8. Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972)
Very much an example of Fellini’s later style, Roma is a largely plotless, non-linear trip through the time and space of the Italian capital. The lack of conventional plotting or protagonists stresses the fact that Rome itself is the star here.
Formally it is an istic film, sometimes documentary-like, and sometimes as bawdy and extravagant as, say, Satyricon. Fellini weaves in aspects of autobiography too, which lead Roger Ebert to claim that Rome in this film is really Fellini’s hyperactive psyche. But, then again, an insight into Fellini’s psyche is also an insight into the city in which that psyche was formed.
7. Rome 11:00 (Giuseppe De Santis, 1952)
Much more so than De Santis’ Bitter Rice, Rome 11:00 is one of the more overlooked films in the neorealist canon. Like Bitter Rice, it focuses on a largely female and working-class ensemble cast.
When an ad is placed in a local newspaper advertising a lowly secretarial job, more than two hundred women turn up in the hope of finally getting a job in an economically depressed Rome. Much of the film takes its time fleshing out a selection of these women, which in turn fleshes out the life of Rome itself.
6. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Paolo Sorrenttino came to international prominence with The Consequences of Love, a minimalistic though highly stylised psychological thriller (or black comedy, depending on your interpretation). Since then, his films have become increasingly baroque. Il Divo demonstrated the Italian director’s talent for complex plotting, and has come to be considered by many as one of the greatest political films of the last decade.
No less baroque than Il Divo, The Great Beauty is Sorrentino’s picaresque tribute to Rome. It focuses on Jep Gambardella, played by one of Sorrentino’s regulars, Tony Servillo. Gambardella is an ageing journalist with one moderately successful novel to his name. With a constant demeanor of vague ennui, he passes through a variety of Rome ‘s elite circles, interviewing conceptual artists, drinking with withered socialites, that kind of thing.
The film doesn’t have any strong narrative backbone; it is rather a series of generally deadpan vignettes. This, for some viewers, makes the film’s 142 minute duration a little wearing. For other viewers the film is a suitably chaotic, decadently beautiful journey through one of Europe’s defining capitals.
5. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003)
Surprise winner of the coveted Un Certain Regard award at the 56th Cannes Film Festival, The Best of Youth was originally intended to be a four-part mini-series for Italian television. After it’s success at Cannes it was thankfully given an international release.
However, given its uncompromising duration, it might be argued that the film is indeed better enjoyed as a four-parter (it was generally shown in two three-hour parts in cinemas). Unlike, say Bela Tarr’s Satantango, where duration (and endurance) is a function of the film’s overall effect, Giordana’s film can be enjoyed in discrete parts.
The film is rather epic in scope: a family saga encompassing the late sixties right up to 2003. As with many of the big European dramas of the early 21st century, it looks back at the immense political and social upheaval of the sixties in an effort to gain a better understanding of the present day.
While the film is far too vast in scope to summarize, it primarily focuses on the contrasting fates of two Roman brothers, Matteo and Nicola Carati. While the film doesn’t always stay in Rome, this is a film that tries and in the opinion of many succeeds at painting vividly the lives of some of its representative citizens.
4. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
L’Eclisse (meaning ‘the eclipse’), is the last in Antonioni’s loose trilogy which began with L’Avventura and La Notte. As with the previous films, it deals with fragmentary love-lives in modern Italy, which in turn seem to stand in for a wider social malaise.
The film begins with Vittoria (played by Monica Vitti) confessing to her boyfriend that she no longer loves him. She eventually meets Piero, played by Alain Delon, who works for her mother. Despite having very little in common, they try their best to remain together as long as possible.
For many, L’Eclisse is the weakest of Antonioni’s unofficially termed “incommunicability trilogy”. It is, even by Antonioni’s standards, a rather uneventful film, and the lack of dialogue or expressiveness from the protagonists means that the characters can not really be deemed sympathetic.
In short, this certainly isn’t a film for Antonioni neophytes, and even less so for anyone who found L’Avventura or La Notte chores to sit through. For those who appreciate contemplative cinema, however, there is a lot to appreciate.
3. Rome, Open City (Roberto Rosselini, 1945)
Rome, Open City is regarded as the founding film of Italian Neorealism. Rossellini wanted above all to bring a new documentary realism to cinema. This was realised more through the conditions of filming than some intellectual dogma. Natural lighting, non-professional actors, scene durations determined by the amount and type of celluloid available, no studio sets,: all these things brought a radical spontaneity to the film, and to the neorealist films that followed.
Rome, Open City was filmed on location just two months after the Nazis had been driven out of Rome. The visible devastation seen in all the exterior scenes is real, adding to the distinct documentary feel of the film. Retrospectively, it adds to the film’s power knowing that one of the most profound movements in cinema began, literally, in the ruins of modern Rome.
In fact, it had originally been planned as a documentary about a Catholic priest who had been executed for helping the partisans. But when an additional project about the children who fought against the occupiers was suggested, Rossellini and his co-writer – Federico Fellini – decided to make one film combining the two stories.
2. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
Sometimes unfairly treated as the Fellini film for people who don’t like Fellini, La Dolce Vita is as deserving of it’s classic status as any of the Italian master’s other films. It stars Marcello Mastroianni as a journalist, or rather a paparazzi, hunting for gossip in the corners of Rome populated by the well-heeled. In fact, the term paparazzi was coined from this very film, deriving from the name of one of the characters).
While Marcello’s occupation is not an admirable one, the protagonist is nevertheless a sympathetic guide through the excesses of 60s Rome. Marcello, after all, isn’t too different from the average cinema-goer, searching for every sign of life and action, like a detective. In terms of plotting, the film is somewhat picaresque. The pace is fast, and we’re introduced to far too many characters than we’re able to remember.
As with many Fellini films, the point isn’t to retain every detail, but rather to accept the fleetingness of it all, enjoy the wild ride, and trust the genius at the wheel.
1. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Bicycle Thieves has come to be seen as the jewel of Italian neorealism. It is also seen as one of the peaks of cinematic humanism. Like Rossellini, De Sica filmed on location, with no studio sets, and used non-professional actors. In fact, De Sica chose the actors to play the protagonists based on their similarity with the characters in the film. This is a practice that became de rigueur for political filmmakers.
Bicycle Thieves tells the story of Antonio, an unemployed father who gets a job pasting adverts on walls. When the bike he needs for work is stolen, a long and arduous search through the poorest parts of Rome begins. Antonio is accompanied by his young and loyal son, Bruno. This relationship has come to be seen as one of the most tender representations of a father-son relationship in cinematic history.
Antonio’s search for his bicycle is also an opportunity for viewers to gain valuable insight into the living conditions of Rome’s poorest citizens. Many Italians at the time looked unfavorably at De Sica’s movie. They felt that it portrayed Italy and Italians in a bad light. Viewers now see the detailed depiction of Italy’s grubbier side as a necessary step towards sympathy with people that cinema so often avoids.
Martin Scorsese praised the film for its “powerful simplicity, a rare quality in movies.” A bare plot summary of Bicycle Thieves would suggest an unwatchably sentimental film. It is undeniably something of a tear-jerker, but the emotional responses are earned by De Sica’s masterful storytelling and characterization.
Author Bio: Ciaran is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but currently lives in New York. He has passionate interest in European and Japanese cinema – the old stuff in particular. The directors who have left the deepest impression on him are Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Marco Ferreri.