Filming Italy, Film in Italy

Danielle Hipkins, Associate Professor of Italian and Film Studies, talks about a recent short film made to promote the study of Italian, her research project on cinema-going in Italy of the 1950s, and a forthcoming event at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum offering local people the opportunity to share their memories of cinema-going…..

To ‘Choose Italian’ is not an option for many students at school. In fact approximately two thirds of undergraduates studying Italian language and culture study ab initio at university. With this in mind, colleagues in the national Society for Italian Studies recently employed the organization Key Pictures ( to make a promotional film about the experience of studying Italian at University. The film is designed for use across the UK and Ireland on Open Days, and for teachers of Modern Languages in secondary schools to show prospective students what it might mean to ‘choose Italian’. We made a call for undergraduates and postgraduates happy to participate and were overwhelmed with positive stories of their experience of taking Italian Studies at University and then out into the workplace. The film includes a range of stories from a student teaching English just outside Naples, to one on a work placement for the Slow Food movement in the North of Italy, to those now working in banking and industry, demonstrating both the fun and the excellent long-term employability skills that a language degree can provide (insert link to video?). Key Pictures are currently developing more films about a range of language options open to students who may not have studied, say, Portuguese or Mandarin at school.

We are hardly the first to make an appealing film about Italy! Indeed the close relationship between the filmic image and Italy famously lured Hollywood to Rome in the 1950s to create ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. It is perhaps less well-known that it was one of the Hollywood films made in that era, Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), which gave even some Italians a first vision of their own capital city. If Italy is famous for its role in Hollywood, as well as its own great stars and directors, we know less about the role of cinema in the lives of the majority of Italians. They actually dedicated up to 70% of their leisure expenditure on cinema-going in that period. For that reason, together with colleagues from Oxford Brookes and Bristol, I am involved in the ‘Italian Cinema Audiences’ project, which recently launched its own website. The aim of the project is to gather memories of Italians over 65 in order to understand more about the role of cinema-going in the 1940s and 1950s. So far we have analysed data from over 1000 questionnaires and are now working on the 160 video interviews. Our research is helping us to build a much clearer picture of what it meant to go to the cinema in Italy of the 1940s and 1950s.

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren

In line with much research into cinema-going memories, our research confirms the centrality of the cinema as a space. Respondents remember clearly the names and exact locations of their favourite cinemas, what they ate there, who they went there with, and even in remoter areas the fact that it was a good place to keep warm. The cinema was the place where many Italians made their friends, bonded with family, met their husbands and wives and forged their dreams about the future. Stars played a big role in those dreams of course, and often offered a window onto a different world, particularly in the case of Hollywood, and women in particular could imagine different ways of being in the world. As a woman of 73 from the Florence region writes on Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, and Syd Charisse: ‘all these young and talented artists represented freedom, because never, ever, in their films, were there mothers or families in the way, who could stop them dating, and this made me dream (vainly) and go mad with joy, for my future as a girl!!!’.

We might imagine the effect of seeing Marilyn Monroe from a small rural province of Sardinia, as one 80 year-old remembers: ‘for a small-town girl she was the embodiment of everything I wanted to be’. If Hollywood stars certainly matter a lot in our audience memories, from Gregory Peck to Elizabeth Taylor, it is the home-grown stars like Sophia Loren (photo) and Amedeo Nazzari (photo) who top their list of favourites. Not many people outside of Italy have heard of Amedeo Nazzari but his selection confirms the importance to Italian memory of Italy’s own popular cinema, not just Neorealism or the great auteur films, but the melodramas like Chains (Matarazzo, 1949) or Nobody’s Children (1951), often dismissed by film critics of the time. If these films did not often make it onto the international circuit, the detail with which respondents remember dramatic scenes from these films as ‘real and moving’ can tell us much about their own understanding about the relationship between Italy of that time and cinema.

Amedeo Nazzari

Amedeo Nazzari

We have always hoped that our research would address an important gap in the history of Italian cinema, by taking that history back to the people who watched it. We were lucky enough to have direct experience of that recently when we went to the South of Italy to talk to the University of the Third Age in Potenza about our findings to date (photo). One participant told us after our presentation: ‘I have re-lived some beautiful moments from my youth’. The warm response and further detail we received there was a helpful reminder that this is a project that will evolve through the very process of sharing our findings.

With a forthcoming event here in Exeter at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, we hope to extend that even further by inviting colleagues working on a project on UK cinema audiences of the 1960s and members of the general public to join us in talking over some of the ways in which cinema-going of the 1940s, 50s and 60s is remembered across our two cultures. We will also be thinking about what some of those films that Italians most often remember, from Gone with the Wind to Bicycle Thieves, meant to British audiences (Saturday 13th June, 2-5pm, Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, tea and coffee provided, all welcome, please contact for more information). There will also be a screening of Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) on Monday 15th June at the Exeter Picturehouse, 6.30pm.

Danielle Hipkins, Associate Professor of Italian and Film Studies started teaching Italian language and culture upon graduation from Oxford in 1996, working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Warwick whilst studying for a PhD on contemporary Italian Women Writers until 2000. In 2001 she took up her first lecturing post at the University of Leeds, where she worked until joining Exeter in 2006.


Exeter alumnus, Jonathan Holloway, recalls fond memories of his time at university

Jonathan Holloway is an artistic director and writer. Following his recent appointment to the role of Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival (from 2016 onwards), he recalls fond memories of his time at the University of Exeter.

Jonathan Holloway

Jonathan Holloway cr. Frances Andrijich

I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to do some amazing things over the past two decades, but I would still say that my years as an undergraduate at Exeter University were a life highlight.

I read Drama from 1988 – 1991, which my peers and I think of as “the great years” in Exeter – although I’m guessing that others, before and since, may just say the same thing. I say I “read” Drama, but it wasn’t all reading. The course was very practical, and its content has had a direct and ongoing influence on my work.

From Brecht to Butoh, each five-week unit was totally immersive and focused, each one approaching a subject from every angle.  We were regularly encouraged to dive into something new and confront it, learn it, and become confident in it. As soon as we felt comfortable, the content would change completely – who knew what would be next?


Royal de Luxe in Perth

The course began with basic anthropological questions about the arts: why do we sing, or dance, or tell stories?  Over 25 years later, these questions still form the basis of my approach to festival direction. Now that I work in Australia, this context is particularly important, as ancient traditions live on through the Aboriginal custodians of the land and their stories.

Some of my greatest memories come from extra-curricular activities: the beautiful walk between the Thornlea Studio and the Guild offices; working on promotions and security every weekend at the Lemon Grove; and trips to Dawlish Warren with friends who would go on to be rockstars, radio presenters and academics.


Royal de Luxe in Perth cr. Scott Weir

Drama at Exeter is rightly hailed as one of the great theoretical and action-based training grounds for practical theatre makers in the UK and beyond. I found that the course produced world-aware and highly communicative people, all with cultivated skills, beliefs and intellectual stand-points.

After graduation, I spent several years as a director, writer and curator of arts programmes, culminating in co-writing and directing Robin Hood at the National Theatre in London (under my stage name Jack Holloway), and establishing and directing the National Theatre’s “Watch This Space” Festival. Festivals are unique in their ability to unite and uplift a city, and so the invitation to come to Melbourne was irresistible: the cultural capital of Australia, with the Melbourne Festival at its creative centre.


Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

For a number of weeks a year, a festival can transform a city, turn it on its head, and in so doing can change the perceptions of the city from both inside and far away.Festivals have the ability to curate extraordinary experiences and stories, to explore what really defines and challenges a city and its communities. I believe that the role of the arts is changing as rapidly as the world around it, and festivals have a pivotal role to play in helping people to navigate and re-map the modern world.  The arts need to occupy all platforms, from the digital and virtual to the purpose built and the unexpectedly occupied found space.


Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

Now, I find myself reflecting on the University of Exeter, and how it helped me to develop resilience, knowledge, curiosity and confidence; as well as the set of principles by which I live my life. The skills and approaches I learned at Exeter were useful throughout my work in Bracknell, London, Norwich and Perth. Now I’m in Melbourne – who knows where I’ll be next?


For more information on the Melbourne Festival, please visit the Melbourne Festival website.