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How Student Squatters Saved A Classic Roman Cinema

An old cinema in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood was abandoned until a group of students refurbished it to give new life to masterpieces of the past. But they never anticipated what would happen next.

Renovating Rome's Cinema America
Renovating Rome's Cinema America
Marcelle Padovani

ROME — It's a typical 1950s cinema, with red bricks, neon lights and 700 vintage seats, an institution in Rome's bohemian Trastevere neighborhood. The Cinema America was closed for 14 long years, until the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2012, when Valerio Carocci, a 21-year-old student in communication sciences, took possession of the building together with some 50 other students.

People in Trastevere expected that it would eventually be turned into a parking lot or luxury flats. Instead, the students wanted to resurrect a place where Roman culture and entertainment were celebrated.

So, equipped with pickaxes, iron bars and drills, the students broke the bolt on the Cinema America and moved in so they could clean the building and repaint the walls. Residents praised them for their work and even helped finance the refurbishment. Four months later, the cinema reopened its doors.

Soon, the America was running at full capacity. Young and old alike rejoiced at the opportunity to watch old classics such as Rossellini's Rome, Open City, Pasolini's Accattone or Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for just 2 euros ($2.30).

Besides Carocci, Luisa, Lorenzo, Valerio II, Alessandro and many others were involved with the cinema's rebirth. Until the project came along, some of the students spent their afternoons wandering about in Rome's historical center thinking about refurbishing abandoned buildings. After six months of scouting and spotting, they finally set their hearts on the America, one of the capital's biggest cinemas.

Inside Rome's Cinema America — Photo: Cinema America Occupato

"Don't put too much in your backpacks," Carocci told his friends before they became squatters on the site. "Three pairs of underwear and socks and a sleeping bag." The young man prepared and executed the mission methodically, so well in fact that the daily La Repubblica described him as an "expert squatter."

But he and his friends only occupied the site after negotiations with the city administration and the cinema owners failed. And most importantly, Carocci managed to win the impressive support of the crème de la crème of Italian cinema — Ettore Scola, Paolo Sorrentino, Matteo Garrone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi and the Taviani brothers.

Friends in high places

The group forged strong links with producers, distributors, actors, directors, scriptwriters, all alarmed at the growing number of cinemas disappearing in the Italian capital. No fewer than 42 had shuttered over the course of just 10 years.

Even English film director Ken Loach, who was in Rome in late December 2014 to present his film Jimmy’s Hall, praised the Cinema America adventure and the youth behind it. "They're defending art and are proving prejudices about young people wrong," he said. "There's an umbilical cord connecting what's happening on screen to what's happening in the street, and we must protect this link with every means possible. With them."

Photo: Cinema America Occupato Facebook page

If the squatting was illegal, Carocci and his friends have since been careful to abide by the law and security norms. Opposed to all forms of violence, they're careful to keep at bay any protest groups who might want to pick up on the movement.

The enterprise turned Carocci into a hero of sorts whom journalists from London and New York have come to interview. And he's visibly pleased to be in the limelight to present his ideas, not just about cinema, but also about culture in general, youth, Rome and Italy.

The Cinema America's logo and motto reads, "Hic sunt leones" ("Here lie the lions"). It's also prominent on its website, which the students created. Visitors can find out more about the theater's history, the program and also buy T-shirts dedicated to the glory of the "occupation." The "expert squatters" also have a flair for business, it turns out.

Photo: Cinema America Occupato Facebook page

In the end, their sense of citizenship paid off. Authorities didn't charge them, and then-President Giorgio Napolitano even wrote them a letter offering his support. In July 2014, Italy's Culture Minister sealed the site's fate in a decree: Cinema it used to be, cinema it shall remain.

Curtain down

That's when things took a turn for the worse. Panic-stricken at the news that the students had received the highest authority's blessing, the owners filed a plea and obtained an evacuation order. It was executed at dawn on Sept. 3, 2014.

That night, Carocci was sleeping alone in the building. He swears he heard a policeman tell another, "I've never seen such a well-kept cinema." Police were obligated to haul him in, but he was freed the same evening.

Three days later, he began occupying a site adjacent to the America, an old bakery abandoned long ago. He set about refurbishing that, and very quickly began showing films and organizing debates there. At the same time, he began negotiations with the owners of the Cinema America, who had by then understood that they could never build a parking lot, a supermarket or apartments on the cinema site. But they wanted money. A lot of money.

"They bought the cinema for 2 million euros," says a friend of Carocci's. "And they're asking us for more than double. It's too much. We've offered them 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million). Most of it comes from donations, mainly from people in the film industry. We'll need to negotiate."

It's still unclear what the owners' decision will be, but whatever the end result, one thing is certain: Rome's film-loving squatters have the backing of Romans.

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