Woody Allen film premiere rekindles 'Dolce Vita' Rome

Dario Thuburn
AFP News
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Director Woody Allen stars with Spanish actress Penelope Cruz and Italian actor Roberto Benigni in his latest film

From L: US film director Woody Allen, Spanish actress Penelope Cruz and Italian actor Roberto Benigni pose during the photocall for "To Rome With Love" at a hotel in Rome. The film, which premieres Friday, revives the "Dolce Vita" movie star heyday of the Eternal City

US director Woody Allen premiered his latest film "To Rome With Love" on Friday in which he stars alongside Penelope Cruz, rekindling the "Dolce Vita" glamour of the Eternal City's movie heyday.

"It's like no other city. It's extremely exotic!" Allen told reporters at a press conference in a luxury hotel in the Italian capital alongside fellow stars Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg and Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni.

"I grew up on Italian cinema," said the famously neurotic New Yorker.

Asked why some of his most recent films like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Midnight in Paris" always seem to be set in European cities, he quipped: "I could not make films in some rural place or in the desert.

"These cities are very similar to New York in terms of energy and culture. It's easy to live in them and to find stories there."

He also said his next movie would be set mainly in San Francisco.

A question about his breathless film-a-year record elicited a half-joking response from the 76-year-old comedy legend.

"It's a great distraction... If I wasn't making a movie, I'd be sitting at home obsessing over how terrible life is," he said.

"To Rome With Love" is made up of four vignettes and producers characterised it as "a carefree comedy, a kaleidoscopic film."

Allen is an opera director who comes to Italy to meet his daughter's fiance and discovers that the man's father sings magnificent opera in the shower.

Benigni, who shot to international fame with the bittersweet Holocaust film "Life is Beautiful", plays an ordinary man mistaken for a celebrity and chased by paparazzi as he goes about his daily life.

"It's so rare to have a film in Italy! It's like a lunar eclipse!" said the hyperbolic actor, who won three Oscars in 1999 and caused a stir at the award ceremony by clambering over seats to the stage.

He said Allen was "someone for which our century will be remembered," adding: "Being funny in front of him is like a piano in front of Mozart."

Benigni hinted that the film, shot last year and distributed by flamboyant former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset company, reflected some of the atmosphere of scandal of the billionaire's last months in power.

"The film is set in the Italy of that time. We had our prime minister, we had the escorts, we had parties... Now we have penniless pensioners, rain and (Prime Minister Mario) Monti. The situation has really changed!"

In the film, Baldwin is a famous architect who bumps into a young man played by Jesse Eisenberg of "Social Network" fame and re-lives his youth.

Penelope Cruz plays a prostitute who spends the day with a young man with puritanical parents who is separated from his wife-to-be for a day.

At the press conference, Baldwin joked that he had mistakenly read the script and understood that he would be a character who gets to make love to Cruz in his hotel room. "I immediately said yes," he said.

Cruz said Allen had given her "a jewel of a character" and called the director "peculiar" and "mesmerising". "I always drive him crazy with a thousand questions. There is absolutely no b(expletive) in his personality."

She came to Rome with her son and was seen walking in genteel Villa Borghese park near her hotel. Baldwin, who came with his 28-year-old girlfriend Hilaria Thomas, was pursued by photographers as he strolled in the city centre.

Fans of Allen's films have seen signs of a creative revival for the master after his 1970s classics such as "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" with "Match Point" in 2006 -- a dark thriller that marked an unusual departure from comedy.

Last year's "Midnight in Paris" -- a homage to the Golden Age of the French capital -- also won acclaim and box office success, as well as bagging the cult director his fourth Academy Award for best original screenplay.

Born Allen Konigsberg on December 1, 1935, to a family of second generation Jewish immigrants in New York, Allen said he spent much of his Brooklyn childhood alone in his room, practising magic tricks or playing the clarinet.

He travels to Italy almost every year to play with a jazz orchestra.

Allen made his film debut in 1966 and has written and directed around 50 films in a career spanning nearly half a century.

His homage to Rome also marks a return to the spotlight for the Italian capital, whose mix of ancient Roman ruins and Baroque facades provided the setting for film classics "Roman Holiday" (1953) and "La Dolce Vita" (1960).

Wearing a fisherman's hat and his trademark thick-framed glasses, Allen was seen filming last summer, including at the Spanish Steps -- the backdrop to a famous scene in "Roman Holiday" with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Among other shooting locations were the Colosseum, Via del Corso and Via Veneto -- the hub of Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" which coined the word "paparazzo" to describe celebrity-hunting photographers.

The film opens on April 20 in Italy and on June 21 in the United States.