The glamor, the drama, the passion.
There’s nothing like a classic Italian film to grab you by the heart.
You used to have to find a video store with a good foreign language section or an art cinema with an Italian movie night to catch one of these fascinating films. But of course today, the best of Italian film is only a few clicks away.
In this article, we’ll show you some of Italy’s most important films, directors and actors of the 20th century—all available for streaming online. Best of all, not only will these movies teach you about Italian culture, history and art, but they’ll also help you learn Italian like the locals use it—wild hand gestures included.
So pour yourself a glass of Sangiovese, set the subtitles to Italian and let’s get comfy for an Italian movie night.
Common Themes in Classic Italian Films
American classic films that take place in Italy, such as “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, focus on the beautiful sights and settings much more than classic Italian films. Films by Italian directors focus on daily life, struggles and situations. That means these films offer a lesson in Italian culture and perspectives.
In contrast to Roman Holiday, “Roma Città Aperta” and “Accattone” (both of which we’ll cover below) are two films set in Rome that feature almost no, or very few, famous landmarks. Whether it’s bombed out ruins, the vast countryside or the slums on the edge of civilized society, classic Italian films have a very different view of Italy as a setting when compared to American films set in Italy during the same period.
Another important theme among classic Italian films is complicated relationships between men and women. The films on this list were made before the sexual revolution, feminism and the legalization of divorce in Italy in 1970.
Before 1970, marriage was truly forever and bound by conservative religious morality. In short, it was boring. Not very interesting film material. Therefore, the relationships depicted in many classic films feature some form of extramarital affair or prostitution.
Perhaps because of the nature of marriage at this time, the prostitute has emerged as a character type of central importance in classic Italian film. These characters walk a fine line between exploitation and sexual freedom. And while they’re clearly disadvantaged, they often exhibit extreme strength, resilience and cleverness in the face of adversity.
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5 Classic Italian Films You Can Stream Online Tonight
“Roma città aperta” (“Rome Open City”)
War drama directed by Roberto Rossellini, 1945. Watch on Amazon.
No other film brings you so close to the events of World War II like “Roma Città Aperta.” It takes place during the Nazi occupation after Rome was declared an “open city” in 1943. The film centers on a group of resistance fighters who try to avoid Nazi detection as they work to thwart the fascists through guerrilla warfare. It features Anna Magnani, one of the greats of Italian neorealist cinema.
“Roma Città Aperta” features one of the most famous scenes in the history of Italian cinema. At the very end, a group of schoolboys walks silently across a view of St. Peter’s Basilica after their teacher has been murdered by the Nazis. This sole shot of a Roman monument is a moving testament to the Italian spirit being reborn out of the ashes of war. In the end, Rome, the eternal city, still stands.
This film is a good one for beginners to start out with. Many of the characters, especially the Germans, speak Italian very clearly and slowly. You’ll also encounter the Roman dialect, which tends to cut off the ends of words.
In this clip we see Pina (Magnani), a resistance member, talking with her fiancé about the future.
“Matrimonio all’italiana” (“Marriage Italian Style”)
Comedy/drama directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1964. Watch on Amazon.
“Matrimonio all’ Italiana” stars two of Italy’s greatest actors, Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In this comedy-drama, the line between the exploitative nature of prostitution and the true affection that might grow out of such a relationship is tested to the limit.
Filumena (Loren) is a beautiful but uneducated prostitute. Domenico (Mastroianni) is a rich playboy who supports her financially. Filumena is dependent on Domenico. He provides her with a glamorous and fun life. He even moves her into his mansion, but in a separate room.
When she hears the news that Domenico is going to marry someone else, she hatches a plot for him to marry her instead. In this clip, Domenico and Filumena have just been declared husband and wife and she shows her new status by helping herself to whatever she wants in the fridge.
Sofia Loren is the most famous actress to come out of Napoli and she speaks with a heavy Neapolitan accent. In some parts of the film, especially parts where she interacts with her children, she’s speaking in full Neapolitan dialect. Though this dialect is quite hard to understand, it’s interesting to hear how rich and varied dialects can be throughout Italy.
“Le notti di Cabiria” (“Nights of Cabiria”)
Comedy/drama directed by Federico Fellini, 1957. Watch on Amazon.
“Nights of Cabiria” is a drama directed by Federico Fellini. You may recognize the work of Fellini from his classic film “La Dolce Vita,” (or at least from the image of a voluptuous blonde dancing in the Trevi fountain). Fellini’s films, while often glamorous, also dive into some dark aspects of Italian society.
“Nights of Cabiria” is about a cheerful and optimistic streetwalker named Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) looking for love in all the wrong places. Her diminutive stature and sweet expression are played off against her explosive character.
While the reality of her life is harsh, her uncrushable spirit allows her to overcome the men that take advantage of her again and again. Despite her lot in life, she has a strong sense of self-worth that she defends to the very end.
The way that the characters talk to one another is often highly emotional and dramatic. While watching, pay attention to the hand gestures the characters use to emphasize their words. Examples can be seen in this clip. These hand gestures, i gesti, are important parts of Italian non-verbal communication that are as ingrained in the language as the actual words.
Drama directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961. Watch on Amazon.
On this list, we’ve encountered two characters engaged in prostitution. “Accattone” shows the profession from another point of view. Vittorio, nicknamed Accattone (a Roman slang term meaning “vagabond” or “beggar”) is a pimp. Pimping allows him to survive despite the damage it’s done to his reputation.
When a woman who works for him is arrested, he’s forced to take a good hard look in the mirror about what he’s doing with his life. He tries to get engaged in honest work and do right by the girlfriend and son he abandoned. But living an honest life is hard and he soon finds himself going back to pimping.
This film is set in the vast high-rise suburbs of Rome when they were still largely construction sites. In the ’60s they were being built on the slums that once occupied that area. This creates a surreal, unfinished effect. One feels as if it’s hard to determine one’s identity and purpose in such a place. And the setting mirrors Vittorio’s struggle.
In this film, characters speak with a Roman accent. You’ll hear it in this clip, where Vittorio tries to pick up a naive, poor woman and lure her into a life on the streets.
“Riso amaro” (“Bitter Rice”)
Drama/crime directed by Giuseppe de Santis, 1949. Watch on Amazon.
“Riso Amaro” shows the lives of female migrant agricultural workers. It takes place in the Po Valley in northern Italy, where poor farmers’ daughters gathered every year to harvest the rice crop. Two criminals, Francesca and Walter, are laying low by blending in with these workers. Francesca gets a job working the rice fields while Walter hatches a plot to steal the rice crop.
Along the way, they meet Silvana, a rice worker, and Marco, a soldier who has a crush on Silvana. Spurning Marco, Silvana becomes attracted to Walter and his exciting criminal lifestyle. For Silvana, this is preferable to back-breaking work in the fields. Francesca and Marco then try to stop Walter’s plot and stop Silvana from making the horrible mistake of getting caught up in Walter’s web of lies.
In this clip, we see the women on their first day of work at the rice field. Silvana leads the documented workers in song, aiming to drive the illegals, the “clandestine,” from the field. Francesca responds with her own song, about how the clandestine will work even harder and earn their place in the field.
These classic films offer excellent food for thought about Italian post-war society. By observing the characters, settings and situations in these films, you can gain a more nuanced view of Italian society and culture. It’s also a fun way to improve your Italian language skills.
Jesica Versichele is a writer and pasta aficionado located in The Netherlands. Say hi to her on Twitter.
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