- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TURIN, Italy

Inside the Mole Antonelliana, the city’s biggest landmark, the Museo Nazionale del Cinema offers one bizarre experience after another. Watch David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” from a toilet seat. Stare up at romantic classics such as “Dr. Zhivago” — or the treacly “Love Story” — while reclined on a red chaise.

Included in the price of admission (about $10) is the chance to star in “The Matrix,” smack in the middle of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as they do that very smooth, slow-motion, too-cool-for-words strut.

Granted, it’s not Olympic downhill, but while the Winter Games are going on across this northwestern city and in the Alps behind it, there are plenty of tourists looking for a little non-sports culture.

The National Cinema Museum leaves patrons awe-struck with gorgeous architecture, luminous lighting and six floors of historical, visual innovations from shadow puppets to Sophia Loren.

The entire experience is a bit like lying on your couch and finding yourself plopped into the middle of a Federico Fellini movie.

He’s here, too. Laminated copies of scripts from his movies occupy one exhibit. Photographs of Mr. Fellini taken on various sets are seemingly everywhere. There is an entire shelf of videos for sale in the gift shop, from Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita” to “8,” with the aforementioned Italian leading man and Anouk Aimee.

There are more than 9,000 artifacts — an appropriately impressive collection for a city that is the birthplace of Italian moviemaking. But a lot more fun than simply looking at things are the interactive shows.

Like being able to walk into “The Matrix” thanks to a video camera that superimposes my image onto a movie screen, where it is flanked by Neo and Trinity in all their black-shades-and-black-leather-duster-coats glory.

On a recent afternoon, a young Italian man donned sunglasses, bent his knees, wiggled his hips and tried to mimic Mr. Reeves.

His girlfriend doubled over with laughter, then dutifully held up a cell-phone camera to take his photograph.

Up next were two young French boys whose heads barely reached the knees of Miss Moss and Mr. Reeves. The children scrunched their faces, squared their shoulders and did their best to seem tough. Then they collapsed in a giggling heap.

There’s also a lot of memorabilia, including props, film cameras and an ample black bustier worn by Marilyn Monroe in several films, next to a Mexican-silver-and-abalone bracelet inscribed “To Marilyn Love Frank.”

Frank who? Visitors aren’t told.

The head scarf and flowing muslin caftan worn by Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” is mounted behind glass, with a quote from the actor on its comfort: “I practically turned into a transvestite! I thought I’d end up running around in a nightie for the rest of my days!”

Particularly striking is the “Bombetta di Charles Chaplin,” a black felt bowler with a frayed satin headband that came from actress Gloria Swanson, who said the diminutive genius gave it to her himself.

At 549 feet, the Mole Antonelliana is Europe’s tallest brick-and-iron building. Inside is a central courtyard with five mezzanines ringed by solid wood banisters. Sounds bounce from points along the vaulted walls — the unmistakable nasality of Woody Allen’s voice; the clacking of a screenwriter’s typewriter; Orson Welles whispering “Rosebud.”

A succession of video monitors display scenes from some of the best films in movie history.

On one, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara flounces up Tara’s grand staircase while Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler stares without shame at the backside of her hoop skirt; on another, Humphrey Bogart tells an impossibly beautiful and dewy-eyed Ingrid Bergman that their little problems don’t add up to a hill of beans in German-occupied Casablanca. Besides, they’ll always have Paris.

Mole Antonelliana — literally, Antonelli’s Vast Structure — was commissioned in 1862 by Jewish scholars as a synagogue. Architect Alessandro Antonelli proposed a very big, and very extravagant, house of worship. Six years later, with the structure not even half-done, he ran out of money. Ten years after that, he finally persuaded city elders to let him finish.

By then, it was well on its way to becoming a white elephant, and uncertainty abounded about the building’s stability because of the architect’s reputation for eccentricity and cutting corners.

For most of the 1900s, it was ignored. In 2000, after a massive renovation, the cinema museum, the only one of its kind in Italy, moved in.

Its new home is breathtaking. A glass elevator pierces the internal courtyard. Sleek black pulleys raise it to the rafters, then gently drop it back.

Another glass lift takes visitors all the way to the top of the dome’s spire, which affords a 360-degree view of the city and the Alps.

Lavinia Farnesi is a volunteer with the International Olympic Committee and attends college in Milan. Her college friend Salvatore Vinci also is a volunteer, and she has accompanied him to the museum because he wants, more than anything, to be a film director like Mr. Fellini.

“For me, cinema is everything. Inventing stories is …”

He wrings his hands, struggling to find the perfect description. He settles on “wonderful.”

How do they like the museum?

“Very, very nice,” he says.

How about the toilets?

Long pause.

“Strange,” Miss Farnesi replies.

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