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20 Great Films Where One Of The Main Characters Is A City

27 July 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Maryam Raz

Lost in Translation

City-protagonist indicates a dominant narrative urban space which is more than just a virtual ambient containing the characters and facts. City-protagonist is the film’s principal narrative element and changing it will make the narration completely different if not meaningless. Indicating a location as one of the main characters of the narration may be a perfect way to remind the viewer of the importance of the narrative space in a cinematic work.

The films listed rely on the narrative space and its geographical and sociological specifications. The plots of these films are formed by numerous references to the spatial and temporal phase in which the story is taking place.


1. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013): Rome


The chosen locations of this film are all places found in Rome, except for one case where, for an obvious ironic reason, the spectator finds Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) standing before a sinking ship in Grossetto, Tuscany for a brief scene that indicates hopelessness and depression.

The film displays the famous, archaeological sites of Rome. It examines a Neapolitan writer who, after having a huge success with his first book, has moved to Rome and since then hasn’t written another book, claiming he is too busy attending parties. The story criticizes the semi-intellectual society of Roman artists who are morally corrupted and depressed. The only characters who seem sensible are the dwarf journalist and the character of Romano (Carlo Verdone) who suffers from lack of self-confidence.

Sorrentino’s Rome is undoubtedly the main character of the story for it is beautiful, old and glorious. This city plays lots of architectural games: one can peer through a keyhole and see San Pietro church, precisely placed in that tiny keyhole.

One may also stride through a passage with false perspective where the dome at the end of the passage only seems to be big and only at the arrival one can actually realize the fact that the church is not that big, it only seems big as all the other measures are modified. It’s just a visual impression, a trick.


2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962): Paris

Cleo from 5 to 7

The whole story is foreshadowed in the opening scene. A woman reads tarot cards for Cleo, warning her of a grave sickness and predicting the impending presence of Anton. Faced with a predetermined ending, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a film about interpretation.

The film is divided into chapters, each designating a character as the protagonist although Cleo, the film’s most important character, is the narrator of most chapters. Each chapter indicates a different time of the day.

The character’s reflection in mirrors and showcases is present during the entire film. While trying on new hats, Cleo is trying actually to wear other expressions, to forget about the sad prediction of the fortune teller. As the camera follows her wanderings in the hat shop, the reflection of the city is at all time looming above her, a reminder of sad reality. Initial exterior scenes are shot with Tele-lenses, spotlighting the dramatic elements within the real, almost documentary views of the city.

For Cleo, who insists that ugliness is death, the African masks in street showcases and frogs swallowed alive by a man on street are signs of death. The city is framed through various transportation mediums.

Cleo prefers taking a taxi, a more individualistic mode of transportation, while Anton invites her to take the bus and travel in a group. He is later going to take a train and then a boat to Algeria. He compares himself to the ugly frog and starts poetically idealizes the whole situation, even changing the name of the main character. He asks, “Why not using your real name, “Florence”, which reminds you of Italy instead of Cleo, “Cleopatra” which recalls the ancient Egypt and sphinx?

Varda’s Paris is a fortune teller, knows everything, contains everything and predicts the appearance of the characters before they actually show up. The news about French soldiers in Algeria is on the radio from the very beginning and is the fact that heralds the final exit of Anton, the most decisive character of the film, who finally converts Cleo’s point of view.


3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): Tokyo

lost in translation pic

Tokyo in Lost in Translation is an exotically diverse urban city framed by two characters who do not belong to that location. This sense of alienation is emphasized by showing simple visual differences such as placing Bob (Bill Murray) together with short Japanese men in an elevator. He feels like a monster in Tokyo not only because of the fact that the shower is placed too low for his height and no one seems to speaks his language, but also because of the temporal (and emotional) distance between him and the place he calls home.

He calls his wife on the phone at night while relaxing in a bathtub, not remembering the simple fact that in the USA it’s daytime and the wife is busy preparing the children for school so that she is not capable of having a proper conversation with her husband. That is the same thing that the little old man in hospital’s waiting room tries to say with gestures. He draws a big circle in the air and asks Bob in Japanese: what time is it now in your country?


4. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979): New York


The characters of the film are reflecting the same theme as Isaac’s (Woody Allen) short story: people create problems, forcefully drive themselves into drama, to avoid thinking about other things.

Woody Allen believes New York to be a “knock out” city and shows it in black and white, choosing photographic compositions which represents an almost poetic visual interpretation of Manhattan. Eliminating color maps out the visual architectural forms and the characters are mostly shot within the surrounding elements, turning them into a moving element of the bigger architectural picture of this city. But black and white, conceptually indicates also “contradictory”.

At the beginning of the film, Isaac’s voice over reads out loud his various versions of the probable beginning of his short story about people in Manhattan and each version describes it as a different picture.


5. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959): Hiroshima

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In Resnais’s film, the bodies represent cities and geographical territories. The names of the protagonist are never revealed, they are known as He and She. He is a Japanese architect and She is a French actress who, through the whole story, compares her failed love relationship to the bombardment of Hiroshima. A relationship that goes wrong or simply ends is considered similar to a destroyed city.

The non-linear storyline of writer Marguerite Duras, combines flashbacks and fragments of a long conversation that the two characters are having during their last three days together.

This visual combination constructs an articulated architectural image, utilizing war as a conceptual reference. Something which ruins what has been constructed obviously indicates the memories and the future aspects the couple have constructed in past and compares what remains at the end of a relationship to a ruin, which in architecture is a nonexistent construction. It is not a building anymore, but a testament to the past existence of one.


6. What Time Is It Over There? (Tsai Mingliang, 2001): Taipei and Paris

What Time Is It Over There

Lee (Hsiao-kang), who sells watches on the streets, meets a young woman (Chen) briefly before she travels to paris. He changes all the clocks he sees in Taipei, setting them to Paris time.

What is indicated in the film is the fact that geographical distance is not merely a spatial distance but, most importantly, consists of a temporal gap. The fascinating notion that by mirroring the time of a distant city, the present location turns into the distant one. One can claim that the concept of city and urban architectural location in What Time is it Over There is a fluid, floating concept, very different from the normally articulated interpretations of architecture in films.



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  • Gamolly

    Night on Earth, what a treat!

  • Klaus Dannick

    I would have picked Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

  • Ryan

    Loved the list and (being from Liverpool) I loved number 20! I believe Of time and the City is a lovely piece of work!

  • Juan Carlos Ojano

    Some films worth mentioning:

    Manila by Night (1980) – Manila, Philippines
    Manila: In the Claws of Neon (1975) – Manila, Philippines
    Transit (2013) – Tel Aviv, Israel

    Her (2013) – Los Angeles, USA
    Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – “Bathtub”, Louisiana, USA
    Midnight in Paris (2011) – Paris, France
    The Tree of Life (2011) – Waco, Texas
    Winter’s Bone (2010) – unnamed rural Ozarks town, Central USA
    District 9 (2009) – Johannesburg, South Africa
    The Departed (2006) – Boston, Massachusetts, USA
    Crash (2005) – Los Angeles, USA

    Schindler’s List (1993) – Krakow, Poland
    Working Girl (1988) – New York City, New York, USA
    Out of Africa (1985) – unnamed town, British East Africa
    Taxi Driver (1976) – New York City, New York, USA

    • ericbillingsley

      Good call on WINTER’S BONE.

    • Gines Velazquez

      Happy Together (1997) – Buenos Aires, Argentina

    • Dave Teves

      I bet you’re Filipino.

    • Steppenwolf

      You have some nice additional picks but mainly your list consists of naming the location of some movie plots. not really movies in which the named city is a main character (eg The Departed, Schindlers list). But I agree on midnight in Paris and district 9. Taxi Driver puts the city in a spotlight, true, but it’s not New York City-spicific (just like the unnamed city in Seven).

  • ericbillingsley

    BEFORE SUNSET: Vienna? That omission surprises me.

  • Mike Burke

    I think “Colatteral” belongs on the list for it’s picture of Los Angeles at night…
    and “Don’t Look Now” evokes the rapid feel of Venice’s slow death…

  • Uneto Xhaferaj

    Impressed there is no Midnight in Paris.

  • luke

    Herzog’s Aguirre – the Amazon ….

  • Sheldon

    After Hours. SoHo district, New York City.

  • Bazooka Joe

    Venice – “Don’t look now” (Nicholas Roeg) & “Death in Venice” (Luchino Visconti)
    Berlin – “Cabaret” (Bob Fosse), “The Serpent’s egg” (Ingmar Bergman) & “Wings of desire”(Wim Wenders)
    Tangiers & Detroit – “Only lovers left alive” (Jim Jarmusch)
    Cleveland (USA) – “Kill the Irishman” (Jonathan Hensleigh)
    Nottingham (UK) – “Saturday night, Sunday morning” (Karel Reisz)


    The Untouchables – Chicago

  • Deweb

    How about:
    – the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater
    – The 25th hour (and most of the other work by Spike Lee), in which a post 9/11 New York plays an impressive supporting role.

  • Esdras Castiliano

    Midnight in Paris

  • The Talented Mr Ripley – Amalfi Coast, Italy.
    Local Hero – West Coast of Scotland.


    The Devils – Loudon
    Chinatown – LA
    Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – SalòDon’t Look Now – Venice
    Get Carter – Newcastle/gateshead
    Blow Up – London (plus many other Antonioni films)
    Playtime – Paris

  • jonaseldude

    You are forgetting one of the best location related films ever: “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray, thats the best. It revolves around every little corner of the location over in one day, many times. Pure Awesomeness!!!

  • rahv

    No Wenders (Paris, Texas; Alice in the Cities; Until the End of the World; Wings of Desire)? No Antonioni (Red Desert, L’eclisse, La Notte)? No Allen (MANHATTAN!!!)? Weird…

  • hip

    Lisbon story (1994, Wim Wenders) – Lisbon

  • Gary Hart

    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off- Chicago
    Falling Down- Los Angeles

  • durgesh

    Salaam Bombay, Mumbai?

  • aceblack1965

    Just a small note, since the write-up above is unclear on this point: Very little of Fargo (just a couple of scenes) actually takes place in Fargo. Most of that movie is set in Minneapolis and Brainerd, Minnesota.

  • Joe Trudnak

    King Kong ( NYC ) for the win?

  • bharath raj

    I would like to add Dhobi Ghat (also known as Mumbai Diaries) to the list.

  • Sihle Dlamini

    This movie is before my time, but even I know that Deliverence should have been on this list.

  • Ark Noel

    Tokyo! – Tokyo, Japan

  • David Crisanti

    ..and my UNKNOWN movie “Foligno Incensurata” 😉

  • Teo M

    Bucharest: The neccessary death of Charlie Countryman

  • anteus.orb

    Alain Tanner: In the White City (Lisbon)
    Wim Wenders: Der Himmel über Berlin (Berlin)
    Vladimir Menshov: Moscow does not Believe in Tears (Moscow)
    Istvan Szabo: Budapest Tales, 25 Fireman str. (Budapest)

  • Miguel Carroll

    Casino: Las Vegas
    Dark City: somewhere in space

  • Maximus Decimus

    Groundhog Day : Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania

  • Samuel Segura

    Amores Perros – Mexico City

  • Alan Damir

    La Dolce Vita: Roma.

  • atiba1997

    I would add Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Where else, but NYC would the detachment/voyeuristic dichotomy represent a place so very well?

  • atiba1997

    Also, Three Coins in Fountain-Rome.

  • acgogo

    I Love Fellini’s Roma. One of my all time favorites especially the brothel scenes.

    A few to add: My beloved San Francisco:

    “Maltese Falcon”
    “San Francisco (about the 1906 earthquake)
    “Pal Joey”
    “Experiment in Terror”
    “What’s Up Doc?”
    “Basic Instinct”
    “Mrs. Doubtfire”
    All the “Dirty Harry” movies…

    …and probably hundreds more I can’t think of, right now. Unfortunately, there was a period during the 1990s when actually filming in SF, was considered too expensive and, sadly, Vancouver and Montreal were substituted for the real thing.

  • diomira isidora

    there is an independent blog dedicated to this subject (and all instances of architecture on film)

  • Rajarshi Banduri

    Don’t Look Now Venice

  • Grzegorz Soboń

    12.Ashes and Diamonds Filming locations was Wrocław and Trzebnica Poland, Dolnyśląsk before the war it was Germany now the first is European capital of Culture

  • Steppenwolf

    Very nice idea for a list and well done, too.
    I like to add especially Oh Boy aka A Coffee in Berlin. Also Nightcrawler (LA), Gangs of New York, and Before Midnight (Vienna).

  • Regan Nicholls

    I have always been impressed by New York City at night in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

  • Frank

    What about A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) It’s the most iconic Parisian film

  • Sudripto Khasnabis

    “The Calcutta Trilogy” by Mrinal Sen from India. The films have the city as one of the characters. Worth viewing.

  • BlaKcThrone

    Andrzej Jakimowski “Imagine”, set in Lisbon

  • JamesAngus

    I think that the word “great” has been misused here…

  • Jean Luc Godard’s “2 or 3 things I know about Her”. Who can tell me who is “Her”?

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Midnight in Paris, Vicki Christina Barcelona, La dolce vita, Wings of Desire, A Lisbon Story…

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Blues Brothers – Chicago

  • markus

    pulp fiction: los angeles

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio


    • Louiselle Pace Gouder

      oqghod attent ma thallix xi OPTION barra!!!

  • Vanja Senesi

    Kad porastem biću kengur
    and one of the best Serbian TV series Grlom u jagode – they all have Belgrade (Serbia) as one of the main characters, if you are interested in this I highly recommend it, you won’t be dissapointed for sure 🙂

  • Pingback: LUC Briefing 010: Cities | Leamington Underground Cinema()

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Belly of an Architect. Rome

    • Joe Borg

      Kwiet dan l ahhar consiglio. Naqsulek in nies li tfotti?

    • Joe Borg

      All is well in the penis world once again. Deo gratias. Ara x’nisa delusional jezistu. Ghada ma taghtekx istruzzjonijiet biex taghmilli xi ftit hsara kif thobb. Il kristjani fazulli tas socjeta. Animal lover sar issa jahasra, Ara veru hawn l ipokriti in giro. Unbelievable x’taghlima tal hajja fuq il gakbini. Niehu gost nara sa fejn tasal bil falsita. Ara x’ínner self rotten hemm, hemm gew.

    • Joe Borg

      Ma gewx mieghek gol awla Consiglio biex jisimghu l evidenza? Kellna sew x’ johrog minn go l envelope. Kienet issibu interessanti zgur.

    • Joe Borg

      hsibnik tohrog mal mudelli biss karl kif kont titkellem; nahseb ma min sibt kellek tispicca. ghax bdiet ittik rasek. haha.

  • Dudley Dweller

    French connection II – Marseille