Few cities in the world have proved as irresistible to the auteur’s eye as Rome. With its heady concoction of magnificent ancient ruins, jaw-dropping scenery and ever-compelling contrasts between beauty and decay, the sacred and the profane, the Eternal City has provided the stunning backdrop to some of the most memorable moments in the history of cinema. This week on our blog we’re counting down some of our favourite movie locations in Rome, drawn from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters and cinematic masterpieces of the Italian neorealist school alike - but how many have you visited, and which are your favourites?
1. The Trevi Fountain, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960)
We couldn’t really begin anywhere else. In Federico Fellini’s landmark cinematic masterpiece, Marcello Mastroianni’s incurably cynical Roman paparazzo finds himself on a late night walkabout with the ravishing Swedish-American actress Sylvia (played by Anita Ekberg). Their route leads them to past the deserted Trevi Fountain, where the irrepressible Sylvia joyfully wades into the waters. Enchanted by the sight of her framed by the rushing torrent, Marcello follows Sylvia in and is anointed by her as if in baptism before the abrupt stilling of the fountain’s jets interrupts their reverie.
Cinema at its best, although the scene’s apparent sacrilege was too much for the Pope, who was duly scandalised. An editorial for the Vatican paper L’osservatorio Romano summed up the party line in its headline: “Basta!,” and Fellini was threatened with excommunication.
During filming, the waters of the fountain were so icy that Mastroianni had to fortify himself with a bottle of vodka before facing the freezing flow, and the actor later claimed that he was plastered during the take. No harm then that these days bathing in the fountain is strictly vietato, and cineastes risk being slapped with a hefty fine if they can’t resist the urge to re-enact what might be the Eternal City’s most famous movie scene of all.
2. The Bocca della Verità, William Wilder’s Roman Holiday (1953)
Roman Holiday is the quintessential Hollywood take on the Eternal City. Audrey Hepburn dazzles as the princess tired of living in a gilded cage who decides to escape the trappings of her station for a day with world-weary American reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Their ensuing whistle-stop tour of Rome’s most famous landmarks is as charming now as it was when William Wilder’s comedy first hit the silver screen in 1953, and the pair’s visit to the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) is the stuff of film legend.
After Peck explains how the gaping ancient stone mouth was an infallible lie-detector known to bite the hands off those economical with the truth, Hepburn proves her honesty. Peck then has a go, only to recoil in seeming horror as the mouth severs his hand. Hepburn’s ensuing shrieks were apparently unfeigned - Wilder hadn't informed her that Peck would pretend to have his hand severed in advance, and the scene was filmed in one take. To make up for the subterfuge, the diretor gifted Hepburn a golden pendant in the form of the Bocca after the shoot.
3. The Colosseum Arena, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000)
“Are you not entertained?!” bellows Russell Crowe at a jam-packed Colosseum crowd in the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator. This rip-roaring tale sees Crowe take on the role of Maximus, a successful commander in the Roman legions brought low by political machinations and forced to fight his way towards justice in brutal gladiatorial combats across the Roman world. In the movie’s climactic scene, Crowe takes on the criminally insane Emperor Commodus (played with undisguised manic glee by Joaquin Phoenix) in a seemingly rigged bout on the sands of the Roman Colosseum itself. Filming, of course, didn’t actually take place in the ruined amphitheatre: this was the Colosseum as cinema-goers had never seen it before, painstakingly reconstructed via state-of-the-art C.G.I.
Spectacular as it is, Gladiator’s digitally enhanced Colosseum is still no match for the real thing - these days you can even walk out onto the arena floor yourself, drinking in the awe-inspiring view that greeted untold gladiators as they prepared to fight for their lives in the blinding Roman sun.
4. The Baths of Caracalla, Paolo Sorrentino's Great Beauty (2013)
In Paolo Sorrentino’s oscar-winning love letter to Rome, both the beauty and the decay of the Eternal City are rendered in extraordinarily poignant detail. From Via Veneto to the Capitoline Museums, Piazza Navona and beyond, Rome sparkles in every scene: but perhaps our favourite moment comes from the soaring ruins of the ancient baths of Caracalla. Opened during the reign of the titular emperor, the baths were amongst the most impressive thermal complexes in all of Rome, a place where citizens of all stripes could come to bathe, rest and relax. In addition to the expected bathing pools and saunas, the lavish complex also included gyms, landscaped gardens and even a library.
In The Great Beauty, jaded writer Jep (Tony Servillo) arrives at the ancient baths in the dead of night, searching for a way out of existential crisis and impending mortality. Jep encounters a massive giraffe standing amidst the ruins along with a magician who explains that making the animal vanish is one of his party pieces. The magnificent disappearing animal becomes a metaphor for the city of Rome itself, beautiful but illusory: “è solo un trucco” (it’s only a trick). In Rome, reality and spectacle are inextricably intertwined, two sides of the same coin. Sorrentino captures the paradox like nobody else.
5. Piazza Navona, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
You get the feeling that the Hollywood A-listers starring in Anthony Minghella’s deliciously dark take on Patricia Highsmith’s pitch-black thriller had a blast filming in some of the most beautiful corners of Italy, from the twin island paradises of Ischia and Procida to sumptuous canal-side cafes and hotels in Venice and yes, downtown Rome.
Jude Law and Matt Damon do ‘l’Americano’ in a vibrant jazz bar (Rome’s Caffè Latino taking the place of the film’s fictional Neapolitan haunt “Vesuvio”), whilst Damon subsequently lives it up in the luxe St. Regis hotel off Piazza della Repubblica, drags a body across Piazza Mattei and strolls down the Spanish Steps with Gwyneth Paltrow. But it’s the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman who steals the show as the brash and malevolent Freddie Miles, most memorably when he pulls up to a caffe on Piazza Navona, parking his Alfa Romeo convertible right in front of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers to the indignation of local onlookers.
6. EUR, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962)
A fascinating relic of a Rome that never came to be, the spectacular modernist EUR quarter in Rome’s southern outskirts is a must-visit for architectural enthusiasts. Built at the behest of Benito Mussolini as he sought to recast Rome in the guise of a new imperial capital, EUR’s striking and monumental hyper-rationalist forms offer a fascinating contrast to the crumbling ancient ruins and honeyed Baroque churches of the city centre.
Little wonder that the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni cast EUR’s still-unfinished buildings, deserted boulevards and immense futurist statues as a cipher for existential angst in the key scenes of his 1962 masterpiece l’Eclisse. In the film’s opening shots we see Vittoria breaking up with Riccardo in the lifeless surroundings of his new apartment in the quarter, whilst the climax of the movie takes us back to EUR’s sterile streets.
7. The Pantheon, Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons (2009)
In which the dubiously qualified “symbologist” Robert Langdon gets things horribly wrong under the beady gaze of the Pantheon’s oculus. Probably the most impressive testament to the architectural credentials of ancient Rome, the stunning circular edifice was one of the city’s pre-eminent temples, dedicated to all the gods of the Roman pantheon.
Hot (or not so hot) on the trail of Illuminati terrorists, a bewildering trail of clues gleaned from a Galileo codex leads Tom Hanks’ Langdon to Raphael’s grave at the Pantheon. Unfortunately Langdon has got the wrong end of the stick: the trail should have instead led him to the Raphael-designed Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo across town, where one of the abducted cardinals was being choked to death on a mouthful of dirt. Oh well, you can’t win them all!
Through Eternity offer award-winning guided walks in Rome led by local experts. We are more than happy to customise itineraries to suit the interests of our clients, so if you want to follow in the footsteps of the great movies filmed here in Rome get in touch today and we’ll be delighted to come up with a personalised private tour for you!