It sounds like a cliché that some first-year film school student would use, but Italian cinema is where it’s at. The style, subject matter, and all-around atmosphere of classic Italian films like 8 ½, Marriage Italian Style, and Once Upon a Time in the West is something that many have attempted to replicate over the years, but few have been able to pull off. This isn’t a criticism of modern movies as much as it is a celebration some of the best Italian films.
Sometimes, the language and cultural barriers that exist between movies by Federico Fellini and Vittorio de Sica and others like them can prove too difficult and overwhelming. In such cases, it helps to have a guide to great Italian movies, and notes on why and how you should check them out (whether it be streaming or on physical media), which is what you’ve stumbled upon now…
Columbia Pictures – Image credit
8 ½ (1963)
More times than not, when someone brings up the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the first movie they want to discuss is his 1963 surrealist drama 8 ½. One of the most iconic films of all time (and one that continues to be influential 60 years after its release), 8 ½ centers on filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), whose lack of creativity in one of the most pivotal moments of his life forces him to escape the set of his latest film, not to some idyllic town on the Italian coast, but into the depths of his thoughts and memories.
Guido attempts to overcome the mental block that plagued him throughout this intense experience. He tries to escape his past, but the director soon begins feeling their influence at every step of his production.
Stream 8 ½ on HBO Max.
Rent/Buy 8 ½ on Amazon.
Buy 8 ½ on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.
(Image credit: Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche)
Bicycle Thieves (1948).
Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 drama Bicycle Thieves (also commonly referred to as The Bicycle Thief) is often regarded as one of the favorite films of legendary filmmakers. The film is set in post-World War II Rome and centers on Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Magirani), a man who struggles to make ends meet for his family. Antonio finds a job hanging posters around the Italian capital after searching all over for a way of making a living. Misfortune, however, isn’t far behind, as Antonio’s bike is stolen and his hope of providing a better life for his family is upended before it even began.
Antonio Ricci, along with his son Bruno (Enzo Saintaiola), sets out to find his stolen bike in Rome. This leads to some dramatic and moral decisions.
Watch Bicycle Thieves streaming on HBO Max
Amazon.com: Bicycle thieves to rent or buy
Bicycle Thieves DVD/Bluray available at Amazon
Image credit: International Classics
Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, Suspiria, follows Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), a young American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy with its share of dark secrets. As Suzy works her way through the school’s grueling program led by a group of mysterious instructors, she begins to notice strange happenings all around her. The young, naive dancer quickly discovers that the Tanz Dance Akademie can be more than it seems.
Stream Suspiria to Tubi.
Amazon has Suspiria available on Blu-ray/DVD.
(Image credit to Titanus)
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 epic Cinema Paradiso explores the impact cinema can have on young moviegoers by not only providing them with an escape, but also the inspiration to do something with their lives. The story is set over a period of many decades and centers on Salvatore Di Vita, played by Salvatore Cascio, who finds refuge in a dark cinema in Sicily at the end of World War II. Salvatore makes friends with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a projectionist who helps him learn a lot about life and loves movies. From here, the real adventure begins.
Paramount+ Stream Cinema Paradiso
Amazon: Rent/Buy Cinema Paradiso
Amazon: Cinema Paradiso DVD/Blu-ray
(Image credit to Miramax
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Roberto Benigni’s dramedy, Life is Beautiful, took the world by storm and made the film’s writer/director/star into an overnight sensation upon its release in 1997. The movie follows Guido Orefice (Benigni), Dora (Nicolette Braschi), their young son Giosue [Giorgio Cantarini] as their calm and relatively unaffected lifestyle is disrupted during the Nazi Germany occupation in Northern Italy. They are then sent to a concentration center. Guido does not want his son to fully grasp the gravity of their situation and tries to convince him that it is all a game and that nothing bad will happen.
Life is Beautiful is a joyous exploration of the meaning and enjoyment of family and life. At other times, it is a sobering exploration of the meaning of life.
Paramount+ Stream Life Beautiful
Amazon.com: Rent/Buy a Beautiful Life
Amazon: Life is Beautiful DVD/Bluray
(Image credit to Paramount Pictures)
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968).
As influential as it is epic, Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West remains not only one of the best films of the acclaimed Italian director’s career, but also one of the greatest titles in the genre. The execution and scope of Leone’s story is what turns an admittedly simple premise into one of the most beloved and consequential films of all time. The movie is set in the Old West and centers on various strangers who cross paths in Flagstone. There’s the cutthroat killer Frank (Henry Fonda), a well-meaning drifter known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and all sorts of other unique and memorable characters at the center of their own stories.
With widescreen shots of the vast openness of the West, an iconic score by Ennio Morricone, and Sergio Leone’s nuance and signature style, Once Upon a Time in the West is a must-watch.
Amazon.com: Once Upon A Time in the West
Amazon.com: Once Upon a Time Rent/Buy in the West
Amazon.com: Once Upon a Time, West DVD/Bluray
(Image credit: 01 Distribution).
With the backdrop of a months-long battle between rival organized crime outfits in Naples, Matteo Garrone’s 2008 crime drama, Gomorrah, tells the story of five people whose only connection is the pain and misfortune brought on by the region’s gangs. With characters of all ages, backgrounds, and gang affiliations, the celebrated thriller paints a complete picture of crime-infested areas, similar to what Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God did for the favelas of Rio de Janeiro several years earlier.
Even though it is not as elegant as other examples of great Italian cinema, Matteo Garrone’s ability to create the sprawling and intertwined narratives in Gomorrah is a remarkable feat in itself.
Stream Gomorrah at The Criterion Channel
Amazon.com: Rent/Buy Gomorrah
Gomorrah available on Blu-ray/DVD on Amazon
(Image credit: Cineriz
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Federico Fellini’s 1960 dramedy La Dolce Vita centers on hedonistic reporter Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he bounces from one situation and one girl to the next in and around Rome. Marcello tries to find love, happiness and meaning in his life through the ruins of Rome and the bustle of modern life.
La Dolce Vita is split into seven episodes plus an intermission halfway. They are bookended with a prologue/epilogue. It offers a cinematic experience unlike any other. It perfectly balances exploring big ideas with style and sophistication making it one the best examples ever.
Stream La Dolce Vita via Filmbox (Amazon Add-On).
Amazon: La Dolce Vita DVD/Bluray
(Image credit: Titanus Distribuzione)
Journey to Italy (1954).
Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 drama Journey to Italy follows Alexander (George Sanders) and Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman), an English couple whose love for one another and passion for life is all but extinguished when they travel to Naples upon inheriting a property there. When the pair cannot put aside their differences and spend time away from home without being at each other’s throats, they decide to spend time away from one another and find out what brings joy to their lives.
As their brief departures from one another come to a close, Alexander and Joyce are both left to make a decision regarding their future: agree to divorce and explore all life has to offer on their own or find some way to save their marriage before it’s too late.
You can stream Journey to Italy on HBO Max.
Amazon.com: Rent/Buy Journeys to Italy
Amazon: Journey to Italy DVD/Bluray
(Image credit to Embassy Pictures)
Marriage Italian Style (1964)
Vittorio De Sica’s 1964 romance, Marriage Italian Style, tells the story of Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) and Filumena Marturano (Sophia Loreno), a couple with a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship spanning multiple decades. Domenico decides to marry a young girl shopgirl years later, after having his children and dedicating her life to him. Filumena becomes upset and decides to create a plan to pretend she is dying in order to marry her lover.
Stream Marriage Italian Style at Tubi
Amazon.com: Italian Style Weddings – Rent/Buy
Amazon: Marriage Italian Style DVD/Bluray
This is just a fraction of what you can expect to see, but it will give you a good starting point if your goal is to explore the wonderful world of Italian cinema. In the event you are looking for something new to check out at your local theater (or streaming service) take a look at CinemaBlend’s 2021 movies schedule so you don’t miss a thing.