A State of ‘Agreeable Disorder’: Temporary Film Studios in Post-war Italy

By Catherine O’Rawe

In January 1946 the Italian film magazine Star, in a response to a reader’s request for information on how to contact the country’s major studio, Cinecittà, advised him: 

It’s pointless to address your letter to Cinecittà. The celluloid metropolis has temporarily concluded its proud career with an act of true public usefulness: hosting thousands of refugees. […] Today’s Italian films are being shot in the strangest of places: cellars, sacristies, attics (Anon. 1946a: 6).

As the anonymous author noted, Cinecittà had been requisitioned by the Allied forces since 1944; it would not resume production until late 1947, and its hosting of refugees and prisoners of war has been documented by Steimatsky (2009 and 2020). Other studios such as Tirrenia in Tuscany, and Titanus-Farnesina in Rome were also under Allied control; Titanus would resume production in mid-1946, Tirrenia not until 1949 (see Anon. 1946b).

Much has been written about the globally influential movement of post-war Italian neorealism as an ideological rejection of the space of the film studio, in favour of a more authentic engagement with space and place, as part of Italy’s post-fascist ‘rebirth’. However, the reality is more complex: firstly, some of the films considered as canonically neorealist were shot partly in studios, such as Vittorio De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine(1946) and Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (1948), both filmed at Safa-Palatino studios. Secondly, it was contingency that forced this opening up to location shooting, which was also happening in other countries, as reported in Richard Farmer’s blog post on Britain. While there was a greater incorporation of location shooting, favoured of course by Italy’s mild climate, Italian producers and directors resorted to a variety of expedients for shooting interior scenes in this period, creating what film critic Italo Dragosei referred to in November 1945 as conditions of ‘grazioso disordine’ (Dragosei 1945). Dragosei went on to compare the somewhat chaotic contemporary production panorama to Italy’s wartime black market economy, when ‘you would go into a fabric shop and find soles for shoes, the barber was selling cigarettes, the tobacco shop sold shoes, and the milkman fruit.’ This reminder of the precarious material conditions in which Italy found itself at the end of the war serves to frame the following brief discussion of some of the ways in which productions used or repurposed existing spaces for shooting. It is backed up by former production director Clemente Fracassi, active in the period, who remembers a type of guerrilla filming: ‘since we were going round shooting you had to strike agreements to shoot in particular places, get permits, set up an electric current, almost like thieves, since the Allies were using the electricity to power hospitals and schools, and there were no generators, and hardly any electric light in most cities’ (in Assessorato alla Cultura del Comune di Roma 1979: 166).

Probably the most celebrated Italian film of the period, Rossellini’s Roma città aperta/Rome Open City, was shot in January 1945, when Rome had been liberated by the Allies but while the war was ongoing. While the film is widely known for its use of the working-class areas of Rome, most of the interiors were shot in a makeshift studio run by veteran producer Liborio Capitani. Capitani’s ‘studio’, on Via degli Avignonesi in the centre of Rome, was in reality a basement hall which has been variously described as a former horse or dog-racing track, or as a betting shop (see Forgacs 2000). 

Director Roberto Rossellini with screenwriter Sergio Amidei in Capitani studio during shooting of Rome Open City.

Many myths have grown up around the shooting of Rossellini’s film, but it is clear from contemporaneous accounts that it was a challenging process, due partly to the need to shoot at night because of electricity shortages. The space, like most buildings in Rome in that winter with little electricity and heating available, was also freezing cold. Vito Annicchiarico, the child actor who played the son of Anna Magnani in the film recalls the studio’s ‘downtrodden air’ (in Ramogida 2016: 33), and notes that it was located next to a brothel frequented by Allied soldiers, which became part of the film’s ribald legend. Dragosei, on his visit to the studio, noted that the door was opened by a maid, and that the empty space contained only a couple of spotlights to indicate that it was being used for film shoots.

A glimpse of the austere shooting space during filming of Rome Open City.

Cinematographer Aldo Tonti, although he did not work on Rossellini’s film, discussed it in his memoir, noting how the low voltage allowed by electricity companies was inadequate for film production, and Italians would respond by jamming the meters manually (Tonti 1964: 103). Tonti also remembered how the ACI studios in Rome had only two soundstages at that time, both of which were being used for shooting. There was not enough electricity for both films, so the productions had to take turns to shoot with look-outs announcing when the other had finished! (ibid.).

Makeshift and run-down as it was, Capitani was at least recorded as a film studio: in a 1948 MGM survey of film production facilities in Italy, it is listed in the lowest class of studio, as having no soundproofing and ‘some lighting equipment’. Many of the other spaces used for shooting at this time could not be described as studios at all; Dragosei (1945) notes the proliferation of ‘primitive and improvised studios, in the same vein as everything else on the Italian peninsula’. Among these we can count the gym in Bari in southern Italy converted into a sound stage for the film L’amante del male/The Lover of Evil (Bianchi Montero, 1946), or in Turin, a gym that was repurposed by director Alberto Lattuada for his noir neorealist classic Il bandito/The Bandit in the same year. Aldo Tonti, the director of photography on Lattuada’s film, complained (1964: 113) about the lack of soundproofing in the gym, with noises constantly coming in from the street, while it was also impossible to keep the daylight out. 

Problems were also caused in many of these buildings by lack of adequate space, not least for the many electrical cables required. A correspondent from the magazine Film d’oggi visited the shoot of the Resistance film Il sole sorge ancora/Outcry, being directed by Aldo Vergano in December 1945; shooting was taking place in a real Milanese brothel, transformed by production director Giacinto Solito into a studio, and the journalist immediately noted the cables snaking dangerously up and down the stairs ‘like snakes’ and the blinding glare of lights everywhere in the small space (Anon. 1945). Shooting was also disrupted during the journalist’s visit, comically, by the arrival of real patrons of the brothel, something that is apocryphally related about Rome Open City as well.

Rogue cables also proved problematic on the set of the comedy Che distinta famiglia!/What a Distinguished Family, shot in August 1945 in the former MGM dubbing studio in Rome. It seems that this small studio, formerly used by MGM only for post-synchronization work, was now being used for shooting, due to the absence of viable alternatives. The journalist visiting the set for Film d’oggi reports that the actors gather around the ‘improvised bar’ upstairs (no staff canteen here!), and notes that while the actors consume only cappuccino and pastries, they look on enviously as a visiting producer enjoys savoury supplì in front of them (Guerrini 1945a). Meanwhile downstairs, director of photography Anchise Brizzi trips over a cable and falls to the floor, cursing the lack of space.

Actors and director play rock, paper, scissors during a break in shooting in the cramped space of the former MGM dubbing studio (Film d’oggi, August 1945, p. 5).

Resourcefulness, like the black market, was everywhere: in May 1946, Giorgio Ferroni’s Pian delle Stelle, funded by the Italian National Partisans’ Association, managed to construct two sound stages in the town of Belluno in the Dolomites, complete with soundproofing and electric current (La cinematografia italiana, 11-18 May 1946, p. 12). While some of these expedients are attributed to the need for realism, others are admitted to be due to the need for cost-cutting: on his visit to the set of the film Veglia nella notte/Vigil in the Night, being shot in December 1945 in the old army barracks on Via Asiago in Rome, film journalist Tito Guerrini is scathing about the corners being cut in order to film on a tiny budget of 10 million lire, and calls the impromptu studio ‘a hut’ (Guerrini 1945b). It seems that filming was happening everywhere in this chaotic period: rather than build nightclub sets, it was presumably easier to go and film there, as was the case with Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan (1946), and Ferroni’s Tombolo, paradiso nero/Tombolo (1947). Castles were employed (the Castello degli Odescalchi used in Aquila nera/The Black Eagle (Freda, 1946), or authentic artists’ studios on Via Margutta in Rome (Le modelle di via Margutta/The Models of Via Margutta, Scotese, 1945). 

Although my focus has been here on the immediate post-war period, even before the liberation of Rome, shooting was happening in ad hoc spaces, following the occupation of Cinecittà by the Germans in September 1943. In March 1944, director Vittorio De Sica asked by the Vatican to make the religious drama La porta del cielo/The Gates of Heaven. He agreed, mainly as a way to avoid being sent to Venice where filmmaking was taking place in the Fascist Republic. The film was thus shot during the German occupation of Rome, partly in the cellars of the church of San Bellarmino in the upmarket Parioli district, and partly in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The long-drawn-out shoot, which included hundreds of extras, caused many problems, and the lack of proper facilities for cast and crew was a glaring one. De Sica recalled how he was perched on a crane trying to get a shot, all the time unaware that extras were relieving themselves in the confessionals! (De Sica 2004: 88).

Outside of Rome, a fascinating centre of production in the immediate post-war period was Naples, which saw the emergence of what became known as the ‘filone napoletano’ or Neapolitan genre. These low-budget films in a melodramatic and sentimental vein, specifically targeted at southern audiences, by the 1950s were being shot in Roman studios. However, as Gaudiosi (2019: 37) argues about the immediate post-war period in Naples: ‘many films had budgets of round about the derisory amount of 40 million lire, and tended to avoid studios, using very small crews’. Very little is known about these localised filming experiences, but it is to be hoped that information may yet emerge from the Italian archives, which would help to complicate and enrich the critical picture of post-war Italian film; the opposition between location shooting and studio shooting is not really tenable in the immediate post-war period, which is instead, as we have seen, marked by a strong tendency towards hybrid and precarious filming practices.

References

Anon. (1945). ‘Dappertutto Il sole sorge ancora. Ma non in certe case di Via S. Pietro all’Orto’, in Film d’oggi, 15 December, p. 4.

Anon. (1946a). ‘Servizio Lampo’, in Star, 12 January, p. 6.

Anon. (1946b). ‘La situazione degli stabilimenti di Cinecittà e Tirrenia’, in La cinematografia illustrata, 11-18 May, p. 5.

Assessorato alla Cultura del Comune di Roma (ed.) (1979). La città del cinema. Produzione e lavoro nel cinema italiano 1930/70. Rome: Napoleone. 

De Sica, Vittorio (2004). La porta del cielo. Memorie 1901-1952. Cava de’ Tirreni: Avagliano.

Dragosei, Italo (1945). ‘Cinema senza Cinecittà’, in Star, 17 November, p. 2.

Gaudiosi, Massimiliano (2019). ‘Cantate con noi: canzoni, pubblico e censura nel filone napoletano’, in L’Avventura, 1, 35-48.

Guerrini, Tito (1945a). ‘A Roma si gira negli stabilimenti della “Metro”’, in Film d’oggi, 4 August, p. 5.

Guerrini, Tito (1945b). ‘Si gira Veglia nella notte fra litigi e disavventure’, in Film d’oggi, 8 December, p. 9.

Ramogida, Simonetta (2016). Roma città aperta. Vito Annicchiarico il piccolo Marcello racconta il set con Anna Magnani Aldo Fabrizi Roberto Rossellini. Rome: Gangemi.

Steimatksy, Noa (2009). ‘The Cinecittà Refugee Camp, 1944-1950′, in October, 128, 22-50.

Steimatksy, Noa (2020). ‘Backlots of the World War. Cinecittà 1942-50′, in In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, ed. Brian Jacobson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 122-142.

Tonti, Aldo (1964). Odore di cinema. Florence: Vallecchi.

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