Italians are going to the cinema less than ever according to Italian research company Cinetel. Yet, ironically, aficionados of the silver screen in Rome have rarely had things as good. The Cinema Trevi (near the eponymous fountain), which had been abandoned since the 1970s, reopened in 2003 as a state-of-the-art screening room and archive for the Italian National School of Cinema; the historic Cinema Farnese in Campo de Fiori has just been refurbished and reopened; the first international film festival of Rome will be held in October this year; and, since September 2004, the city has had its very own Casa del Cinema (or House of Cinema) in Villa Borghese.
This place was really necessary, says the venues artistic director, Felice Laudadio, enthusiastically. And its working really well.
The Casa del Cinema houses two main projection rooms with 124 and 64 seats respectively, which bear the names of their principal sponsors: Sala Deluxe and Sala Kodak. There is another room for conferences, as well as a large exhibition area, a trendy restaurant and cafeteria with indoor and outdoor seating, a bookshop, a DVD shop and a DVD library where visitors can watch any of the 5,000 DVDs in the archive on one of 24 special computer screens. The Casa del Cinema hosts film screenings and presentations or conferences with directors, actors and producers several times a week, and also private meetings and conferences for cinema professionals.
Laudadio is justly proud of the initiative, since without his unflinching tenacity it would not exist. Back in the 1950s, he explains, the project was the dream of famous screenwriters Sergio Amidei and Cesare Zavattini (who co-wrote classic neo-realist film Roma, Citt Aperta among others). Decades passed and nothing came of it until Laudadio became president of Cinecitt Holding in 1998 and raised the subject with then culture minister Giovanna Melandri. She was eager to help but every potential site she showed Laudadio was wrong; it wasnt the right size or it needed too much work. The project was also hampered by bureaucracy.
After the centre-left lost the general elections to Berlusconis centre-right coalition in May 2001, the project seemed destined to die, but it was at this point that Laudadio discovered that fellow cinema enthusiast Walter Veltroni was a candidate to become the citys mayor. He wrote him a letter wishing him well and asking him for help with the project should he win. Two weeks after becoming mayor he called to ask what the project was all about, recalls Laudadio. I told him and he said I think I may have just the place for you. It was this place. That is to say, the former Casina delle Rose, an 18th-century building located at the Piazzale del Brasile entrance to Villa Borghese which had been abandoned since 1976 and had, in its time, served as everything from a trattoria to cow stalls, and most recently as a nightclub. It looked terrible but you could see that it could work.
The city of Rome carried out restoration to the tune of 4.5 million. For the furniture and technological equipment Laudadio turned to the private sector, finding eminent sponsors such as Kodak, Deluxe, Elsacom, Cinecitt Holding and jewellers Bulgari, who together invested just over 3.5 million. By striking this balance between the public and private sector we were able to open, says Laudadio with conviction. This balance is what renders a cultural operation autonomous. The same goes for the day-to-day running of the venue, which is partly funded by profits from the restaurant and bar (screenings and cinema events are free), but also by the city council, RAI Cinema, Lottomatica and other private sponsors.
The Rome public has embraced the Casa del Cinema with open arms, so much so that Laudadio and his team had to abandon a system of membership cards for visitors in favour of entry on a first come, first served basis for the films and conferences. People with membership cards were being turned away, and that was just not on. The last lezione di cinema [lesson in cinema] was held by James Ivory, he explains. 800 people showed up; 300 of them got in and 500 didnt. And this was on a Wednesday morning. I would need a room with 1,000 seats to satisfy demand, he tails off. He believes some relief will come when the outdoor theatre with 350 seats is put to use, hopefully this summer. Films will be screened outdoors but the stage will also host theatre, music and dance productions.
When asked about the setting of the venue, just at the Villa Borghese end of Via Veneto, Laudadio says it is fitting. Via Veneto symbolises cinema in Italy. Over there is Largo Fellini, he says, pointing in one direction. And over there is Largo Mastroianni. He is slightly less gracious about the way culture in Italy has been managed over the past few years. We are no longer making real cinema, fringe theatre has disappeared, experimental music is dead, and well, you have seen what state our museums are in and they are one of the countrys greatest assets. He warms to his theme. The cuts made by this government in the cultural sector have been terrible. Rome is keeping its head above water only because it has a crazy mayor who wants to do everything anyway! But other Italian cities are in a very difficult situation and major cultural events will either disappear or change beyond recognition.
So is he worried that if its mayor changes, Rome will change as well? Something as consolidated as the cultural rebirth Rome has experienced over the past few years could only be destroyed by a mayor who was truly stupid, he replies with a twinkle in his eye. But, in any case, Im pretty sure Veltroni will be here for at least another five years.
Casa del Cinema, Via Marcello Mastroianni 1, tel. 06423601, www.casadelcinema.it