In terms of box office, Italian films and cinema have historically suffered from the domination of France and then the United States. In terms of the success of its genres, cinema experienced a flourishing period in the 1910s. On the artistic level, many of its films were internationally acclaimed from World War II to the mid-1970s.
Between going up and down, the Italian cinema, like everything in beautiful Italy, is truly worthy of attention. In this article, we dig deep into Italian cinema and films and how they started and where they are now.
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History of Italian Cinema
The history of Italian cinema begins with the French Lumière brothers, who invented the Cinématographe motion picture system & projector. The Lumière brothers were also behind what many believe to be the first projected film ever in 1895.
An associate of the Lumière brothers, Vittorio Calcina, regarded by many as the first Italian filmmaker, was behind the first projected film in Italy; the short documentary Umberto and Margherita of Savoy Strolling Through the Park.
In the following year, 1896, the first Italian film saw the light of day with the invention of the cinematic device, the “kinetograph,” by the pioneer camera operator and director Filoteo Alberini.
Filoteo Alberini was also the helmer of the first Italian feature film, La Presa di Roma (The Capture of Roma). The film was released in 1905 and featured only seven scenes—can you believe it?
Like everywhere else, the first films were usually documentaries, not like the ones we know today, of course, but rather a few silent seconds. However, each period in the history of Italian cinema had its own features. Following is a brief timeline of the growth of Italian cinema and genres.
The First Twenty Years
The capital of Italian cinema was Turin; it was kind of Italy’s Hollywood. Several successful production companies were located in Turin. The films produced in the 1910s were of the historical-mythological genre, and they enjoyed international success thanks to the complexity of the staging.
Another successful genre then was social drama, or the so-called diva films, featuring household names like Francesca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, and Lina Cavalieri.
However, the 1920s were a different story, as the woes of World War I impacted the Italian cinema industry greatly. This resulted in the production of fewer successful films during this time compared to the earlier years.
Cinema Under Fascism
The Fascist dictatorship knew cinema’s power, so they decided to use it to promote Fascist values worldwide. Many propaganda or historical revision films were produced at the time.
From an artistic point of view, it was not a happy period, but the regime, in order to use the cinema as a propaganda tool, did not skimp on investment; many new productions companies were established during this time, including the world-famous Cinecittà Studios.
The Italian cinema found its way to the top under fascism; the first Italian film with sound was released during that time, titled La Canzone Dell’amore (The Song of Love) by Gennaro Righelli in 1930.
Also, during that time, one of the most prestigious festivals, the Venice Film Festival, came to life, with the first edition being held in 1932.
The end of the Second World War and the enthusiasm aroused by the liberation and the Resistance facilitated the development of a highly innovative film movement, in terms of themes and style, that had worldwide resonance—neorealism.
Neorealism helped in the rebirth of Italian cinema with many memorable works that put Italian cinema on the international map, like Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), released in 1945.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, in a climate of social unrest, Italian films started to reflect on the individual and his/her relationship with society with an original style and points of view.
The films presented new themes, showing how everything is improving economically and socially. The filmmakers opted to make more comedy films. This period in the history of Italian cinema was later called neorealismo rosa (pink neorealism). A great example of this time was Luigi Comencini’s Pane, Amore e Fantasia (Bread, Love, and Dreams), released in 1953.
The 1950s-1970s: New Society, New Genres!
Between the end of the 1950s and the mid-1970s, Italian-style comedy enjoyed extraordinary popularity; these were the golden years of Italian cinema, and not only in Italy. It was a genre that tried to fuse classic comedy with social criticism and, in a way, offered an often-merciless analysis of the limitations and problems of the economic boom in Italy.
The 1950s also witnessed the inception of the Italian genre known as “peplum” or “sword and sandal,” which focused on historical and mythological stories. As for the 1960s, the famous Spaghetti Westerns, Western films directed by Italian filmmakers, came to life.
The renowned Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone is celebrated as the pioneer of Spaghetti Westerns. You can see the influence of this genre present to this day in Quentin Tarantino’s films… Now, that man knows how to make good films!
Like in many other countries, the 1960s and the 1970s witnessed some strong social protest movements; this was particularly intense in Italy. Part of the Italian cinema got in tune with that historical phase by making highly politicised films.
From the late 1970s to the 1990s, Italian cinema was deeply affected by the unsettling events that were taking place in the country. However, soon the Italian cinema, like the Italian society, went into a renewal phase. This phase birthed many masterpieces, like Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso) (1988), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1990. It was the first Italian film to win it in twenty years!
As for the 2000s up until now, Italian cinema continued to thrive with the production of many critically acclaimed films, like Paolo Sorrentino’s Il divo (2008) and his Academy Award winner La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013). From then on, the Italian cinematic gems keep on coming!
Best Italian Films in History (Golden Age)
The rich history of Italian cinema is full of brilliant works that managed to leave a mark on the history of the country and beyond. Coming up next, we pay tribute to the Italian cinematic works of art produced during the Italian cinema’s thriving years.
First, let’s start with the three Italian films that made it to the TIME Magazine list of best movies of all time!
8½ by Federico Fellini (1963)
Fellini’s masterpiece 8½, together with La dolce vita, is the film that consecrated the Italian director as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. It stars the director Guido, masterfully played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is the alter ego of Fellini himself.
In this autobiographical film, Fellini stages, in a fantastic way, the crisis of a man halfway through his life. The film shows the author’s fear of disappointing expectations and the difficulty of reconciling the ghosts of the past with the faces of the present.
8½ is considered by many to be the highest expression of Fellini’s art, winning the Academy Award in 1964. The film has been a source of inspiration for many American and Italian directors, from Rob Marshall, who in 2009 made a film musical with the symbolic title Nine (which also stars Sophia Loren) to Paolo Sorrentino himself, who with La Grande Bellezza clearly pays homage to Fellini’s cinema.
Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad, the Ugly) by Sergio Leone (1966)
This is one of the most famous westerns in film history. The third film of the so-called Dollar Trilogy, also known as the Trilogy of the Man with No Name, is a legendary triptych of cinema with which Sergio Leone turned the spaghetti western into a worldwide phenomenon. Yes, we are talking about THE spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, the Ugly!
For a Fistful of Dollars of 1964, For a Few Dollars More of 1965, and finally, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of 1966 are the three films that gave birth to and were the model for the development of the Italian western genre. The genre had so much fortune in the 1960s and 1970s.
Everything that we love about Sergio Leone comes from these three films: the obsessive use of close-ups, the long silences, the sound effects, the sublime soundtrack by the brilliant maestro Ennio Morricone, the beautiful sequence plans, the quotations, and the characters, starting with the absolute protagonist, the great Clint Eastwood in the role of the nameless cowboy who is very clever with a gun.
Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone (1968)
Sergio Leone is an undisputed master, and world cinema has consistently recognised this. The film is considered the apogee of the Italian West, set along the railroad that connects the two coasts of the United States and starring outlaws, adventurers, widows, and business people.
A nostalgic film about a genre that is now in its twilight years, Once Upon a Time in the West also combines a reflection on the end of an era and the advance of progress at the expense of dreams. Great actors (including the beautiful Claudia Cardinale), a great story, great shots, great soundtrack—this movie has it all. It is a visual fresco of inestimable value.
Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) by Roberto Rossellini (1945)
This 1945 film by Roberto Rossellini became the absolute landmark of the so-called neorealist movement, despite the initial critical reception that was not at all favourable. Starring Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, and Vito Annichiarico, the film received an Oscar nomination and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film is set in German-occupied Rome and shows the struggles of Italians at that time and highlights the story of the brave ones who dared to fight back!
Divorzio All’italiana (Divorce Italian Style) by Pietro Germi (1961)
Divorce Italian Style is a cinematic masterpiece made in 1961 by Pietro Germi, with the cast of Marcello Mastroianni, Lando Buzzanca, Daniela Rocca, and Stefania Sandrelli.
It is a beautiful document of what life was like in Italy at that time. It tells of the Sicilian baron Ferdinando who is married to Rosaria, a hideous and hateful woman, and loves Angela, a beautiful girl. His greatest desire to get rid of his wife becomes a reality when he catches her with another man and kills her. At the trial, he is sentenced to a light sentence, after which he marries Angela.
The film was a significant success receiving the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay. Mastroianni was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, while Germi was nominated for Best Director.
Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) by Elio Petri (1970)
This is a 1970 film by Elio Petri that tells the story of a police commissioner who kills his cheating lover. The twist here is that he didn’t bother to hide the traces of the crime so that his colleagues will be obliged to trace them back to him to see how far power protects its representatives.
The film is an Oscar award winner for best foreign film, but it, unfortunately, became almost prophetic in the political-judicial chronicles of the following decades. The cast includes Gian Maria Volonté, Florinda Bolkan, and Gianni Santuccio.
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Luchino Visconti (1963)
This 1963 historical film directed by Luchino Visconti is based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The film received an Oscar nomination, was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, and won 3 Nastri d’Argento (Silver Ribbon) awards in addition to an award at the David di Donatello Awards.
The Leopard is a beautiful portrayal of Sicily at the time of the Bourbons, in the transition to the House of Savoy with the arrival of Garibaldi. The film highlights the clash of two worlds where, as the famous quote from the novel says, “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.” The film stars Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale.
La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) by Federico Fellini (1960)
Winner of an Academy Award and four nominations, the film was also awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. It is one of Federico Fellini’s masterpieces, which has become a true cult film and is regarded worldwide as a masterpiece.
When it was first screened in public (February 1960), there was heated controversy and accusations of immorality for its merciless portrait of Italian customs and society at the time of the economic boom. The cast included Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, and the stunning Anouk Aimée.
La Grande Guerra (The Great War) by Mario Monicelli (1959)
The Academy Awards nominee The Great War is simply a masterpiece of Italian comedy. Mario Monicelli recounts the war with sarcasm, pointing out that there are not only heroes but, much more often, poor people, weaklings, and cowards, something that Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi play exceptionally well with comic and dramatic tonics.
Some critics consider this neo-realist film, along with others made during these years, a peak of Italian cinema that has not been lived up to since.
Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli (Rocco and his Brothers) by Luchino Visconti (1960)
This is the story of five brothers from Lucania who immigrated to Milan, masterfully illustrating the sufferings of southerners who left their homeland in those years to seek work in the north. The film was made in 1960 and is considered the masterwork of director Luchino Visconti, with an exceptional cast: Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, and Renato Salvatori.
Hostilised by politicians, the film was subject to severe censorship restrictions. Even in 1969, the censorship reiterated the ban on those under 18.
Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking/ The Easy Life) by Dino Risi (1962)
It is one of the masterpieces of Italian comedy during the years of the economic boom. Starring Vittorio Gassman, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Catherine Spaak, Il Sorpasso is an original cult film that portrays the society of that period with a comic but dramatic tone.
It was directed by Dino Risi and written by him with Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari, although some of the dialogue was improvised by Vittorio Gassman. The public immediately decreed its success, contrary to the film critics at the time.
I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) by Mario Monicelli (1958)
Regarded by many as the perfect example of the so-called Italian comedy, this 1958 film by Mario Monicelli is a carousel of likeable characters and comic dialogue with an extraordinary cast: Totò, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, and Claudia Cardinale. The film received an Academy Awards nomination, among other awards, and was a great success with the public.
Even today, despite the years that have passed, I soliti ignoti remains a hilarious film with some unforgettable sequences that will remain forever engraved in the history of cinema.
The films mentioned above are only a drop in the ocean of the great Italian cinema. It is worth mentioning that the challenging journey of Italian cinema has birthed some masterpieces that the audience will be grateful for forever!