Ciao amici! Welcome to the world of Italian cinema. For lovers of classic movies and the art of filmmaking in general, Italian neorealism was an all-important movement. Also known as the Golden Age, these works were created in the wake of WW2, often featuring real people as opposed to professional actors and focusing on themes like poverty, oppression, and desperation.
If you prefer something on the lighter side, you might as well look elsewhere… because even when they’re billed as surrealist comedy-dramas, these Italian films pack a punch you won’t find anywhere else — and they’re worth every minute of screen time. Avete capito?
Born and raised in Rome to a father who built the city’s first cinema, Roberto Rossellini had early exposure to the magic of movies. And by the end of his life, he’d left his mark on filmmaking history for generations to come.
‘Rome, Open City’ (1946)
With Open City, Rossellini solidified his place as the most prominent Italian neorealist filmmaker, and the film became the first of his Neorealist Trilogy (which also includes Paisan and Germany, Year Zero). Originally conceived as a documentary, the story centers on Roman underground workers that stand up to the Nazis towards the end of the war and was filmed amidst the real-life resulting devastation. In 2008, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage named the film as one of 100 that “have changed the collective memory of the country.” (See also: Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”).
After the success of “Rome, Open City,” Rossellini received a letter from one of the most important actresses of her time: Ingrid Bergman. She was taken with his work and expressed the desire to make a film together. So began one of the most famous romances in movie history, as well as many years of creative collaboration — the first fruit of which was Stromboli, which tells the tale of a refugee (Bergman) who marries a Sicilian fisherman that moves her back to his home island.
Far from a tropical paradise, the volcanic isle and its cold inhabitants prove to be too much for the woman, who begins to plot her escape. While Bergman and Rossellini’s affair was too much for 1950s Hollywood and a still-too-wholesome America, garnering it a slew of negative press, today Stromboli has been hailed as “one of the pioneering works of modern European filmmaking.” (See also: Rossellini’s Europe ‘51).
‘Journey to Italy’ (1954)
Known as Rossellini’s masterpiece among critics, as well as a seminal piece of modernist cinema, Journey to Italy shares a narrative about an English couple whose marriage comes under fire when they embark on a trip to Italy to settle the affairs of a family estate. Though an Italian production, this movie was made in English.
Among the British Film Institute’s “50 greatest films of all time,” this one is marked for Rossellini’s unusual directorial tactics — most notably his decision to withhold the actors’ lines until they were about to film, resulting in a new freshness to the unrehearsed dialogue. With its loose and poetic storytelling, this landmark movie would go on to be a source of immense inspiration for the French New Wave and future Italian filmmakers. (See also: Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte“).
Known as one of the most influential directors of all time, Federico Fellini made films famous for their unique blend of fantasy, memory, dreams, and desire. One of his first gigs? Co-writing “Rome, Open City” for his buddy Rossellini – which sent him into the spotlight with an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
‘La Strada’ (1954)
Inspired by Fellini’s wife and “La Strada” star Giulietta Masina, this heartbreaker of a movie tells the tale of a traveling carnival worker who buys a peasant girl to be his wife and co-star. With a shooting script that ran to nearly 600 pages, it was Fellini’s tour-de-force, a grueling work of passion that led the director to a mental breakdown before completion and controversy in his homeland — every moment worthwhile in the end.
The recipient of over 50 international awards, including Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, “La Strada” (which means The Road) is routinely hailed as one of history’s best, most influential movies. And Martin Scorsese counts it as one of his favorites. (See also: “Juliet of the Spirits“).
8 ½ (1963)
Another film that winds up on greatest-movie-ever lists around the world time and time again, “8 ½” centers on a director suffering from creative block. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, this avant-garde work follows him into a realm of fantasy as he recalls life-changing women from his past and present. A masterpiece of cinematography and storytelling, this inventive and endlessly entertaining piece is a feast for the eyes and a must-see about man’s search for meaning and the madness that goes into groundbreaking filmmaking. (See also: Fellini’s “Amarcord”).
Roberto Benigni got his start as an actor and comedian, first working in Italy before crossing over to English-language films – most notably with roles in early work by Jim Jarmusch like “Down by Law” and “Night on Earth.”
Life is Beautiful (1998)
With “Life is Beautiful” — starring, directed, and co-written by Benigni himself — the virtuoso gained worldwide fame and recognition, as well as two Oscar wins. One for Best International Feature Film and the other for Best Actor, the first award of its kind to go to a non-English speaking male performance. This deeply moving film follows an Italian family through the horrors of the Holocaust as one funny father attempts to shield his son from his incomprehensibly cruel surroundings.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Another Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Giuseppe Tornatore‘s “Cinema Paradiso” is the perfect place to end — a love letter to the magic of movies that follows a filmmaker’s memories of his small-town theater and the projectionist who introduced him to the art form in the first place. The film is credited with reviving Italian cinema in the 90s and beyond, and for that we have to say: Grazie mille!