If we are to take an overall look at Italian cinema history, we would easily notice how each decade was extremely different from the one before! Nevertheless, it would have been quite odd to have it any other way, especially in the 1990s.
For Italy, like many countries around the world, the 1990s were a decade of transition, not only in Italian cinema history, which worked to emancipate itself from the excesses of the rampant ’80s by looking towards the new millennium that was getting closer and closer. The 1990s were like a kaleidoscope (a constantly changing pattern) of different instances; or a harmoniously various polyphonic choir that, here and there, allowed a few healthy outbursts to leak out.
When it comes to the Italian cinema history of the 1990s, many big names marked the decade; there are old-guard authors like Marco Bellocchio and Ermanno Olmi and established talents like Nanni Moretti and Gianni Amelio.
There is also the dreamy gaze of Maurizio Nichetti and the cynical irony of Carlo Verdone. Finally, it would be a shame to talk about the Italian cinema history of the 1900s without mentioning the magnificent co-productions of Bernardo Bertolucci, an absolute master who has made the ‘international’ nature of his work a precise stylistic mark. So, let’s remember some of the best Italian films from the 1990s.
Mediterraneo by Gabriele Salvatores (1991)
The cinema of Gabriele Salvatores may have been ‘cunning’, or at least that is how some perceived it at the time, but the yearning for freedom and carefreeness that he often knew how to offer in his memorable films in Italian cinema history was priceless.
Salvatores’ Mediterraneo brings a great little story of escape, evasion and rejection of the war. It is a timeless existential comedy that uses fascinating settings and lovable characters who tell the story of Italy and the Italians of the Fascist period better than many historical tales.
Mediterraneo follows a group of Italian soldiers during the Second World War who end up being stranded on an abandoned island, or so it seemed at first!
The jolly war comedy-drama made it to the Academy Awards and ended up going home with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
To Want to Fly (Volere Volare) by Maurizio Nichetti, Guido Manuli (1991)
With Volere Volare, Maurizio Nichetti celebrated the magic of Italian cinema history in an amusing fusion of farce comedy, poetic sentimentality, and animation. Nichetti’s character had obvious echoes of the iconic French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s popular character from the 1950s-1960s, Monsieur Hulot.
It can be sensed in the protagonist’s wackiness and his meaningful relationship with sounds and noise. There is also a strong reference to Disney world, thanks to the collaboration with the Italian animator Guido Manuli.
In the film, we follow the shy Maurizio (Nichetti), who works on dubbing cartoons, as he gets to know Martina (Angela Finocchiare). While the two try to figure out whether their relationship will go to the next level and be more than colleagues or not, Maurizio finds out that he has a more pressing matter to worry about, with his body parts turning into cartoons with a mind of their own!
Halfway between parody and homage, Maurizio Nichetti and Guido Manuli created an exaggerated world where the two protagonists always find themselves in situations bordering on the absurd. Volere Volare is a hymn of light-heartedness to be seen over and over again.
The Stolen Children (Il ladro di bambini) by Gianni Amelio (1992)
In one of his most successful films, Gianni Amelio presented Italian cinema history with a film that, despite being released in the early 1990s, bears a remarkable resemblance to the notion of Neorealism cinema of the 1940s. Gianni exquisitely made the film a precise and, at the same time, intimate documentation of heart-touching facts.
The film follows the interesting relationship between custody officer Enrico Lo Verso and two children he is tasked to take to an orphanage in another city. While they start off on the wrong foot, their relationship takes a more tender turn.
The relationship between the custody officer and the two children he has to take around Italy is an emotional and psychological journey that is heart-warming and, at times, devastating. The Stolen Children is a sincere and painful story that received the Grand Jury Prise at the Cannes Film Festival.
Damned the Day I Met You (Maledetto il Giorno che t’ho Incontrato) by Carlo Verdone (1992)
Damned, the Day I Met You is a romantic comedy that recounts the meeting between two neurotics with a light and sophisticated touch. With a rhythm that reminded us of that of Woody Allen, Carlo Verdone presented a masterpiece, following the story of two misfits who try to coexist despite their load of differences and conflicts. They meet, they fall in love, they break up, and they find each other again!
The film is one of the most successful films in Italian cinema history from the 1990s; it won 5 David di Donatello awards in the categories of leading actor, supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, and editing. The film also scored many other awards and nominations.
The Great Pumpkin (Il Grande Cocomero) by Francesca Archibugi (1993)
The Great Pumpkin is the feature film that definitively established Sergio Castellitto’s reputation as one of the best leading actors in Italian cinema history. Francesca Archibugi’s inspiring directorial touch made this great little contemporary tale of love and redemption so moving that it reached the audience’s soul.
The film follows young Valentina as she gets admitted into a child neuropsychiatry and how this becomes a turning point in her life. The film, which was showcased in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, is an absolutely touching, funny, and emotionally sincere piece of art.
The Secret of the Old Woods (Il Segreto del Bosco Vecchio) by Ermanno Olmi (1993)
In an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dino Buzzati, the famous Ermanno Olmi hovers between the fairy and symbolic tale and the apologue.
The film follows the incredible talent behind the famous Fantozzi mask, Paolo Villaggio, as he looks after a reserve in the “Old Woods” for his nephew. Paolo, as general Sebastiano, has investing plans that would destroy the woods but make a lot of money. However, he soon realizes that the “Old Woods” have a dark and shattering secret that would change not only his plans but his whole life!
As usual, Paolo Villaggio presented a marvellous performance that buttressed his status in Italian cinema history and got him the Best Actor Award at the Nastro d’Argento, while the film received the Best Cinematography award at the David di Donatello.
Dear Diary (Caro Diario) by Nanni Moretti, 1993)
Dismissing the famous role of Michele Apicella he created, Nanni Moretti took an epoch-making step by exposing himself in one of the best semi-biographies in Italian cinema history. Divided into three chapters, Caro Diario recounts Nanni’s perspective about many life situations in an anthological open diary style.
The film begins with the in-vespa chapter that brings a splendid overview of Rome and its idiosyncrasies, and he ends this chapter by paying tribute to the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, which was absolutely poignant. In the next chapter, we go to the Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie) with a touching tale studded with hilarious moments and, at the same time, present a heartfelt reflection on loneliness. Finally, Nanni ends his story with the chapter Medici, in which Moretti lays bare his personal health odyssey.
Featuring a perfect blend of irony, lightness and depth, Caro Diario is a genuinely masterful film that earned Nanni the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director Award.
Lamerica by Gianni Amelio (1994)
A memorable portrayal of Albania—and, by reflection, Italy—in the early 1990s, told through the clash of two different worlds. The film brings the story of two Italian men who head to Albania after the collapse of communism there. They decide to hustle their way into the country by starting up a fake firm. However, things don’t go as planned, and they find themselves in over their heads.
In this film, Amelio very effectively staged human misery at a controversial and historical moment; he presented a mirror of a society in disarray. The film cleverly highlights the difference between the young Italian man of that time and the older generation and how they have two different identities. All this while also shedding light on the immigrants and what it means to leave one’s home out of necessity and move to unknown and often hostile places.
Lamerica is definitely one of the most memorable films in Italian cinema history. It has been the recipient of many awards, some of which include the Golden Osella for Best Director for Amelio at the Venice International Film Festival, along with three other awards at the same festival. The film also won the Best Film Award at the European Film Awards and the Best European Film award at the Goya Awards.
The Star Maker (L’uomo Delle Stelle) by Giuseppe Tornatore (1995)
In L’uomo Delle Stelle, the helmer of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore presented Italian cinema history with a beautiful portrayal of his beloved Sicily through the eyes of a con man, Joe, who uses the cinema allure to trick people into giving him money. However, things take an unexpected turn when Joe meets Beata, an encounter that turns their lives upside down.
The film offers a grand spectacle of Giuseppe Tornator’s homeland, and there is no shortage of great cinematic moments in the film thanks to the bow-worthy performance of Sergio Castellitto. The film received an Academy Awards nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and it went home with the Grand Jury Prise at the Venice Film Festival.
Nasty Love (L’amore Molesto) by Mario Martone (1995)
The talented director Mario Martone transformed the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s first novel of the same name into an intense and enthralling film that’s capable, at times, of blurring into a dimension with a dreamlike and hallucinatory flavour.
Set in an exemplary setting in the city of Nepal, the film follows Delia as she goes back to her hometown for her mother’s funeral. As she tries to find out more about her late mother’s recent years, Delia comes face to face with old childhood memories that she decided to hide a long time ago. Delia’s confrontation with her memories takes her on an emotional journey, which she has been avoiding for years.
Anna Bonaiuto as Delia presented a ravishing performance that has earned her rave reviews and many awards like the Silver Ribbon award presented by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists and the Best Actress award at the David di Donatello Awards, where the film also won other two awards. The film also received a nomination for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Stealing Beauty (Io Ballo Da Sola) by Bernardo Bertolucci (1996)
The Last Tango in Paris’ filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci presented Italian cinema history with yet another striking coming-of-age tale of formation and sentimental growth. This melancholic and optimistic piece of work skilfully reflects on the notions of the joy of living and abandoning oneself to one’s passions.
Featuring Liv Tyler in her first leading role, the film follows Liv as 19-year-old Lucy, who goes to spend a holiday in beautiful Tuscany with her late mother’s friends. While spending some time with the group, Lucy discovers herself in ways she could have never imagined.
Taking advantage of the charming surrounding of Tuscany, Bertolucci’s lingering on the sunsets was just the perfect addition to the film. It is worth meeting that the film was an international co-production between Italy, France, and the UK.
Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) by Roberto Benigni (1997)
Saving the best for last, here comes one of the most celebrated movies in Italian cinema history, we are of course, talking about La Vita è Bella, a bittersweet film directed and starring Roberto Benigni, who also co-wrote it along with Vincenzo Cerami. The most ambitious and internationally known film of Roberto Benigni presented an intimist tale that gracefully managed to transform one of the most devastating historical pages of the 20th century.
Setting in a Nazi concentration camp, Roberto Benigni’s film glides from comedy to drama following the story of a Jewish bookstore owner who uses his imagination to create a world where Life is Beautiful for his son to escape the hard conditions of the camp they are living in.
The film tackles the gruesome Holocaust with a delicacy capable of blurring into poetry, shifting the focus from the horror of extermination to the courage of a humanity that does not want to see its dignity trampled underfoot in order to continue hoping for a better future. The film had its debut in 1997, and it was such a box-office success, becoming one of the highest-grossing non-English language films of all time, and it holds 2nd place after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the highest-grossing foreign language film in the US.
The commercial success was matched by critical acclaim and awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor for Roberto Benigni and Best Soundtrack, and it was nominated for four other awards. The film also won eight David di Donatello Awards, a César award for Best Foreign Film, a BAFTA for Best Film Actor in a Leading Role, a Grand Prise at the Cannes Film Festival and a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival!
It’s worth noting that not everyone agreed with Benigni’s narrative, as the film received some criticism for using comedy to address such a painful matter related to the Holocaust. Regardless of the different opinions, Life is Beautiful remains funny, tender, and touching in making fun of the evil ogres while pushing the viewer to a dutiful moment of reflection.
It is crazy what ten years can do to an industry like the 1990s did to Italian cinema history. Like in many other countries, the 1990s films have been a wild chapter in Italian cinema history. While we may still miss the gems from the golden age of Italian cinema history, we can’t deny the impact of the 1990s and the provoking and moving films that decade left behind in Italian cinema history.