Walking around Rome can feel like wandering through a film set.
World-famous monuments such as the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain emerge as though from out of nowhere, thronged all year round by well-dressed locals who mingle like extras around their bars and cafes.
With such an eclectic ensemble of ancient, medieval, and modern wonders as its backdrop, it’s easy to understand what Fellini meant when he said, “Rome does not need to make culture, it is culture.”
Yet the main reason why Rome feels like a film set is because so often it has been one. This article takes you through some of the most memorable moments from films set in Rome. Our tour begins at the crossroads of Italian cinematic history with one of Federico Fellini’s best-loved classics.
“La Dolce Vita” (1960)
|Photo Credit: Everett Collection|
Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is a true relic of cinema history.
Steeped in controversy, its use of blasphemy and portrayal of homosexuality dramatically divided opinion at home and abroad. So much so that when it premiered in Milan, Fellini was met with both cheers and jeers – simultaneously spat at and applauded by the crowd.
“La Dolce Vita” – “the sweet life” – is far from being the chauvinistic celebration its name might suggest. It is instead a satirical swipe at the hedonism and superficiality pervasive in the moneyed class of post-war Italy.
Though vacuously glamorous, Fellini’s Rome is built on crumbling foundations. Surprising then that little of the film was shot in the city itself, but at Rome’s film studio ofCinecittà.
Fellini’s“La Dolce Vita” does, however, feature some timeless cinematic moments shot in the city of Rome itself, the most memorable of which is Anita Ekbergwading into the waters of theTrevi Fountain inviting the enchanted anti-hero Marcello to follow her.
What few people know is that the scene was shot in March.
Made of tough Scandinavian stuff, Swedish-born Ekberg stood in the water without problems for hours; Marcello Mastroianni, on the other hand, demanded a wetsuit under his clothes and had to down a bottle of vodka before shooting.
Try following in Ekberg’s footsteps and wading into the fountain today, however, and the temperature will be the least of your problems. The Italian authorities have cracked down on tourists taking dips in Rome’s fountains, especially in the wake of recent waves of antisocial behaviour.
The most bizarre outbreak of recent times was a bout of fisticuffs between two women jostling for the perfect Trevi Fountain selfie. They couldn’t have chosen a more symbolic scene; for it would seem the superficiality Fellini chose as his theme echoes as timelessly as the Eternal City itself.
“The Bicycle Thieves” (1948)
|Photo credit: Pinterest|
Set in the poverty-stricken years of post-war Italy, “The Bicycle Thieves” is among the most powerful pieces of Italian cinema history.
Still considered one of the finest films ever made, “The Bicycle Thieves” is the defining movie of Italian Neorealism – shot not in the glamour of a glitzy studio but in the rubble-strewn streets of a wartorn capital, and with a cast composed not of actors but of Rome’s everyday residents.
The grittiness of the plot makes it a tough film to watch.
A destitute father lands a job putting up movie posters around Rome, for which he needs a bicycle. To afford one, his wife has to sell her dowry – a meagre offering of used linen. On his first day, however, a thief steals his bicycle and rides off into the crowds.
Setting in motion an odyssey in which a father and son make their way through Rome’s poverty stricken underbelly in search of a needle in a haystack.
|Porta Portese Market. Photo credit: Pinterest|
Just as the film’s critical acclaim has endured the years, so too has much of the set, including the bicycle market atPorta Portese where our hero first tracks down the thief.
Every Sunday the whole strip of Porta Portese Flea Market is buzzing with shoppers in search of trinkets, bric-a-brac, and, on occasion, bicycles.
Today’s incarnation of Porta Portese Market is much more modern and diverse than in the Bicycle Thieves.
And it’s not in black and white.
“The Great Beauty” (2013)
|Photo credit: NPR|
Paolo Sorrentin’s nostalgia-soaked masterpiece “La Grande Bellezza” is such a visual feast that virtually any scene would have done for this guide.
The film’s opening, with its sweeping panoramic over the city from Trastevere’s Janiculum Hill, might be the most obvious choice, or the view overlooking the Colosseum from the rooftop bachelor pad of our aging protagonist, Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo).
But one of the film’s most memorable moments takes place in the Park of the Aqueducts, just a few miles outside Rome’s centre within the national park of the Old Appian Way.
Our protagonist, a writer and journalist, is sent to report on a piece of performance art put on in the shadow of the first century AD aqueduct, the Aqua Claudia.
It’s a perturbing performance – the artist Marina Abramovic diving head-first into the stone aqueduct in what we can only assume to be an act of homage to the monument’s durability.
This is certainly not a scene I would seek to recreate on your trip to Rome (or in general for that matter). But for an insight into the architectural grandeur of ancient Rome, the setting where it takes place – the Park of the Aqueducts – is truly without equal.
“Gladiator” (2000): The Colosseum
|Released the same year that Mission Impossible 2 dominated the box office and Limp Bizkit ruled the charts, Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic couldn’t have come at a better time.|
Set at the apogee of Imperial Rome, it saved us from one of the deepest cultural quagmires of our own decadent times, bringing to our screens epic battles, unforgettable characters, and memorable quotes that endure to this day.
“Gladiator” does have its fair share of historical inaccuracies.
The vast open spaces that greet the emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) upon his return to Rome simply didn’t exist in the ancient city. They instead telescope back onto antiquity scenes from another bellicose culture that drew heavily on the symbols of Roman history – the Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party.
|Photo credit:The Redlist|
Scott’s rendering of the Flavian Amphitheatre – or Colosseum as it’s more commonly known – has no such inaccuracies. This might seem surprising, especially considering Ridley Scott’s Rome was built entirely from scratch on the island of Malta. But impressive as the Colosseum may be, with its pockmarked walls, absence of seats, and lack of floor, you can quite see why Scott deemed it unsuitable for filming.
Through the impressive use CGI, Ridley Scott captures the scale and dimensions of the Colosseum magnificently. Its retractable awning roof, vast underground and niche inlaid statues are all too often forgotten.
“Roman Holiday” (1953)
|Photo credit: Paramount|
“Roman Holiday” is a movie of many accolades. It was the first American movie shot entirely in Italy, it was the flick that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career, and it was the movie that embedded the Vespa in our collective image of Rome.
No mean feat, especially for a film whose plot isn’t all that inspiring.
Gregory Peck plays Joe Bradley, an American journalist who stumbles upon a sedated Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and takes her back to his palatial apartment – a plotline which in today’s environment would likely go down like a lead balloon today – on the fashionable Via Margutta.
This street was a bohemian retreat even before the film’s release, serving as the residence of such names as Fellini, Puccini, and, for a time, Picasso. Today, it is at the beating heart of the Rome fashion scene.
A slightly more famous set, however, and a moment easier to recreate without breaking and entering, is the couple’s liaison on the Spanish Steps.
|Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons|
For many, the most memorable moment in “Roman Holiday” is when Gregory Peck takes Audrey Hepburn to visit the Forum Boarium’sMouth of Truth. Legend has it that anyone who tells a lie before putting their hand inside the stone mouth will have their hand bitten off. Make sure to recreate the prank Peck plays on Hepburn –– a genuinely improvised moment eliciting a real shocked scream from Hepburn.
If you haven’t seen “Roman Holiday” I urge you to at least watch its trailer.
A fantastic relic of the fifties, it features such cringeworthily constructed lines as, “Come along, share their gay and giddy holiday, because all the things happen to them that you’d always hope for on the happiest day of your life.”
Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
“The Talented Mr Ripley” (1999)
|Photo credit: MovieTrip|
Since deception is the film’s core theme, it’s fitting that so much of what purports to be authentic in this film is in fact illusory.
Or as the director Anthony Minghella put it, “We filmed Roman locations in Naples, Neapolitan locations in Rome, Venetian locations in Sicily, sometimes by choice, mostly by force majeure.”
Hardly force majeure, but a big reason for the shift was that the film was based on a book set in the 50s. Just a cursory glance at the other films on this list will show you how so many parts of Rome are altered beyond recognition. And not just because of the architecture. The travel industry that pours so many people into Rome’s piazzas was not as democratic in the 50s as it is today.
Travel was in the preserve of the rich, and for better or worse the city felt more spacious.
|Photo credit: MovieTrip|
What is authentic is the shot over theRoman Forum – again appropriate to the movie’s leitmotif as the Forum’s famed law courts were public hotbeds of deception.
Also authentic are the scenes shot at Piazza Navona where the talented Mr Ripley (Matt Damon) first meets Freddie, a despicable upper-class womaniser whose close friend Dickie (Jude Law) Ripley later goes on to imitate.
But perhaps the most memorable moment takes place outside Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers when Ripley utters what should have been the tagline for the film:
“I’ve never been happier. I feel like I’ve been handed a new life”.
You can read all about Piazza Navona on the app TimeTravel Rome. Where it differs crucially from the film is that you can actually believe what we write.
“Angels and Demons” (2009)
|Photo credit: Empire|
As with all Dan Brown film adaptations (and, depending on your tastes, all Dan Brown books), the only thing that comes out well of this one is the city in which it is set.
The gaping holes in the plotlines, the relentless mundanity of the action, and above all the fact that Robert Langdon –– a Harvard professor with an eidetic memory who’s spent years in Italy solving riddles – still hasn’t picked up a word of Italian are pet peeves I can’t get beyond.
But doesn’t Rome just look fantastic!
It’s all the more surprising then, seeing this is the film’s only saving grace, that so little was actually shot in Rome.
The Vatican refused Ron Howard’s request to film inside their churches – ostensibly because the film was anti-Catholic, more likely just because it was crap.
Filminginstead tookplace for the most part on purpose-built sets in the state of California where the production crew had to rebuild both the interior and exterior piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica from scratch.
They had to do the same withPiazza Navona, where Langdon saves a cardinal from drowning in one of Bernini’s fountains. Given the plot up to this point, few would consider this an act of mercy.