Now that the Oscars are over and winter is dragging on, it’s time to settle in for a movie binge. I’m off to Sicily and Tuscany again in about a month, so I’m getting in the mood with some classic movies set in Italy. Ready to shake off the winter blahs? These 10 movies for travelers to Italy will have you sipping a Campari and basking in the Italian sun, if only in your mind.
A highlight among the stars of classic film, this gem stars Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Hepburn plays a young princess on a publicity tour in Europe who becomes tired of being over scheduled and shuttled around with a guard. She escapes from the palace and lands in the lap of Peck, a reporter out for a scoop. The two have an adventure exploring Rome and falling in love.
This movie is one I could watch over and over. Audrey Hepburn is always a delight, so full of sunshine. Considering that I spend weeks of my year in Rome, my beloved adopted home, the highlight is watching the city itself. 1950’s Rome was not much different than the Rome that I lived in during the 1990’s, but the city has changed greatly since then. It’s a lovely reminder of old Italy and the excitement of discovering it for the first time. The film won three Oscars, including Best Actress for Audrey Hepburn.
Quite possibly my favorite movie of all time, this movie was adapted from EM Forster’s book of the same name. The plot sees Miss Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter before her goth-steampunk-Tim Burton phase) sent off to Italy during the Grand Tour era to finish her education. She is accompanied by a prudish spinster cousin (Maggie Smith at her most indignant) who tries to protect her from barbaric Italian local culture during her education in the arts. While there, Miss Honeychurch meets an eccentric and passionate Englishman (Julian Sands) who eventually kisses her (Gasp!). She returns home with that dark secret and to deal with her stuffy fiancee, Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis in another delightfully greasy role).
Forster wrote several books chronicling the social scene of the Edwardian period in England, using a perceptive and sly lens. The movie on its’ face may look to be a boring period drama, but it is actually a deeply sweet and wickedly funny send-up of foreigners in Italy. The point of view of the English towards the Italians sheds light on what the Grand Tour era was really like. More than anything, though, it’s just really romantic. I’m a sucker for romance, more so for intellectual romance. The views of Florence make it even more lovely.
A story of the Holocaust and World War II set in the quiet Tuscan town of Arezzo. Guido (comic Roberto Benigni) meets and romances Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) during the Fascist period of the 1930’s. After they marry, they have a son, Giosue, and run a book shop. Guido is Jewish, and when the Holocaust begins, he and his son are rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. Dora follows them to be near. At the concentration camp, to protect his son from the horror around them, Guido tells his son that it is all just a game and that he has special tasks he must do for points every day. The elaborate hoax shields Giosue and saves him from execution.
Both tragic and comic, Life is Beautiful is a testament to the love of a father. It is also one of the very few movies that exist about Italy during World War II. Italy has such a complex relationship to that period, very few have tried to tackle that dangerous territory. This movie does it with tenderness and creativity. It won three Oscars and became the highest earning foreign movie of all time. Roberto Benigni was unknown to Americans before this movie, but he is considered to be one of the great comic actors in Italy, sort of like Steve Martin or Bill Murray in the US. His wild acceptance speech at the Academy Awards has made him a legend and a permanent fixture of Oscar show montages.
This is a movie that has likely escaped your attention but is worth watching. A biography of courtesan Veronica Franco, it sheds a bit of light on the strange position of the many courtesans (elegant prostitutes) of Venice in the 1600’s. Veronica (Catherine McCormack) is in love with a man from a high social class (Rufus Sewall) whom she cannot marry because of her low social position. As with most women of the age without a dowry, she is facing the nunnery. Her mother persuades her to go into the family business instead, and she quickly rises to become one of the most desired and powerful courtesans of Venice. Her position and fame lead to entanglement in political problems and eventually she is summoned to the Inquisition.
It may be a movie that few have seen, but those that have tend to adore it (as long as those people are women). It looks like a fluffy and soulless period piece like Casanova, but has a great deal of substance and is actually rather historically accurate. Courtesans were quite powerful in Venice, most had far more influence on the city than the respectable married women of higher classes. They had independent lives and money, as well as close relationships with powerful men. Venice was a secular and multicultural city in its’ day and this movie shows how it was one of the few places in the world that flirted with women’s rights. If you’re looking for a beautifully shot feminist period drama, this is it.
Speaking of movies with a feminist overtone, Bread and Tulips is a comedy-drama about the plight of the typical Italian housewife. Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) goes on a bus tour vacation with her unappreciative husband and son. When the bus stops for a toilet break at the Autogrill, Rosalba gets stuck in the loo. Her husband and son don’t notice she’s missing and the bus leaves. Rather than return home, she decides to continue north and start a new life in Venice, where she gets a job and meets a handsome man. Meanwhile, her son and husband start to wonder why their laundry isn’t being done and there isn’t any dinner on the table.
Women in Italy, even today, face pretty tough social expectations. Besides being beautiful, well dressed and thin, they are expected to be perfect cooks and housekeepers. If you wonder why I don’t live there, now you know, I’m rubbish at housework! This movie is a escapist dream for any woman who feels undervalued by their family and begs the question, why put up with it when you could move to Venice?
Never has a movie ever seemed like a love letter to a city as this one. With sweeping views and glorious sunrises, The Great Beauty shows off Rome, the real Rome, with affection and humor. The main character is priveledged author Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) although it could be argued that the real main character is the city itself. The opening scene is of Jep’s 60th birthday party, full of aging upper class Romans raging like they are in their teens. Jep is an insatiable partier, running on the fumes of a famous novel he wrote in his youth. He floats from dinner party to gallery party to long, melancholy walks along the Tiber, searching for something that will give his life meaning, although he seems more interested in oblivion.
The story line is kind of hard to describe. He walks a lot. He has interesting conversations with strange people. The city of Rome peaks through the plot to show off. What I can say, though, is that this movie is full of truth. Truth about life, about Rome and about Italians. If I could boil it down to one concept, I’d say that it is a meditation on the elegance of decay and the passing of time. It sounds heavy, and it is, but there are hilarious and absurd moments as well. Sometimes humor is the best delivery for truth. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
If you’re ok with movies with a slow plot, this is a dreamy one. Lucy (Liv Tyler in her first and best role) is a 19 year-old girl on a trip to Italy. She is staying with friends of her mother’s, a poet who recently died. The house is full of characters, and as she gets to know them she begins to understand herself as well. Suitors line up for the American beauty, and she eventually falls in love.
This isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it left an impression on me. Perhaps it is because it was released the year after I had lived in Rome, and Liv Tyler is about my age, and her character does things on her own (like taking the train) that girls back then didn’t often do (but I did). Somehow the adventure in the movie feels relatable and nostalgic, even if it really isn’t in any way like my life. The movie is beautifully made, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and has a great cast, including Jeremy Irons.
One of the most famous Italian films, Cinema Paradiso is the story of a young boy that falls in love with film. Salvatore di Vita (played by numerous actors) returns to his hometown in Sicily after many years of living in Rome. He has received word that a friend, Alfredo, has died. Alfredo was the owner of the local cinema, where Salvatore spent much of his childhood. The two bonded over their love of films and Salvatore eventually becomes a projectionist for the movie house.
As you may know, Sicily is one of my great passions. You may notice that The Godfather is missing from this list. I don’t need to tell you to watch that, you’ve already seen it, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you know about Sicily. Sicilians are warm and passionate people, and this movie speaks volumes about their character and their connection to their homeland. Winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
A sweeping and lengthy epic, I’d liken this to Sicily’s equivalent of Gone with the Wind. Il Gattopardo is a classic of Italian literature, written by a nobleman about his family’s decline. The story centers on a wealthy noble family in 1860’s Palermo. The family has palaces, servants and a large social circle of other noble families. Times change, and the island is caught up in the Risorgiamento or the unification of Italy into a modern state. Noble families are swept aside in the revolution in favor of a modern, unified country.
This is a very, very long movie, worth watching in chunks over a couple of days. It stars Burt Lancaster, who looks terribly out of place, but that was the fashion back in the 60’s. It is an important story to understand before going to Sicily. Palermo was a great capital of culture and elegance in the past, but the difference between rich and poor was enormous. The unification of Italy is celebrated on every street corner in Italy, and this is one of the very few movies to help a visitor understand it. The costumes are great, and the palace interiors help to reconstruct Palermo in the past, at its’ height.
And now, for something different! You thought I was going to say Three Coins in a Fountain or La Dolce Vita, didn’t you? Well, I am anything but predictable, that’s the Italian influence. This is a series of short movies inspired by the idea of Bocaccio’s Decameron. They all focus on a different aspect of Italian life. The most imaginative one is set in Rome’s EUR with a 20 foot-tall Anita Eckberg chasing a man through the streets. Weird and interesting, this is a great way to take Fellini for a test drive without committing hours of time.
There are many other movies that I could list, but these are my favorites, as well as a selection to show different aspects of Italy. Get through these with a nice bottle of wine and a plate of pasta. Extra credit if you watch with an Italian at your side.
What are your favorite movies for travelers to Italy? Comment here or on Facebook and I’ll compile a list.