Movie lovers agree the Italian film industry has created some of the best movies ever made, and these are the 10 classic Italian movies you need to see if you want to join that conversation. You’ll be rewarded with some of the highest achievements in cinema, not just by the Italians, but by anyone. Don’t worry that you’ll be bored by an bland story in a language you don’t know, the language may be strange, but these 10 movies are anything but boring.
“La Dolce Vita.” Federico Fellini, once a struggling cartoonist in WWII Italy, had become a world-renowned film director by the time he released his 1960 masterpiece. A reporter’s pursuit of empty celebrities leads him into a world where the wrong things are real. The name of his photographer pal gave us the word “paparazzi,” setting the tone for the next 50 years of journalism.
“The Bicycle Thief.” An honest man’s downfall begins when someone steals the bike he needs to make a living. Italian cinema has never shied away from the ugly truths of life, and this 1948 portrait of poverty is the classic example. Not a happy story by any stretch, but it will put a bad day in perspective.
“La Strada.” Fellini’s first international success starred his wife, Giulietta Masina, as a naïve woman enslaved by circus strongman Anthony Quinn. Quinn’s cruelty to her and clown Richard Basehart sets this tragedy-on-wheels in motion. This Oscar winner for 1956’s Best Foreign Film was a dark counterpoint to Fellini’s later masterworks.
“Nights of Cabiria.” Masina again took the leading role in Fellini’s 1957 film, and her portrayal of an unsinkable prostitute helped the movie win another Best Foreign Film Oscar. The movie’s dark view of humanity isn’t quite as hard on the heart as “La Strada” or “Bicycle Thief.” Its cheery protagonist inspired the hit Broadway musical “Sweet Charity;” Shirley Maclaine took over the role in the film version.
“Two Women.” Sophia Loren rocketed to international stardom in this 1960 film, as a woman trying desperately to keep her daughter safe in the chaotic aftermath of World War II. Her heartbreaking performance won the Best Actress Academy Award, the first given to a non-English-speaking role. Released the same year as “La Dolce Vita,” the movie managed to escape being overshadowed by the Fellini masterpiece.
“8 ½.” By 1963, Fellini could make a movie, a good movie, about anything, even about his inability to make a movie. Marcello Mastroianni, playing a conflicted genius director, became the guide to a senseless interior landscape, just as he had explored a meaningless city landscape in “La Dolce Vita.” “8 ½” won over audiences worldwide with its sense of fun and beautiful imagery, inspiring the later Broadway musical and movie “Nine.”
“The Battle of Algiers.” Released during the Vietnam era, this 1966 film was about France’s own Vietnam, Algeria. Its even-handed portrayal of atrocities on both sides made it a scathing indictment of war, but some French and Algerian viewers took it personally. Even in the 21st century, the Pentagon recommends the film as a hard look at the inner workings of insurrection.
“Cinema Paradiso.” In 1988, Italian film came back into the international forefront with this film, a critical and commercial smash hit. A celebrated director reflects on how the films of his childhood affected his adult life. “Cinema Paradiso” was a valentine to the great films of the past, Italian and otherwise.
“Mediterraneo.” Two years later, in 1990, another Italian film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, just as “Cinema Paradiso” had done. It’s another film about simple folk encountering World War II soldiers, but this time the advantage goes to the villagers. Cut off from their command, the soldiers are overcome by the town’s simple kindness, and the cruelties of combat are forgotten.
“Life Is Beautiful.” Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film takes this contrast, war vs. humanity, to its ultimate abstraction. In a Nazi concentration camp, a father uses trickery borne of love to protect his son from the horrors around them. With a controversial topic, beautiful imagery, and hard truths about the human condition, it has all the makings of a classic Italian movie.