If you want to discover Italy from the comfort of your own home, there’s no better way than through Italian movies. From 1960s classics such as La Dolce Vita to modern masterpieces like the Oscar-winning La Grande Bellezza, there’s so much to explore.
Italian classics: from gritty neorealism to sumptuous period drama
An excellent introduction to Italian cinema is Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (Roma città aperta), released in 1945. This powerful neorealist drama is set during the Nazi occupation in Rome. It’s reportedly one of Pope Francis’s favourite Italian movies.
Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette), directed by Vittorio De Sica and released in 1948, is another classic neorealist drama set in Rome. It tells the story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle. Without the bicycle, the father can’t work, and his family is doomed to slide further into poverty. Although it received a mixed reception on release, it’s since been recognised as one of the greatest films of all time.
La Dolce Vita
Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, on the other hand, takes place in an entirely different Rome. When glamorous streets like the Via Veneto were frequented by the rich and famous, and paparazzi looking for a scoop. It’s one of the most stylish Italian movies, but it’s certainly not a case of style over substance. It’s an epic study of an existential struggle, as Marcello Mastroianni’s journalist searches for meaning in the hollow, fashionable society of post-war Rome. La Dolce Vita was highly influential, as was Fellini’s follow-up 8 ½, which was released a few years later and also starring Mastroianni. 8 ½ explores the creative challenges of a film director, and is also widely regarded as one of the greatest Italian classics.
In the 1960s Vittorio De Sica continued to produce powerful neorealist films, including the classic Two Women (La ciociara), starring Sophia Loren in an Oscar-winning performance. Loren is a widowed shop-keeper, struggling to protect her young daughter from the horrors of the Second World War.
Around this time the writer, intellectual and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was also making hard-hitting films. One of his most critically acclaimed works is The Gospel According to St Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo), a biographical film about Christ. The dialogue was taken directly from the Bible and the film was a hit with the Church. Surprising, perhaps, given that Pasolini was a homosexual, an atheist and a Marxist, who would go on to make Salò, one of the most controversial films of all time.
Another must-see masterpiece of Italian cinema is Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard (Il gattopardo). It’s an epic period drama based on the classic novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa. This tale of Sicilian aristocracy was panned on release, but is now acknowledged as an outstanding film. According to Martin Scorsese, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
Contemporary Italian movies: from gangsters to decadence in Rome
If you’ve only seen one film on this list, it’s probably Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella), released in 1997. This box office smash and critical success was directed by Roberto Benigni, who also stars as a Jewish father fighting to shield his son from the harsh reality of life in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s undeniably moving, but not without its critics. Some thought it was too sentimental, while others argued that it trivialized the suffering in concentration camps. Nonetheless, it was a runaway success at the Oscars, winning so many awards that Benigni had to apologise: “This a terrible mistake because I used up all my English!” It remains one of the best-loved Italian movies across the world.
In contrast, the 2003 saga The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) is hardly known outside of Italy. It’s an excellent piece of storytelling centred on the different paths of two brothers as they navigate the trials of adulthood and political change in the 70s and 80s. Originally planned as a TV series, this epic movie stretches to 6 hours (divided into two sections). By the end, you feel like part of the family.
First there was the book by Roberto Saviano, and now there’s a popular TV drama. But in the middle came Matteo Garrone’s movie adaptation of Gomorra, released in 2008. It’s a hard-hitting crime drama focused on members of the Camorra in southern Italy. It was praised for its authenticity, but perhaps it was too authentic. Some of the amateur actors have since been arrested for crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder.
The most famous Italian film in recent years is The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), directed by Paolo Sorrentino and released in 2013. It follows Jep, a journalist and critic in Rome, reflecting on life during decadent parties and amorous encounters. Toni Servillo gives a memorable, award-winning performance, but the city of Rome also has a starring role. From a moonlit Piazza Navona to the spectacular aqueducts of the Parco degli Acquedotti. Rome has rarely looked so good on film.
Read more: Best Italian Movies (CN Traveler)
Written by Alexandra Turney