The rich tapestry of Italian cinema stretches from the early 20th century through to the present day, blending art, culture, and history into a stunning visual spectacle. Often, these italian masterpieces movies provide a lens into Italy’s hidden beauties—picturesque landscapes, historic landmarks, and vibrant communities that fall outside the well-trodden tourist trail.
From the charming cobblestones of Umbria to the dramatic cliffs of Calabria, let’s uncover Italy’s hidden gems through 7 cinematic masterpieces.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
A Love Letter to Cinema and Sicily
“Cinema Paradiso” (1988) is a profoundly moving film that embodies the magic and nostalgia of the cinematic experience, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. At the same time, it is a love letter to the enchanting landscapes of Sicily, where the story unfolds.
The narrative is set in a quaint Sicilian village, Giancaldo, which Tornatore skillfully uses as a backdrop to develop the relationship between the film’s central characters – Salvatore, a successful film director reminiscing about his childhood, and Alfredo, the projectionist at the local cinema, Cinema Paradiso. The film effortlessly transitions between the past and present, weaving a narrative that is as much about the transformation of the Italian countryside as it is about Salvatore’s own personal journey.
From the outset, the village’s charm is undeniable. The intricately designed piazzas, the stone buildings with their rustic appeal, the charmingly narrow cobblestone streets, and the locals’ genuine warmth all contribute to the idyllic picture of rural Italian life.
Cinema Paradiso is situated in the heart of the village, its distinct facade standing out among the rustic Italian architecture, acting as a beacon of dreams and aspirations for the local populace. It is here that the young Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, falls in love with the magic of films, all while the gorgeous Sicilian landscape unfurls around him.
The beauty of Sicily is not confined to the village alone. The film also introduces viewers to the stunning Sicilian landscapes. Tornatore’s lens captures the picturesque countryside, the sprawling olive groves, the azure Mediterranean Sea, and the rugged Sicilian mountains, providing a stark contrast to the enclosed world of Cinema Paradiso.
Moreover, the director’s use of natural lighting gives the landscapes a dreamlike quality. Sunsets bathe the village in a warm, golden glow, highlighting the natural beauty of the stonework and architecture, while moonlit nights add an air of mystery and romance.
As Salvatore grows and eventually leaves Giancaldo, the film emphasizes the contrast between the bustling cityscapes and the tranquil beauty of his childhood village. The viewer, like Salvatore, yearns for the simplicity and charm of his earlier years, encapsulated by the stunning Sicilian scenery.
The Great Beauty (2013)
Rome Beyond the Colosseum
“The Great Beauty” (2013), directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is an ode to Rome’s undying allure. It weaves a tale of life, love, and loss, all set against the backdrop of the Eternal City’s ever-lasting charm. The narrative, which follows a worldly 65-year-old writer, Jep Gambardella, is as much a journey through Rome’s breathtaking landscapes as it is a journey through the protagonist’s introspection.
The film opens with a lavish party on Jep’s rooftop apartment overlooking the Colosseum. The location serves as a symbol of Rome’s grandeur and historical importance. However, Sorrentino is not content to merely showcase the city’s well-known landmarks. He takes the viewer off the beaten path, into the hidden corners of Rome that are often overlooked but just as mesmerizing.
As Jep wanders through the city in search of the elusive “great beauty,” Sorrentino’s lens captures the city in all its magnificent detail. The film showcases the winding, narrow streets of Rome’s historic center, the vibrant Trastevere district with its lively piazzas, and the lush gardens of Villa Borghese, each scene beautifully framed to highlight Rome’s timeless elegance.
The film also explores Rome’s artistic heritage, featuring the grandeur of Palazzo Spada and the haunting beauty of the ancient Roman aqueducts in the Parco degli Acquedotti. Even Rome’s modern side is not ignored, with a rare glimpse into the bustling nightlife along the banks of the Tiber River.
There’s a particularly mesmerizing scene where Jep sails down the Tiber River, the city’s lights reflecting off the water, showcasing Rome’s beauty under the night sky. It’s a different side of Rome, quieter, more contemplative, yet equally stunning.
Another evocative scene unfolds in the early hours at the Piazza Navona, devoid of its usual crowd. As the Baroque architecture and the fountains stand in silent testimony to the city’s past glory, Jep’s loneliness and search for meaning are echoed in the deserted square.
The film also employs an exquisite use of light, casting Rome in a new glow. Dawn breaks over the city, painting the sky in hues of pink and orange, while at dusk, the setting sun bathes Rome in a soft, golden light, highlighting the exquisite textures of the city’s historic architecture.
“The Great Beauty” tells a poignant story of a man questioning his past and contemplating his future. Yet, it is also a visual love letter to Rome, celebrating its hidden corners, its vibrant life, and its timeless beauty. Sorrentino’s film is a testament to the captivating charm of Rome, a city where every corner holds a piece of history, every alleyway whispers a tale, and every piazza is a stage for life’s drama.
I Am Love (2009)
Milan’s Modern Allure
“I Am Love” (2009), directed by Luca Guadagnino, is a sensuous drama that paints a vivid picture of Milan’s distinctive allure. The film tells the story of Emma Recchi (played by Tilda Swinton), a Russian immigrant married into a wealthy Italian family, whose life takes a turn when she embarks on an affair with a young chef.
The film masterfully uses the city of Milan and the surrounding landscapes as a canvas, capturing the essence of its architectural magnificence and modern vibrancy. Guadagnino showcases a side of Milan that is often overshadowed by its reputation as a fashion capital.
The Recchi family’s mansion, a grand example of modernist architecture, serves as the backdrop for the majority of the film. The austere, minimalist design of the mansion represents the emotional detachment and the controlled environment within which Emma lives. Its grandeur is a testament to Milan’s architectural prowess and its position as a modern, forward-thinking city.
The film’s cinematography vividly captures Milan’s distinctive features, from the grand neoclassical buildings to the bustling streets filled with chic boutiques and contemporary art galleries. The urban milieu is strikingly contrasted with the serene beauty of the countryside, particularly when Emma escapes to San Remo.
San Remo, with its lush landscapes and tranquil surroundings, provides the perfect setting for Emma’s awakening. The scenes in San Remo are filled with verdant hills, blooming orchards, and the sparkling azure of the Ligurian Sea. The contrast between the frenzied pace of Milan and the peaceful tranquility of San Remo is stark, symbolizing Emma’s transition from a rigid, controlled existence to one of passion and freedom.
A particularly memorable scene unfolds at a remote waterfall in the countryside. The vibrant colors of the landscape, the sound of rushing water, and the captivating natural beauty surrounding Emma and her lover Antonio encapsulate the newfound sensuality and liberation Emma experiences.
As the film moves towards its climax, the city of Milan transforms. Winter descends, and the city is shrouded in snow. The Recchi mansion, once imposing and cold, appears softer, almost ethereal, under the blanket of white. The change in the city’s landscape mirrors the transformation within Emma, signifying a fresh start.
“I Am Love” is not just a tale of personal liberation and passion; it’s a visually stunning exploration of contrasting landscapes. From the modern grandeur of Milan to the natural splendor of San Remo, the film captures the multi-faceted beauty of Italy, providing a window into its architectural triumphs and serene landscapes.
Life is Beautiful (1997)
The Historic City of Arezzo
“Life is Beautiful” (1997) is a deeply moving film directed by Roberto Benigni that brilliantly juxtaposes the idyllic charm of pre-war Italy with the harsh realities of the Holocaust. The narrative follows the life of Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian bookshop owner, whose infectious optimism and imagination shield his son from their grim reality when they are taken to a concentration camp.
In the first half of the film, we are introduced to Arezzo, a picturesque Tuscan city. Benigni paints a captivating picture of 1930s Italy, using the city’s historic beauty to set the stage for the developing love story between Guido and Dora. Arezzo’s charm lies in its stunning medieval structures, winding cobbled streets, and vibrant squares, all bathed in the warm glow of the Tuscan sun.
As Guido whimsically courts Dora, the camera pans across the cityscape, showcasing the grand Piazza Grande, the steeply rising streets, and the Gothic-style buildings, their architectural detail highlighted in the soft, natural light. Arezzo’s beauty serves as a poignant backdrop to their blossoming romance and the joyous life Guido builds despite the looming political changes.
There’s a memorable scene where Guido and Dora ride a green horse through the city streets. The sequence, filled with laughter and joy, beautifully captures the essence of Arezzo, with its historic charm and lively atmosphere.
The film then transitions to the grim reality of the concentration camp. The stark contrast between the bleak, oppressive camp and the earlier idyllic scenes of Arezzo underscores the horror of the situation. The camp, devoid of color and life, starkly contrasts with the warm, vibrant hues of Arezzo, intensifying the sense of loss and displacement.
However, even in the grimness of the camp, Guido’s imagination creates a vision of beauty for his son. Through his stories, Guido paints vivid mental images of the Italian landscape, invoking the lush green Tuscan hills, the vibrant city life, and the simple pleasures of home. These imagined landscapes serve as a beacon of hope, a reminder of the world beyond the camp’s fences.
“Life is Beautiful” is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love and imagination. While the film centers around a tragic period of history, it begins by immersing viewers in the enchanting beauty of pre-war Arezzo. This contrast makes the film’s narrative even more impactful, as it underscores what was lost during this horrific time.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Northern Italy’s Countryside Elegance
“Call Me By Your Name” (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino, is a compelling coming-of-age romance that unfolds in the sun-drenched landscapes of Northern Italy. Set in the 1980s, the film traces the budding relationship between Elio, a 17-year-old boy, and Oliver, a 24-year-old graduate student who comes to stay with Elio’s family for the summer.
The film is set in Lombardy, a region known for its lush countryside, serene lakes, and historic towns. Guadagnino captures the essence of an Italian summer in the countryside, using the backdrop to mirror the intensity and evanescence of Elio and Oliver’s relationship.
The Perlman family villa, an idyllic 17th-century mansion, is surrounded by verdant orchards and scenic countryside, offering a sense of tranquility and timelessness. The rustic charm of the villa, with its sunlit rooms filled with books and music, adds a layer of warmth and familiarity to the narrative.
Guadagnino’s camera revels in the languid Italian summer, highlighting the lush greenery, the orchards heavy with ripe fruit, and the endless fields of grass swaying in the breeze. These vibrant, sun-soaked settings beautifully echo the sweetness and heat of Elio and Oliver’s burgeoning romance.
The film also makes wonderful use of the region’s water bodies. From the cool, inviting waters of the local river to the serene expanse of Lake Garda, these scenes serve as crucial turning points in Elio and Oliver’s relationship. One memorable scene is their swim in the crystal-clear waters of the river, surrounded by nature in all its untouched beauty, where their connection deepens.
The town of Crema, with its narrow, cobbled streets, charming cafes, and historic piazzas, provides a picturesque setting for the characters’ explorations. Guadagnino captures the town’s quiet beauty, juxtaposing the ancient, timeless architecture with the vibrant, youthful energy of Elio and Oliver.
The film’s climax takes the pair to Bergamo, set amidst the Alpine landscapes. The misty mountains and narrow winding streets of the city mark a contrast to the sunny openness of the villa, reflecting the bittersweet end of their summer romance.
“Call Me By Your Name” is as much a love letter to the northern Italian countryside as it is a story of first love and self-discovery. The film uses the stunning Italian landscapes to reflect the characters’ emotional states, making the setting an integral part of the narrative. The beauty of Lombardy serves as a silent observer to Elio and Oliver’s relationship, making their story all the more poignant and memorable.
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The Best of Youth (2003)
An Epic Journey Through Italy
“The Best of Youth” (2003), directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, is an epic Italian film that spans over four decades, following the lives of two brothers, Nicola and Matteo Carati. This six-hour-long saga is not just a story about family, love, and political unrest; it is also a scenic journey through the diverse landscapes of Italy, from the bustling streets of Rome to the pristine beauty of the Italian Alps and the sun-kissed coasts of Sicily.
The narrative begins in Rome in the mid-1960s. The city, steeped in history and brimming with life, serves as a vibrant backdrop to the brothers’ early years. The film captures the city’s lively streets, its historic buildings, the hustle and bustle of the cafes, and the iconic landmarks such as the Colosseum and Piazza Navona. Rome’s charm and vivacity mirror the youthful optimism and passion of the characters.
The film beautifully contrasts Rome’s urban scenes with the tranquil beauty of the Italian Alps, where Matteo and Nicola embark on a summer trip. The mountains’ majesty, the lush green valleys, and the serene, placid lakes are depicted in all their glory, evoking a sense of peace and freedom. These scenes are a visual representation of the brothers’ bond and their shared dreams and aspirations before their paths diverge.
As the narrative progresses, the plot takes us to the sunny island of Sicily. Giordana captures the island’s unique beauty, showcasing the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the quaint coastal towns, and the island’s distinct, vibrant culture. The scenes in Sicily, particularly in Palermo, add a new dimension to the narrative, highlighting the stark contrast between the North and South of Italy, both in terms of landscape and socio-economic conditions.
The film also takes us to Norway, where Nicola works for a period. The cold, austere beauty of the Norwegian landscape, with its snow-covered mountains and icy waters, provides a stark contrast to the warm, sunlit scenery of Italy. The director uses these contrasting landscapes to mirror the emotional states of the characters and the turmoil they experience.
As the film moves through the decades, it showcases the changing Italian landscapes, reflecting the socio-political changes that the country undergoes. From the urban development in Rome to the modernization of the rustic Sicilian countryside, the film uses these visual cues to indicate the passage of time.
Il Postino (1994)
The Idyllic Island of Salina
“Il Postino: The Postman” (1994), directed by Michael Radford, is a touching tale of friendship and love, set against the backdrop of a picturesque Italian island. The story revolves around a humble postman, Mario Ruoppolo, who forms an unlikely friendship with the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, leading him to discover the power of poetry and love.
The film is set on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, an area known for its vibrant natural beauty and serene landscapes. The director, Michael Radford, masterfully captures the island’s charm and uses it as a canvas to paint Mario’s simple yet profound journey.
Procida, with its colorful houses, narrow cobbled streets, and clear, blue waters, is a character in its own right in the film. The camera lovingly showcases the island’s sun-bathed piazzas, the quaint fishing boats bobbing in the harbor, and the narrow paths flanked by brightly painted houses. The tranquil beauty of the island mirrors Mario’s simple and unassuming life.
A pivotal aspect of the film is Mario’s daily bicycle ride to deliver mail to Neruda. These sequences allow for breathtaking panoramic views of the island’s landscape – the green vineyards, the expansive sea, and the distant Vesuvius. The changing seasons, from the sunny summers to the cooler, more reflective winters, are beautifully portrayed, adding depth to the narrative.
The beach, where Mario often meets Neruda, is another significant location. With its turquoise waters and pebble-strewn sands, it is a place of tranquility and inspiration. Mario’s transformation from a shy postman to a confident lover under Neruda’s tutelage is beautifully juxtaposed with the serene beauty of the beach.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film is Mario’s solitary rowboat trip at night, with the calm sea reflecting the starlit sky. This scene underscores Mario’s loneliness and longing, with the vast sea echoing his deep emotions.
“Il Postino: The Postman” is a film that celebrates the power of poetry and the magic of love. Yet, it is also a visual tribute to the enchanting beauty of Procida. The island’s serene landscapes and quaint charm become an integral part of the narrative, reflecting the characters’ emotions and enhancing the film’s poetic feel. The cinematography captures the Italian island’s essence, making “Il Postino” not only a captivating story but also a cinematic journey through one of Italy’s hidden gems.