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How to virtually visit Italy through movies

Last updated on January 19, 2023

The coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to all domestic and international travel. We still don’t know how and when we will be able to go back to our travel habits or to a new way of travelling. It’s now hard to define how the whole travel industry will look like when the pandemic will be over and the only things we are still allowed to do is to enjoy foreign and local destinations through the internet. Travel bloggers and vloggers, influencers and opinion leaders in the tourism field are sharing pictures and posts of their pre-pandemic experiences but there is a more entertaining way to get to know a bit more about what to enjoy in Italy: movies.

The Golden Age of Italian Cinema

Itay and its natural and architectural wonders has been the set of countless movies: from the romantic comedies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Only You to action movies like The Tourist and the Netflix recently released 6 Underground.

However a tour of Italy and its landscapes should start with the neorealism movies which officially launched Italian cinema on an international scale. A few years before Federico Fellini and his Dolcevita, Roberto Rossellini had significantly contributed to the so-called “golden age of Italian Cinema”. It was in 1945 when a masterpiece like Rome Open City was released and just a year later in 1946 it was followed by Paisan entirely shot in locations like Naples, the Amalfi coast and the banks of the Po river. Rosselini’s movies became so popular, and actually more popular in the United States than Italy, that a star like Ingrid Bergman wrote a letter to the Italian director asking to work for him. She later had three children with Rosselini, one of them being Isabella, the iconic actress of movies like Blue Velvet. Ingrid Bergman starred for Rossellini in movies like Stromboli (1950) shot on the volcanic island off the coast of Sicily and Journey to Italy (1954) a love letter to Naples, its landmarks and its surroundings.

While Bergman and Rossellini where enjoying their time together both professionally and romantically ( this last thing was actually a huge scandal given that they were both married when everything started…) one of Rossellini’s screenwriters on Rome Open City and Paisan, Federico Fellini, was shooting as a director some of its most famous masterpieces. I Vitelloni (1953) the story of a group of young men and their lives in Rimini, Fellini’s hometown on the Adriatic coast of Italy. International fame came a year later when in 1954 La Strada was released. Shot between the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, La Strada is to this date probably the most acclaimed of Fellini’s movies and featured his wife Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. In 1957 La Strada won the Oscar as Best Foreing Language Film and in 1956 Rome is the main set of The Nights of Cabiria which brought the second Oscar to Fellini a year later (1958). In 1960 another movie which will make the history of cinema was directed by the maestro. It is La Dolce Vita which features the iconic scene in the Trevi Fountain with Sylvia (portrayed by Swedish actress Anita Ekberg) saying “Marcello, come here!”. Rome is again the main character among the main characters of the movie 8 and 1/2, the third win at the Oscar for Fellini.

The international fame achieved by both Rossellini and Fellini had the two directors, their actors and Italian cinema to be widely known and appreciated. In those years “dolcevita” is no longer just the title of a film but becomes a term for identifying all that is Italian. The walks along the Tiber, the outdoor cafes, the monuments, the food and the Italian culture arouse great interest in the overseas public so as to bring large American productions to the cinecittà studios a.k.a. Hollywood on the Tiber. In addition to great costume films such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, there is a title from those years that most of all represents Italy as seen from the United States: Roman Holiday (1953). A movie that features some of the most famous landmarks of the Eternal city: from the Spanish steps to the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and Castel Sant’Angelo.

A new era for Italy, a new era for cinema

The great social changes that characterize the 60s and 70s bring filmmaking productions to change radically. The stories to tell in those years are different and Italian cinema adapts to the new social condition.

In those years some films not particularly known abroad but which served as an inspiration for directors of the caliber of Quentin Tarantino came out. In the 70s, in fact, were released films like The violent professionals/Milano Trembles : the police want justice (1973) and Almost Human/Milano hates: the police cannot shoot (1974). Two particularly violent films that recall the detective genre particularly in vogue in those years and that include among their settings monuments, streets and squares of cities such as Milan itself but also Novara and Bergamo. These titles that will become cult movies over the years are preceded by a masterpiece of the genre: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). Particularly significant film in a context like Italy in the early 70s troubled by the violent protests of the “anni di piombo” (lead years). The whole story takes place in Rome and scene were shot at the Pantheon and the elegant palazzos of Via del Tempio.

These are accompanied by other masterpieces such as The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1970) set among the many marvels of Ferrara like the San Giorgio Cathedral, the Castle and Palazzo dei Diamanti or Pasqualino Sette Bellezze/ Seven Beauties (1975) that will bring its director Lina Wertmuller to be the first woman nominated for an Oscar, an award that will only come almost half a century later as a career award. The film once again has the Gulf of Naples among its main characters.

The “new” Italian directors

The aftermath of the youth protest and the crisis of the factories are told in the early 80s in the film Three Brothers (1981) which leads the protagonists (and the spectator) to visit their native land Puglia. While San Miniato, in the surroundings of Pisa, is the main set of one of the most acclaimed movies by the Taviani brothers: The Night of San Lorenzo (1982). Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore is entirely set in his native Sicily. A land which will be featured in many of his movies like Baaria (2009) named after his home town in Sicily. Giuseppe Tornatore belongs to that group of directors that between the late 80s and 90s will shape the new era of Italian cinema. With him, Gabriele Salvatores, Academy Award winner in 1992 for Mediterraneo (1991) who in 2014 will shoot Italy in a day, an astonshing documentary about life in Italy. Italian cinema gains again international recognition with Life is Beautiful (1997) just before the new millenium. The moving story of a child and his father in a concentration camp will be awarded with three Oscars in 1999 and takes entrely place in the Tuscan countryside.

The 21st Century of Italian Cinema

The 2000s have brought to the silver screen many Italian movies which feature the beauty of Italy. Among the many titles available one not to be missed is for sure Nuovomondo (2006) by Emanuele Crialese. The story of a family living Sicily for the new world. The island of Linosa (Sicily) is then the main set of another movie by Crialese Terraferma (2011). I Am Love (2009) by Luca Guadagnino tells the story of a rich Milanese family housed in the majestic Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan. In 2013 Paolo Sorrentino directs The Great Beauty, a portrait of 2000s Rome and a tribute to that movie that brings us back to the beginning of this post: La Dolcevita.

Italian cinema thus becomes a mean to allow the international audience to know more about the beauty of Italy. A task certainly entrusted to Italian directors and producers but which, as in the case of the masterpiece with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, is also taken on by foreign directors. It would be almost impossible to list in a single post all the movies who had scenes in the marvellous scenery that Italy has to offer ( we did not include movie like The Gattopardo, The Postman or the entire Pasolini’s filmography…) but we will give it a try! Below is a non-exhaustive list of international films that have chosen Italy as one of the locations. If you know others, comment on this post, we would be happy to add them!

International films shot in Italy

Stranger on the prowl (1952), Taranto, Livorno, Pisa

The barefoot contessa (1954), Tivoli, Sanremo and Portofino

Come September (1961), Milan, Portofino, Cinque Terre, Rome

The agony and the ecstasy (1965), Rome

The Italian Job (1969), Turin

Avanti! (1972), Rome, Sorrento, Capri

The Godfather – Part I (1972), Messina

The Godfather – Part II (1974), Messina and Trieste

Obsession (1976), Florence

A Room with a view (1985), Florence

Ladyhawke (1985), Cremona, Parma, Piacenza and Massa Carrara

The Godfather – Part III (1990), Viterbo, Messina, Palermo

Hudson Hawk (1991), Rome

Enchanted April (1992), Portofino

Cliffhanger (1993), Trentino Alto Adige and the Dolomites

Only You (1994), Venice and the Amalfi coast

Stealing Beauty (1996), Siena and its surroundings

The English patient (1996), Trieste, Forte dei Marmi, Pisa

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Naples and its Gulf, Venice, Palermo

Tea with Mussolini (1999), Florence

Between Calmness and Passion (2001), Florence and Milan

Hannibal (2001), Florence

The Italian Job (2003), Venice, Trentino Alto Adige and lake Fedaja

My house in Umbria (2003), Rome, Siena and Tuscany

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003), Rome

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), Cortona and Montepulciano (Siena)

Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Rome and lake Como

Shadows in the sun (2005), Tuscany

Casino Royale (2006), Venice lake Como

Quantum of Solace (2008), Siena, lake Garda, Potenza and Matera

The International (2009), Milan

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009), Montepulciano (Siena)

Nine (2009), Rome, Sutri

Angels & Demons (2009), Rome and Caserta

Eat, Pray, Love (2010), Rome and Naples

The American (2010), L’Aquila, Rome

The Tourist (2010), Venice

When in Rome (2010), Rome

Letters to Juliet (2010), Verona, Siena and lake Garda

To Rome with love (2012), Rome

A bigger splash (2015), Pantelleria

Avenger – Age of Ultron (2015), Aosta and the Bard Fortress

Magic Card (2015), Milan

007 – Spectre (2015), Rome

Inferno (2016), Venice and Florence

Call me by your name (2017), Crema

6 Underground (2019), Florence, Rome, Taranto, Siena

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