Famous Movies In Rome: Seeking Out The Sets And Recreating The Moments
Walking around Rome can feel like stumbling onto a film set. World-famous monuments such as the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain appear as if from out of nowhere, thronged all year round by well-dressed locals who mingle around their bars and cafes like extras.
With such an eclectic ensemble of ancient, medieval and modern wonders as its backdrop, it’s easy to understand what Fellini meant when he said, “Rome does not need to make culture, it is culture.”
Yet the main reason why Rome feels like a film set is because on so many occasions it’s been one. In this article, Roman Candle Tours takes you through some of the most memorable moments from movies in Rome. Our tour begins, as is should with the city’s cinematic history, with one of Federico Fellini’s the best-loved classics.
“La Dolce Vita” (1960)
Photo credit: Everett Collection
Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is a relic of cinema history. Steeped in controversy, its use of blasphemy and portrayal of homosexuality dramatically divided opinion at home and abroad. So much so that when it premiered in Milan, Fellini was met with a mix of cheers and jeers ––simultaneously spat at and applauded by the same crowd.
“La Dolce Vita” –– “the sweet life” –– is far from being the jingoistic celebration its name might suggest. It is instead a satirical sideways swipe at the hedonism and superficiality then pervasive in the moneyed class of post-war Italy. Though vacuously glamorous, Fellini’s Rome is built on crumbling foundations. Surprising then that little of the film was shot in the city itself, but at Rome’s film studio of Cinecittà.
Fellini’s“La Dolce Vita” does, however, feature some timeless cinematic moments shot in the city of Rome itself. Without doubt the most memorable is Anita Ekbergwading into the waters of the Trevi Fountain inviting our enchanted anti-hero Marcello to follow her.
A little-known fact is that the scene was shot in March. Swedish born Ekberg stood in the water without problems for hours; Marcello Mastroianni, on the other hand, demanded a wetsuit under his clothes and had to down a bottle of vodka before shooting.
Attempt Ekberg’s aquatic entry today and the temperature will be the least of your problems. The Italian authorities have cracked downon tourists taking dips in Rome’s fountains, especially in the wake of recent waves of antisocial behaviour.
The most bizarre recent outbreak was a bout of fisticuffsbetween two women jostling for the perfect Trevi Fountain selfie. They couldn’t have chosen a more symbolic scene for suggesting that the superficiality Fellini chose as his theme echoes as timelessly as the Eternal City itself.
“The Bicycle Thieves” (1948)
Photo credit: Pinterest
Set in the poverty stricken years of post-war Italy, “The Bicycle Thieves” is an immensely powerful piece of cinema history. Still recognised by many as one of the finest films ever made, it’s the defining movie of Italian Neorealism –– shot not in a glamorous, glitzy studio but in the rubble-strewn streets of a recently liberated capital, and with a cast composed not of actors but of everyday men pulled from the streets.
The grittiness and simplicity of the plot make it a tough film to watch. An impoverished father lands a job putting up movie posters for which he must buy a bicycle. This he manages only after his wife has sold her dowry of (used) linen, but on the first day a thief steals his bike and rides off into the crowds. Thus begins an odyssey through the underbelly of Rome, in which the father and son take a dive into the depths of poverty to search the capital for a needle in a haystack.
Photo credit: Pinterest
Just as the film’s critical acclaim has endured the years, so too has much of the set, including the bicycle market at Porta Portesewhere our hero first tracks down the thief. Forget recreating the feeling though. While every Sunday the whole strip of Porta Portese Flea Market is buzzing with shoppers in search of trinkets, bric-a-brac, and, on occasion bicycles, the market is much more hip and modern. And it’s not in black and white.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Rome based, nostalgia-soaked modern classic “La Grande Bellezza” is such a visual treat we could have chosen almost any scene to feature in this guide. The film’s opening, with its sweeping panoramic over the city from Trastevere’s Janiculum Hill, would be an obvious choice had we not already written about it.
Or there’s the view overlooking the Colosseum from the rooftop bachelor pad of our ageing protagonist, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). But the memorable moment we’ve decided to go with is the one that takes place in the Park of the Aqueducts, just a few miles outside Rome’s centre within the national park of the Via Appia Antica.
Jep, a writer and journalist, is sent to report on a performance-art piece put on in the shadow of the first century AD aqueduct, the Aqua Claudia. It turns out, however, to be an unwittingly pretentious performance; the artist Marina Abramovic divingheadfirst into the stone aqueduct in what we can only assume is an act of homage to the monument’s durability.
This is certainly not a scene we’d suggest recreating on your trip to Rome (or in general for that matter). But for an insight into the architectural grandeur of ancient Rome, the setting where it takes place –– the Park of the Aqueducts –– is truly without equal.
“Gladiator” (2000): The Colosseum
Photo credit: YouTube
Released the same year that Mission Impossible 2 dominated the box office and Limp Bizkit ruled the charts, Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic couldn’t have come at a better time. Set at the apogee of Imperial Roman civilisation, it saved us from one of the deepest cultural quagmires of our own, bringing to our screens epic battles, unforgettable characters, and memorable quotes that endure to this day.
“Gladiator” has its share of historical inaccuracies –– a topic I’ve written about here. The vast open spaces that meet the emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) as he returns to the city simply didn’t exist in the ancient city. They instead project back onto antiquity an event from another warlike culture: one which drew heavily on the symbols of Roman imperialism –– the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg Rally.
Scott’s rendering of the Flavian Amphitheatre –– or Colosseumas it’s more commonly known –– has no such inaccuracies. This might seem surprising, especially considering Ridley Scott’s Rome was in fact built entirely from scratch on the island of Malta. But impressive as the Colosseum may be, with its pockmarked walls, absence of seats, and lack of floor, you can quite see why Scott deemed it unsuitable for filming.
Through the impressive use CGI, Ridley Scott captures the scale and dimensions of the Colosseum magnificently. Its multiple tiers, retractable awning roof, and niche inlaid statues are all too often forgotten. Which is why it’s all the more important that when you visit the Colosseum and its violent and intriguing history, you do so with the expert guidanceoffered by ourColosseum and ancient city tour.
“Roman Holiday” (1953)
Photo credit: Paramount
“Roman Holiday” is a movie of many accolades. It was the first American movie shot entirely in Italy, it was the flick that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career, and it was the movie that embedded the vespa in our collective image of Rome. No mean feat, especially for a film whose plot isn’t all that inspiring.
Gregory Peck plays Joe Bradley, an American journalist who stumbles upon a sedated Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and takes her back to his palatial apartment –– a plotline likely to go down like a lead balloon today. Peck’s apartment is on the Via Margutta, a bohemian retreat before the film’s release and the residence of such names as Fellini, Puccini, and, for a time, Picasso. A slightly more famous set however, and a moment easier to recreate without breaking and entering, is the couple’s liaison on the Spanish Steps.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
For many, the most memorable moment in “Roman Holiday” is when Gregory Peck takes Audrey Hepburn to visit the Forum Boarium’s Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that anyone who tells a lie before putting their hand inside the stone mouth will have their hand bitten off. Make sure to recreate the prank Peck plays on Hepburn –– a genuinely improvised moment eliciting a real shocked scream from Hepburn.
If you haven’t seen “Roman Holiday” I urge you to at least watch its trailer. Fantastically fifties, it features such cringeworthy and awkwardly constructed classics as, “Come along, share their gay and giddy holiday, because all the things happen to them that you’d always hope for on the happiest day of your life.” Give it a watch. You won’t be disappointed.
“The Talented Mr Ripley” (1999)
Photo credit: MovieTrip
Since deception is the film’s core theme, it’s fitting that so much of what purports to be authentic in this film is fraudulent. Or as the director Anthony Minghella put it, “We filmed Roman locations in Naples, Neapolitan locations in Rome, Venetian locations in Sicily, sometimes by choice, mostly by force majeure.”
Hardly force majeure, but a big reason for the shift was that the film was based on a book set in the 50s. Just a cursory glance at the other films on this list will show you how so many parts of Rome are altered beyond recognition. And not just because of the architecture. The travel industry that pours so many people into Rome’s piazzas was not, in the 50s, as democratic as it is today. Travel was instead in the preserve of the rich.
Photo credit: MovieTrip
What is authentic is the shot over theRoman Forum–– again appropriate as the Roman Forum’s law-courts were the most public hotbeds of deception in the ancient city. Also authentic are the scenes shot at Piazza Navona. Here, the talented Mr Ripley (Matt Damon) first meets Freddie, the despicable upper-class womaniser who’s close friends Dickie (Jude Law), the man Ripley imitates.
But perhaps the most memorable moment is when, while walking past Bernini’s central fountain, Ripley makes the remark that should have served as the tagline for the entire film: “I’ve never been happier. I feel like I’ve been handed a new life”. We cover Piazza Navona on ourRome evening tour. Where we differ crucially from the film is that you can actually believe what we say.
“Angels and Demons” (2009)
Photo credit: Empire
As with all Dan Brown film adaptations (and depending on your tastes all Dan Brown books in general), the only things that come out well of this one is the city in which it is set.
The gaping holes in the plotlines, the relentless mundanity of the action, and above all the fact that Robert Langdon –– a Harvard professor with an eidetic memory who’s spent years in Italy solving riddles about renaissance iconography –– still hasn’t managed to pick up a word of Italian are pet peeves I can’t get beyond.
But doesn’t Rome just look fantastic.
It’s all the more surprising then, seeing that Rome is the film’s only saving grace, that so little of it was shot in the city itself. The Vatican refused Ron Howard’s request to film inside their churches (ostensibly because the film was anti-Catholic, more likely just because it was crap).
Filminginstead tookplace for the most part on purpose-built sets in the state of California.The production crew rebuilt both the interior and exterior piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica from scratch. Fortunately you’re under no such constraints and can see the thing for yourself on ourprivate Vatican City tours.
They had to do the same with Piazza Navona, where Langdon saves a cardinal from drowning in one of Bernini’s fountain. Only getting the detail right was paramount as they’d already done some of the filming in the real one.
The nicest anecdote from the filming of Angels and Demons is that to accurately recreate the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, Howard commissioned 20 crew members to pose as members of the public and go in cameras blazing. Little wonder then that Ron Howard won’t be returning to shoot at the Vatican anytime soon.
Roman Candle Tours in Rome
Roman Candle Tours is based in Rome. Its guides, who have all made their home in the Eternal City, can draw from a wealth of experience that means they know the city like no others.
We offer a range of tours in Rome, including the Vatican, the ancient city, morning markets, and evening walks. We also offer trips to the surrounding areas, like Hadrian’s majestic imperial palace at Tivoli.
But if there’s something in particular you’d like to see –– or this list of movies in Rome has provided some inspiration –– get in touch and we’d love to talk to you about organising a tailored tour.