Cinema America is attracting the support of Italy's leading actors and directors, and even its cinema-loving president. Picture: Nicola, flickr.com

Rome - A historic cinema in Rome risks demolition. The struggle of about 20 students barely out of their teens to save it has brought together the local neighbourhood, big-name film actors and directors - and even Italy's head of state.

Three decades ago, the rise and fall of a small-town cinema in rural Sicily, as told on screen by Giuseppe Tornatore's Oscar-winning film Cinema Paradiso, moved audiences worldwide.

Now, the idealistic struggle of bunch of Rome teenagers to safeguard one of the Eternal City's historic film halls - the 1950s Cinema America - is attracting the support of Italy's leading actors and directors, and even its cinema-loving president.

Set in Trastevere, a once working-class, now hip neighbourhood in central Rome, the Cinema America closed down in the late 1990s and was later bought by real estate developers who want to knock it down and replace it with luxury flats.

In November 2012, a few dozen high school and university students broke into the abandoned building and set up the Cinema America Occupato - a self-governed community centre offering film screenings, theatre classes, a study area and AS Roma football matches.

“When you are 16, 18 or 20, you find that if you just want to hang out somewhere - just like me and you are doing now - you are obliged to spend some money,” Francesco Lo Monaco, one of the activists, told dpa, while sipping espresso at a bar near the cinema.

“In Trastevere, people are trying to turn every nook and cranny into a bed and breakfast, while traditional shops are closing down to be replaced by trendy bars,” the 20-year-old university student said.

“We broke into the cinema to change this situation,” he explained. “None of us were cinema buffs to start with: what mattered for us was to reclaim a space for public use.”

Over the following 21 months, the occupied cinema grew so successful that big names joined the cause, agreeing to present free screenings of their movies and take part in question-and-answer sessions with the public.

Old masters like directors Francesco Rosi and Ettore Scola, established authors like Nanni Moretti and Daniele Luchetti, and Paolo Sorrentino, whose La Grande Bellezza won the best foreign film Oscar last year, all took part in the exercise.

“The cinema had 700 seats ... but when we had events with filmmakers, we always had at least 1,000 people. It's a great experience, to be able to watch a film together and later be able to ask: 'Why did you have this or that in that scene?',” Lo Monaco said.

But the magic ended in early September, when police terminated the occupation.

“An army of eight police vans, including an anti-terrorism squad, showed up at 7.20 am: they found only one of us sleeping inside, who offered no resistance,” Lo Monaco said. “Neighbourhood grannies came out into the street to shout at the police,” he added, smiling.

Dpa's attempts to speak to the owners of the cinema failed, but earlier this month they complained to La Repubblica newspaper:

“Everybody is against us. Everybody is innocent here, including those who trample on (our) fundamental (property) rights.”

Lo Monaco said Rome's local authorities should convince the owners to sell up, pointing out that the cinema is in the process of being listed, making it impossible to turn it into flats. But so far there has been no movement.

Under activists' plans, the cinema should be bought by a collective, backed by a neighbourhood fundraising campaign and contribution from cinema stars. Actors Toni Servillo and Elio Germano, as well as Sorrentino and two other directors, are on board, Lo Monaco said.

A City Hall spokeswoman said Mayor Ignazio Marino was planning to meet the owners. “But the cinema is private property, if they want to hold on to it, there is not much we can do,” she noted.

In the meantime, Lo Monaco and his friends have relocated to the Little Cinema America - a smaller venue next door, in a former bakery closed several years ago, which the owners made available for free while they continued to try to sell the premises.

“What can we say, we are nostalgic for the old America, but we are also very happy to have managed to create a new mini-cinema, at a time when cultural offers in Rome are equal to zero,” activists wrote on Facebook ahead of its opening, last weekend.

They noted that 42 cinemas had closed in downtown Rome in recent years -a trend accelerated by the growing popularity of web-streamed content. The Eternal City is also suffering from a budget crisis that has forced the City Hall to cut funding for cultural programmes.

While they laboured to renovate the bakery - juggling between school lessons and university lectures - the 20 or so activists behind the project, aged between 14 and 22 - got the highest-possible endorsement.

“The efforts of those who work to keep up the wide presence of cultural centres, theatres and cinemas in the historic areas of our cities have to be considered, in general terms, highly positive,” Italian President Giorgio Napolitano told them in a public letter.

Trastevere residents offered another kind of support.

“An old lady would come in every day, and feed us with a tray of her oven-cooked pasta,” Lo Monaco said. - Sapa-dpa