In the middle of downtown Rome, in the fashionable and tourist-filled Trastevere neighborhood, sits the Cinema America. The audacious lettering of its original 1950s awning hails the theater as being from another time—it is a reminder of the age before multiplexes and DVD rentals, when going to a movie was itself a big event, a social happening, like a night at the opera. For long-time Trastevere residents, the theater's bold sign is a fixture of the neighborhood landscape, a reminder of a romantic nightlife hotspot from years gone by. The Cinema America went out of business some time around the turn of the millennium, and the building has stood vacant and decaying in the decade and a half since. But in the last year, something has changed: the old sign has been augmented by a black banner hung below, proclaiming the building "occupato," or "occupied." The cinema has been taken over by squatters. And they have been showing great films. When I visited recently, there were screenings of the hip-hop classic Beat Street and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Italy, a squat of this sort is referred to as a "centro sociale," or "social center." In many cities, such places are found on the outskirts of town, and often the atmosphere is not actually very social. Militant political discourse, abrasive music and an overabundance of mangy dogs can characterize the squatter aesthetic. But the Cinema America is part of a new wave of squatting, and it pursues a different strategy. The project is located in the city center, and has been bolstered by support from the neighborhood. An Al Jazeera article on the current occupation trend in Rome makes note of the cinema, saying it "symbolizes the new attitude of opposing speculation and defending public goods across generations and social backgrounds—by linking activists, workers, and local residents."
Cinema America was taken over in November 2012 by students and neighborhood residents who were alarmed at reports that a three-story parking garage would soon be built on the site. Since renovating and re-opening the theater, the occupiers have organized film screenings, performances, lectures, and workshops. They have also provided study spaces for students and hosted local public assemblies. The cinema has quickly become a hub of social activity in the area, attracting a diverse crowd and some unusual allies: a petition to save the cinema has circulated among Italian directors and actors, and Rome's architectural community has rallied behind the theater as well.
The building itself is impressive. Designed by the renowned architect Angelo Di Castro, it is a palatial half-block with a domed roof and a sprawling interior. The auditorium features a gigantic screen and seating capacity for hundreds. In the old days, a skylight in the dome would open during intermissions, and a vendor would circulate selling ice cream. The front entrance is currently the theater's least grandiose feature; actually it is just a door propped half-open at one side of the building, like the entrance to a speak-easy, inconspicuous and ready to be quickly bolted shut if needed. But once you enter the spacious lobby, the narrow doorway is quickly forgotten. Sergio Leone film posters adorn the walls, drinks are cheap, and the atmosphere is tranquil and friendly. As the lights go down for a screening, you feel as though you have traveled back into an idyllic, just-forgotten past.
It is only during closing times, when the door is locked and the bottom floor is windowless and impenetrable, that the cinema has the feel of a fortress. Eviction is always a possibility, but police and angry landlords are not the only threats the cinema squatters have had to face. They have also been attacked by an armed gang of organized thugs, reputedly linked to CasaPound, a fascist squat in the nearby Esquilino neighborhood. Supporters of CasaPound have been involved in hundreds of violent altercations, including the murder of two Senegalese immigrants in 2011. Though CasaPound has denied being behind the attack on the cinema, the very existence of a fascist squatting movement in Italy is disturbing.
The occupation of Cinema America remains a powerful symbol in the Trastevere neighborhood. But for thousands of Italians, squatting is not a symbolic act; it is a necessity of life. Government statistics estimate that 2,850 buildings in Rome are illegally occupied: most of these are not "centri sociale" but acts of economic desperation. The European financial crisis and ensuing austerity programs have caused misery, eroded faith in government institutions, and created an atmosphere in which radical voices and ideas have gained legitimacy; the phrase "social center" is prescient, defining what is increasingly missing from Italian society. Fascist groups have capitalized on discontent and have had an easy time organizing on the social margins amongst the nihilistic and hopeless. Meanwhile, the occupiers of Cinema America are banking on community, knowing that popular local support is essential for the survival of their project. For left-wingers, this means an image overhaul. "Nobody would expect us to keep this place so clean and tidy," one of the squatters told a reporter. "We are young, but responsible." Indeed, when the Cinema America was attacked by hooligans, the first thing the occupants did was issue a press statement, apologizing to the neighbors for the noise.
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