In the late 1960s, an Italian engineer built his own island in the Adriatic sea, which housed a restaurant, bar, souvenir shop and even a post office. It is an extraordinary story, which has gone largely untold for decades.
That’s about to change with the release of Rose Island, a new Netflix film which follows the true story of Giorgio Rosa and his battle with the Italian authorities for his self-made structure to be recognised as an independent state.
The story is likely to have passed you by unless you happen to live in the north Italian city of Rimini, off the coast of which Rosa built his utopian micro-nation.
“It’s the sort of tale in Rimini that grandparents tell their children and grandchildren,” explains the film’s producer Matteo Rovere. “It’s a very famous story, but only in Rimini. We thought it was an incredible story, and very strange that we didn’t know about it.”
Prior to his death in 2017 at the age of 92, Rosa met with the film-makers and, after a bit of persuasion on their part, gave them his blessing to adapt the story for the screen. The resulting film depicts the construction of the island, and Rosa’s refusal to give in to the Italian government’s demands that it be dismantled.
The story begins in 1967, when Rosa set out to build a micro-nation, which was intended to be a symbol of freedom. Many people at the time thought he must be crazy to attempt such a feat. But, as his real-life son points out, the building of L’Isola delle Rose required a great deal of technical know-how.
“My father was an engineer, and in Italy it would be enough to describe him like this to understand what kind of person he was,” Lorenzo Rosa explains. “He was a very precise, detailed person, and very organised. An engineer in an almost German sense of the word. Except for this small vein of craziness that led him to want to build a platform for himself, and then make it a state outside of territorial waters, which kind of made him the prince of anarchists.”
What was Rose Island?
- In 1967, Italian engineer Giorgio Rosa designed and financed the construction of a 400 sq m platform which was suspended 26m above the water by steel pylons.
- The structure was built 12km off the coast of Rimini, just beyond Italian territorial waters, which meant it was outside the control of the authorities.
- Rosa made himself the president and declared it an independent state – the Republic of Rose Island.
- Authorities were unhappy that Rose Island had been built without permission and was benefitting from tourism while simultaneously avoiding tax laws.
- As well as claiming the island was being used for drinking and gambling, some politicians even suggested the island posed a threat to national security and could be providing cover for Soviet nuclear submarines, in an effort to damage its reputation.
- Just 55 days after the island’s declaration of independence on 24 June 1968, the Italians sent in military forces to assume control. They destroyed Rose Island on 11 February 1969 using dynamite.
- Days later, a storm submerged the structure entirely. Today, its remains rest on the seabed of the Adriatic.
Rose Island is fundamentally “a story about freedom, about how resilient Giorgio Rosa was against the government,” explains Rovere. “He didn’t want to surrender against the law, because the law in the 60s was that if you were more than six miles from the coast, it’s nobody’s land, so you can do what you want – just like if you were on the Moon.
“And so he built the island, which was incredible because it was very complicated. He built it with four friends and a very small group of workers, in six months. He invented the technology to do it, and he was very proud of the technology. In fact, when we spoke to him [about making a film] he was not very interested in the story, but he was enthusiastic to tell us about the technology he had invented to build it.”
Once it was completed, Rosa’s platform quickly attracted the attention of Italian newspapers, and against a backdrop of worldwide unrest with the Vietnam War and civil rights protests, young people flocked to Rose Island for fun and freedom.
Efforts to try to shut it down only made it more popular. The Italian government tried to discredit it by claiming the island was being used for illegal activities like gambling and drug-taking.
“They did and said all of that simply because they wanted to ruin its reputation,” says Rosa’s son. “They even suggested there were Russian submarines beneath the island. And then another accusation was that the island was dangerous because it was unstable, and yet it took three rounds of dynamite to destroy it.”
Indeed, the amount of hard work it took to design and construct Rose Island became apparent when director Sydney Sibilia and his team tried to recreate it for the screen.
Fortunately, the film was shot in an infinity pool in Malta, on water which was much shallower than it had been in real life. But there was still a string of logistical problems to overcome.
“Every day was a nightmare,” Sibilia laughs. “Every day we had to explode something or do something complicated with water. Movies are created to be shot on solid ground. We are people, with a camera, on the ground. But when we take movies on water, it’s fluid, and often the camera was in the air.”
He concludes: “Often I am asked for advice by young directors, this is my advice: guys, shoot on the ground!”
Netflix’s adaptation of the story is part of the streaming service’s drive to produce more titles not in the English language with worldwide appeal. The dialogue is Italian, although subtitles and dubbing are available for international audiences.
The prolific Italian actor Elio Germano stars as Rosa, while his love interest is portrayed by Matilda De Angelis, who recently played Elena in HBO’s The Undoing.
“We had a lot of real things to contend with,” reflects Germano on the shooting process. “The water, the wind, all of that was real, so it was, for us, a bit like an action movie sometimes, especially for me, so it was a tough experience of course.”
But, he adds, it’s an achievement that the movie came to fruition at all. “Before Netflix, it was too expensive for us to shoot a movie on this story… it’s the first time for an Italian movie to shoot like this, with a lot of money, and you can free your imagination.”
Neither of the film’s stars had come across the story before. “I’m from Bologna and neither my parents or friends or family knew about this story, which is crazy,” says De Angelis. “When I read the script, I wondered why no-one has ever done a movie about the story before, because it’s truly incredible.”
One downside of the story’s obscurity is there wasn’t much material for the actors to base their characters on. “It’s not like we have lots of pictures or books about it, so building the characters was really up to us in our imagination, so the important thing was recreating the vibes from the 60s, the clothes, the vibes, the attitudes, the ideas of freedom,” De Angelis says.
The film zones in on Rosa’s battle with the Italian authorities; a lot of scenes take place in the meeting rooms of the government, where Rosa was summoned to explain himself. But the engineer, who was in his 40s at the time, was unwavering in his position that he had not broken any laws by building the island, and there was no reason it should be destroyed.
“They tried to pay him to abandon the island, but he wanted to demonstrate that it was an act of freedom,” explains Rovere, who researched the film using documents from the time. “It’s a utopia but at the same time it’s a decision that he made to be strong with the government.”
Rosa’s original intention had been to gradually add more storeys to Rose Island over the years. “They thought the island should be not only one floor, but five floors,” Rovere confirms. “The structure was very strong, and the idea was to build one extra floor each season.”
It was difficult to keep on top of all the facilities the island needed, although Rosa and his team did manage to build three functioning toilets. But he ran into difficulty when the weather got worse. “They opened the island around April, so they had the first summer on the island, but then realised it wasn’t very good for the winter,” says Rovere. The film doesn’t shy away from showing Rosa struggling to cope with the cold, wind, rain and high waves.
However, despite the logistical problems, Lorenzo Rosa has nothing but fond memories of his visits to the island as a seven-year-old boy.
“I loved this island very much and I went there many times – it was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. “I loved to be with my father and being with him was a privilege, because he was working very hard as an engineer, he was building the island using his own money, and he was not that rich. So he would work hard to make money, and then spend his time building the island.
“He would leave Bologna around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, get to Rimini, get on the boat and then work on the island. So being with him was extreme fun for me. Getting on a boat I loved very much, and seeing the water, because the Adriatic sea near the shore is very muddy, like clay, but out in the open sea it was like being in the Caribbean.”
After such an extraordinary experience, you might think Giorgio Rosa would revel in the stories of Rose Island for the rest of his life, enthusiastic to tell anecdotes about his creation.
“As a matter of fact he was very upset and very sorry [after it was destroyed], he suffered from it. He never spoke about it. It was better for anyone not to speak about it because that would make him very very sad, although he would reply to questions if asked,” says his son.
“The saddest memory I have is when he got the letter from the Italian government which asked him to pay the money spent to destroy the island, which was 11m lira at the time.” (That currency no longer exists but it would have been around £5,200.)
He concludes: “I’m sure my father would have liked the movie, although it would have reminded him of all the pain. But he would certainly be pleased to see the way [Sibilia has] dealt with the subject matter, the way the movie is treated in a light way.”
After Rose Island was destroyed with explosives, a storm submerged the entire structure under water. Today, its remains rest on the seabed of the Adriatic, but Lorenzo Rosa still has a piece of the original structure on display in his home.
“I have a brick which was taken from there by the scuba divers, and they wrote something beautiful on it,” he explains, reading the inscription aloud. “They said: ‘The divers of Rimini are honoured to give back the fragment of a dream to a dreamer.'”
Several interviews in this article were conducted in Italian via a translator.
Rose Island (L’Isola delle Rose) is released by Netflix on Wednesday, 9 December.