The 15 Best Films Set in Rome
While the tourists often prefer Venice, Rome is where the real action is, at least as far as cinema is concerned. Rome is the home of Cinecittà, the studio that gave rise to the vast majority of Italian films that have lasted the test of time; and many Hollywood films have been shot there too.
Apart from that enviable cinematic institution, Rome is of course an inspired and inspiring setting for all kinds of films. The sense of history is omnipresent, after all, the sense of the epic. Even the more undramatic films set here seem to carry the weight of history on their shoulders.
After the second world war, with Rome in ruins again, many of the neorealists, especially Roberto Rosselini and Vittorio De Sica, undertook to articulate the restoration of hope in a battered city. Despite their seemingly ordinary protagonists, those films often seem to draw on Rome’s ancient heroism and honor that has for centuries vied with extraordinary greed and cruelty.
15. The Way of The Dragon (Bruce Lee, 1972)
After the record breaking success of Fist of Fury, and the closing of a contract with Golden Harvest, Bruce Lee was in a position to take full control of his creative vision. The result was The Way of The Dragon, which Lee wrote, directed and produced and, of course, played the starring role.
Lee plays Tang Lung, who goes to Rome in order to deal with the gangsters extorting money from his relatives’ restaurant. Tang, of course, is a kung fu master, and beats wave after wave of mafia henchmen. Things get a little more serious when the mobsters enlist none other than Chuck Norris. This leads to the film’s most famous scene, where Lee and Norris go head to head in the Colisseum.
While The Way of The Dragon is certainly an imperfect film, Lee’s passion never fails to shine through and transcend any artistic limitations. It says something about Rome and its reputation that Lee decided to set his first film as a director there. Some argue that this was just a ploy to ensure a more international audience.
But it is an undeniable coup-de-cinema to have the greatest then-living martial artist practicing his art in a setting that was once the scene of gladatorial combat. Lee obviously wanted to create something epic, and the obvious setting for this, in his mind, was Rome.
14. Dear Diary (Nanni Moretti, 1993)
Nanni Moretti has often been called the Italian Woody Allen, which, needless to say, is highly reductive, though it does give new viewers a general idea of what to expect: a lot of witty, seemingly improvisational dialogue, a somewhat self-absorbed and neurotic protagonist played by the director, and a loosely structured but realistic narrative.
In much of his earlier work, Moretti’s protagonist is blatantly autobiographical. He is a film-maker, struggling with the business of being creative while living a normal life at the same time. As the title suggests, Dear Diary is perhaps Moretti’s most personal film, though its tone is consistently light.
The film is divided into three parts. In the first and most iconic part of the film, Moretti rides through Rome on his Vespa, pontificating (in voice-over) about the state of contemporary Italy: the politics, the people, the culture, the economy, and everything in between.
The second part of the film sees Moretti traveling to a secluded island in the hope of finding momentary peace, away from the chaos of Rome. The third part is somewhat darker, though certainly not maudlin, with Moretti having to cope with the news that he has cancer.
13. Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)
Gladiator sparked a long-lasting wave of new classically themed epics in Hollywood. These films obviously hark back to films such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus, but being free from certain technical and thematic constraints mean that they have an energy, vibrancy and downright brutality that the older films often lacked. Gladiator is still perhaps the best of these films, which shouldn’t be surprising given Ridley Scott’s involvement.
Maximus is a fearsome general who is named keeper of Rome by dying emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus’s power-hungry son, Commodus would prefer to have the power to himself, and attempts to have Maximus executed. He fails to kill Maximus escapes the attempted execution, but unfortunately his wife and son do not. After being taken into slavery and being forced to become a gladiator, Maximus returns to Rome with the hope of restoring justice to Rome.
Gladiator has a lot to offer a wide audience: there are the masterfully executed set-pieces of course, but it’s also a film that brought the world’s attention to the talents of Russel Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. These are still among the most memorable performances by the two actors. Phoenix in particular seems to revel in the abject nastiness of Commodus.
12. The Belly of an Architect (Peter Greenaway, 1987)
The Belly of an Architect stars Brian Dennehy as eponymous architect, Stourley Kracklite, who is invited to Rome to organise an exhibition about one of his idols Etienne-Louis Boullée. Kracklite quickly begins to worry that another architect is planning to steal the show from him, and also steal his wife.
Parallel to these concerns come increasingly unbearable and perhaps psychosomatic stomach cramps. Needless to say, the man of order soon becomes radically disordered among the ancient marble of Rome. As with most of Greenaway’s films, a plot outline can’t do justice to this film’s appeal.
The Belly of An Architect is also as erudite, though a little less baroque, than Greenaway’s more famous films. But, even for viewers who may be alienated by how learned this film is, Dennehy’s performance is perhaps the best of his career, and makes this one of Greenaway’s most emotionally involving of films.
11. Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)
In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s debut feature, Franco Citti plays a pimp who finds his life going from bad to worse when his prostitute is imprisoned. Accatone loosely means ‘the lowest of the low’: someone even the petty criminals look down upon.
With its focus on the more impoverished corners of Rome, the film certainly has many elements of the neorealist style, but there’s also a raw and youthful edge to it that clears away any suggestion that Pasolini is a mere imitator. Unusually for a debut, there’s already an identifiable voice at work in Accatone, unsentimental, harsh and often caustic, a voice that becomes all the more clear and resonant in Pasolini’s succeeding films.
10. Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a jewish aristocrat who is banished from Judea and has his family imprisoned after refusing to become an informer for the authorities. The bulk of the film sees Judah beat the odds to exact his revenge. While much of the film, especially its dialogue, can seem a little dated today, it undoubtedly set a template for future Hollywood epics, and contains a set-piece that even today’s films, no matter how much they spend on special effects, struggle to top.
Ben-Hur is perhaps a victim of its own success, or at least the victim of one specific scene’s success, since the famous chariot race often seems to obscure the rest of the film entirely. No doubt, this scene is a miraculous achievement in the history of cinema, better than many attempts to rival it (such as the pod-race in Star Wars Episode 1).
The film was mostly shot in Rome, at the renowned Cinecitta studios, home of Fellini and many other Italian film-makers.
9. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
Among other things, Roman Holiday is notable for being the film that introduced the world to the overpowering charm of Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn plays Ann, a princess from an unnamed country (though people generally presume Britain), who is paying an official visit to Rome.
Overcome by a sense of constrictedness, she escapes alone into the Roman night, where she meets gossip journalist Joe, played by Gregory Peck. Joe decides to take care of Ann and show her around the city, though not without self-interest; concealing from Ann his profession, he hopes the companionship will lead to a major scoop.
Roman Holiday can be seen as something of a blueprint for the whole genre of romantic comedy, even if it in turn borrows much from familiar tales like Pygmalion and Cindarella. The on-location filming, something that still wasn’t all that common, adds much to this film’s charm.
Like many of its rom-com heirs, the city in which it is set is not rendered all that realistically; this is far from the Rome of Fellini, De Sica or Rosselini. Yet it is undeniably an iconic film which still has people dreaming of riding a Vespa through the streets of Rome.
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