By R. Kurt Osenlund
Before this year I had never really been anywhere. Well, nowhere worth gushing over, anyway, and certainly nowhere abroad. Indeed, I had traversed a good chunk of the East Coast – the occasional autumn train ride to New York, a trip to Georgia to see a close friend's family, winter flights to Florida to visit grandparents – but in terms of seeing the world, the farthest I'd gone was Niagara Falls, Canada, which, for those who've never had the pleasure, feels about as international as a visit to the mall food court. As I'd imagine is the case for many young, cash-strapped cinephiles, my globe-trotting had long been done vicariously through the movies. I'd cruised the corners of Spain with Pedro Almodóvar, toured the streets of Tokyo with Sofia Coppola, even been in and Out of Africa with Sydney Pollack, but never had I truly breathed exotic air. Then, this year, after much planning and saving, I hopped a plane to one of film's favorite destinations: Rome.
So fraught is my mind with movie memories, that everyday life is often seen in 35 mm. People, places and things never fail to evoke characters, settings and scenes. Travel is especially cinematic: waiting in the airport becomes a hilarious bit from Kevin Smith's Dogma, while being seated on the aircraft itself transforms into suspenseful sequences too many to number. But nothing, no prior evocative encounter or any in the foreseeable future, can compare to the epic spectacle that awaited me in and around that ancient Italian city, a place of such wonder and rich history, on screen and off, that even walking on its grounds has the feel of great drama.
I've named this piece after William Wyler's classic romantic romp, wherein Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck explore the two and a half thousand-year-old metropolis much like I did, scrambling to fit as many breathtaking sights as possible into a single day. But apart from that comparison, I've little personal connection to “Roman Holiday,” fine and fun a film as it may be. There are three films to which I have much stronger ties, and each of them is set, wholly or partly, in a once unreachable place that I was fortunate enough to see during my own holiday in Rome. Visiting these sites, I was able to not only return to those movies but, in a peculiar way, become a part of them, if only for a short while.
The Colosseum and Gladiator
Enormously popular during and since its release in 2000, Gladiator, a Best Picture Oscar-winner that sees a fierce Russell Crowe fall and rise as a former Roman general who becomes the ultimate crowd-pleaser, marked the triumphant return of the swords-and-sandals epic, a sub-genre that had been absent from Hollywood since the time of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and Wyler's Ben-Hur, circa 1960. For me, it marked the point when director Ridley Scott officially became one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. Already renowned for sci-fi standards like Alien and Blade Runner, Scott brought to Gladiator the same painstaking artistic detail and all-consuming atmosphere that highlight his most enduring works. Unlike his brother, Tony (who lately relies too heavily on overly-saturated colors and second-rate scripts), Ridley is a dependable supplier of fully-fueled transport vehicles – escape pods that take us out of our reality and into another. Gladiator, with its elaborate period production design and transcendent cinematography, carries us back to around the year 180, when Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were in power and the Colosseum, according to a character in the film, was “the beating heart of Rome.”
Today, the Colosseum is a monumental ruin, but the notion that it's pumping the blood of the city is very much intact. One of the most visited attractions on Earth, it receives millions of tourists every year and was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Positioned at the east end of the Roman Forum, it seems to draw in people and vehicles with magnetic force, pulling them down the Via Dei Fori Imperiali, a central Roman road that runs parallel to the Forum and extends to the Colosseum like a black-topped red carpet. When approaching the massive arena (which reaches a height of 158 feet and covers six acres), you really get the sense that you're attending the gladiatorial games of antiquity, what with the lines of eager spectators and the vast, vaulted archways still bearing their gate-denoting numerals. Inside, the floor and seats of the ampitheatre are all but gone, lost over time to earthquakes, fire and erosion. What's visible now are cascading tiers of scarred stone, where up to 50,000 once sat, and the exposed tunnels of the underground hypogeum, where enslaved warriors like Crowe's Maximus were once held. It is because of the remarkable vision and memorable moments of movies like Gladiator that we can visualize what more than likely went down in such places, in ways no history book could ever provide. Personally, as I gazed across the Colosseum's interior, I didn't hear a chorus of, “Maximus! Maximus!,” but another line, uttered by a sheltered slave upon his first glimpse of the stadium: “I didn't know man could build such things.”
The Trevi Fountain and La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is basically required viewing in film schools, right up there with Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Though invaluable for their innovations and well worth seeing at least once, pictures like Battleship and Birth can fatigue even the most fervent film enthusiast. The joyously decadent La Dolce Vita, however, is a fine wine of a movie, the experience of it maturing and evolving with time. Having been a late-blooming film student, I missed many of those core titles and sought them out on my own. La Dolce Vita was one of the most elusive and also one of the most rewarding. Well known as the project that signified Fellini's transition from Italian neo-realism to more avant-garde fare, it is brimming with life and unbridled artistry while still possessing a rather easily definable structure. It follows, day to night and back again, the urban adventures of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a womanizing tabloid reporter in search of love and salvation on the streets of Rome. Fellini presents a much different Rome than the one depicted in Gladiator, focusing on the lavish lifestyles of the late 1960s. The film's most famous scene takes place at Rome's largest fountain, the Trevi, in which the Swedish-American blonde bombshell Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) takes a carefree, late-night dip while Marcello looks on. Infatuated, Marcello joins her, and we see the character surrender to his desires.
My new favorite thing about this brief scene is the way that Sylvia discovers the Trevi. Preoccupied by a stray cat she picked just moments before, the childlike starlet stumbles upon the fountain when emerging from a dark alley. “My goodness!” she shouts. Such is the manner in which many of Rome's most beautiful architectural treasures are found. While the Colosseum has its own virtual landing strip, gems like the Trevi are nestled among the city buildings, hiding around corners and down cobblestoned pathways. It's easy to envision La Dolce Vita when visiting the fountain; in fact, it's impossible not to. Amidst the swarming crowds of gelato-eating tourists, dozens of street vendors are peddling stills from the film at three euro a pop. But even if there were no vendors and no constant reminders, being in such an iconic spot would've still elicited a kind of excitement I'd only previously felt in front of a screen.
Hadrian's Villa and HBO's Angels in America
By common standards, Mike Nichols's soaring translation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America, isn't a proper movie at all. Developed for HBO as a miniseries in 2003, it runs for six hours, has never had a theatrical audience and was certainly never up for Oscar consideration. By my standards, it is a consummate masterpiece, fully deserving of the Emmys and Golden Globes it gobbled up six years ago, and if including it among great features is improper, I don't wanna be right. With a cast to die for – including Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Jeffrey Wright – and material that's the modern equivalent of Shakespeare's best, director Nichols had the tools to build something extraordinary. He delivered, presenting Kushner's brilliant, sprawling story of love, loss, politics and religion during the eruption of AIDS in the 1980s as a film so grand, it's a wonder TVs could even contain it. Unable to have witnessed Angels on stage, I consider it a gift, an unbroken chain of ingenious words and indelible scenes. One such scene – the climax – is set in Heaven, which in the play is described as an alternate version of San Francisco strewn with ancient rubble. Nichols opted to play primarily off the ancient part, showing only distant suggestions of the Golden Gate Bridge. For the rest of his interpretation of the hereafter, the director chose Hadrian's Villa.
As Angels nearly breached the confines of television, Hadrian's Villa (or Villa Adriana) is beyond the confines of Rome. Built as a retreat for the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the early second century, the roughly 250-acre estate rests on a hilly patch of Tivoli, Rome's neighbor to the northeast. I walked its expansive acres in quiet awe, not only of the multi-styled architectural ruins that guests are free to roam, but of the supernatural setting I had, until then, known it to be. I am not a religious person, therefore I'm surely no saint, so if Heaven exists, odds are I won't be in the front of the line to enter. Hadrian's Villa, peacefully perched high above the bustling world below, may be the closest I'll ever get to Kingdom Come.
A funny sensation came over me shortly after returning home from Italy. The world as I knew it had grown larger, and yet, having attained at least part of what once seemed unattainable, it also felt smaller. However it altered my perception of the world, the trip did impress upon me at least one slice of newfound wisdom: a passport can be the ultimate movie ticket.
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission. Location photos by R. Kurt Osenlund.