Rome on Film

Rome on Film

Coliena Rentmeester and Tom Dey The front gates of CinecittÀ Studios.
Coliena Rentmeester and Tom Dey The front gates of CinecittÀ Studios.
The magical dovetailing of real Rome and celluloid Rome predates Fellini. On location with director Wes Anderson, Thomas Beller finds history repeating itself

It was midnight and I was sitting outside Bar della Pace, located on Piazza della Pace, just off Rome's Piazza Navona, when Rino Barillari walked by. Here was "the King of Paparazzi," the most famous paparazzo in the world or, at least, the first, the man who supposedly inspired Fellini to invent the name Paparazzo, which translates roughly to "pest."

Even if I didn't know him, I would have fixed my eyes on him—there was a certain charismatic menace to the way this barrel-chested figure moved down the street. He spotted someone he knew, waved, and called out a goodnight without breaking stride; then he and his leather jacket disappeared around a corner into the night.

I had met Barillari 10 days earlier at the Café de Paris on Via Veneto. I was in Rome to visit the set of Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic (it opens at the end of the year and stars Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, and Willem Dafoe), and I had prepared by immersing myself in the city's cinematic history, of which Barillari is a peripheral, but somehow essential part.

By the time I'd arrived, an extensive photo shoot had already taken place, Barillari posing with his old-fashioned camera. The camera now rested on the table before him while he smoked and talked to a large, attentive audience that included his friends and interpreters. My companions, Tom Dey and Coliena Rentmeester, husband and wife, discreetly snapped photographs while Barillari told tales of his greatness. Every click of the camera sent a jolt of energy through him.

"Do I make money?" he said. "I have three ex-wives and two mistresses, so of course I make money!"

And: "Every night I drink twenty to twenty-five glasses of champagne. Last year I had a blood test and they found traces of spumante."

And: "La dolce vita is impossible to see or touch—it's a way of life."

About Fellini, he was ambivalent.

"In La Dolce Vita the photographers want to do the shot at any cost, without any sense of respect for their 'victims.' I don't recognize myself in this portrait. I'd rather call myself an 'images thief.'"

"Fellini was a real paparazzo himself," he added. "A great talent scout."

Later we all wandered up the street to Harry's Bar. Harry's (along with Café de Paris) was the scene of the original dolce vita, in the late fifties and early sixties, when Hollywood productions were being shot in town and people like Frank Sinatra were hanging out. Now there is a Hard Rock Café, and those establishments feel as though they exist within quotation marks.

At Harry's, Barillari was greeted with the warmth of a longtime regular. Downstairs on the walls are framed photographs of various celebrities shot mostly by Barillari on the premises. He took particular delight in one in which a starlet is mashing her ice cream cone into the face of an intrusive paparazzo who is, of course, the King himself.

"That," he remarked drily, "was a clash with Sonia Romanoff on Via Veneto in 1963."

Cigarette smoldering, he pointed to another picture: "This is Peter O'Toole, this is me, and this is his wife...I destroyed their marriage."

Scooter Town

In Rome, I like to travel by scooter. Rome is a town of surprises, of unplanned treats. The scooter is the ideal vehicle for improvisation. Up above there are swarms of swallows flying back and forth over the Colosseum or the Piazza del Popolo, vanishing briefly in the light like venetian blinds being turned from down to up, and below there are swarms of scooters buzzing toward the Trevi Fountain, or through the deliciously knotty streets of the Jewish Quarter.

My scooter shop is on the Via della Purificazione, near the top of the Spanish Steps. Its walls are covered with photographs of American movie stars on scooters. There is James Dean, looking sultry, and Charlton Heston, goofing with a big smile, taking a break from Ben-Hur. John Wayne sits somewhat incongruously in a Confederate cap. Rock Hudson looks demure in a military uniform. And then there is the famous film image of Gregory Peck with Audrey Hepburn holding on tight.

I had arrived in Rome on Thanksgiving morning, and the sky was overcast and prone to downpours. I peered at the wet, gray cobblestones and knew that the scooter would have to wait. Instead I bundled into a taxi with my girlfriend, Elizabeth, and Tom and Coliena and headed straight to Cinecittà Studios. It seemed strange to leave Rome immediately upon arriving, but I consoled myself with the thought that we were going to another kind of Rome, a sort of parallel universe.

There is the city of Rome. And the city of Rome as it appears in movies. There are the many archaeological layers of Rome. And, in turn, those many layers reflected in film. But when talking about movies in Rome, all roads lead to Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City.

The movie began to take shape within months of Allied troops entering Rome in the summer of 1944 and went into production in January 1945. It mixed documentary footage of German troops in Roman streets with the fictionalized story of Italian resisters on the run from the gestapo. Open City announced the arrival of the new aesthetic of Italian neo-realism. Federico Fellini has a script credit. Given the searing literalness of Open City, and other immediate successors such as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, it's a strange leap to the increasingly surreal cinematic experiments of Fellini's subsequent work.

Years later André Bazin, the French film critic, remarked in an article about Open City, "As soon as it formed, the skin of history peels off as 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."

The Widow

Days went by, and still the Widow refused us entry. At first it seemed merely a question of scheduling, but gradually it became apparent there was a problem. The problem was us, explained our contact, Carole. A former actress, Carole had blond hair in a bun and a perfect American accent, tinged with a languor that suggests she had been to many fabulous parties and seen much craziness. She is the head of global PR at Cinecittà; she was big-picture. She had let it drop that the studio might soon be acquiring that symbol of the big-time Hollywood back lot: golf carts.

"Someone told him a writer and director from America wanted to see him."

"And that's a problem?" I asked.

"He thinks that you are here to steal the idea for his movie," she said. Apparently, there had been temper tan-trums, denunciations, and refusals.

Tom Dey is the director of two Hollywood movies—Showtime, with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro, and Shanghai Noon, with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. I suppose this fact had been advertised to the Widow.

"Won't someone explain to him that we're just journalists?We're not going to steal anything. We're here to report," I said. "Giornalista!"

The word rang out in the press office, and immediately the notion that this word would be reassuring to someone who spent years working with the man who made La Dolce Vita seemed absurd.

La Dolce Vita is remembered for its iconic image of Anita Ekberg standing in the Trevi Fountain—that, and the wild partying of Rome's café society. But the movie is actually about the rabid, mercenary, attack-dog mentality of the paparazzi and the soulless journalists they work with.

There are many other celluloid journalists on the make in Rome, and none of them are terribly encouraging. In Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn plays a princess and Gregory Peck a reporter who, in desperate need of a scoop, strings her along in a romance while his photographer friend trails them, snapping away.

Perhaps the word giornalista was not going to be the key to getting into the Fellini Museum.

The American Hour

Cinecittà's fortunes waxed and waned, and in the late nineties it was privatized. Now it has a new management team and a new momentum. Scorsese shot Gangs of New York there, rhapsodizing about the skills of the in-house craftsmen. When we arrived Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ had recently wrapped, as had, in a curious bit of symmetry, Exorcist: The Beginning. Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts were due in a couple of months to start shooting Ocean's Twelve.

Why was Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, shooting his movie in Rome?

"I knew it would be beautiful and exotic and yet contained," he explained. "And I loved Cinecittà. Their traditions are completely out of sync with the way American movies are made. At Cinecittà you go in and you say what you want to do. Then they tell you what you can do."

Most of the Life Aquatic cast was installed in a concentrated area: Bill Murray had an apartment on Via Giulia, more or less next door to Wilson's place on the Piazza Farnese. Cate Blanchett was on the Campo de' Fiori, Anjelica Huston was at the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi, and Willem Dafoe was staying near the Pantheon. Anderson, characteristically, had secluded himself, in a villa in the Trastevere section. It was an unusual spot.

"Right next to a prison," he said. "It's in a three-hundred-fifty-year-old building. It's beautiful but it's also, you know, a prison.Whenever there's a soccer match on TV, it's as if the match is actually in the prison! You have three hundred guys all screaming at the same time."

Rome does not appear in The Life Aquatic as a location, but it permeates in other ways.

The walls of art director Mark Friedberg's sprawling and chaotic office at Cinecittà look like a collage made by a cineastobsessed with a peculiar meld of early-sixties Mediterranean glamour. There are pictures of yachts, white dresses, and tuxedo-clad men at casinos. Perhaps it's the mood of Rome's golden age as much as any particular location that brought the production here.

Outside Friedberg's office was a large room where a group of Italian and American draftsmen worked. I asked how he liked working with the Italians.

"Top-quality, totally great," he said. "Although there is the American Hour. Two to three in the afternoon, because there are only Americans working here then. For the Italians, one to two is lunch, but from two to three is coffee, talking to your friends. Who am I to judge?They've been living like this for two thousand years. Maybe they know something we don't."


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.

The Barber

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."

Pino's barbershop, on Via Piemonte, was very small, as was Pino. Several decades ago Fellini had dropped in on his way to Cesarina, a restaurant a few doors down that specializes in food from his native region of Emilia-Romagna. Fellini paid for his shave. Pino didn't have change. "So he came back for another shave," Pino said. "Time after time, until he became like a brother."

Fellini called Pino "Pinuccio." Pino called him "Maestro."

"Then, when we became closer, I called him 'Bambino.' "

His wife, who wore red lipstick, assisted Pino. She had on a nice dress, under a white smock, which, along with Pino's neat tie, gave the whole place an officious, precise atmosphere.

On the wall opposite the mirror were a series of framed drawings by Fellini as well as numerous photographs of the director. A small glass case contained several presents from him to Pino, who had done some acting of his own once. He said that he usually played the role of a barber or a prisoner.

There was nothing to do but get a shave and a haircut. Peering into the mirror, I saw the drawings and photographs of Fellini behind me.

Then I was rudely dunked into the sink face-forward. I thought this might have been a special treat for the American journalist. But I was intrigued to see several well-dressed businessmen getting the same treatment. One after the other, the men were dunked forward, their heads given a vigorous shampoo by Pino, and then yanked upright, gasping.

A particularly dapper man remarked, "He's really a psychiatrist."

Pino explained his philosophy: "Take life as it comes, with a smile, dance, sing...if possible, never be angry in front of women."

Eventually he closed and we all went down the street to Cesarina, where the staff consisted entirely of old-timers who all remembered the director. They listed his favorite dishes. For dessert, he liked something called ciambella.

"We don't have it anymore," said the maître d', Sandro Guerrini. "It's very heavy, and after Fellini died, no one asked for it anymore."

The Widow, Revisited

Roberto Mannoni, the Widow, steps out to greet us in a bright red sweater and blue pants, with a white beard and full head of white hair. He is reminiscent, somehow, of Santa Claus, if Santa had about him the aspect of a slightly underappreciated and sensitive man whose boyhood was still with him.

We enter the room that is the complete reconstruction of Fellini's office. There is a huge desk, above which hangs a giant montage of faces, all black-and-white, a crossword puzzle of head shots, some gorgeous and young, others disfigured, elegant, happy, somber; the whole pantheon of human expression filtered through a selective eye that always looks for the extreme, the vulnerable, the needy, the exhibitionist, and the unusual. A huge pea-green couch sits behind a low glass-topped table covered with neatly arranged magazine covers, all featuring Fellini. Giant leopard-skin pillows rest at either end. On the walls are storyboard drawings and photographs of starlets, with little drawn-in thought bubbles scribbled above their heads.

When I ask what they say, Mannoni replies: "I'd rather not say. They all have to do with farts."

"We met in 1967," he tells me, "when I was working on another production and we got a call from the Fellini set saying they had run out of film and could we lend them some. I was sent over with the virgin film, and because my father was then in charge of issuing permits for movies to be shot in places like the Colosseum, FF recognized my name." From this chance encounter a relationship blossomed in which Mannoni was a personal secretary and eventually a line producer—his first FF film was Spirits of the Dead.

Of Fellini's relationship with Rome, he says, "It was love/hate. He didn't hesitate to show ugly things: people eating, making noises, prostitutes, whorehouses, the weight of the Vatican, and the catwalk of the cardinals. He showed Rome the way it was; he never tried to make it into a postcard."

I ask how Fellini got such interesting faces.

"When Fellini made a movie everyone showed up. Security wasn't so tight then, and people were always coming in to leave their head shots."

And during some of the sexually unabashed scenes that populate Fellini's movies, did his actors ever get bashful?

"For him they would do anything," Mannoni says with evident warmth. "Often when I met the actors he cast, I wondered what he saw in them, but when I saw them on the screen I understood."

Mannoni finally reveals the plot for his own movie. It involves two lovers who come to Rome from New York. The man is an architect, and the woman is in love with Fellini movies and wants to get as much information about him as possible. She is, as I understood it, a kind of superfan, somewhere between scholar and groupie (always a fine line), so obsessed that her lover is at first jealous before falling under the Fellini spell himself.

Listening to this story about someone coming to Rome from New York on a pilgrimage to be in Fellini's aura, I have the odd feeling that life and art are, as ever, getting weirdly intermingled. Or should I say life, art, and Rome?

The movie is to be called Three Steps with Fellini.

"This refers to an Italian expression: 'Take three steps with me,' which means let's do this part of our lives together," he says.

It's a lovely phrase, I think, and I tell him his idea sounds good. I look up on the wall and see a colorful drawing of some Matisse-like flowers with the aphorism, "From FF: Accept me as I am, only then can we discover each other."

Cinematic Rome

The luxury hotel where Anjelica Huston stayed.
5 Via Girolamo Frescobaldi; 39-06/854-421;; doubles from $663.

All roads (in the historic district) lead to Popolo.

Specialties from Emilia-Romagna, at Fellini's old haunt.
109 Via Piemonte; 39-06/4201-3432.

A baptism awaits at Fellini's barber.
121 Via Piemonte; 39-06/488-4236.

Legendary piano bar where Frank Sinatra sang and film luminaries gathered.
150 Via Vittorio Veneto; 39-06/484-643.

Scene of the original dolce vita; just beware the paparazzi.
90 Via Vittorio Veneto; 39-06/4201-2257.

See the city by Vespa, as in Roman Holiday.
84 Via della Purificazione; 39-06/488-5485.

Unparalleled city views above; high-end shopping below.

American girls used it to find husbands in Three Coins in the Fountain; Anita Ekberg preferred it as a tub.

Setting for many a golden age film.

Baroque fountains, Renaissance palaces, and buzzing cafés.

The author's 55-room headquarters.
2 Largo Febo; 39-06/682-831;; doubles from $516.

A favored perch of artists and literati.
3-7 Via della Pace; 39-06/686-1216.

Not a holy set, but a holy site.

Bill Murray slept here. Nearby, Ristorante Coccodrillo serves updated classics to a hip crowd.

Owen Wilson lived here, beside the French Embassy, with its Michelangelo façade.

This quarter, host to Cate Blanchett, has a food and flower market.

Knotty streets andgreat restaurants. Carciofi alla giudea—artichokes smashed and deep-fried—are not to be missed.

Director Wes Anderson's neighborhood of choice is lined with trendy boutiques and popular bars.

Pinocchio's nemesis, and the portico where princess Hepburn tested the dissembling Peck in Roman Holiday.

Without it, the swords-and-sandals epic—from Ben-Hur to Gladiator—might never have been.

Mussolini built it, but Fellini made it famous.
1055 Via Tuscolana; 39-06/722-931.

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