bit behind schedule. At one point an agitated voice from one of the offices filled a hallway: "We could get faster electricians in Rwanda!"
I met Antonio Monda at a bookstore just off the Trevi Fountain.
"I have glasses and a scarf," he'd said.
I looked into the faces of all the Italian men who had glasses and a scarf. There were a lot of them.
Monda is an extremely busy Italian film scholar and festival organizer who had just finished shooting a cameo in The Life Aquatic—he plays a very busy Italian film scholar who runs a film festival.
Monda was about to offer me his list of essential movies set in Rome, when he spotted an elderly gentleman approaching and rushed over to talk to him.
"Excuse me," he said when he returned. "That was Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of The Battle of Algiers."
We both watched as the director trudged up a couple of stairs to a glass door that was supposed to open automatically. The famous action director couldn't get any action. It was the exit. He looked up and down, left and right.
An awkward moment passed, and then he threw his hands up in the air and bellowed, "Vaffanculo!" He turned to us with a smile on his face and trudged over to the next set of doors. They opened, and Pontecorvo disappeared inside the bookstore.
Marco Benedetto, the managing director of the editorial group L'Espresso, is a gnocchi-shaped man who was situated at the end of the longest big-shot desk I had ever seen. You could have bowled on that desk. When I told him why I was in Rome he shrugged and mentioned that Fellini's barber was "on the other side of the wall," just a couple of blocks away. "You have to look closely," he said. "It's very small."