Like many outdoor screening series, the Rome-based Cinema America gathers hundreds of people during the summer to watch movies from around the world. This month, however, the group’s gathering turned into a battlefield. Following a June 16 screening of Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” four young men were hospitalized after brutal attacks by far-right fascists who singled out a victim for wearing a “Cinema America” t-shirt.
Four men were arrested following the 4 a.m. attack, which epitomized the mounting showdowns between Italy’s growing far-right faction and anyone perceived as harboring leftist sentiments. It has also cast a light on the resilience of Cinema America, a seven-year-old collective that has fought back against local hate groups.
Schrader compared the ongoing showdown to May 1968, when the riots across France resulted in directors protesting across the country and the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival. “All of a sudden, we’re having a battle that we had over 50 years ago, when cinema was at the forefront of politics,” Schrader said. “That is cool.”
On Thursday, the group circulated a letter of solidarity with its mission signed by several luminaries of the international film community, including Francis Ford Coppola, Alfonso Cuarón, Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe, Guillermo del Toro, and Spike Lee. “We want to express all of our support and solidarity to the boys and girls assaulted in Rome, to the experience of Cinema America, and to all of the youth that create a dialogue between the world of art and the people,” the letter reads in Italian. “It is unacceptable that there is still someone that thinks they can impose their view through the use of violence. We can’t accept a wound of this kind, inflicted not only [on] Art and Cinema but to the whole world.” The letter was organized by a number of major figures in the Italian film industry working to support the group, including Venice International Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera and Rome Film Festival director Antonio Monda.
The night after the initial attack, Jeremy Irons attended a Cinema America screening to present “Stealing Beauty” as part of a wider tribute to the late filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. In a fiery speech beforehand, he offered his support. “There are people becoming maybe too powerful and too rich and people who feel they are being forgotten,” Irons said. “That is our challenge. But the way to do that is to remember that we all eat, we all sleep, we all fuck, we all shit. We are the same, and we must let go of these violent political images which do no good. We must be careful how we vote — but, overall, we must be humane.” (Watch the speech in an exclusive video below.)
The assaults continued three nights later, when founder Valerio Carocci’s girlfriend, a local actress, was assaulted by an unseen assailant who pushed her up against a car and said, “Tell your boyfriend to keep calm,” according to a police report. In response, Cinema America issued a statement the next day that “We will never turn off our projectors” and proceeded with its scheduled screening of “Last Tango in Paris.” Carocci said the group intended to continue with the entirety of its summer programming, which is scheduled to take place at three open-air venues through the first week of August.
“One of the singularities about our experience is that every time we had some bad things happen, we always respond with positivity,” said Carocci in a Skype interview from Rome. “We are under attack because we can talk to the vast majority of people in a very bipartisan way. It is pretty clear that all over the world right now, there is some message going on that the use of private violence is OK. So we think they’ve been scared because they have seen that we can traverse cultures on the right and left by speaking to people through art.”
Tensions have been high in Italy with the rise of right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the League party. Salvini emerged as a major populist figure in European politics in the past year, and his party won the European Union’s elections to become the country’s dominant party in May largely on the basis of his anti-immigration stances. “In Italy right now, the conversations around immigrants makes people scary and violent,” Carocci said.
Cinema America is not officially a political organization, and receives financial support from both the city and the state, as well as sponsors such as the airline Alitalia. However, the group’s organizers — who are almost all in their 20s and early 30s — openly embrace antifascist sentiments, which has turned their trademark maroon t-shirts into a rallying call.
“There is a political dimension in that when we show the movies, we create events,” Carocci said. “We have debates with the audience about such themes as racism and solidarity, inclusivity, and the migrant crisis.” Recent screenings include “On My Skin: The last Seven Days of Stefano Cucchi,” a Netflix documentary about the arrest of a young man who was murdered by police during his incarceration. On July 4, the group will screen “La Haine,” Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 drama about racism and rioting in a French suburb, with the director in attendance.
Among the men attacked June 16, the one wearing the Cinema America t-shirt refused to remove his shirt when the assailants told him to do so. They attacked him with bottles and broke his nose. Another received several stitches above his eyebrow. “We talked to the boys and convinced them to go to the police,” Carocci said. “Then, we invited the whole city to come to the next screening.” Police raided the homes of the men suspected of the attack and discovered that two of them belonged to the far-right Italian party Blocco studentesco. “It’s important to say that we’re not the usual antagonistic and antifascist reality of the far left,” Carocci said. “We are attached to leftist values, but we’re very democratic. Our events are supported by many private companies.”
He added that the eclectic programming doesn’t espouse a single worldview, and has included everything from “Star Wars” to a retrospective of Korean director Kim Ki-duk. “We only use the art of cinema to make a political statement about a positive future for Rome, because people abandon staying home alone to meet in the streets and gather together to share this experience,” Carocci said. Last summer, the group reported that 150,000 people attended its screenings.
Schrader’s “First Reformed,” which was not distributed in Italy following its Venice Film Festival premiere, screened in Rome on a double bill with “Taxi Driver.” Shortly before the screening, Schrader was roaming the streets wearing a Cinema America shirt himself. Back in New York, he reflected on the ramifications of the group. “What’s happening here is something that is very reminiscent of what was happening almost 50 years ago, where a cinema movement is morphing into a political movement,” he said. “These kids can draw these huge crowds, get sponsors, charge nothing, and propagate leftist thinking under the radar. It has drawn the attention of the right wing in Italy, which is more than a wing now. It’s sort of the main building.”
Carrocci and his peers started the group in 2012, and gained wider attention when they occupied the historic Cinema America theater in 2017 in a successful bid to prevent developers from tearing it down to build an apartment complex. Since then, the group has expanded its ambitions and hopes to reopen the 300-seat Cinema Troisi as a year-round operation. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Carrocci has amassed folk-hero status, with some involved in the group’s activities suggesting he should run for mayor. “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future, but my first stop is to open this cinema to create an opportunity for all the people who work with us to have jobs,” he said. “Every one of us must do our best to make this city better.”