10 of my favourite Italian movies to watch

People are always asking me for Italian-themed movie recommendations.

So I’m going to post ten of my favourite movies. A totally random list of films I’ve come across in my journey through Italy.

I’ve tried to avoid huge commercial successes and clichè building monsters as I’m a bit of a hipster and want to give everyone something different and challenging.

I have a weakness for classic Hollywood and movies set in Sicily.

So excuse me while I go ahead and be totally self-indulgent.  I hope this will lead you to discover something you haven’t seen yet.

1. Nuovo Mondo (Golden Door: Emanuele Crialese, 2006. Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsbourg).

This beautiful migrant story from the early nineteenth Century is a lovely mixture of poetry, idealism and surrealism, which surrounded the first wave of immigrants to the United States.

It tells the story of one family’s struggles with poverty, their quest for salvation, the epic journey toward America and the great leap these people made from one world to the next. It is an ancient story told through love, tragedy, strength, and injustice, with an immense sense of dignity and courage.

Nuovo Mondo is a beautiful art-house movie filled with poetry and magic. When Salvatore, a Sicilian villager, decides to leave his homeland to emigrate to America, coerced by the tales of the abundance of food and wealth in the new world.

The journey of Salvatore and his family is told through a mixture of mythology, stark reality and pure fable. The performances of Vincenzo Amato, who plays Salvatore and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a mysterious solo female traveller, are lovely.

2. Il Postino (Michael Radford, 1994. Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret, Maria Grazia Cucinotta).

This movie became an instant classic in the 1990s and is a beautifully shot masterpiece, filmed on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Messina in Sicily.

Postino is a sweet little film about friendship, love and poetry. It became even more precious as it was the last movie Massimo Troisi made, so it is seen as a special tribute to this wonderfully understated Neoplitain actor.

It is filled with the stunning panorama of the rustic Aeolian Islands, the poetry of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the love story of a lovelorn postman. He uses poetry to woo a young woman Beatrice played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta.

This movie was the cinematic debut of Maria Grazia Cucinotta. It launched her career as a classic Italian starlet along the same lines as Sofia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida.

3. Room with a View (James Ivory, 1985. Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Helena B.Carter).

I think this book and film adaptation is one of the reasons I fell in love with Florence. This stunning art film from the 1980s is a perfect little love story. Helena Bonham Carter plays the typical English tourist from the last Century together with an entourage of excellent English actors who create the hilarious caricatures which were English ex-pats in the early 19th Century.

This movie adaptation of the E M Forster novel of the same title beautifully shows off the beauty of the Tuscan countryside and Florence, and the exotic, foreign and dark nature of the English regarded Italy.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Lucy, who finds herself alone in Florence. The Emerson family comes to her rescue, as she unexpectedly falls in love with George Emerson despite having a fiance back home in England.

4. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953. Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn)

1950s Rome in this sweet little Romantic comedy fairytale is positively intoxicating. Modern Roma is a world away from this classic, but the beauty of these old-style actors gives this movie a sense of timelessness which makes this one of my all-time favourites.

I recall watching this beautiful classic black and white Hollywood movie as a teenager; it made me fall in love with the idea of visiting and exploring Roma on a Vespa.

Even though the Rome depicted no longer exists, the historical sights and beauty that draw tourists to the Eternal City are still very much the same.

5. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960. Marcello Mastrianni, Anita Ekberg)

Also recommended from Fellini: Casanova, La Strada, Nights of Calabria, 8 ½ and Amarcord.

I adore Federico Fellini; his movies are filled with the energy, charisma, imagination and expressiveness of one of the last Century’s greatest artists. 

La Dolce Vita became a symbol of the decadent lifestyle of 1960s Rome, and Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastrianni were symbolic of this innocent, carefree period in Italy’s history. 

Don’t think that Fellini is only La Dolce Vita; his films were made over a lifetime of dedication to the craft of Cinema, and his movies are considered masterpieces of Italian Cinema. 

Be sure to hunt down other classics, including his quirky retelling of the life of Cassanova with Donald Sutherland, the movies he made with his wife, and the iconic Giulietta Masina, which are also excellent, including La Strada and the Nights of Calabria. 

Fellini loved using Marcello Mastriani in his movies, and he has starred in a beautiful collection, including the legendary 8 1/2, reflecting Fellini’s doubts and anxieties as an artist and the entirely bizarre surreal love letter to women’s Citta delle Donne’. 

The semi-autobiographical Amarcord is a series of comedic and nostalgic vignettes set in the 1930s Italian coastal town where Fellini was born and is a delicious mixture of caricature, surrealism and sexual fantasy.

Fellini’s Cinema is filled with the luxurious energy of passion-filled art and the Joie de vie of Italy of the last Century. The world created by Fellini at times is quite distinctive, as his movies always explored his psyche.

Still, in delving within himself, Fellini made some of the most beautiful representations of surrealism, baroque flamboyance and earthiness. He is considered one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.

6. The Leopard (Visconti, 1963. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale)

This adaptation of the famous Sicilian novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa is a wonderfully epic portrait of the Italian unification in Sicily. The Leopard of the title is Prince Fabrizio di Salina, the last in a line of an ancient, tired Sicilian aristocracy slowly disappearing.

Set during the Italian “Risorgimento” or “The Resurgence,” which stripped Lampedusa’s own family of its royal status, the movie focuses on the moment The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies became a part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, which was a period of tremendous change on the island. So the film has a rich historical backdrop to draw from, including the personal reflections of the old Prince, the raging internal battle between the royalists and republicans and the changes to the Prince’s family. 

This movie is a perfect adaptation of the Lampedusa book, reflects the poetry of a decaying Sicilian aristocracy, the complex nuances of history, and the resistance to political change and innovation that still is a part of the Sicilian character even today.

Burt Lancaster’s performance as Don Fabrizio is considered one of the best cinematic performances of all time. The most famous scene from the movie, when Burt Lancaster’s character dances at the ball with Claudia Cardinale, is as if it has been lifted word for word from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s book. It is an exquisite movie and is considered one of Luchino Visconti’s best movies earning him a Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.

7. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988.)

Also by Tornatore to check out as well: Uomo delle Stelle (the Starmaker) and Baaria.

Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore deeply loves the Sicily of his childhood. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is his love letter to his native island and how it fostered his love of Cinema.

Cinema Paradiso is a recent classic of Italian Cinema and is a beautiful love letter to Sicily and Cinema told from the perspective of a young child. 

The movie tells us of Salvatore, a famous film director who returns to his hometown for the funeral of the local Cinema’s film projectionist, Alfredo. He reminisces about his life as a young boy in Sicily, falling in love with the art of Cinema.

The director of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, has a natural gift for revisiting and depicting his native Sicily in his movies. Sicily is the unofficial protagonist of many of his films, including Uomo delle Stelle, representing the harsh years between the world wars.

At the same time, the film Baaria is dedicated to Tornatore’s hometown of Bagheria, which is now a suburb of Palermo but at one time was very much a protagonist in Sicilian history.

8. A summer in Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008. Colin Firth, Perla Haney-Jardine).

This art-house movie shows off the beauty of the city of Genova and Italy in the intimate story of a family trying to survive a tragedy.

Colin Firth plays Joe, an American ex-pat who moves with his two daughters to Italy after his wife dies in a car accident. To bring some healing to his family, Joe thinks Italy will be an excellent distraction for his girls.

Genova changes all three of them as the youngest daughter; Mary starts to see her mother’s ghost, while the older Kelly discovers her sexuality.

Even though the story is a little slow and slightly cliche, it is still worth watching, especially to see how the city of Genoa is depicted. The cinematography is impressive; the narrow alley shots make you feel as if you are there in the city.

9. Nothing left to do but cry (Benigni & Troisi, 1984)

This quirky little comedy from the 1980s reflects the offbeat humour of Italian Cinema through two of its most well-known exponents. Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi are an incredible duo filled with wordplay and imagination in this cute little romp through Italian history.

Non ci resta che piange is a little bit silly but is great fun. Two friends, Mario and Saverio, played by Troisi and Benigni, accidentally stumble into the year 1492, where they meet the charming teen Pia, played by Amanda Sandrelli and try to alter history.

Benigni and Troisi have a wonderful time galavanting through the Renaissance, meeting the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Dante Alighieri. This movie is just a way of showing off the comic genius of these two legendary Italian actors, who also co-directed and wrote the film.

Non ci resta was immensely popular in Italy and was the highest-grossing film in the country the year it was released in 1984. It shows off the comedic talents of both stars and is well worth a watch.

10. Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci starring Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons)

Also by Bertolucci, The Dreamers.

Bernardo Bertolucci is yet another master of Italian Cinema. Stealing Beauty was possibly the most commercially successful of his moves, which follows a young girl’s journey after her mother’s death.

While the Dreamers is yet another coming-of-age film with a more explicit sexual form of rebellion, both movies are beautifully shot. Still, they are very experimental, definitely something to experience as they are the best examples of the Italian’ fringe.’