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The Beginner's Guide to Italian Cinema

Updated on May 1, 2008

When I owned a video store, customers sometimes asked which films to watch to get acquainted with the major foreign directors. These are my humble recommendations for becoming literate in classic Italian films, and sounding oh so smart at the next cocktail party.


Vittorio DeSica's 1948 masterpiece is the best example of Italian neo-realism (which celebrated the everyday life of the working class), used to appear on Top 10 lists regularly, and is often referred to in other movies. With a cast of unknowns, the simple plot revolves around an unemployed father who depends on his bicycle for a new job, only to have it stolen. The father and young son spend the rest of the movie searching for his bicycle, and his faith.

8 1/2
8 1/2

Federico Fellini

The granddaddy of Italian cinema directed his first film in 1950, and established Italy as a force in international cinema during the 1960s. Many of his films are a combination of fantasy and tragedy. His two most famous films center on a man struggling with his emotional limitations while surrounded by beautiful women. Both star Marcello Mastroianni

La Dolce Vita (1961) Translated into English as The Sweet Life, this film follows a society newspaper reporter through seven nights of basement nightclubs, upper class parties, and even entertaining a starlet for the night. At the same time, he is coping with his depressed fiance and trying to make sense of all the craziness around him.

8 ½ (1963) The protagonist (leading character) is a film director who can't come up with an idea for his next film, which has already been cast. While viewing the film, keep in mind that many of the scenes are childhood flashbacks or fantasies, and be ready for lots of big hats.

Other recommended viewing:

Amarcord (1974)

Fellini Satyricon (1970)

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

La Strada (1956)


Michelangelo Antonioni

Antonioni is a very gifted artist whose films leave the viewer feeling like she has seen something very special. While the Swedish director Bergman offers philosophical depth and Fellini offers visual style, Antonioni's films are each a work of art possessing a quality that is very difficult to put into words, much like a great painting. The movies are somewhat challenging to understand, and their appreciation requires a developed sensibility. Some people simply find them slow and boring.

Blowup (1966) The first movie shot in English by the director, this film is renowned for its portrayal of the mod lifestyle in 1960s London. David Hemmings plays a photographer who inadvertently catches clues to a murder on film. Antonioni is true to his own personal vision of filmmaking, crafting an amazing art film that isn't distracted by false hollow. Remade by Brian De Palma as Blow Out in 1981.

La Notte (1961) A writer (Mastroianni) and his wife (Jeanne Moreau) visit a dying friend in the hospital, then inwardly contemplate their marriage while attending a book signing, wandering the streets, drinking at a night club, and hitting a millionaire's all-night party. Antonioni's aesthetics of alienation and carefully framed shots are already present in this early work, especially in the gray walls of rectangles and vertical stripes repeated throughout the first half.

Other recommended viewing:

Zabriskie Point (1970) Also in English, set among student protests and Death Valley.

The Passenger (1975) Starring Jack Nicholson, this film is widely regarded as one of Antonioni's best works, and was finally released on DVD in 2006.

Red Desert (1964) A neurotic woman struggles to find meaning in life while coping with the pressures of modern society.


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