This is a story that is quite famous in Rimini, a city on the Adriatic Coast in the region of Emilia-Romagna. In the coastal village where Federico Fellini was born, grandparents tell this tale to their children and grandchildren. But the story hasn’t been known either throughout Italy or the world until Netflix sponsored the film and presented “Rose Island” in December 2020.
“Rose Island” is a film based on the true story of an Italian engineer, Giorgio Rosa, and his creation of an island eventually called the Republic of Rose Island. The story began in the late 1960s when Giorgio was celebrating passing the state engineering exam with his fellow students in Bologna. His former girlfriend, Gabriella, shows up and he wants to take her home in his car, which is a vehicle that he built for the state exam. When the police stop him because he has no license plate, the eccentric and irrepressible Giorgio blurts out, “I didn’t buy this car, I built it. I didn’t have a license plate for the bi-plane I built either. Should everything that flies, like the birds, have license plates attached to them?” Then the police discover that he also doesn’t have a driver’s license, and Giorgio spends the night in jail.
The next day Giorgio apologizes to Gabriella at the university where she teaches international law. She berates him for living in a fantasy world. He responds that maybe as an engineer he should build his own world, one without rules. Later when he sees a billboard showing a petroleum platform at sea, an idea takes hold. With his engineering buddy, they invent new technology and build a platform in the Adriatic Ocean 12 kilometers off the coast of Rimini. Because the platform is beyond the territorial waters of Italy, they reason that they are no longer subject to Italian laws.
The film then shows the development of the island into a disco, bar and beach club. Giorgio proclaims himself president of Rose Island and the inhabitants develop the micro-nation’s own language, currency and postal system. With the backdrop of worldwide unrest and protests during the late ‘60s, young people flock to Rose Island for fun and freedom. This also attracts the attention of the Italian government that is unhappy that Rose Island was built without permission, was benefitting from tourism and was not paying taxes. The conflict between Giorgio and the authorities ensues and Giorgio appeals to both the United Nations and the European authorities for recognition. (I won’t reveal the ending of the movie.)
The making of the film is as interesting as the film itself. Netflix’s adaptation of this story is part of the streaming service’s drive to produce more titles in non-English languages that might have worldwide appeal. Director Sydney Sibilia and his team said that without Netflix, it would have been too expensive for them to produce this story. The film was shot in a huge infinity pool in Malta and the construction of Rose Island was challenging. There were so many logistical problems to overcome, and as Sibilia says, “Every day was a nightmare.” The other problem was that the story’s obscurity meant that there wasn’t much documented material for the actors to base their characters on. But like Giorgio, the team was innovative and persevered.
The real Giorgio Rosa died in 2017 at the age of 92. He had reluctantly given his permission for the making of the film. When the producers approached him, what he really wanted to talk about was the technology he used to construct Rose Island. Giorgio’s son Lorenzo (his mother is Gabriella) says that his father would have been pleased with the way Sibilia dealt with the subject matter and the way the movie treated it in a light way.
Spoiler Alert: The remains of Rose Island lie on the seabed of the Adriatic, but Lorenzo has a piece of the original structure on display in his home. On it the scuba divers wrote: “The divers of Rimini are honored to give back the fragment of a dream to a dreamer.”