Bologna still has faith in the big screen — and the brick-and-mortar spaces that house it.
The city’s historic Modernissimo cinema, which first opened in February of 1915 and stayed active for some 90 years under different names and iterations, reopened on November 21 after a nearly two-decade closure and looks poised to revitalize the cultural offerings of its host neighborhood.
Housed in the lower levels of the Palazzo Ronzani, a turn-of-the-20th-century building designed by Gualtiero Pontoni, the Modernissimo has been quietly undergoing renovations since the 100-year anniversary of its opening in 2015. At the helm of the restoration was the Cineteca di Bologna foundation, a noted film archive, with support from the City of Bologna and other institutional partners.
Located at the intersection of Via Rizzoli and Piazza Re Enzo, the cinema, like many of its peers, has evolved for the streaming era rather than conceded defeat to it. Bringing the cinema “back to the forefront of people’s lives” will require a certain level of flexibility, according to Gian Luca Farinelli, the longtime director of the Cineteca di Bologna. “As businesspeople, we have to listen to the needs of the public,” Farinelli told Vanity Fair Italia.
Programming at the Modernissimo won’t focus exclusively on new movies, but will include a mix of restored classics, contemporary films, premieres and preview screenings, broader cultural and literary initiatives and guest talks by artists, directors, actors and other film-world figures.
It’s the “live” entertainment factor, along with spinoff social events and screenings at less conventional hours (Sunday mornings, Saturdays at midnight), that Farinelli and other stakeholders hope will pull viewers off their couches and back into the cinehall. The stage features a piano, for example, that performers will use during showings of restored silent films. On select weekdays, workers can pop by on their lunch breaks for tortellini and torta salata, bottled water, dessert and a short film for €15. A lively bookshop run by the Cineteca di Bologna is located adjacent to the ticket office.
This multifaceted new direction for the Modernissimo was reflected during the flurry of inaugural celebrations, lectures and screenings held over the past week, which featured guests from the Italian and international film scenes, from directors Wes Anderson and Giuseppe Tornatore to actors Jeff Goldblum and Paola Cortellesi.
A “cultural subway”
The revived Modernissimo, which was known as the Arcobaleno when it was last active in 2007, has maintained its true-to-era Art Nouveau aesthetic thanks to set designer Giancarlo Basili, who was in charge of the auditorium upgrades. (Basili previously worked on the HBO, Rai 1 and TimVision series L’Amica Geniale, known in English as My Brilliant Friend.)
Farinelli suggested that Basili’s close attention to the characteristics that distinguished Modernissimo would help set the cinema apart and create incentives to visit.
“Since the 1970s, we’ve watched a progressive standardization of cinemas,” Farinelli said in a statement. “Today, in the eyes of spectators all over the world, cinemas all look the same. We went in the opposite direction, seeking out the uniqueness of the [space].”
One of the unique selling points of the cinema — whose name means “very modern” — is its ties to the ancient world, despite the Art Nouveau flourishes that dominate the space. Close to the bar, visitors can see a piece of the old Via Emilia, one of the great Roman roads whose construction began under Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (187 BCE).
Still, the project won’t rely on Modernissimo’s historic or aesthetic appeal alone: The city is hedging its bets on a full “cultural subway” in the area, as the Bolognese actor and writer Alessandro Borgonzoni is calling the converted underground route that extends beyond the cinema. Known as the Sottopasso di Via Rizzoli or Re Enzo (Via Rizzoli or Re Enzo underpass), the space, inaugurated in 1960 as a way for pedestrians to efficiently pass through traffic-congested areas, reopened in 2022 to host an exhibition for Italy-wide celebrations of Pier Paolo Pasolini on the centenary of his birth. With the revival of the Modernissimo, future cultural offerings of the Sottopasso are expected to get more foot traffic.
By the end of February 2024, the cinema is also planning to inaugurate a special entrance on the Piazza Re Enzo side, designed by the Bolognese firm marionanni virgola. The same firm helped redesign the front foyer rooms that house the Caffè Pathé, the Modernissimo’s onsite bar, where the aperitivo-hour offerings, called “Bologna in a Bite,” focus on finger food reinterpretations of local and regional classics.
Going to the movies? It’s not retro, it’s “modernissimo”
Despite the shuttered theaters and splintered public tastes commonly attributed to — or blamed on — streaming services, social media, post-pandemic approaches to entertainment and other factors, the Modernissimo is reopening in what appears to be an optimistic moment for moviegoing in Italy.
A recent report published by the cinema and audiovisual department of the Italian Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan found that half of Italians surveyed had been to the cinema at least once between January and May 2023 — notably, well before the release date of dueling summer blockbusters Barbie and Oppenheimer. The report indicated that the most regular moviegoers were “very young” members of Gen-Z, and families with children under 10.
Most shows and events at the Modernissimo will be accessible for these key demographics, with ticket prices ranging from €3.50 to €10.
If you go
Via Rizzoli 1-2, Bologna