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No place like Rome

For the new generation of maestros, all roads lead to Italy's capital

From Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome Open City” to Fellini’s “Roma,” from Cinecitta to Hollywood on the Tiber, the Italian capital has always been identified with celluloid dreams. Picture Marcello Mastroianni escorting Anita Ekberg to the Trevi Fountain for a midnight dip: There’s something about the city of the Caesars that simply demands a movie.

Near the Casa del Cinema, at the top of Via Veneto, stands Federico Fellini Square, commemorating the director often identified with the city of Rome — despite the fact he was born in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. Italian cinema is rich in pantheon directors, from Visconti and Pasolini to the still-active Michelangelo Antonioni. Their mantle has fallen on maestri the size of Ermanno Olmi, at the peak of his powers at 75, Marco Bellocchio and Bernardo Bertolucci, with Nanni Moretti’s generation not far behind.

Though there are hot spots of film activity elsewhere in Italy, Rome, like Hollywood, has almost all the filmmakers who count. An Italian celebrity map, if such a thing existed, would show 90% living around the hub of film and TV production. From local son Matteo Garrone (“First Love”) to Istanbul-born Ferzan Ozpetek (“Facing Windows”), they’re all here.

Comic geniuses

Comedy is a Roman specialty, dished up with gusto by reliable box office gladiators who were born and bred in the shadow of the Colosseum. With “My Best Enemy,” his 20th film as actor-director, the blustering, balding, 50-something Carlo Verdone made audiences forget “The Pink Panther.” His charming 23-year-old co-star Silvio Muccino, discovered by his brother, director Gabriele Muccino (“One Last Kiss”), shows there’s more funny business to come. The worldly-wise, light-hearted comedies of the Roman Vanzina brothers, Carlo (director) and Enrico (screenwriter), have become a hallowed tradition, though the irresistibly raunchy “Christmas Vacation” series is now shot by their colleague Neri Parenti.

All these talents have long been associated with that most Roman of producers, Aurelio De Laurentiis and his Filmauro label. Another veteran producer, Fulvio Lucisano, backed Fausto Brizzi’s surprise hit “Night Before Finals,” a clean-cut laffer set in Rome of the 1980s. Meanwhile the third famous Roman producer, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, continues to make two films a year while pursuing a political career.

Rome is the center of Italian politics, and the cinema has rarely resisted its siren call. Nanni Moretti’s wicked spoof on Silvio Berlusconi, “The Cayman,” caused a national debate when the film was released three weeks before the elections. Roberto Benigni, a Tuscan comic living in Rome, is another cult director who has tackled hot political themes. His recent “The Tiger and the Snow” was set in war-torn Baghdad, much as “Life Is Beautiful” took place in a Nazi concentration camp. Bright young comedienne and Berlusconi impersonator Sabina Guzzanti has attracted a following with her outcry against TV censorship, “Viva Zapatero!”

Come to think of it, Italy’s best-known women directors are mostly Roman. Lina Wertmuller, still active as her 80th birthday approaches, was born here. So were Cristina Comencini, whose “Don’t Tell” represented Italy at the Academy Awards this year, and her director sister, Francesca (“Mobbing”).

If comedy is a Roman tradition, Tuscany certainly has contributed to its richness. Apart from Benigni and the great Mario Monicelli (“Big Deal on Madonna Street”), who is prepping a new film at 90, young actor-directors like Leonardo Pieraccioni (“The Cyclone”) have left a lasting mark. The gentle, offbeat films of Pupi Avati carry the flavor of the director’s native Bologna.

Drama kings

Oddly enough, the kings of drama often have relocated from other regions of Italy. To name a few of the maestri: Michelangelo Antonioni (“Eros”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Dreamers,” now prepping “Bel Canto”) and Marco Bellocchio (“Good Morning, Night,” now shooting “The Wedding Director”). They’re all originally from the north, like Milan-born director Marco Tullio Giordana (“The Best of Youth”). Vets Gillo Pontecorvo (“The Battle of Algiers”) and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who are working on a film about the Armenian genocide, hail from Pisa.

Arriving in Rome from the south are the Sicilian Giuseppe Tornatore, now in production with his epic “Leningrad,” and the Calabrian Gianni Amelio, who is in China shooting “The Missing Star.” Coincidentally, two of this season’s brightest films were helmed by directors originally from Puglia: Sergio Rubini’s “La Terra,” set in his native region, and Michele Placido’s “Crime Novel,” about a band of Roman crime lords.

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