Fizzy pink cocktail in hand, I’m chatting over the syncopated din of a jazz band to a charming man in an extremely fine dinner suit. The party is a frenzy of noise and colour all around us, but the amiable gentleman agreeing with me on observations on Italian culture radiates a magnetic sense of calm. I don’t know this at the time, but he’s a Hollywood actor, recently nominated for an Oscar. He has twice played the male lead opposite Meryl Streep. (His name is Stanley Tucci.) To our left, sprawled on a plush sofa, an elderly chap keeps a keen eye on the sumptuous clothes of the passing ladies. I later learn that he was Elizabeth Taylor’s favourite dress designer. Oh my.
This glittering party, noisily filling the elegant rooms and terraces of the Cápri Palace Hotel, is one of countless similar events taking place this summer, as every summer, on Cápri. Having watched their island and its sisters Ischia and Prócida appear in so many films over the years, local authorities have surrendered to the tide and established various annual film festivals on Cápri. They have no trouble getting celebrities to attend. Who wouldn’t want to come to such a place? Glamorous, colourful and dramatic, Cápri is an innately cinematic location. And the bright stars of the movie world feel right at home.
Its white cliffs towering out of the Bay of Naples, Cápri is a place of magnificent spectacle – both in the views you have of it from afar and the bay-wide vistas afforded from its giddy heights. Approach the island by boat and you’ll be wowed by its white vertical rockfaces and the slick über-yachts idling beside them. Stand atop the island and you can gaze across miles of foaming turquoise to the brooding hulk of Vesuvius, or the seaward face of Sorrento, or the shimmering evening lights of Naples. No wonder Cápri has inspired so many cinematographers. It’s a place of visions, of dreams and delirium.
Appropriately for a star of the silver screen, Cápri has a long history of seduction and decadence. The irresistibly sexy Sirens of Classical legend sang to Odysseus from this island, having lured many lesser sailors to their doom. Roman emperors luxuriated in villas set amidst the fruit and flowers here, and one of them, Tiberius, allegedly threw off the highest cliff any subjects who bored him. The Marquis de Sade revelled in typically orgiastic pleasures on Cápri in the 18th century. Oscar Wilde and Bosie hung out here, as did countless other artists, actors and celebrities over the following decades – some of whom, as if under the sway of the Sirens, were never to leave the place ever again.
Cápri’s early appearances in cinema coincided with its rise as a fashionable bolthole for movie stars. 1947’s L’Isola del Sogno (‘The Island of Dreams’) was followed by 1949’s swashbuckling The Pirates of Cápri, 1950’s L’Imperatore di Cápri and 1958’s Avventura di Capri. By 1960, Sophia Loren had hit the world full in the eyes and was duly squeezed into a rom-com with Clark Gable called It Started in Naples – filmed on Cápri. There followed Leoni al Sole (1961), Il Mare (1963) and then Le Mépris – made in 1963 by the Nouvelle Vague master Jean Luc Godard and starring Brigitte Bardot. Hot on Brigitte’s heels, Julie Christie did some sunbathing and met a prince on the island in Darling,an unsettling film made with Dirk Bogarde in 1965. Various movies employed Cápri as an backdrop in succeeding decades, the most recent being the heartwarming 2007 German film, Cápri, You Love?.
Le Mépris aside, few of Cápri’s films have been acclaimed as truly great works of art or become big popular hits. These are largely B-movies, potboilers and fun comedy features rather than deathless cinema. Some movies made on neighbouring Ischia and Prócida, however, are in a rather different class. Both islands have featured in films you’re likely to have actually heard of. Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor (1962), for example. Anthony Minghella’s wonderful The Talented Mr. Ripley with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon (1999). And the irresistible Il Postino (1994), winner of numerous international awards.
Not as topographically dramatic as Cápri, neighbouring Ischia is nonetheless hugely attractive – with green volcanic hills, fragrant pine groves, soft sandy beaches and abundant thermal springs. Elegant spa hotels abound, and the island tends to draw quiet, health-conscious sybarites from northern European rather than the yacht-n-jet set who flock to Cápri. (Curious day-trippers also flock to Cápri, in great numbers, rendering the place unbearably crowded at times.)
The largest of all the Bay of Naples isles, Ischia is also probably the earliest inhabited. There were people living here at least four thousand years ago. And when seafaring Greeks first set sail round Italy in the 8th century BC, Ischia was the magnetic first place they chose to set up a colony. Only from here did they shift to the mainland and famously establish Cumae, then Neapolis (Naples). Ischia is a palpably ancient and elemental island, and so it seems fitting that the American lead characters of The Talented Mr. Ripley should be filmed here finding themselves captivated by the Old World, soon to be undone by desires and jealousies that bubble beneath the surface like the waters of a volcanic spring. It is on Ischia that we see Tom Ripley arrive in the mythical town of ‘Mongibello’ and on one of its beaches that he contrives to first meet Dickie and Marge.
Little Prócida also served as The Talented Mr. Ripley’s ‘Mongibello’. This humble Cinderella-island with its worn, lived-in alleyways full of real-life atmosphere was the perfect place to film Dickie conducting his furtive affair with local girl Silvana – who commits suicide when she finds herself pregnant by him. Atmosphere aside, director Minghella either knew Prócida’s history well, or struck upon a happy coincidence. This smallest of the Bay of Naples islands still honours the tragic heroine of a 19th-century French novel, Graziella – a low-born local girl who dies of a broken heart when her foreign-visitor boyfriend leaves to marry someone more appropriate to his social class. (Very Dickie and Silvana!)
Charming, slow-paced Prócida, with its colourful buildings and garlands of washing strung above the streets, is the least-visited of all the Bay of Naples islands. Ten thousand people live here (making it the single most densely-populated island in the Mediterranean), and the sense of community is very strong. It was an appropriate place, therefore, to make a film about a figure at the heart of any community – the postman. Il Postino was a big hit for director Michael Radford in 1997, and swiftly entered the canon of classic Italian films. Prócida provided lots of the lovely backdrops, and made a big contribution to the film’s all-round charm.
Wander the streets of Prócida today, and it’s easy to feel that you’re in your own private movie. The innocent abroad, the exile, the savvy traveller – you can rotate the roles as you wish. Take the boat from here to Ischia and pretend you’re an extra in a historical epic – an ancient Greek at the helm of a noble trireme, about to be beguiled by Italy. Or just relax on the rocks in Cápri – an off-duty movie star, radiating old-fashioned glamour. The scene is set. The scripts are up to you.