This week I want to talk about great Italian cinema, offering a selection of the best and most iconic movies that have exported Italian culture all over the world.
Indeed, Italian culture has a millennial history since the time of the Etruscan, Roman, and Greek civilizations, gaining the well-deserved reputation of being The Land of Art over the centuries.
Although cinema almost immediately became part of the noble arts, in Italy, it remained a luxury reserved for the middle/upper class until the advent of Fascism.
It was under the dictator Mussolini when Italian cinema underwent a significant transformation, certainly not for art’s sake; instead, the regime exploited it as a propaganda tool to spread fascist ideology and strengthen its control over society.
That is why of the hated fascist twenty-year period, we remember very few noteworthy movies. From the end of World War II onwards, on the contrary, there was an outburst of talent and directors who could finally express their thoughts freely.
Our journey among the best movies of Italian cinema begins right here, with the first and perhaps most important exponent of Neorealism, made during the tumultuous days of the capital’s liberation.
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Rome, Open City (1945)
Rome, Open City is a movie embodying the romantic and poignant beauty of a city that, despite destruction and war, continues to live and fight for its freedom.
Roberto Rossellini recounts the tragedy of a diverse group of ordinary citizens banding together in resistance against fascism and Nazi occupation during the dying days of World War II.
The story takes place in an almost apocalyptic Rome, destroyed by bombing, where the streets run with soldiers and terror.
Despite everything, people continue to live and breathe, and the city roads are inhabited by wonderfully human characters of extraordinary strength who do not give in to despair and violence despite their fear.
Holding these rebels together is the grieving Catholic priest, played by Aldo Fabrizi, a man highly respected in the community who will risk everything to protect Manfredi, the unwavering communist activist played by Marcello Pagliero.
Around these two characters will revolve the lives (and deaths) of many other decent people, a little brave and a little stupid in their fallacious humanity of ordinary people, such as the widow played by the unstoppable Anna Magnani.
It will be her death, mowed down in the streets by Nazi machine guns, one of the exclamation points becoming the symbol of a completely new cinema and Italy’s first roars.
Rome, Open City was the first exponent of neorealism, a movement seeking to portray reality truthfully and without emotional trickery.
Immortalized in Ubaldo Arata‘s timeless black and white, we thus have many nonprofessional actors roaming the authentic streets of Rome instead of an aseptic film set.
Breaking away definitively from Mussolini’s ridiculous cinema/propaganda, this movement would later influence the seventh art worldwide.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
From this moment, I decided to stop saying the word masterpiece over and over, not because the other Italian movies on the list are not; otherwise, I would not consider them the best, only to avoid becoming painfully dull and repetitive.
From the end of the war, we arrive in 1948 with the direction of Vittorio De Sica following the human affairs of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed worker living with his wife and son in the extreme poverty of postwar Rome.
Although fascism is over, the best of all possible worlds is still far away and hunger is great, so any job is welcome, such as sticking posters on behalf of the City Council.
To travel back and forth around the city, Antonio needs a bicycle, although when he finally succeeds in redeeming the one he had pawned, someone steals it on his first day of work.
Thus begins an endless odyssey through the endless districts of Rome, where along with his son Bruno they desperately try to find the poor but indispensable vehicle.
Bicycle Thieves is the perfect example of the daily fatigue of the proletarian class and how they endure life’s injustices, which often come suddenly and insurmountable.
Simply outstanding is the performance of the protagonist Lamberto Maggiorani, together with the unhappy child played by Enzo Staiola, masterfully accompanied by the sad music of Alessandro Cicognini in their realistic and poignant city journey.
In this neorealist portrait, their tragedy blends into the windows of daily life, indifferent to their despair, in the heart of a city still not healed from the deep wounds of the war.
Simply unmissable, we can sum up this movie as one of the best and most bitter Italian comedies to be studied in every school of cinema anywhere in the world.
Black Sunday (1960)
Let’s continue by leaving neorealism behind while staying with one of the best masters of Italian cinema, Mario Bava, admiring the movie he debuted with in the distant 1960s.
A debut opus among the finest horror pictures of all time, mercilessly slaughtered by the period’s arrogant and short-sighted Italian critics.
In the prologue of this black fable, we are in 16th-century Moldavia, where a witch is punished with a mask of sharp needles cruelly hammered into her face.
Two hundred years pass when two young doctors ride near the crypt where the witch is buried.
Fascinated by the woman in her crystal shrine, one of them makes the terrible mistake of removing the mask and releasing the woman’s never-truly dead spirit.
Desiring revenge for her pain and humiliation, she reunites with her lover’s ghost. She intends to regain the castle that once belonged to her, possessing the body of a beautiful innkeeper with an identical resemblance.
However, the handsome doctor also falls in love with the girl, trying to save her in every way from the dark spells of the revived witch.
With little money and a lot of talent and imagination, Mario Bava delivers what is simply gothic horror perfection.
Although his movies would become famous over the years for the filmmaker mastermind’s unique use of lighting and color, this black-and-white debut wisely blends fear and a refined eroticism built on the beautiful and disturbing Barbara Steele.
For the Black Sunday actress, it was the coronation as the absolute queen of horror, proving her versatile and dramatic talent by even playing two completely different roles.
In short, we are talking not only about a great Italian movie but absolutely one of the best ever made in any corner of the world.
Now we discuss another master of Italian cinema who certainly needs no introduction, Federico Fellini, in this case even winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language movie.
It was the beginning of the 1960s, and the great director was in a deep creative crisis, unable to find a screenplay that would give him the passion he so yearned for.
So old Federico had the brilliant idea of pouring this frustration into an entirely new story. His faithful Marcello Mastroianni was precisely a man on the verge of a breakdown.
No one but him knows the truth because his producer Guido Alberti believes everything is going great, investing millions in costly sets and actors.
But in reality, the director does not even have a script, just a series of pages where he stacks up people and personal episodes from his childhood, marriage, and numerous mistresses.
Amidst this circus of art around a movie that does not exist, the farce continues between drama and comedy until a catastrophic yet regenerative ending of destruction and rebirth.
It is impossible to name all the protagonists in this metacinematic fantasy of Fellini’s, so I will just mention my favorites.
Mastroianni leads the merry-go-round with his usual irresistible meekness, aloof and cool at the same time.
This unrepentant liar is always disingenuous with his wife, his mistress, and the beautiful Claudia Cardinale in the role of herself, an actress he wants at any cost, even though the movie does not exist.
Finally, we mention again the star of the earlier horror movie, Barbara Steele, so sexy and provocative that she would even inspire Quentin Tarantino for the famous dance contest scene in Pulp Fiction.
8½ is a classic almost impossible to explain, yet you must experience it to find out if you really love cinema.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
As I said, there is no need to use the word masterpiece any further because this western by Sergio Leone is simply one of the best loved movies in the entire history of cinema.
The legendary Rome director transports us on an incredible treasure hunt amidst the violent Civil War dividing America in the second half of the 1800s.
Despite their differences, three ruthless criminals searching for a valuable haul of gold bars swiped from the Confederate army.
From one side to the other of the front separating soldiers on both flanks, these unerring gunslingers ally and clash according to circumstance and convenience.
Despite the immense wealth they seek, there will not be enough money for all three protagonists, so one of them will not survive before the ending.
Whether you love the western genre or not, you must experience a cinematic journey like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Every scene and shot is memorable; every sequence has a line or idea worth mentioning.
In short, not a single minute of this nearly three-hour adventure is wasted, encapsulating every ounce of Sergio Leone‘s narrative power.
I know by heart every quote from the characters of Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; the worst criminals but also the last true free men of a historical period that was coming to an end.
Finally, we sublimate (rhetorically but unfailingly) every note of every track composed by Ennio Morricone, never so sorrowful, romantic, and slyly ironic in one of the best performances of his long and glorious career.
Rather than a masterpiece, indeed, for a movie of this magnitude, we must use the term legend, thinking back to the best days of Italian cinema, subsequently never so appreciated all over the world.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
Returning to an all-Italian location to mention Elio Petri, a director no less talented than the others said today, yet much less known internationally if not for this exceptional and grotesque crime movie.
It all begins on an ordinary morning in an elegant apartment in Rome, where homicide squad policeman Gian Maria Volonté kills his lover Florinda Bolkan.
Hypothetically, for him, this incident could not have come at a worse time, as that same day, he should receive the coveted promotion to the political office headquarters.
But the man is not at all frightened by this situation. On the contrary, with sadistic amusement, he exploits his experience and political influence to manipulate the evidence and, in every way, complicate the lives of his colleagues investigating the murder.
However, at one point, he seems to change his mind and tries to help the police arrest him by indicating one of the few key witnesses who knows the truth.
As always happens, power can never be disputed, so by then; he must face the consequences of his impunity, whether he wants to accept it or not.
Together with Ugo Pirro, Elio Petri constructs a screenplay as a distorted reflection of Kafka‘s famous Trial, of which, not coincidentally, a quote concludes the movie’s last scene.
In this case, however, the protagonist is not crushed by an oppressive and invisible system, but rather precisely because of the established power, he seems to escape all legal and moral judgment despite his multiple crimes.
Gian Maria Volonté hides the amusing madness in the eyes of this character, living by lies behind the untouchable facade of law enforcement.
Thus we have one of the best metaphors for the corruption of the modern world within a fast-paced and sometimes surreal narrative.
Deep Red (1975)
With the last movie on the list, we travel to one of the Italian cities closest and dearest to me, Turin, whose environs I was born in and have remained in all my life.
Indeed, this mythical Dario Argento mystery/horror begins in this great city of northern Italy, where a musician and his drunkard friend are messing around in the empty space of the large central square.
Suddenly screams of fear interrupt their fun, as from the window of a nearby building, they see a masked killer brutally murder a woman.
She was a medium recently attending a conference, claiming on stage to sense the presence of a killer among the crowd with her psychic powers.
The musician becomes obsessed with this murder, beginning to investigate with the help of a funny and snoopy journalist friend.
What seemed like a simple act of madness will conceal a story of family tragedy and psychosis more monstrous and profound than they can imagine.
Although the good Dario Argento has undeniably plummeted over the past two decades, Deep Red is still a benchmark for the Italian and world horror genre.
The oneiric aesthetic surrounding the scenes with the mysterious killer in the dark black and blood-red have now become an icon of cinema.
Moreover, the movie develops a gory, psychological plot full of twists and turns, creating a labyrinth of clues, false leads, and revelations, with tension at its peak until the unpredictable (perhaps even improbable) final act.
We willingly ignore weak dialogue and stereotypical characterizations of the protagonist, enjoying every frame Argento paints in the style Mario Bava had pioneered.
Finally, the Goblin soundtrack, which still resounds loud and clear in the ears of all horror fans, is simply unforgettable.