Last month, Cinecittá World officially opened its doors to the public. With the splendors of a once thriving industry now reduced to faint memories, the legendary studio apparently had no choice but to become the parody of its former self.
Founded by Mussolini to support fascism’s propagandistic ambitions, the studio enjoyed its maximum splendor throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, earning the title of “Hollywood on the Tiber.” From “Ben-Hur” to “Gangs of New York,” Cinecittá has been the backdrop of countless productions over the years. But following a steady decline, large parts of it turned into a giant graveyard of forgotten props.
The theme park sits in what once was an additional studio area built in the 60s by legendary Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis, some 17 miles from that part of the studio still in use. In 2012, when the construction of the theme park was announced, film production workers occupied the premises opposing the dismantlement of their workplace. Labor unions complained about layoffs and the exaggerated budget that could have gone into revitalizing the local film industry.
But for the business-minded powers-that-be, short-term profit comes first and culture comes later. The day the $800 million park was inaugurated, a protest organized by fired workers and sympathizers took place in a nearby park. Their slogan was, “The real fun is to make movies.”
Welcome to the Theme Park
Designed by three-time Academy Award winning production designer Dante Ferretti, the park welcomes its visitors through the reconstructed jaws of The Temple of Moloch from the silent epic “Cabiria.” (The moloch in the 1914 film devoured children, so of course it’s a perfect emblem to welcome people to a theme park, right?)
The management aims to get 1.5 million visitors in the first year and, depending on how things go, hopes to build a hotel in the area as well. At the Barber Shop on the reconstructed set of “Gangs of New York,” you can get made up and turned into an extra (“for the movie you have in mind,” as press materials put it). Beyond that, the range of amusements is vast: from dusty western sets to fake Roman ruins (notably, the real ones are not too far away from the park). There are also fictional war zones, rollercoasters, and restaurants.
On the fictional “High Noon” avenue, conceived by Ferretti as an homage to Sergio Leone, visitors are energized by a score composed by the master himself, Ennio Morricone. World-class talents that used to make movies are now making theme parks. Jean Marc Gonin, the correspondent for the rightwing French daily Figaro, wrote after visiting the park that “the place exudes the magic of the 7th art, Italian mastery does the rest.”
“We are investing in entertainment as a highway for development in Italy,” said Luigi Abete, the president of Italian Entertainment Group, speaking to reporters at a recent press conference. Abete’s organization runs both Cinecittá Studios and Cinecittá World. Investing in the future by turning the country’s past into a theme park seems to be the questionable strategy adopted by these “cultural entrepreneurs.”
Symptomatic of the kind of cultural policies and waste of resources that the Italian establishment specializes in, the theme park holds up an unflattering mirror to the general state of Italian cinema. The images of the inauguration might as well have come from director Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”: aging members of a “cultural” elite utterly removed from reality, complacently patting their backs and seemingly oblivious of the catastrophe they are presiding over.
The state of Italian cinema does not, in fact, warrant the uplifting mood that theme parks tend to invoke. In 2013, the number of Italian films produced in the country increase to 335, that of tickets sold slightly increased but the number of times people go to the movies went down.
The biggest box office success of 2013, the insular comedy “Sole a Catinelle,” is a film with no appeal whatsoever beyond the national borders, and wears that status proudly. The few directors who enjoy some international attention seem to have adopted a similar strategy to that of Cinecittá World, by wallowing in the grotesque decadence of a haunting past while the present putrefies before their eyes.
As the number of productions made with international support goes down, you can’t blame foreign players so long as the only two genres that Italian cinema seems to contemplate are “self-referential comedy” or “auteur cinema.” (The latter basically means one Paolo Sorrentino or Matteo Garrone film every two or three years.) So much for the rich tradition of action movies, inventive low budget sci-fi, giallos, westerns and so forth.
While the films that are popular among audiences are often ignored by the media and critics, those that fail to break even at the box office appear in every newspaper. The “Italian Oscars,” otherwise known as the David di Donatello awards, similarly exclude popular films to (self-)celebrate pseudo-arthouse films, the likes of which, thankfully, will never be watched outside of Italy. Films like “The Human Capital” by Virzì or “The Mafia Only Kills in Summer” by PIF are the perfect example of national navel-gazing with no hope or intention to reach beyond the country’s borders.
Like Hollywood, the Italian film industry is more risk-averse than ever, and content to reiterate the trite clichés of Italian sentiments for its own amusement. Meanwhile, revenue continues to plummet. And while the country’s doors remain closed to fresh ideas, the ones at Cinecittá World have just opened. Anyone interested in the state of Italian cinema is likely to find more accurate answers in this theme park than in any given movie theater.