- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

ROME

Rome’s legendary Cinecitta film studio, home of “Ben-Hur” and practically synonymous with Federico Fellini, has survived through thick and thin to mark 70 years since its founding by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

However, Cinecitta has yet to recover from nearly two decades in the wilderness despite recent U.S. blockbusters such as “Gangs of New York” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

Glittery festivities planned for tomorrow will draw about 1,000 guests to the sumptuous set of the HBO-BBC television blockbuster series “Rome.”

The sprawling Cinecitta (literally “cinema city”), conceived as a rival to Hollywood, was inaugurated on April 28, 1937, by Mussolini, who saw its potential as a propaganda tool.

“The studios were born under fascism, and Mussolini understood that cinema could play a big role in propaganda,” Italian film expert Aldo Tassone says. “The aim was also to create in Rome a ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ where American filmmakers could come to shoot at lower cost.”

By the early 1950s, American directors were here in force, taking advantage of the vast facilities as well as the cost savings. Notable productions included William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” (1958) and “Quo Vadis” by Mervyn LeRoy (1949).

Italian directors also flocked to the studio, including Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti.

Cinecitta’s greatest champion, however, would be Mr. Fellini, who chose it for his biggest films, including the iconic “La Dolce Vita” (1960) plus “Satyricon” (1969) and “Amarcord” (1973).

Soon afterward, in the 1970s, Cinecitta began to fade as television productions rose, and it nearly went bankrupt in the 1980s.

“The studio really was at its height between 1955 and 1975. After that, production shrank from 220 films per year to about 80,” says Mr. Tassone, who is artistic director of the annual French film festival in Florence. “Italian movie theaters also suffered severe downturn. … Only one in five cinemas survived.”

It was not until 1997 — when the studio was three-quarters privatized — that the Italian colossus began a modest recovery, once again offering lower costs, professionalism and the allure of Rome.

In 2002, Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese came here to produce “Gangs of New York,” followed two years later by Mel Gibson for “The Passion of the Christ.” “Rome,” the TV series that depicts the birth of the Roman empire, is the latest megacontract.

Cinecitta Holding Chairman Alessandro Battisti has decided to sell off some of the space while sealing deals with television variety shows, and part of the complex may be the site of a new National Cinematography Center.

However, Mr. Tassone says Cinecitta is well past its prime. “Even if the trend today favors a revival for Italian cinema, the studios of Cinecitta have lost their spirit. Obviously, it’s interesting enough when Scorsese comes here, but ‘Ben-Hur’ was something else. Times have changed.”

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