10 Essential Italian Films

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Arguably the greatest entry in Italian neorealist cinema, Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 portrait of a struggling pensioner and his faithful dog, Umberto D. , arrives on Blu-ray this week. It’s a poignant commentary on the country’s postwar strife and working class disillusionment, quietly portrayed by university professor-turned-actor Carlo Battisti’s retired government worker who faces desperation with sorrowful dignity. Still, the heartbreaking tale is never maudlin or overstated. In honor of the film’s Criterion Blu-ray release, we wanted to explore other essential Italian titles. Click through our gallery to check out a diverse list of the country’s masterworks that have left their mark on generations of audiences and filmmakers alike. Add your own picks in the comments section.

L’avventura

The lead players in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura are too empty to feel strongly about anything when it comes to life and love — a true existential nightmare. “The Adventure” is a sardonic misnomer for the trip taken by a group of wealthy friends sailing the Mediterranean. One of them goes missing and the absentee’s lover and best friend entertain a growing attraction — but these are characters that simply go through the motions, and sex is effortless for them. Antonioni paints the duo’s emotional detachment and isolation with lingering strokes, inventing an unconventional and stunning filmic language.

La Dolce Vita

Marcello Mastroianni’s adulterous paparazzo chases stories and skirts through the streets of Rome, only to face a series of disappointments as his fantasy fragments are illuminated by harsh reality. One of Italy’s finest directors, Federico Fellini explores the meaning of “the good life” and all its modern malaise. The 1960 film is a visual feast — and we aren’t just referring to a curvaceous Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain — marking a split between the filmmaker’s early neorealist works and later, lavish art house epics.

Blood and Black Lace

Mario Bava, a painter who eventually followed his father into the film industry, broke the mold for Italian horror cinema when he created 1964’s Blood and Black Lace. The atmospheric giallo — a visually striking subgenre that heavily populated the 1970s — bears the marks of a traditional and thrilling whodunit, but is characterized by the gialli’s elaborate and lurid murder set pieces. The film’s black-gloved killer stalks his way through a glamorous fashion house, which deceptively veils the tawdry lives of its inhabitants. Bava set the stage for giallo cinema, creating a masterpiece of suspense and unbearable tension that is technically impressive and stunning to look at. The technicolor nightmare would go on to inspire Bava’s greatest disciple, Dario Argento, but the director’s influence can be felt beyond the halls of Italian horror in classic American fright flicks like Halloween.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Quentin Tarantino has called Sergio Leone’s epic 1966 spaghetti western “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” and it’s easy to see why. The director’s trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, included), featuring Clint Eastwood’s brooding and unpredictable antihero in the largely silent role, was a groundbreaking twist on the classic American westerns — bold, original, and arrestingly violent. It’s not that one film in the series is vastly better than the others, but think of part three as the product of slow-cooked perfection. The final chapter is a “baroque tale” of three gunslingers searching for buried treasure, set to Ennio Morricone’s lively, moody score. The film’s artistic camerawork and eccentric touches — dotted with a wonderfully odd mix of dark humor and brutal violence — makes this a dramatic and lyrical finale in an unforgettable series.

The Leopard

Everything Luchino Visconti needs to say in his Sicilian tale of a declining aristocracy (quite literally) and late 19-century revolution is told in the film’s opulent, extended ballroom scene — one of the greatest moments in Italian cinema. It’s a slow build to a masterful finish that relies on quiet gestures, glances, and unaffected elegance — all powerful components even amongst the film’s grandiose setting. Be sure to see Visconti’s sublime masterpiece that boasts magnificent performances (including a very American Burt Lancaster, but trust us when we say he’s great) fully restored and uncut from Criterion.

Bicycle Thieves

Woody Allen recently had glowing things to say about Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist film Bicycle Thieves, about an unemployed man during postwar Italy who searches for his stolen bicycle on the streets of Rome.

“This, to me, was the supreme Italian film and one of the greatest films in the world. It was out when I was a teenager, in the same era as Stromboli and Bitter Rice, that wave at the time. When you see it, it seems so simple and effortless. I mean, what could be more simple? A guy has a bicycle which he needs for his livelihood, it gets stolen, and he goes to find it with his son. The boy’s relationship with his father was part anger, part desperate affection. It couldn’t help but make an impression on the most primitive level. You didn’t have to think about anything, you just watched the characters and their predicament. It’s flawless; every part of it works perfectly.”

Divorce Italian Style

This 1961 dark satire from Pietro Germi gave name to the popular mid-century commedia all’italiana films. It’s a jab at the conservative mores of Italian culture. Marcello Mastroianni’s idle baron goes to absurd extremes to get a divorce and marry his cousin, forcing him consider a crime of passion to get the job done. Beautifully realized in black and white, Germi’s witty script and multi-textured visuals keep the pace moving.

The Conformist

Bernardo Bertolucci’s stylish, surreal, and thrilling 1970 film is an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel, about a man persuaded to join the fascist party and hired to murder a dissident who also happens to be his former philosophy teacher. The Guardian has called it one of the most influential postwar films. The Last Tango in Paris director elaborated on the crux of the movie in an interview with the paper. “The conformist understands that the reason of his desperate look for conformism is that he realises he is different and that he never accepted his difference. In that last scene, he understands why he became a fascist — even the worst fascist of all — because he wanted to hide and forget what he feels are his differences in his deep, deep consciousness. It’s like realising that even fascists have a sub-consciousness,” he told them. The filmmaker also admitted that he makes movies as a way to “kill” his father. When asked what his father thought of The Conformist, Bertolucci told them, “He loved all my movies for a simple reason — he felt as if he had done them. He loved his puppet, which is me, because I was very good at doing his movies. He thought he had taught me everything, which is true.”

Caro diario (Dear Diary)

Often cited as Italy’s Woody Allen, Nanni Moretti’s work often blurs the lines of autobiographical musings, political truths, and satirical fiction. In this beloved 1993 gem, the director’s tale is told in three wryly comedic chapters as he travels Rome and beyond by Vespa. It’s a refreshing introduction to one of the greatest Italian directors working today. Moretti has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick — as evidenced in his 2006 film that skewered Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman — but his latest movie We Have a Pope is surprisingly sympathetic and definitely worth your time.

8 1/2

It’s hard to quickly summarize the beauty of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, but Roger Ebert did a fine job of that when he reviewed the 1963 comedy-drama about a director struggling through his newest film. It’s been universally hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made. Ebert writes:

“These days, directors don’t worry about how to repeat their last hit, because they know exactly how to do it: Remake the same commercial formulas. A movie like this is like a splash of cold water in the face, a reminder that the movies really can shake us up, if they want to. Ironic, that Fellini’s film is about artistic bankruptcy seems richer in invention than almost anything else around.”