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Rome: The Picture-Perfect Set

From "Dolce Vita" to "La Grande Bellezza," a moviegoer's cheat sheet to Italian film.

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One spring day several years back, I walked into the Giardino degli Aranci, a small public park on the Aventine Hill with views to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The first thing I saw was a Franciscan friar talking on his cell phone in a colorful, expletive-laden Roman dialect. The second was a woman up a ladder in an orange tree, busy attaching the fruit to the branches with wire. It took a few seconds for the penny to drop: They were making a movie. The four-letter-spewing friar was an actor between takes, and the orange doctoring was because the seasons do not always stick to the script.

You get used to this here. The capital of the Italian film industry, home to the historic Cinecittà film studios, and the location for The Bicycle Thief, Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita, The Talented Mr. Ripley and a slew of others, Rome is a place where it’s hard to cross town without running into a line of movie service trucks. But it’s also a city where, even without such film props, you often feel as if you’ve stumbled into a movie, or perhaps an opera. Has there ever been an architectural style as theatrical as the Baroque? Or a crowd scene as precisely choreographed as a busy Trastevere trattoria at peak time? Even the garbage collectors ride their trucks as if they’re chariots out of Ben-Hur.

Last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s opulent, sar­donic, melancholic fresco of Roman life, La Grande Bellezza. Sorrentino, a Neapolitan who’s lived in Rome for years, understands the city’s bluff and swagger as only an outsider can. Told as a series of vignettes linked by the figure of Jep Gambardella, a jaded onetime novelist, it’s about a city both beautiful and vampiric, one that, in the writer-director’s view, drains the souls, the consciences, the libidos of its people and yet is so seductive, it’s impossible to leave. The cash-strapped aristocrats, louche nightclub owners and vitriolic socialites that Jep encounters are all reduced to playing a role, just as he is himself. Rome becomes a magnificently built, sunset-lit set for them to strut and pose in.

But although the city is a backdrop for films real and imagined, certain locations seem to distill Rome’s ability to exist as one long dolly shot. The following four have all earned a spot in cinema history. The first three are on any city tourist map, and the last one is some way off it, but all are places of striking visual power and atmosphere.

The Baths of Caracalla

The vast buttresses and ruined arches of the third-century thermal baths fascinated Federico Fellini, who used the remains of the emperor Caracalla’s bombastic gift to his fellow Romans in two films.

In Nights of Cabiria (1957), the touchingly sad fable of lost innocence, it is where ever-hopeful prostitute Cabiria (played by the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina) plies her trade; in La Dolce Vita (1960), it’s the location of the ancient-Rome-themed nightclub where Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) smooch to the strains of “Arrivederci Roma.”

Sorrentino also used it in La Grande Bellezza.Here, as often in Italian cinema, the ruins are a metaphor for decadence, admonishing the inadequate present with memories of past grandeur. At Viale delle Terme di Caracalla.

Via Margutta

William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) is a celebration of the city’s power to persuade even a well-brought-up princess to let her hair down—and then getit cut into a stylish bob.

Back in 1953, Via Margutta was Rome’s go-to bohemian location; so it was the obvious address for the bachelor apartment where the “escaped” princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, spends a chaste night with Joe, Gregory Peck’s hard-nosed but eventually soft-hearted newsman. In the Campo Marzio neighborhood, near the Spanish Steps.

The Trevi Fountain

Fellini understood something that is missed in most photographic reproductions of one of Rome’s most famous sights: It’s a matter of scale. The theatrical Baroque set piece in water and marble would be far less impressive if it were at the center of a huge piazza. But here, hemmed in by a tight network of medieval backstreets, it’s magical—especially if seen without the camera-happy tourists. That’s why in La Dolce Vita’s iconic scene, the director has Marcello and Sylvia stumble upon the fountain in the middle of a cold night: the vision of papal pomp and munificence is there in all its cascading glory. At Piazza di Trevi.


“I like to ride my Vespa through the quartieri of Rome,” says Nanni Moretti in his whimsical film diary, Caro Diario (1993), “and of all the quartieri, the one I like best is Garbatella.”

Few guidebooks send visitors to the 1920s working-class district in Ostiense, because there’s nothing to “see”—except the sheer charm of its rustic, garden-suburb housing and communal courtyards. After a stroll around, head to the nearby branch of Italian foodie emporium Eataly. In Ostiense, a 15-minute drive south of city center.

La Grande Bellezza, by Location

When in Rome, explore sites of the film’s famous scenes.

1. Tempietto di Bramante, in the courtyard of San Pietro in Montorio on the Gianicolo hill.

2. Palazzo Barberini (houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica), at Via delle Quattro Fontane.

3. The Acquedotto Claudio, near the Caelian and the Palatine Hills.

4. Palazzo Brancaccio, at Viale del Monte Oppio.

5. Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta, at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, on the Aventine Hill.

See the DEPARTURES Guide to Rome »


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