MAKING IT WORK; Cinema Under the Stars Runs Into Some Storms

August 23, 1998

IT started small and — because it is under fire by some of its neighbors — it may end small. ”Cinema Under the Stars,” as its fans call it, began on a warm evening in Little Italy, when a young Italian in love with the movies placed a secondhand film projector on a garbage can and ran an extension cord from a nearby lamppost.

Then, on the white wall of a neighborhood playground, he showed the movie he had just borrowed from the New York Public Library — a 1962 crime drama called ”Il Mafioso,” shot in part on Cleveland Place, a block away. His audience was himself, two friends and a homeless man.

That was in May 1996, recalls Luca Pizzaroni, an apprentice film maker and the man with the projector. A week later, Mr. Pizzaroni borrowed another movie from the library and in subsequent weeks others, trying to choose primarily any film by such great Italian directors as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Bernardo Bertolucci.

The movies were a joy not only for Mr. Pizzaroni’s neighbors of Italian heritage, but also for the people who dropped in because admission was free — a condition imposed by the library and willingly accepted by Mr. Pizzaroni, who said he was not interested in a commercial enterprise. Dozens of people showed up for screenings that first summer at the DeSalvio Playground, on the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets, craning their necks from the playground benches, leaning against the chain-link fence, squirming as they sat on the asphalt.

”These are movies for people who know movies and who love movies,” said Wolfgang Scheppe, an art historian who lives in Little Italy and who became friendly with Mr. Pizzaroni after attending those first screenings. ”This is why people who wouldn’t go to Bryant Park will come to the DeSalvio Playground.” Bryant Park, in midtown, is the scene of a popular corporate-sponsored film festival that features classic American movies like ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which plays tomorrow.

Gioacchino Lanza-Tomasi, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Manhattan and another friend of Mr. Pizzaroni’s, said: ”What Luca is doing is very important. He is keeping alive the name of Italy and the name of Italian cinema.”

A native of Rome, Mr. Pizzaroni, now 27, said he got the idea of the film series from the many open-air festivals in Roman parks and squares, which sometimes attract thousands of moviegoers who picnic, flirt and watch movies until dawn. ”This is very nice, very nice,” he said recently about the playground, which is across the street from his second-floor apartment. ”You are watching a movie under a beautiful sky, on a beautiful night. This is my ideal living room.”

His second summer was even more successful. For a screening of Fellini’s 1981 fantasy, ”City of Women,” in June 1997, more than 200 people crowded into the DeSalvio Playground. And this summer was the most anticipated yet. Each Tuesday and Thursday people waited for Mr. Pizzaroni to tape his photocopied handbills to the playground fence — practically his only advertising — announcing another film to be shown from 9 to 11 that night. He now calls his festival Open Cine, a kind of summer urban happening.

On July 14, 200 people clapped and cheered during Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western ”The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” starring Clint Eastwood. On July 21, another 200, this time many of Mr. Pizzaroni’s Latino neighbors, laughed and shouted even louder when he showed Louis Malle’s 1965 comedy, ”Viva Maria,” starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau and set during the Mexican Revolution.

But for some neighbors, that was 200 film fans too many. Residents presumably trying to sleep called the police, who shut down the screening. The final straw for these neighbors came two days later, when a screening of Fellini’s 1954 Oscar-winner, ”La Strada,” attracted 500 people, Mr. Pizzaroni’s largest crowd ever. Fifty filmgoers sat on metal chairs, 50 on the playground benches, and more than 400 wedged together on a huge carpet of flattened cardboard boxes.

Even more neighbors complained about ”La Strada.” Officer David Yat, the community affairs officer for the Fifth Precinct, said Mr. Pizzaroni’s city permit to use a loudspeaker allowed for sound projection only between 9 A.M. and 9 P.M. ”It’s like this,” said Officer Yat. ”I say: ‘Luca, nobody complains, it’s no big deal about 9 P.M. Somebody complains, it’s a big deal.’ ”

The precinct received ”several” complaints from neighbors, Officer Yat said. Mr. Pizzaroni’s sound-device permit, which expired July 31, was not renewed.

Mr. Pizzaroni said he had come to New York to escape the dying Italian film industry. He had become an assistant at Cinecitta’, Italy’s largest film studio, just as local film production fell drastically because audiences seemed to prefer American films.

In New York, Mr. Pizzaroni found work as a location scout for European film companies. But with the popularity of Open Cine, his reputation spread and he quit his job. With the help of a modest grant from the Goldfarb Foundation of Boulder, Colo., he now organizes film festivals full time. On Wednesday, the Anthology Film Archive, a center for independent movies, is scheduled to show a series of silent films by Arnold Fanck, a skilled but largely forgotten director whose technical innovations include mounting a camera on skis. The series was organized by Mr. Pizzaroni, who has developed wide contacts with film distributors and collectors. ”Luca really knows his movies,” Robert Haller, the archive’s director, said.

Because of Mr. Pizzaroni’s assignment at Anthology Film Archive, there will be no Open Cine screenings this week. But Mr. Pizzaroni said Open Cine is his first love, and he has modified the series because of neighbors’ complaints. Now he shows only silent movies. Some are famous, like ”Le Voyage dans la Lune,” the 1902 classic fantasy directed by Georges Melies. Others are just quirky, like 1950’s home movies of a vacationing Italian family at Coney Island.

A recent mishap further changed Open Cine. A construction company mistakenly hauled away the donated chairs Mr. Pizzaroni used, so now almost everyone must sit on cardboard. The donated metal projector stand was hauled away too, so Mr. Pizzaroni has gone back to balancing his projector on an overturned garbage can.

Still, the neighbors come, although in fewer numbers. Anna Simone, 69, a retired clerk and an Italian immigrant, used to provide running commentary on the movies in Italian, English and her own special patois. She said she loved it when Mr. Pizzaroni showed ”La Strada,” but still does not understand why he must show silents, especially home movies. But she remains among the faithful. ”If I’m alive,” she said, ”I’ll come.”

A recent screening was sparsely attended, with no more than two dozen people, including squealing children hanging off the jungle gym who supplied almost the only sound of the evening.

”This is O.K.,” said Mr. Pizzaroni, shrugging and lighting a cigarette. ”If it’s just us, just friends, it is O.K.”

Photos: Luca Pizzaroni (insert) has been showing films at the DeSalvio Playground for two years. Most spectators must sit on cardboard. (Photographs by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times) Chart: ”MARQUEE: From Little Italy to the Moon” Some offerings from Luca Pizzaroni’s ”Open Cine”: ”Il Mafioso” (1962). Filmed in Little Italy, on Cleveland Place. Directed by Alberto Lattuada. Shown May 1996. ”Mamma Roma” (1962). A Pizzaroni favorite, starring Anna Magnani as a middle-aged prostitute. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Shown July 1997. ”The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). Best known of the ”spaghetti Westerns.” Directed by Sergio Leone. Shown June 21. ”La Strada” (1954). Oscar winner for best foreign film. Directed by Federico Fellini. Shown July 23. ”Le Voyage Dans la Lune” (1902). One of the first science fiction films. Directed by Georges Melies. Shown Aug. 11.