It sounds like a cliché that some first-year film school student would use, but Italian cinema is where it’s at. The style, subject matter, and all-around atmosphere of classic Italian films like 8 ½, Marriage Italian Style, and Once Upon a Time in the West is something that many have attempted to replicate over the years, but few have been able to pull off. This is not as much of a criticism of modern films as it is a celebration of some Italian greats.
But, sometimes the language and cultural barriers of movies made by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, and others like them can be too vast and difficult to overcome. In such cases, it helps to have a guide to great Italian movies, and notes on why and how you should check them out (whether it be streaming or on physical media), which is what you’ve stumbled upon now…
8 ½ (1963)
More times than not, when someone brings up the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the first movie they want to discuss is his 1963 surrealist drama 8 ½. One of the most iconic films of all time (and one that continues to be influential 60 years after its release), 8 ½ centers on filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), whose lack of creativity in one of the most pivotal moments of his life forces him to escape the set of his latest film, not to some idyllic town on the Italian coast, but into the depths of his thoughts and memories.
Over the course of this transfixing experience, Guido attempts to free himself of the burden brought on by his mental block by coming to terms with his past. And though he attempts to escape these memories, the director soon begins to feel their influence with every step of his production.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 drama Bicycle Thieves (also commonly referred to as The Bicycle Thief) is often regarded as one of the favorite films of legendary filmmakers. Set in post-World War II Rome, the film centers on Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man struggling to make ends meet for his family. After searching far and wide for a way to make a living, Antonio lands a job hanging up posters all around the Italian capital. Misfortune, however, isn’t far behind, as Antonio’s bike is stolen and his hope of providing a better life for his family is upended before it even began.
With his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), Antonio Ricci takes to the streets of Rome seeking his stolen bike, which leads to a series of dramatic and moral decisions.
Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, Suspiria, follows Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), a young American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy with its share of dark secrets. As Suzy works her way through the school’s grueling program led by a group of mysterious instructors, she begins to notice strange happenings all around her. From strange noises to missing classmates and odd figures in the night, the young and naive dancer soon learns that the Tanz Dance Akademie is anything but what it seems.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 epic Cinema Paradiso explores the impact cinema can have on young moviegoers by not only providing them with an escape, but also the inspiration to do something with their lives. The movie, which is told over the course of multiple decades, centers on Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) as he finds refuge in a dark cinema in Sicily just after the end of World War II. Through his visits at the local movie house, Salvatore forges a friendship with projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) who helps the young boy learn to love movies while also learning a thing or two about life. From there the real journey begins.
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Roberto Benigni’s dramedy, Life is Beautiful, took the world by storm and made the film’s writer/director/star into an overnight sensation upon its release in 1997. The movie centers on Guido Orefice (Benigni), his wife Dora (Nicolette Braschi), and their young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), as their quiet and relatively carefree lifestyle is upended by the Nazi Germany occupation of Northern Italy, during which they are sent to a concentration camp. Guido, not wanting his son to fully understand the gravity of their situation, tries to convince the young boy that this is all a fun game and that nothing bad will ever happen to them.
At times a joyful exploration of the meaning of family and getting the most out of life while at others extremely sobering, Life is Beautiful remains an achievement of not only filmmaking but human emotion.
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
As influential as it is epic, Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West remains not only one of the best films of the acclaimed Italian director’s career, but also one of the greatest titles in the genre. The execution and scope of Leone’s story is what turns an admittedly simple premise into one of the most beloved and consequential films of all time. Set in the Old West, the movie centers on various strangers and drifters whose respective paths cross in the fictional town of Flagstone. There’s the cutthroat killer Frank (Henry Fonda), a well-meaning drifter known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and all sorts of other unique and memorable characters at the center of their own stories.
With widescreen shots of the vast openness of the West, an iconic score by Ennio Morricone, and Sergio Leone’s nuance and signature style, Once Upon a Time in the West is a must-watch.
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With the backdrop of a months-long battle between rival organized crime outfits in Naples, Matteo Garrone’s 2008 crime drama, Gomorrah, tells the story of five people whose only connection is the pain and misfortune brought on by the region’s gangs. With characters of all ages, backgrounds, and gang affiliations, the celebrated thriller paints a complete picture of crime-infested areas, similar to what Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God did for the favelas of Rio de Janeiro several years earlier.
Although not as stylish as other examples of great Italian cinema, what Matteo Garrone was able to accomplish with the sprawling and intertwined narratives featured in Gomorrah is an achievement in itself.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Federico Fellini’s 1960 dramedy La Dolce Vita centers on hedonistic reporter Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he bounces from one situation and one girl to the next in and around Rome. Throughout his seemingly aimless journey amongst the ruins of the Roman Empire and the hustle and bustle of modern life, Marcello attempts to find love, happiness, and meaning in life, and if those three concepts can be achieved with the others.
Split up into seven episodes (plus an intermission halfway through) that are bookended by a prologue and epilogue, La Dolce Vita offers a groundbreaking cinematic experience, one that perfectly balances the exploration of big ideas with a degree of style and sophistication that still makes it one of the best examples of cinema the world has ever seen.
Journey To Italy (1954)
Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 drama Journey to Italy follows Alexander (George Sanders) and Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman), an English couple whose love for one another and passion for life is all but extinguished when they travel to Naples upon inheriting a property there. When the pair cannot put aside their differences and spend time away from home without being at each other’s throats, they decide to spend time away from one another and find out what brings joy to their lives.
As their brief departures from one another come to a close, Alexander and Joyce are both left to make a decision regarding their future: agree to divorce and explore all life has to offer on their own or find some way to save their marriage before it’s too late.
Marriage Italian Style (1964)
Vittorio De Sica’s 1964 romance, Marriage Italian Style, tells the story of Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) and Filumena Marturano (Sophia Loreno), a couple with a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship spanning multiple decades. Years later, after bearing his children and devoting her life to him, Domenico decides he wants to leave his mistress behind and marry a young shop girl. This decision leads the upset Filumena to draw up perhaps the most ingenious (and borderline insane) plan when she decides to fake a terminal illness in order for her lover to marry her.
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This is just barely scratching the surface, but it should serve as a great jumping off point if you want to further explore the fascinating world that is Italian cinema. In the event you are looking for something new to check out at your local theater (or streaming service) take a look at CinemaBlend’s 2021 movies schedule so you don’t miss a thing.