This week William Wyler’s beloved 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday comes to Amazon Instant Video. Among its many charms — including 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn’s star-making turn and Gregory Peck’s flinty reserve in a role that first makes you wish he were Cary Grant, and then makes you glad he isn’t — is its glossy travelogue tour of the City of the Seven Hills, one of the loveliest big-screen depictions of Rome ever filmed.
Hepburn plays Princess Ann, the crown princess of an unspecified European country on a high-profile goodwill tour of Europe. Chafing at the strictures of her highly regimented existence, she absconds from the embassy in Rome and winds up spending a magical day with Peck’s cynical American reporter Joe, touring the city while her handlers at the embassy scramble to cover for her absence.
Roman Holiday was filmed entirely on location in Rome — a rare all-location shoot in a 1950s Hollywood film, and the first Hollywood film shot entirely in Italy.
The film hits all the sights: Joe first encounters Ann, impaired by a sedative, in the ancient Roman Forum; the next day he discovers her exchanging her princess locks for Hepburn’s iconic pixie cut at a salon across from Trevi Fountain, where crowds are tossing coins.
Later, Ann and Joe chat on the Spanish Steps, have drinks at a café by the Pantheon and go dancing at a barge on the Tiber under the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, in the shadow of Castel Sant’ Angelo.
The famous scene at the Bocca della Verita or Mouth of Truth — where Peck reportedly ad-libbed a joke pretending to get his hand eaten, genuinely startling and then cracking up his young co-star — has probably been reenacted by more tourists than any other scene in the film.
Decades after shooting Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck returned to Rome to shoot a film about a subject very far from a holiday: The Scarlet and the Black (1983), a terrific small-screen World War II thriller in which he plays Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the famous real-life “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” who ran a covert resistance movement and underground railroad during the Nazi occupation of Rome, saving thousands of Allied soldiers and Jews from the S.S. under the command of Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler, played by Christopher Plummer.
Few films will better acquaint viewers with the vicinity of Saint Peter’s Square than The Scarlet and the Black. Although there are scenes shot throughout the city, including the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain, that one location dominates the film. The opening sequence depicts Kappler and a superior arriving at St. Peter’s Square to call on Pope Pius XII (John Gielgud, who also played popes in 1968’s Shoes of the Fisherman and 1998’s Elizabeth) — and to paint a cautionary white line across the square, marking the boundary of Vatican City sovereignty. At the film’s climax, Pius XII greets cheering crowds in the square celebrating the liberation of Rome.
For decades, Peck’s earlier, better-known Roman film was the quintessential movie reference point for tourists in the Eternal City. Serious Roman Holiday fans even sought out Joe’s apartment on the Via Margutta (no. 51), not far from the Spanish Steps. Unfortunately, Roman Holiday has now been eclipsed in this regard by Angels and Demons, whether the original Dan Brown novel or the 2009 Ron Howard film starring Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon.
Tour guides in Rome actually offer Angels and Demons tours focusing on prominent locations in the story, from Castel Sant’ Angelo to Saint Peter’s, from the Pantheon (where, as Brown notes, Raphael is buried) to Santa Maria del Popolo (where, contrary to Brown, Pope Alexander VII is not buried).
As for the film, it offers a blend of real location shooting in Rome, scale studio recreations of the Sistine Chapel and even Saint Peter’s Square, and computer simulations of locations including the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica. (The filmmakers, who were denied permission to shoot at Saint Peter’s, have coyly suggested that some surreptitious filming was actually done inside the basilica using highly portable GoPro-style cameras.)
Having done an Angels and Demons tour in 2009 while covering the film, I find the Dan Brown-ification of the Roman experience depressing. Partly because, despite Brown’s claim that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations),” Angels and Demons is in fact riddled with misinformation on just these subjects, among many others.
Beyond that, the idea of viewing the glory of the Eternal City through the lens of a lurid pulp potboiler strikes me as deeply impoverishing. I love Piazza Navona, with Bernini’s magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers; I can’t imagine wanting to go there and think “Ah yes, this is where Cardinal Baggia drowned to death in the book, although in the film Tom Hanks rescues him.” Even worse would be to visit Santa Maria della Vittoria church, home of Bernini’s sublime Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and think “This is where Cardinal Guidera was roasted to death chained in mid-air.”
Fans of art-house cinema may be more interested in a pair of more recent films set in Rome. Woody Allen followed up his successful, frothy Midnight in Paris (2011) with the ensemble comedy To Rome, with Love (2012), and Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino won critical acclaim and a raft of awards for The Great Beauty (2013), a rambling, introspective art film that depicts Rome through the eyes of a disillusioned aging socialite with a literary past.
Unfortunately, Rome was apparently much less inspiring to Allen than Paris. Certainly To Rome, with Love isn’t in love with Rome either of today or yesterday in the way that the earlier film was in love with Paris of the Lost Generation; with a few adjustments, it could have been set practically anywhere.
That can’t be said for The Great Beauty, a film that is narratively even more diffuse than To Rome, with Love, but aesthetically and culturally far richer, if no less despairing and nihilistic than many Allen films.
With its blend of sophistication, sensuality, and lavish imagery both beautiful and bizarre, The Great Beauty has earned comparisons to Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960), another artful immersion in Roman excess and ennui. Both are films about failure in the search for meaning in life, and each has been described as a cautionary tale, although I find this claim more persuasive of Fellini than Sorrentino. In any case, both filmmakers make Rome look fabulous.
Not all Italian films set in Rome try to make it look fabulous. Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking Rome, Open City (1945), a World War II film with scenes shot on still war-torn streets, with Nazi stormtroopers played by actual Nazi POWs, inaugurated a new style that came to be called Italian neorealism.
Gritty, generally downbeat, and marked by concern with the lives and struggles of ordinary people, Italian neorealist films were shot in working-class or poor neighborhoods, often with nonprofessional actors cast from the people who really lived there.
A far more authentic depiction of wartime Rome, obviously, than The Scarlet and the Black, Open City eschews postcard destinations like the Colosseum and Saint Peter’s Square, focusing on the Pigneto neighborhood to the east of the tourist attractions, particularly on a tenement building on the Via Montecuccoli. (Only in the last shot do we see the dome of Saint Peter’s rising above the city skyline.)
Another neorealist classic, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), shows far more of Rome than Open City, as its hapless protagonist and his young son wander the streets vainly seeking a stolen bicycle that represents the father’s only hope for employment. Yet de Sica has no more interest in photogenic landmarks than Rossellini. In one sequence, as father and son make their way from the Tiber to the fourth-century basilica church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo, you would never know that they probably passed by the Circus Maximus, among other iconic locales.
In fact, if not for the Tiber, you could almost watch Bicycle Thieves and Roman Holiday back to back and never realize they were shot in the same city only five years apart. They would make an odd double feature, but perhaps with their very lack of commonality these two films together offer a unique portrait of Rome, at least around the mid-20th century, both as it looked from afar and as it was for so many who lived there.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.