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Cinecitta: City of illusions

THIS is a city where legends were created. This was where made-up men and women wove illusions to entertain and enrapture the curious and the not so curious. This was where some of the magic moments of life and living were frozen on film to be blown up on screen in all their awesome splendour.

Rome's Cinecitta Studios still reverberate with the sound of Ben Hur's chariot as it rode past death and destruction. Other echoes from the past are of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Cleopatra" and Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg by the Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita".

Fellini, the Italian master of the medium, is one director who is most closely associated with the studios. "As long as Cinecitta exists, I will feel comforted," he once said. Smitten during his visit to the studios in 1940 as a journalist, he would later insist on making movies there rather than on actual locations. Cinecitta even became the subject of one of his works, "L'Intervista".

Fellini often shared lunch with visitors on the sets, visitors who later stepped behind the camera, such as Roberto Benigni ("Life is Beautiful"), Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. And, it is perhaps the food and wine that Fellini was so fond of that whetted the others' appetite for Cinecitta, where these men would return later to dream, and translate it into two dimensional art form.

Scorsese's eight-month hectic shoot at Cinecitta in 2001 produced "Gangs of New York". The studios had not seen such a flurry of activity since the days in the late 1950s when Charlton Heston whipped his horses in "Ben-Hur" to race ahead in what is still seen as a high point in cinema.

Scorsese could have easily used the computer for his film, but he chose the hard way to build his 19th Century New York in Cinecitta. The American director is such a movie historian fired also as it were by Fellini and all his ghosts that he decided to come down to Rome with his cameras, crew and creativity.

Carole Andre-Smith, Cinecitta's International Marketing Adviser, tells me during my visit to the studios in Rome in 2003, that "Gangs of New York" was undoubtedly the biggest event at the studios since "Ben-Hur", and Scorsese's stars, Leonardo Di Caprio and Cameron Diaz, set the Tiber on fire, much in the same way that Taylor and Burton had four decades ago.

There are narratives of more comparisons, each delightful to the decimal. The paparazzi chased Diaz and Di Caprio, as they had Fellini and his heroines or Taylor and Burton. In fact, it was the outstanding success of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita", which featured a photographer called Paparazzo that led to the term becoming part of the lingo. And photographers displayed their ingenuity by dressing up as extras and sneaking into the set to snap Taylor and Burton together. DiCaprio was certainly pursued by the paparazzi, and heady with the excitement of late night parties, Di Caprio used to reach the set late. Scorsese used to be furious. But the arguments were not merely between the director and his young actor; they also took place over producer Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein's criticism of the film's spiralling costs and length. More than $ 100 million went into its production, and Andre-Smith feels that it seemed that we were back to the days of "La Dolce Vita", when Fellini was accused of lavishing too much money on his highly stylised ventures.

Yet, Andre-Smith avers that "the film would have cost even more had it been made in the U.S., and frankly the craftsmanship in Italy is unsurpassed". Especially at Cinecitta, where the six-time Oscar nominee, Dante Ferretti, is among those who design the surreal world. Ferretti learnt from Fellini how to draw dreams and from Paola Pasolini how to compose poetic reality.

The Cinecitta studios fell into bad times after Fellini and his fans faded away. The 1980s and the first seven years of the 1990s saw this fantasy factory slide down in an uncontrollable hiccup.

However, in 1998, when the Italian Government sold Cinecitta to private interests, the clouds lifted. Its facilities were upgraded and modernised. Today, it has 22 sound stages (Number Five, which Fellini adored, is the largest in Europe), two semi-permanent tents, 280 dressing rooms and offices, 21 make-up chambers and a 2,720,972-gallon exterior tank. A 25-acre exterior space, where anything can be built, and state-of-the-art post-production facilities make Cinecitta a marvel.

Which was Benito Mussolini's child. The Italian dictator felt that this his Fascist regime lacked the kind of propaganda machine which Hitler's Nazi Party had. Taking notes from American studios, Mussolini established Cinecitta in 1937. Of course, what was churned out of it was called "white telephone cinema" which showed a lifestyle few Italians recognised as their own.

In 1945, the Americans closed down Cinecitta, and this forced Italian masters such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittoria De Sica to go out on the streets to make their masterpieces, "Rome: Open City" and "Bicycle Thieves". This was the beginning of neo-realism, where Mussolini's escapism was replaced with raw truth. This was the birth of great cinema, and Cinecitta's role in heralding it can never be forgotten.

The studios reopened in the late 1940s, their gates could not be locked forever. Their brick and mortar hold so much of energy that a million more Fellinis could be creatively charged.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated July 27 2003)

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