Italy: Location as a Protagonist Recent films use the setting of Bel Paese to evoke emotion

by Pierpaolo FESTA

Woody Allen calls it “an osmosis,” something that is not done on purpose. Something that little by little penetrates the subconscious. It can be about art or history. Of course, it is also about landscape – just like walking among the stones of Via Appia, sipping Chianti while enjoying the Tuscany countryside or swimming in the magnificent blue sea of Sicily. This dive into the Italian culture is like an epiphany, a big emotion that nowadays American cinema wants to find more and more.

To this day it is possible to visit Cinecittà Studios and walk through the set of Gangs of New York, a location still opened to public. The 1800s New York City lives again in polyester thanks to the master Dante Ferretti who designed it in 2002 for the epic movie directed by his friend Martin Scorsese. That sealed the 21st century perfect marriage between Hollywood and the boot-shaped peninsula. A dream that comes true thanks to the forty acres of Cinecittà Studios.

Two years after Scorsese’s colossal, George Clooney and his “ratpack” tried to score big robbing a museum in the heart of Rome in Ocean’s Twelve (2004). For many days Brad Pitt was running away from police, winking at every single take to his movie girlfriend Catherine Zeta-Jones in front of the Pantheon. While not shooting, he was having fun pranking his friend George, telling the crew they would have just referred to him as “Danny” or “Mr. Ocean” since he is a “true method actor”. A spirit of real fun has marked that movie, it was like those stars took the viewer into their holidays in Europe.

By then it has become a non-stop series of American shootings in Italy. A few meters from the set of Gangs of New York, there still lies a big Roman temple (always in polyester) and a Forum (the ancient Roman Square), used for the series Rome (2005), one of the most interesting TV productions of the last ten years. Nowadays that set is constantly reused for TV, movies or just commercials.

Literature adaptations: from Shakespeare to the vampires

It is not just about Rome, “The Boot” has been taken over by Hollywood from North to South. Sometimes it is about the umpteenth adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays – from Kenneth Branagh’s epic Much Ado About Nothing shot in Tuscany, to the new version of Romeo and Juliet shot in Verona and coming out by the end of 2012 – some other times it is about vampire romances, as the Twilight Saga (2009). Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon included some parts set in Volterra, Tuscany, where a dynasty of vampires (called The Volturi) tries to rain on the parade of Edward and Bella. On screen the location was slightly changed and the crew moved one hundred and fifty kilometers away to double it with Montepulciano, near the wonderful town of Siena.

The Vatican Mission

Adapting a novel to the screen can require unthinkable efforts. This is what happened to Ron Howard while shooting Angels and Demons (2009), the sequel of The Da Vinci Code based on the best seller by Dan Brown. Many of the sets were a combination of physical set pieces and green screens with the backgrounds to be digitally added later. The crew also built a replica on scale of Saint Peter’s Square in studio. Other exteriors were shot on locations: prior to filming, many crew members visited Vatican City as tourists and extensively photographed the city to capture as much detail as possible, knowing they were unlikely to be allowed to film there, so that they could recreate the sets as faithfully as possible.

Vatican is often doubled with another beautiful location, the Royal Palace of Caserta. A magnificent structure built in 1700s and recently used for blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible III (2006), as Tom Cruise tries to kidnap a VIP villain attending some Cardinal’s event. He can save the world, yet he cannot have the permission to film in the Vatican. Moreover Pope’s reign is usually targeted by horror directors, which inevitably come to Rome to “steal” some shots for their exorcism movies such as The Rite (2011) or The Devil Inside (2012). Jesus Christ and World War Two Matera, a town in Basilicata (southern Italy), has become a stomping ground for filmmakers searching for a biblical landscape, and finding it in the abandoned Sassi, the ancient part of the town that still looks like a city of two thousand years ago. That location has been used in order to film the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The most recent version is, of course, The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Mel Gibson, who blooded the Matera ancient roads representing the last days of Christ tortured by the Romans. Italy served also as landscape for war movies as Spike Lee showed in Miracle at St. Anna (2008), bringing to the silver screen the story of a group of Afro-American soldiers rescuing the Italians from Hitler’s army in Tuscany. When this happens, a director always risks to be questioned by local people. Lee himself was accused of altering history for the way he portrayed the massacre of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, romancing it with the plot.

It’s all about love

Of course it is also about love for the Italian cinema as it was showed in Nine (2009), the musical by Rob Marshall, an adaptation of Otto e mezzo by Federico Fellini. During filming, Rome was once again “conquered” by stars as Daniel Day-Lewis was flirting with his women, Marion Cotillard (the wife) Penelope Cruz (the lover) and Nicole Kidman (the muse) around the Eternal City. But when it is about love, it is easy to be predictable. The perfect examples are the rom-coms such as Under The Tuscan Sun (2003), When in Rome (2010), and Letter to Juliet (2010), movies that exploit just Italian landscapes and stereotypes, to balance a weak plot.

Waiting for Woody Allen

It was once titled The Bop Decameron. Then it became Nero Fiddled. Now it is called To Rome With Love (2012). The new movie directed and acted by Woody Allen, entirely shot in Rome, changed its titles at least three times, preferring in the end an audience-friendly title. After Paris, Allen returned to Italy, where he already partly shot Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You. He has chosen the most beautiful locations of the Eternal City and surrounded himself with a stellar cast that includes Penélope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, rising stars Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page, and Roberto Benigni, Italy’s favorite clown and genius that returns to movies, thanks to Allen, after a break of six years.

About the Author


Born in Palermo in 1981, he moved to Rome to become a movie journalist. He has worked for print magazines and online outlets. To this day he is a reporter and correspondent for the Italian website Among his passions Steven Spielberg’s cinematic dreams and Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian take.