Following Fellini’s Footsteps in Rome

A cinephile finds that the city comes alive in curious ways when seen through the master-filmmaker's lens.  
Rome
The magnificent Trevi Fountain is a baroque masterpiece, partly famous for its role in Fellini’s celebrated work, La Dolce Vita. Photo By: Umberto Cicconi/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty images

I exit Leonardo da Vinci airport as soon as my luggage tumbles out on the baggage carousel. I would have preferred to land at the old Ciampino, the airfield featured in La Dolce Vita, but nowadays it only handles select budget airlines. Hopping onto the express train, in half-an-hour I’m zipped into Rome’s heart of darkness, the brutalistic railway terminal built on a site where the poor used to be buried—suitably named Termini, the last station. It set the tone for one of Federico Fellini’s final pictures, Ginger & Fred.

Although I have never been to Rome before, everything’s so crystal-clearly familiar as if I’ve returned to someplace I used to hang, back when life was black-and-white like Italian cinema of the 1950s. Just up the road I pass the church Santa Maria degli Angeli, which Michelangelo in 1561 audaciously constructed from parts of a 4th century bathing complex. Spacious enough to accommodate thousands—Michelangelo incorporated the massive 85-foot-wide cross-vault, Diocletian windows and ancient pink granite pillars—it was a suitably dramatic setting for Fellini’s funerary service in 1993. Walking past it is as if Fellini himself is saying hello, welcome, bye-bye.

He lives on in his films, so I chase him through his beloved theatrical backdrop of Rome—a high of caffeine, nicotine, absinthe and all the films of Fellini. This oh-so cinematic Italian capital is a fitting town for cinephiles and I can’t help but get pulled into it by the tangle of flicks filmed on these cobblestoned passageways and sprawling piazzas. Picture-postcardish 1950s’ Hollywood romcom Roman Holiday and silly 2009 thriller Angels & Demons; or think of arty sleaze like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna, Roberto Rossellini’s neorealism and Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Mama Roma. Rome’s the setting of it all—including the 1970s’ Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Sabse Bada Zuari, and most recently, Bollywood pot-boiler Roam Rome Mein (2019). Here, even “pizza” can refer to a film reel, though Roman pizzas are almost as inedible as DVDs (note to self: pizza should be eaten in Naples where it and Sophia Loren were born). Instead I feed on celluloid as I wander through the streets of the most wonderful movie set in the world.

 

 

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Rome’s historic attractions are accustomed to cinematic limelight, “Bocca della Verità” (top left), or the “Mouth of Truth,” still sees droves of fans eager to recreate a famous moment from the classic Hollywood blockbuster, Roman Holiday; The entire city boasts cinematic charm (top right); An espresso (bottom left) at one of the city’s many cafés is a mandatory stop in Rome; An amorous couple dines at trattorias. Photos By: Davide Zanin/Shutterstock (man), Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock (Via Margutta); Ekaterina Smirnova/ Moment/Getty images (espresso); Kathrin Ziegler/DigitalVision/getty images (couple)

Vanity in Via Veneto

Compared to the action-packed motion pictures, the streets are surprisingly sedate as I walk up the Via Veneto, cynosure of the hedonistic 1950s era now remembered—thanks to cinema—as “la dolce vita.” Laid out in the 1880s, the slick magnolia-lined boulevard winds its way uphill where the erstwhile Sallust pleasure gardens lay: created by wealthy scholar Sallustius, friend of Julius Caesar, who spent his imperial leisure time here. These luxurious gardens can be glimpsed in a pit known as Horti Sallustiani near Piazza Sallustio. Around the corner sits the city’s grim Lutheran church on Via Sicilia, where legendary La Dolce Vita actress Anita Ekberg’s service was held in 2015 after she died a destitute, her home looted while she was hospitalised.

A few blocks later, I’m at my cinematic heritage lodgings, the Sofitel Villa Borghese, which occupies an 1870s palazzo that used to be Hotel Boston, haunt of A-listers such as Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor and Fellini himself. “FeFe”, as people knew him, loved hanging out in Rome’s luxury hotels. I have to admit, this one suits me perfectly too. Right next to Via Veneto, it has views over the landscaped 200-acre Villa Borghese Park (former vineyards of Lucullus, gourmet contemporary of Sallustius) and I couldn’t ask for a more convivial perch for my Roman holiday. Moreover, since it’s not a huge hotel, I calculate reasonable odds for my room having hosted celebs by the dozen.

 

Having Fun at Harry’s

In the 1950s, when the gloom of war was replaced by glittering evenings in Via Veneto, glamorous shops attracted the moneyed and hotels like mine were brimming with stars that came to work at the “film city”—Cinecittà—or just party. In those days one might have bumped into Orson Welles, Coco Chanel or Tennessee Williams. The street’s cosmopolitanism is highlighted in La Dolce Vita by glimpses of airline neon signs (such as Air India) and how Ekberg, during her press conference at Hotel Excelsior, is asked, “Do you practice yoga?”

Via Veneto saw a period of post-heyday seediness in the 1970s when busloads of celebrity-spotting tourists chased VIPs from its bars and it became a red-light district. Nevertheless, with the return of fashion boutiques and hep joints like Hard Rock Café – which appropriately enough sits across from the American Embassy (former palace of Queen Margherita of the eponymous pizza fame)—the downslide ended and it’s today a fun street that blends modern Italian style luxury with some significant traces of its past. As I pop out that evening to get some “dolce vita,” solicitous pimps invite me to sample lap-dances at their backstreet club. Instead I make my way to Harry’s, which stays open until 2 a.m., one of the bars to still have a 1950s’ vibe.

 

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The Trastevere area brims with a bohemian vibe and traditional trattorias. Photo By: Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty images

 

Released in 1960, La Dolce Vita was immediately hailed by film critics around the world as one of the most important masterpieces ever made, but unilaterally condemned by the Vatican for making fun of the church and, perhaps, also for promoting the flamboyant partying at Harry’s, Café de Paris (now shut) and Doney. The latter’s been renovated beyond recognition but it’s by the entrance that Marcello Mastroianni—Fellini’s filmi alter ego playing a tabloid gossip writer—gets beaten up by Hollywood starlet Ekberg’s hunky fiancé Lex Barker. The ex-star of such campy hokum as Tarzan and the She-Devil is even jokingly referred to as ex-Tarzan in Fellini’s movie. Homage to the film is paid in full at Harry’s restrooms, an exhibit of vintage cameras and superstar snaps to commemorate the paparazzi of yore that lurked outside. In fact, Mastroianni’s sidekick in the film is a yellow-press photographer named Paparazzo, after whom the universal sobriquet for pesky celebrity snappers, or paparazzi, was coined.

Harry’s lives on its reputation as the place where Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren and Anthony Hopkins let their hair down, and as recently as 2013 it featured in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty that riffs heavily on La Dolce Vita: an ageing journalist drifts through Rome’s highlife and nightlife, but unlike Mastroianni he’s looking for something that’s not superficial.

This weekend’s quiet. Although tempted to order decadent risotto enriched by smoked provolone and champagne, I spend the balmy night eating shellfish linguine (€28/Rs2,223) at a table overlooking the square named Largo Federico Fellini, where somebody has left a blue Maserati in the shadow of the antique Porta Pinciana gate. Back in the day, the quintessential neorealist director Roberto Rossellini liked to park his plush Ferrari there (even though he lived around the corner in Via Ludovisi) when he took lovers like actress Ingrid Bergman or screenwriter Sonali Dasgupta (who, coincidentally, dances in a sari in the first nightclub scene of La Dolce Vita) across the street to Doney for dates.

A lady in red croons in Italian (in those days Frank Sinatra sometimes sat down at the piano), red-faced Russians drink merrily at the next table and on the other side an elderly baldie dines with a pretty teenager busy with social media—after some time he shifts focus from his food and starts licking her ear. Turning to my own mobile, news has it the Pope’s gone missing (later found stuck in the Vatican elevator), which sounds totally Felliniesque. Am I an extra in some movie?

I restart the classic Fellini film on my phone for the umpteenth time and fast-forward through its Via Veneto-vignettes. Even though I see Harry’s in the background of the scene where Barker beats up Mastroianni, I can’t be sure if it was shot on location or if, as rumoured, Fellini rebuilt the entire street at Cinecittà. I make a mental note to go find out, but decide against continuing my revelry by dipping in the Fontana di Trevi—partly because I’m washed out after the flight from Delhi, partly because it’s a punishable offence… so rather than police lock-up I prefer my king-sized hotel bed.

 

 

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Be it the storied skyline (top left), Italian cinema’s beloved Cinecittà Studio (bottom left) or even the trams (bottom right) ambling between the Colosseum and the Oppian Hill, anywhere in Rome is picturesque if you look hard enough; The streets of Rome (top right) beckon for photographs. Photos By: S.Borisov/Shutterstock (skyline); Stefanofiorentino/iStock/Getty images (sculpture); Rarrarorro/Shutterstock (tram); Grant Faint/The Image Bank/Getty images (shadow)

A Flood of Flashbacks

My hotel’s roof terrace, which doubles as Rome’s best cocktail background at sunset, is where I breakfast on a spread of ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino and piquant sausages, hams and roasts, eggs Benedict or Florentine, artisan brioches and croissants. Since it stands at the edge of the Pincian Hill, it has panoramic views over Rome and the Vatican, distracting me from watching Eat Pray Love yet again.

From where I sit, I pick out Via di Porta Pinciana right below which featured in De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves (the bike in question is stolen a block away); further off is Castel Sant’Angelo in the shadow of which Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn dance in Roman Holiday before jumping into the Tiber; and I virtually hear the crunching of Daniel Craig-starrer Spectre’s car chase that wrecked £24 million worth of luxury automobiles in front of the Vatican church that stands tall on the horizon.

I step out and pass Hotel Eden, an 1889-style hotel where Fellini used to meet the press on the rooftop. Thirteen minutes later, I reach the picturesque Spanish Steps that somewhat incongruously ascend to a French church. In olden days, according to Charles Dickens, the cascading stairway was crowded with models dressed in Italian costumes waiting for artists to hire them, but they’ve been replaced by thousands of selfie-maniacs.

 

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The streets of Rome are still alive with the spirit of Federico Fellini. Photos By: Mondadori Portfolio/Contributor/ Mondadori Portfolio/Getty images (black-and-white street), NoyanYalcin/Shutterstock (colourful street)

 

It is something of Rome’s cultural G-spot: Keats died in the building next to the steps in 1821, Goethe lived around the corner in Via del Corso, Ekberg spent her film income shopping in chic Via Frattina (before going drinking at Harry’s), Rossellini’s wife Dasgupta ran an Indian textile boutique in Via Borgognona, while the baroque piazza with a boat-shaped fountain used to be Casanova’s hunting ground, and a pivotal scene in Matt Damon-thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley was canned right here.

Many local filmmakers frequented a hole-in-the-wall wine shop by the Spanish Steps, the Fiaschetteria Beltramme da Cesaretto (Via della Croce 39). Now a rather touristy eatery, it used to be a favoured drinking den of novelist Alberto Moravia. Unsurprisingly, his books were often made into films, such as La Ciociara by De Sica (which won Loren an Oscar for best actress), while Il Conformista was adapted by Bertolucci and is considered the director’s greatest work. Although the grub is terrible, it’s worth having a drink to imagine how these intellectuals of yore must have plotted their collaborations over bottles of wine. 

 

Fellini’s Homely Street 

Having slaked my thirst with a satisfyingly gigantic Peroni Gran Riserva Birra Doppio Malto, I’m ready to walk into the opening scene of any neorealist opus, the vibe growing as I cross Piazza di Spagna to the narrow Via Margutta. Artists used to have their studios here when life was cheaper in Rome, though most of us recall it from Roman Holiday. There’s nothing to mark Peck’s digs at #51 except pinups of his co-star Hepburn (who bagged an Oscar for her role) in the caretaker’s office by the gate. 

But the white building at #110, identified by a plaque with his doodles, is where Fellini lived with his actress wife Giulietta Masina. Married for 50 years, they collaborated on numerous films and died months apart. One can’t help but wonder if Fellini observed the making of Roman Holiday across the street and six years later did La Dolce Vita in response. Apart from the jaded gossip journalist Marcello who’s nicknamed ”Gregory Peck” in Fellini’s screenplay, Roman Holiday features a prototypal paparazzi snapping Hepburn in compromising situations — which certainly must have influenced Fellini.

The lane retains wrought-iron street lamps, arty boutiques and at #82, Osteria Margutta, which has served traditional Roman grub since the 1960s. One must check the backrest of one’s chair for any celebrity names inscribed on it—unless I’m mistaken, I sit where Hepburn always sat. Also, Meryl Streep, Errol Flynn, Ursula Andress and Mel Brooks are known to have sought refuge here from those touristy joints by the Spanish Steps. The osteria is also a key location for Woody Allen’s 2012 romcom To Rome with Love. For primi I eat a superlative parsley-sprinkled spaghetti vongole, which I am sure Fellini must have loved, and saltimbocca alla Romana for secondi, wine-cooked veal topped with Parma ham. A bill of €42/`3,334, including drinks, seems a fair price in this town.

Afterwards, it’s coffee time, and trusting my cinematic GPS-coordinates, I turn into Piazza del Popolo. People knew that unless he was filming, they’d find Fellini at Bar Canova—colloquially known as his office—and I sink down into a streetside chair, order tiramisu accompanied by a two-gulp espresso that sobers me up (€13.5/`1,072). The piazza is where Mastroianni and his date pick up a street walker for a joyride to the slums. Here, Fellini sketched passers-by as he scouted for cinematic types—well-endowed ladies or weird-looking gents. People-watching, I spot one pink-fur-coated plump-lipped lady with painted-on suntan, her flattering curvature tapering down to a waspish waist. She is snacking out of dustbins with relish. On the way to the washroom hang glass-framed Fellini sketches. Before he became a filmmaker, he was a caricature artist for a humour magazine.

 

 

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Rome’s famous Spanish Steps have featured in many a famous movie. Photo By: Maksim Ozerov/Moment/Getty images

Snapping Selfies Around Rome

Another great inspiration of the director’s was trams; Fellini rode on them for hours, making notes. The #3 starts nearby from the National Gallery of Modern Art. The €1.50/`145 ride becomes a supersightseeing of monuments: the Colosseum is glimpsed in almost every film set in the city, then comes Circo Massimo park at the end of which Piazza Bocca della Verità with its “Mouth of Truth” draws herds of selfie-obsessed tourists who, imitating Hepburn and Peck, thrust their hands into it. The tram crosses the river to Porta Portese that even today hosts a Sunday flea market, again a familiar sight from Bicycle Thieves, which, in neorealist style, was shot at actual locations instead of studios. Here the protagonist finds the thief but no bicycle.

The tram drops me off in the hipster-hood of Trastevere (meaning “across the Tiber”), near Viale Glorioso where Sergio Leone grew up in the 1930s. I snap the marble plaque identifying his childhood home, and wonder if he used to play in this quiet one-way with schoolmate Ennio Morricone, who went on to compose the haunting scores for Leone’s spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars, which launched Clint Eastwood’s stardom.

Having worked up an appetite again, it’s time for another Felliniesque meal and the old-school al Moro (Vicolo delle Bollette 13, in the old part of town) from 1929 is a must—Fellini loved their spaghetti carbonara, though I can’t see it on the menu. But it is Thursday, traditional gnocchi di patate-day, so I have the potato balls alla Romana in a tomato-ish meat sauce, plus the most Roman of dishes, Coda di Manzo alla Vaccinara, an orgiastic oxtail stew (incl. drinks €58/Rs4,600). Incidentally, Fellini enlisted the weird-looking bar owner to act in his satire on ancient orgies, Satyricon (1969), as Trimalchio—credited in the titles simply as “Il Moro!” The bar also played an important role in the making of La Dolce Vita, since it sits around the corner from Fontana di Trevi where Mastroianni and Ekberg almost kiss, doubling as a dressing room during the nights spent filming one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. Although it was winter and the water was icy, Ekberg jumped straight in wading about for hours, while Mastroianni (dressed in protective rubber wetsuit underneath his costume) reportedly downed a bottle of vodka before every dip.

 

Fellini’s True Home

Asked to name his favourite city, Fellini always answered Cinecittà; rumour has it he went even when not filming, just to feed the stray cats. So on the weekend, I trace Fellini’s commute from Piazza del Popolo to the southern suburbs and can’t help wondering if the municipality built the direct metro between his home and Cinecittà (a.k.a. Hollywood-on-Tiber) to make his filmmaking convenient—it’s unlikely, but the train whizzes me through town and before I know it I’m outside the largest studio complex in Europe. As a matter of fact, Cinecittà acted as herself in Fellini’s Intervista (1987), a mocumentary homage to the studio.

 

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A walk down the picturesque Ponte Sant’Angelo is a delight for the senses. Photo By: Vittoriano Rastelli/Contributor/Getty images

 

Although an early version of the camera-cum-projector was invented in Italy in 1895, it was only after Mussolini established Cinecittà, thinking that fascism could do with a cinematic boost, that Italian cinema hit the big time. Fascism crumbled, but cinema flourished in the heyday of Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini. To my joy, I discover that the complex that used to be government-controlled and off-limits has been privatised, so today tourists can go inside (€10/Rs790) to see where over 3,000 movies were canned.

To visit the 99-acre backlots one must sign up for a studio tour, there’s only two in English per day so check the timings online. We’re shown Teatro 5, the largest soundstage measuring 260 feet in length, and although Fellini’s quoted as saying “Rome is the most wonderful movie set in the world,” our scholarly guide reveals that Via Veneto was rebuilt inside, as Fellini felt getting permissions to close down the street for location shooting was cumbersome. The walkabout also takes in huge sets depicting aspects of ancient Rome, Assisi, Florence and Verona (a full tour of Italy!).

Cinecittà may be an alter ego of the eternal city, but its stars die. Fellini’s mortal remains were carted back to Rimini where he was born, Ekberg’s to her native Sweden, but Mastroianni is still in Rome and just before it closes at 6 p.m., I go looking for him in the vast Campo Verano cemetery (tram #3 stops outside).

I pass Garibaldi’s tomb. The posh Rossellini mausoleum contains his favourite actress Anna Magnani, who played herself in Fellini’s Roma just before dying from cancer. When I find Mastroianni’s simple slab, I’m a little sorry that he sleeps alone even though the women of the world loved him…I feel I should do something as I have started thinking of him as a buddy, but haven’t brought anything except an espresso to-go picked up at the seedy Campo Bar across the road in Piazzale del Verano. I pour half on his grave and dig out a pack of Player ciggies I had purchased in India, set one down like a candle that I light. I swear I hear a weak gurgling—and if it is not the accelerating of a bus in the street outside, it must be the star’s last sigh. 

 

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  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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