Who Can Save Cinecittà? Legendary Italian Film Studio Risks Losing Its Soul

Protests are rising against plans to convert vast tracks of the sprawling Rome movie studios that were at the heart of La Dolce Vita, both in real life and on the big screen.

Cinecittà film studio: take 2 or curtain? (rauladefez)
Cinecittà film studio: take 2 or curtain? (rauladefez)
Philippe Ridet

ROME - What do you do with something of such legendary status? Preserve it exactly how it is, at the risk of it becoming a museum, or attempt to breathe some new life into it?

Seventy-five years after its creation by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted something to rival the Hollywood "dream factories," the Cinecittà film studio on the outskirts of Rome is at the center of a new conflict. More than 200 employees are occupying the site to protest the studio's shareholders -- including Luigi Abete, president of the BNL, one of Italy's biggest banks in Italy.

On one side of the showdown, workers worried about losing their jobs (as decorators, joiners, sound technicians, dubbing and postproduction staff), who are denouncing "the break-up" and "asset-stripping" of the most famous studios in Europe. On the other side, shareholders who want to maximize their investments by transforming the studios on Via Tuscolana into a new and, in their eyes, more efficient enterprise.

Trade unions sneer at "the construction of supermarkets' on the studios' grounds, while managers speak of "reorganization" and "redevelopment." Negotiations are going around in circles.

To better understand the source of conflict, we should look back to 1997, when the studios and their grounds, once owned by the Italian State, were privatized and sold to four investors: Luigi Abete, Diego della Valle, Dino De Laurentiis and the Haggiag family. Back then, Cinecittà had already become but mere memories for cinema lovers: Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg romping in the streets in La Dolce Vita -- filmed in Studio 5, like most Federico Fellini films -- and Charlton Heston between takes on the set of Ben Hur, zipping around on his Vespa dressed in a Roman tunic.

A second life

The reality, however, is quite different. Television series and advertisements now call Cinecittà their home, while its film sets have been used as backdrops to ancient Rome, a Renaissance village or a shopping street. In 2000, Martin Scorsese's filming of Gangs of New York here seemed like a return to the golden age. Since then, however, few major movies have been filmed at Cinecittà. Despite its prestige, the fabricca dei sogni (dream factory) is suffering as a result of lower-cost filming in eastern Europe.

More than 100 major motion pictures are produced each year in Italy, but 90 percent of them are filmed elsewhere. "It's the film directors themselves that are ensuring the demise of Cinecittà by abandoning it," explains one studio manager.

The redevelopment plan led to an appeal, headed by director Ettore Scola, who has created a petition signed by numerous Italian and foreign directors (including Claude Lelouch, Michel Hazanavicius, Costa Gravas and Ken Loach), denouncing the "intolerable attack on culture" if it loses its cinematic soul.

"I find it almost touching. It proves that this place stays with you," said Emmanuel Gout, from France, who will be the chairman of the new theme park, Cinecittà World, which should open in 2014 on the grounds of the old De Laurentiis studios, not far from the Roman suburb of Ostia.

Luigi Abete will also oversee the plans for Cinecittà"s future that have proved so controversial: "Our intention is not to sell Cinecittà, but to make it more efficient," he says.

The shareholders are planning on building a hotel and a fitness center to offer more "amenities' for film crews. "Americans like to work out after a day of filming," one insider noted. Grouped into one single entity in the past, named simply Cinecittà Studios, different activities within the complex will now become independent companies "to have more flexibility and to maximize the technicians' skills."

One example is Cinecittà Allestimenti Tematici, a newly created company that will build new film sets for Cinecittà World. It was conceived by Dante Ferretti, Fellini's favorite set designer.

Finally, Cinecittà is hoping to enter the world of executive production, a project that has already gotten underway on a small scale with Woody Allen's new film, To Rome With Love. "Cultural heritage is a resource, not just a refuge for nostalgia," notes Gout. "Cinecittà is a fantastic brand that should be profitable."

That is precisely what is worrying those on strike in the studios, where a banner -- "Cinecittà Occupied" -- hangs over the entrance, itself a masterpiece of rationalist architecture. They fear their unique skills will no longer be in demand. At the end of the ongoing redevelopment, what will be the use of a set designer who is only capable of constructing Doric columns to look almost exactly like those of the Forum?

"This movement is absurd and reactionary," says Abete.

On the night of July 19, a fire started in studio 5, which Fellini had made his second home. Though not serious, is it a bad omen for Cinecittà"s future?

Read more from Le Monde in French

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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