Ah, going to the movies…the big screen, the packed seats, the laughter and the tears from a great film, the whispers of “whodunit?,” the couples holding hands, and the wafting aroma of…marinara sauce?
One of the pleasures of Italy is going to the movies. It’s an experience all its own. I love movies, and while studying in Rome in the 90’s, most weekends I’d frequent a movie house in the Trastevere neighborhood. “Il Pasquino” showed American movies, typically ones I’d already seen, but it was a great taste of home.
My first time at Il Pasquino was the most memorable, because I had no idea just how different movie theaters in Italy are from those in America. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband, Jamie,) and I bought tickets at the entrance, and then we settled into our seats for a showing of Balla Coi Lupi (Dances with Wolves.) Typical screen, typical seats, and that’s where the similarities ended. While waiting for the projector to start rolling the reel (yes, I’m dating myself,) an elderly couple showed us their tickets and told us we were sitting in their seats. Assigned seats? Apparently, Italian cinemas are big on assigned seating at most movie theaters, to this day.
After we cozied into our new seats, the movie rolled, and I can tell you, Kevin Costner never sounded so good. That’s because even though the movie was in English, Costner’s voice was dubbed over by an Italian voice actor, known as a doppiaggio. This dubbing practice is prevalent, even today, and Italian cinema and television prides itself on its voice actors, who usually follow the real actor’s movie journey throughout his or her career. A funny side note: it’s tricky making a movie featuring both DeNiro and Pacino as they’re both dubbed by the same voice actor. (So, if I plan to cast DeNiro and Pacino in movie versions of my novels, the same doppiaggio can dub both The Race and The Sculptor.)
Jamie and I soon got used to the Costner stand-in and enjoyed the movie. That is, until the smell of marinara wafting in from the lobby made our stomachs growl. We’d both seen the movie before, and we decided to wait until after a major scene to dash out to the lobby for a bite. But just as the character named “Stands with a Fist” so intimately shares conversation with her handsome male lead, the film stopped, mid-scene, with a frame that read “Intervallo” (intermission!) Then and now, Italians stop their movies mid-way, regardless of the artistic timing, and grant their patrons about five minutes of freedom to move about the theater or to chat with friends on their opinion of the film thus far.
But before Jamie and I could dash to the lobby to surmise the source of the aromatic sauce, a concessionaire toting a box strapped around his neck, similar to a sporting event, began selling bags of popcorn, chips, and soda. On subsequent visits to Il Pasquino, I did determine the root of Grandma’s exquisite sauce aroma – the lobby sold hot food too: arancini or suppli (breaded orange-size balls of rice and mozzarella, with marinara sauce for dipping,) as well as eggplant and zucchini fritters, among other delectable munchies. My father told me that when he was a kid, smoking was allowed in Italian cinemas. Also, standing room only was common for big releases because of the difficulty some theaters had with keeping track of tickets sold. Today, the overall experience remains the same in many Italian cinemas: assigned seating, dubbed voice actors, intermission, halftime concession, and diverse food offerings.
The interior of an Italian movie theater is similar to that of an American one. The difference lies in the exterior: Italian ones are usually smaller, more intimate, local one-screen playhouses in each community, whereas American movie
theaters are often times multi-screen mega-plexes. Italians seem to prefer the experience of the smaller playhouse, though “Cinecity” mega-plexes are sprouting in bigger cities up north. If you’re headed to Italy, here’s a great link for finding a cinema near you: http://www.cinematreasures.org/theaters/italy
I’ve experienced similar great experiences here in the states at local art houses and independent cinemas, intimate theaters that show current mainstream films as well as throwback-era gems, independent films, documentaries, and foreign classics. On a recent visit to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, I enjoyed an evening viewing of Life Is Beautiful, an Academy-award winning Italian film by Roberto Benigni, in the historic and recently renovated The North Park Theatre, a richly detailed single-screen theater with an Art Deco marquee and an ornate interior that exudes warmth and nostalgia, lending to the viewing experience. No matter your taste in film or the time of year, it’s always the perfect time to go to the movies…with or without the marinara.