After eating dinner F and I made the plan to sneak into Cinecittà. Five of us sat on a balcony above a soccer field, watching teenagers in neon cleats warm up for the game. A Sardinian man with black eyes rolled a ball of hash between his thumb and forefinger as he explained the linguistic geography of Italy. He had just fallen in love and was eager to articulate his world to us through this newborn enthusiasm. Somehow the Cinecittà film studios came up. Maybe he recalled watching films in Italian on his island—I can’t remember exactly, but the plan made perfect sense. I had already absolved myself of the tourist sites in Rome. I had seen the Coliseum, broken like a rewired jaw. Nuns in swan-like habits had pushed past me, Franciscans had sat across from me, and I had visited tombs in which penitent monks had used human bones to decorate the walls.
Also, F was hardly a tourist. She had been in Italy for months. She spoke fluent, flirtatious Italian, and we had watched enough Fellini films together during the long Montreal winters to find film studios as exciting as archaeology. I wasn’t convinced we could get in, but I was happy to try.
In the morning we packed lunches and left for Cinecittà on our bikes. After a half-hour we came to what seemed like an entrance. An official-looking man strode up to us. I remember, but this could also be a fiction I’ve let myself believe, that he was balding in the back. His hair circled the patch of skin on his head like a bird’s nest. F answered his questions. I stood mutely, noticing how his tiny pink lips disappeared when he closed his mouth. He gestured with a child’s hand to the fence. His fingernails were so white they looked painted. He nodded my way awkwardly and went back to where he came from.
“Let’s go,” F said. “I think we should do the perimeter.”
“What did that guy say?”
“That man doesn’t know anything. Look at him. He’s completely lost.”
We biked fifteen minutes, rounded a corner, and finally saw a side entrance. Two guards sat in identical boxes reading the newspaper. F rode straight up to them, casually, maybe arrogantly, waved like we needed to be somewhere, and kept going. One guard looked up distractedly from the headlines, returned our wave, and we were in.
At the time of our visit in 2012, Cinecittà was a fenced-in compound of sprawling sound stages and abandoned sets. Opened by Mussolini in 1937, a few years after Fascist troops invaded Ethiopia with phosgene and mustard gas, Cinecittà was built as a propaganda production machine to aid Italian nationalism. You can read that history in the art deco block letters that float off the walls of the main entrance. The font hints at the dark marriage between authoritarianism and art.
At first the studios produced newsreels and what are called “white telephone” films. Both promoted conservative Catholic values, especially deference to authority. If you search Google Images for the phrase telefoni bianchi you will see stills of a brunette in a tailored blazer with a pearly phone to her ear. Or a turbaned woman in an evening gown, holding twin hounds by the leash, in her parlour. At the time, most Italians didn’t have telephones in their homes, let alone white ones. The prop was a status symbol alluding to the reason behind the veneer. Fascism required a cinema of distraction.
After biking down an unused road lined with pine trees, the kind of trees with needles reaching up like clouds, we passed a large square building. On the top floor of this building were dressing rooms in which off-camera actors used to lounge, drinking champagne and practising their lines. The Germans occupied the studios until 1943, and during this period, these rooms were used by Wehrmacht officers as bedrooms. The sound stages below, with vestigial decorations from Imperial Roman epics, housed German tanks, ammunition, and, somewhere, their prisoners.
There is a story about Vittorio De Sica making a film during the war. Just as the war was ending, Goebbels requested that De Sica relocate to Prague and direct films for the regime there. De Sica was probably terrified. He describes in an interview how the Vatican came to his rescue, asking him to make a film about a train of pilgrims heading to Loreto in search of a miracle, so he could refuse the Nazi’s request. The film featured a pianist with a paralyzed hand, a blinded factory worker, a boy with cerebral palsy, and in the background three hundred extras as other infirm passengers. All of the extras were Jewish Italians or wanted dissidents. These details are verifiable, but what is unclear is whether, when making the film, De Sica intentionally delayed the project over and over, like Penelope undoing her tapestry, in order to save these extras from being rounded up. The film was completed the day the Allies arrived in Rome and released under the title La Puerta del Cielo, The Gate of Heaven.
In June 1945, the Allies took possession of the studios. The compound was divided in half with the Italians and turned into a much needed displaced persons (DP) camp. Twenty-one hundred people lived in cramped, uncovered boxes, divided by straw walls, in these sound stages. Some used faux gilded doors scavenged from old sets as walls. We didn’t see inside the sound stages while we were there, so I could only imagine what they looked like.
To get a sense of what it might have been like to live there after the war, I watched an interview with Evelyn Arzt Bergl on the website archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her family fled the Nazis in Austria. Her father, who had been separated from them earlier in the war, had barely survived Dachau.
Evelyn describes her first dance, at fifteen in the DP camp. A handsome Ethiopian, a Fred Astaire type, took her hand and showed her the steps. It sounds liberating. Her parents forbade the match. Evelyn laughs in a controlled manner as she speaks. Her eyes dart around the room. The interviewer stumbles and starts to ask trivial questions about a stray cat who had been a bad girl and come home pregnant. Evelyn corrects her pronunciation of Cinecittà, laughing with sharp but removed condescension as the American tries wrapping her mouth around the words. Similarly, she is uncompromising when the interviewer tries to get her to say that the Italians weren’t “good” (the interviewer’s language, not mine). The question falls flat. Evelyn refuses, her hands crossed, her makeup florid, performative. It’s hard not to wonder how such a simple word choice could ever coax someone into casually revisiting trauma or debating the grey scale of atrocity.
Journalists at the time described how the DP camp was infested with disease, another circle of another hell, but we don’t get much of that information from the interview. Only a few pieces of Evelyn’s everyday life come up. For a while she worked for free, until her mother advocated for a wage. There was none to be had, so she went back to doing nothing, while her soon-to-be husband was up to no good dabbling in the black market. After watching the interview you still don’t understand much about the place, but it would be difficult not to be stunned by its existence.
A few important things need to be said about what happened before F and I snuck into Cinecittá, because they inflected our time there with a particular mood. First, we were staying at our Roman friend Mikaela’s apartment in a suburban working-class neighbourhood called Tor Sapienza (Tower of Knowledge). The day before, I’d spent hours exploring the neighbourhood alone. Near the highway was a holding centre for refugees, and next to it—in the roofed spaces of an underpass, a small park, and an unused alley—a makeshift migrant camp. Most of the people in this camp were Roma, and they were living in serious poverty. They hung their laundry on lines that were attached to foraged branches, pounded into the ground. Children played tag on the empty highway and women cooked over small fires. (A few years later, in 2014, Mikaela messaged us to say that locals chanting “Il Duce” had tried to burn down the camp and holding centre. They were probably part of the neo-fascist upsurge that was palpable everywhere, from the torch-lit march on Mussolini’s birthday to the bar fight in which a fan from an opposing non-fascist soccer team was beaten to a pulp.)
The second thing is that I had been in Italy for two months working for an organic farmer in the South. I had left the farm abruptly. I was overworked, underfed, and unpaid, and the psychology of servitude endemic around me was deeply disturbing. Class was clearly delineated in every interaction. I was given leniency because I was a guest, but I took one day off work the entire time I was there, and while I was sitting in the piazza drawing, a stranger confronted me. He started shouting and threatening me. He said I should get back in the field or else. In that town, gruelling labour was equated to virtue. While the workers pushed each other to work harder in the hope that validation could ease the pain in their bodies, the farmer spent his days drinking. Everyone called him Il Capo. At the end of the workday, Il Capo picked us up from the field in his Fiat, barely able to speak or walk, speeding through stop signs, red lights, all the while reaching over and brushing his fingers through my hair. In the evenings his face would turn a bloated red. He would point at his assistant, Takeshi, screaming “Go home! Don’t forget what happened in Hiroshima!” Takeshi would take the terracotta pot out of the fire, unphased, check the beans, and set the table. These abuses dominoed down the hierarchy.
I didn’t understand how unhappy I was, but I had started to fixate on the different ways I might be killed in the fields: a lethal spider bite, a tumble from an olive tree, an allergic reaction that would puff me up and close my throat. One afternoon I broke. A new field hand yelled at me to move the nets we used to catch olives a few inches this way, a few inches that way, over and over. He had seen another person command in the same high-pitch tremolo Il Capo used, and it must have made sense to him. Why not shout at me? I was the youngest girl, the lowest of the low. The middle-aged Italian women, who got paid in olive oil, had no idea what to do when they saw me crying. They sent Takeshi over to take care of it—after all, I occupied the bizarre territory of guest, worker, and woman. He offered me a handkerchief. “Take a break?” But I am sure he understood why I couldn’t do that. He squatted next to me in the grass, and seemed troubled. “Don’t cry. It’s so sad to see you cry.” Clearly, we were fellow inmates.
I got on my bike the next day and went to meet F. It took me more than a week to get to Rome. I had vertigo the first day, got lost the second, had flat tires on the third. At night I camped in olive groves. On a train between Bari and Taranto the conductor invited me into the engine room to share a cigarette, but it became obvious he wanted to feel me up in exchange for the view. Train schedules didn’t connect like they were supposed to. I was trapped in a dark coastal town for a night. An aggressive man approached me at a café, insisting that he marry me so I could have nice clothes. All the while F was waiting in the city. I had no cellphone so I had barely been in contact.
Our reunion was tense. It was raining. F and Mikaela picked me up from the train station with a car. F took my bike apart and put it in the trunk. “What happened to you?” she asked. I tried to explain, but everything I said sounded like excuses.
F shuts down when she feels wronged. She ignores you and makes sure you see, in the periphery, that she’s the catalyst for laughter, she’s the magical one. She wants you to want to be by her side. She might turn to a stranger at a bar and give him her devoted, sparkling attention, intentionally not including you. I don’t fit well into this equation because when I am upset, the world, even the pleasure of inclusion, becomes something I can learn to do without. So, our resolution was difficult. We were barely on speaking terms when we decided to go to Cinecittà.
After passing the sound stages we biked to the chain-link edge of the studio. There was a collection of particleboard rectangles, buttressed by two-by-fours. F walked ahead. I followed her through a doorway in the particleboard, and suddenly we were in another world. We were transported to the New York docks in the grit of the nineteenth century. The only difference was that the ocean had been drained, its concrete bottom painted a tropical blue, like the abandoned swimming pool of a cheap motel in winter.
“Where do you think we are?” F asked.
“It looks like New York.”
The docks were empty. The pier floated over nothing. Still, there was a feeling of danger, as if at any moment union soldiers could march by single file in a thin, inky line. Or Bill the Butcher in top hat and blue sash, with his signature knives in hand, could stop us and ask what we were doing in his neighbourhood. We had landed centre stage in the abandoned shell of Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York. We were manic with excitement. We were in the middle of a time machine, a manufactured illusion, where the fine art of make-believe had been honed for adults. It felt wonderful, and urgent.
We paced back and forth along the aged boardwalk. Brick industrial buildings edged the horizon. I needed to see everything. We wandered into a town square. A dead tree was enclosed by a broken white picket fence. Its branches were the silver, sapless colour of driftwood.
“This is where they had the final gang fight.”
“Oh right, the Irish against the Americans.”
We stood for a while in the square, admiring the realism of the derelict buildings, then noticed a door that looked like an entrance to a warehouse. The door was easy to open, though it creaked unrepentantly on its rusted hinges, and instead of entering a warehouse we found ourselves in a long, dark interstitial corridor. We made our way through it cautiously, opened the door at the other end of the hallway, stepped through, and entered a Renaissance courtyard.
F ran in to one of the facades, reappearing above me on a rotting balcony. Her face was doll-like from below. Vines were pulling rabidly at the styrofoam walls, trying to wrest them from their romantic tragedy. Is this where Juliet traced a finger along the ledge, as Romeo watched her from the ground? F shrieked and twirled.
“You have to come up here,” she said.
“No, no, let’s keep going. We don’t have time. We have to see it all.”
F ran back down the insides. I followed her through another door, and another and another, until we were in Jerusalem on a shadowy, parched street. There the air was heavy. Dust picked up with the wind. We started to whisper in case our voices carried to a wandering security guard. The walls around the street were half caramel, half crimson, and high enough that we couldn’t see any of the real city, the path labyrinthine enough that we weren’t sure we could find our way out. Surely Judas was nearby at a table, his dry lips puckering up for the salient kiss of death. Surely Mary Magdalene was on her knees weeping before a crucifix, her black hair glued to her cheeks, her cloak fraying. We walked carefully, holding each other’s hands, until the narrow streets twisted into a courtyard, until we were in ancient Rome. Pellets of fresh animal shit, probably goat or sheep, were scattered like bread crumbs along a path that led us through more streets, to an undone marketplace, and eventually a room flanked by columns. In the centre of the room stood a long table covered in bowls of real food, grapes, meat, cheese. This was the only evidence we had seen of people so far, but the food was starting to rot. F picked up a grape, threw it at a wall, and a halo of gnats emerged. A fly was sitting on the cheese like a canary in a mineshaft.
I am interested in the relationship between culture industries and the real world. Fantasy is reciprocal to our actual lives in so many ways, sometimes unexpected. The neorealist Italian film movement was born after the war. Directors such as Roberto Rossellini filmed in the bombed-out streets of Rome—with real rubble as a backdrop and real people as actors—depicting the mostly undepicted stories of the working class. Neorealism was an important cultural shift and part of a desire to bear witness to the suffering inflicted by Mussolini. But no one could film in the studios—full of people, full of survivors, orphaned, broken, homeless, sick, recovering, debilitated—even if they wanted to. In her essay “The Cinecittà Refugee Camp,” Noa Steimatsky writes that “the refugee camp—an entity meant to answer the basic needs of those who had survived the war but lost everything—was an eerily concrete counterpart to the artificial, fantastical world of the film studio. For like the film studio, it was, as well, a placeless place, set apart from the life outside.” The camp in Tor Sapienza was also a placeless place, a purgatory.
Each set we stumbled across articulated this strange relation between the real world and its translation into film. The Jerusalem we walked through was one Mel Gibson wanted us to see, an imaginary city, with a singular interest in Christ’s bloodied walk of redemption. The glamorous sheen of HBO’s sexy soap opera Rome did nothing but expose our desire for escapism. These were hollow visions of real places.
We decided to eat lunch on the top of a tiny hill crowned by another grey box. This box was smaller than the sound stages. A man—the first person we had seen the entire time we were inside—was straddling a motorcycle. F went up to him, smiled, and started asking questions. He told us that inside the box was a staged mansion with cameras and microphones stuffed into every crack, a swimming pool, a tree house. It was where Italy’s version of Big Brother—Grande Fratello—was being filmed. He had a crooked smile when he spoke. Despite his grey hair his face was smooth. “It’s fucked,” he said in English. “Sometimes those people are starved. Anything to increase the tension. You know Orwell, right? Man, the things people do for money, the things people will watch, but who am I to say? At the end of the day you gotta pay the bills.” When he left he told us, over the roaring engine, to be careful, some people wouldn’t like us being there.
We were giddy with excitement. I put a scarf down on the yellow grass for us to sit on. F took two prosciutto sandwiches and a small jar of wine out of her bag. While the contestants inside lived their fishbowl experiment in hopes of a payout and strangers live-streamed their sex on the internet, we sat outside having a picnic. F passed me the jar of wine. I took a gulp. We were both silent for a long time. I knew what was coming. The silence felt irreparable, a new kind of death.
F said she had considered giving up on our friendship. She wondered why people felt loyal or obliged to hold onto things that weren’t working. Friendships can be rockier than romances, why not part ways like you would with a date? I’ve thought about why she said this to me. Was it so I understood her better? Was it a tactical reorganization of power, so that I knew I was disposable? Or was she trying to say if you don’t care, I don’t care? It seems there’s an agenda to decode every time F expresses an emotion.
For years people have said I am intimidating because I don’t trade in vulnerabilities. I have never been interested in exposing myself over coffee or detailing my pain to an acquaintance at a bar in order to connect. I am suspicious of confession as the only currency of intimacy. Sometimes it just seems vulgar, easy, an exhibitionist’s empty impulse. Maybe I feel this way because certain confessions are never actually welcome. A new friend isn’t interested in hearing about grief, or violence, or being orphaned, over martinis. To me confession always seemed like a luxury, a privilege afforded to some, not others, and I think my reticence made people overlook my emotions.
The summer before our trip, F’s father had to undergo transplant surgery. He was lucky. His body accepted the new organ, and he recovered. But all F could think about was her father’s mortality. The same summer she had a broken heart. At the time I was tree planting in northern B.C., living in a wet, cold tent. Insects bred in ponds across the cutblocks I worked in, and you could watch newly born larvae dimple the water before they matured into clouds of flies. There was no cellphone service in the camp, so I barely called her when her father was in the hospital, or later when her partner left her. F sees that summer as the one in which she was abandoned. So, that week I spent biking from the farm was a reiteration of an old problem. I looked at F as she ate; the wind was creating tiny cyclones of sand behind her. Did we intend to be cruel to each other? Was anyone capable of seeing past their own projections?
“What bothers me,” F said, “is not knowing if you’re dead or alive.”
“Why wouldn’t you think I’d be worried?” she said.
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
“Because you were in the middle of nowhere alone on a bicycle for more than a week? I didn’t know where you were.”
“I am sorry.”
“I am only trying to understand.”
“It’s hard to explain. Everything was so terrible, those men, losing my money, getting trapped in Taranto, the poverty. It was overwhelming . . . I am used to dealing with things alone.”
There is something unnerving about standing in front of a perfectly crafted facade of a Roman temple, one that looks real, but when you touch it the texture is off. It doesn’t feel like marble, or plaster or brick; it feels light and empty like styrofoam. You’ve been fooled. It’s easy enough to have fun with this unreality, but after a while it becomes uncomfortable. Nothing seems real anymore. For weeks I was convinced I hadn’t left Cinecittà and all of Rome was an extension of that place. The tangerine stucco buildings in the suburbs looked like well-crafted styrofoam replicas. The Aqueduct was plywood. The grass was plastic. My inability to interpret surfaces, like a contagion, seemed relevant to our fight. Neither of us could see the other clearly.
F’s face was flushed from the wine. She pushed her hair boyishly out of her eyes. “Tomorrow let’s drive to Nemi and see Caligula’s barges. I think you’ll love it there.”
Larissa Diakiw is a writer living and working in Toronto. Her work can be found in The Walrus, Guts, Joyland, and Papirmasse. She writes comics and graphic essays under the pseudonym Frankie No One.