It is a mark of modern culture that much can be learned about a Country from the movies that are produced in it. This is particularly true of Italy, whose movie industry has contributed many films that are universally acclaimed as defining masterpieces of the western culture. Wether you are interested in understanding Italy and the Italian perspective because you would like to do business here or visit, or you are a hardcore cinephile, there are a number of Italian movies that I warmly recommend you watch. Incidentally, watching movies can be a fantastic tool for learning the language and getting used to the rich variety of accents and expressions that you are likely to encounter in Italy. Another excellent reason to watch these 5 Italian movies could be that you are human and you love beauty, art and culture, of course. The following list has no aspiration to being complete or in any way objective. Its sole purpose is to furnish you with a quick-start guide to Italian movies, spanning from the golden age of the 60s to Italy’s latest Oscar winners.
La Dolce Vita
Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée
To be fair, any list of must-see Italian movies should contain not just one, but several Fellini movies. However, I was aiming for variety as much as immortal beauty and therefore I had to choose one movie out of Fellini’s impressive production. This does not mean that you should watch La Dolce Vita and ignore the others. You should actually watch them all. Multiple times. The common misconception around the casting of Marcello Mastroianni for this movie is that Fellini was aiming for a James-Dean-like macho figure. That’s actually the opposite of what the director had in mind. The role had originally been offered to Paul Newman, later rejected on account of having “too much of a personality”, whereas the production was looking for “an everyday face”. The effect of course, was the perfect match of actor Marcello Mastroianni and character Marcello Rubini, the archetypical paparazzo, determined to capture Rome’s unique glamour and atmosphere.
A week in Marcello’s life is aptly represented in a series of snapshots, as he struggles to find the meaning of existence in a whirlwind of lust, sparkling parties, violence, romance and melancholy.
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Stars: Anna Magnani, Franco Citti, Ettore Garofolo
Mamma Roma is a former prostitute, played by the magnificent Anna Magnani. After a life of exploitation and bitterness, she has finally managed to save enough money to move from the small village in which she plies her trade back to the capital, where she plans to buy a comfortable apartment, set up a stand at a fruit market and start building a better life for herself and her teenage son Ettore. Two major obstacles stand in her way: the boy’s utter lack of interest in either work or study – to which he prefers loitering with disreputable friends and frequenting prostitutes – and the ghosts of her own past. The movie is a desperate and articulate analysis of the themes of social change and destiny, not as a supernatural force, but as an unyielding chain of causes and effects. It is also, of course, one of Pasolini’s many declarations of love for Rome. Anna Magnani won an oscar for The Rose Tattoo, but many think this performance too would have been worthy of the Award. She is the perfect embodiment of the spirit of Rome itself, with her wild passions and contradictions, her decadent sensuality and her brisk practical wit.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Stars: Philippe Noiret, Enzo Cannavale, Antonella Attili
You may not have watched the movie, but you probably have heard Ennio Morricone’s legendary soundtrack. Cinema Paradiso (later released as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and known in Italy by its second title), won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 62nd Academy Awards. The movie is one long flashback in which Italian film director Salvatore Di Vita recalls the origin of his passion for cinema both as an art form and a physical place. These memories are triggered by the death of Alfredo, the man who was instrumental in initiating six-year-old Salvatore to the unfathomable magic of the moving pictures, back in his small village. The film is a journey through Salvatore’s past and the way in which conflicts are born and resolved, as well as a deeply emotional account of how Italy evolved in the decades immediately following the war and the Country’s need to make peace with its past, just like Salvatore does.
Life is Beautiful
Director: Roberto Benigni
Stars: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Can you make a “funny” film about the Holocaust? You can, and it will win you an Oscar. Life is Beautiful, of course, is not simply funny: it is heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time and it probably represented the highest point in Roberto Benigni’s career. Jewish librarian Guido and his son Giosuè are interned in a concentration camp, following Italy’s passing of the racial laws in 1938. Guido manages to shield Giosuè from the horror of their predicament by convincing him that what is happening is just a huge game and that everyone is simply pretending, just like children playing at being soldiers. His vivid imagination and the superhuman effort to keep hope alive are the best and the only protection he can provide for his son. Nicola Piovani’s unforgettable soundtrack is an essential part of this film’s fairy-tale-like charm.
The Great Beauty
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Stars: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
The Great Beauty marked Paolo Sorrentino’s transition from cult director to internationally acclaimed sensation. The same, to a lesser extent, happened to Tony Servillo, whose talent finally received some well deserved international appreciation. Jep Gambardella – Servillo’s character – is a best selling writer or, more accurately, has written one best-selling novel in his youth and has been living off that one-shot fame for decades. What he has built upon that initial foundation is not a literary career, but a public persona. He is famous and even worshipped for simply being himself, in an Oscar-Wilde-like manner. He is a socialite and the king of the roman nightlife, but time and his past eventually catch up with him, so that he can’t escape the devastating lack of existential meaning in his life as a modern-day dandy.
In conclusion: Italian movies or movies about Italy?
Browsing the internet for Italian movies, you might come across lists of “movies you should absolutely watch before visiting Italy”, most of which will turn out not to be Italian movies at all. While it is always interesting and educational to learn how different cultures view one another, it seems somewhat naif to expect to grasp the essence of a country exclusively by looking at it from a foreign perspective. Italy’s history and the stunning beauty of its major cities, its villages and its breathtaking natural scenery has inspired artists, writers and directors from all over the world and in many cases the results are beautiful and moving declaration of love for this Country. However, watching a movie that just happened to be shot in Italy, but whose entire cast and crew probably had to hire an army of translators just to get through the shooting, is unlikely to teach you much about the Country itself. Naming no names, you might come away with the idea that all Italian women wear nothing but black past the age of 35, that all Italian men shout at one another in the street of just about every city, speak while rotating their arms wildly or whistle at passing ladies and that normal people can rent a flat with a view of the Spanish Steps. All that is very quaint, romantic and charming. It is also not true.