Italians today still long for the cultural exuberance and unprecedented prosperity of the post-war period. As a result many of the best and famous films on my list come from this period of easy money, beautiful women and fast living. Names like Fellini, Bertolucci and Mastroianni are a big part of the golden age of Italian cinema. But it would be a mistake to ignore today’s Italian cinema which boasts some terrific gems as well.
1. Rome, Open City (1945) Roberto Rossellini
Roberto Rossellini’s best film and one of the most influential films from the first half of the 20th century. Rome, Open City takes place during the Nazi Occupation of the Eternal City. The story revolves around a resistance hero named Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), his friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), and Francesco’s fiancée Pita (Anna Magnani) who seek help from a priest named Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). The ending is so moving that it will bring you to tears. Rossellini’s film is a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit in the worst of times.
2. 1900 (1976) Bernardo Bertolucci
Bertolucci’s magnus opus. 1900 follows the events of the early half of the 20th century through the experiences of two characters who despite their different social status become life-long friends. Robert De Niro plays Alfredo Berlinghieri, the son of a rich landowner while Gerard Depardieu plays Olmo Dalco, a wayward peasant whose father worked on the Berlinghieri property. The cinematic version is 245 minutes long but 1900 is beautifully heartfelt and tells the story of Italian history better than any film I’ve seen. It’s well worth it.
3. Cinema Paradiso (1988) Giuseppe Tornatore
One of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. It tells the wonderful story of ‘Toto’ a young boy in post-war Italy who befriends the owner of the local cinema named Alfredo (Played brilliantly by Philippe Noirot). Toto, whose father died in World War two, finds comfort in the beauty of cinema. Please seek out the original theatrical version instead of the director’s cut which is overlong and less enjoyable. Winner of the 1989 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
4. 8 ½ (1963) Federico Fellini
One of the most influential films in Italian cinema. Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido a successful director, who is trying to piece together his next film but finds plenty of distractions in his personal life. Guido reverts to dreams, memories and fantasies to calm his nerves. Shamelessly remade as Nine a few years ago starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who should have known better. This is Fellini at his very best. However, I think La Dolce Vita is a better introduction to Fellini’s style of filmmaking.
5. The Adventure (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni
L’avventura stars Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti as a rich socialite named Claudia. While on a boating trip in the Mediterranean, Claudia’s friend Anna (Lea Massari) suddenly goes missing and is never heard from again. Soon after, Claudia and Anna’s former lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) develop an attraction to one another. This is Antonioni’s best film and it includes one of the best scores of any film I have seen.
6. La Dolce Vita (1960) Federico Fellini
The most famous Italian film ever made. Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello, a Roman tabloid journalist who lives a hedonistic lifestyle as a way to cope with the considerable problems in his personal life. It includes the famous opening scene of a Christ statue being flown over Rome and Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi fountain. It is about the dark side of the sweet life, beautiful women and high style, La Dolce Vita embodies Italy like no other film before or since.
7. The Best of Youth (2003) Marco Tullio Giordana
A drama that has flown under the radar, but it well worth seeing. It is epic story about two brothers which takes place from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Like 1900, it follows the evolution of Italian history in this period through the lives of two people who take different paths. It covers the optimism of the 1960s, to the floods in Florence, to left-wing politics and industrial layoffs.
8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Sergio Leone
One of the most iconic films in cinema and the best western ever made. Clint Eastwood plays Blondie, a gunslinger who forms an alliance with an outlaw named Tuco (Eli Wallach) in order to find treasure hidden in a remote cemetery. But hot on the trail as well is ‘Angel Eyes,’ a menacing hitman played by Lee Van Cleef. It is the standard by which all other westerns are judged. Ennio Morricone’s score is the stuff of legends.
9. The Conformist (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci
Bertolucci’s second film on the list is probably the best film ever made about the complex subject of political conformity. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays an Italian who becomes a hitman for the fascists in the 1930s. It is a brilliant story about a man’s moral disintegration and with him, an entire nation as well. It is beautifully shot and includes excellent performances.
10. The Battle of Algiers (1966) Gillo Pontecorvo
Pontecorvo’s brilliant film about the Algerian War of Independence told from two different perspectives. Its influence can be seen in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) and Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) and other political thrillers since. Shot in black and white, its overhead shots of Algiers and filming techniques would still greatly impress audiences today.
11. Divorce Italian Style (1961) Pietro Germi
One of the funniest films I have ever seen. Marcello Mastroianni shows a real talent for comedy by playing a wealthy Sicilian baron who aspires to do away with his wife in order to marry his cousin. It won the 1963 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
12. The Great Beauty (2013) Paolo Sorrentino
The latest winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is an aging journalist who wrote a popular novel in his 20s but has not done much since. Instead, he has fallen under the spell of Rome’s nightlife and its hedonism, not unlike Marcello in La Dolce Vita. The death of his first love sends him on a journey of self-discovery.
Honorable Mention: Gomorrah (2008), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Il Postino (1994), La Notte (1961)