Often called The Eternal City, Rome offers the enduring lure of historical monuments such as the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Colosseum, as well as the romance of low-rise homes and charming alleys. Numerous Hollywood movies, from Roman Holiday to The Talented Mr Ripley, have cast the city in a starring role, but Rome has also given birth to something else just as valuable: talented Italian filmmakers who drew inspiration from the streets of the Italian capital to produce some of the most revered European films in cinematic history. Their styles and storylines capture the different facets of Rome, as well as reflect the many cultural and social changes, both challenging and uplifting, that its residents have lived through.
1. Roma, città aperta (1945) by Roberto Rossellini
The Italian neorealism film movement emerged from the rubble of World War II. A lack of funds meant rather than featuring elaborate stage sets and glamorous narratives, using on-location shooting and non-professional actors to tell gritty, true-to-life stories came to the forefront. From the famous Piazza di Spagna at the foot of the Spanish Steps (in the opening scene) to the sprawling Prenestino neighbourhood, witness Rome from a bygone era. Considered a pioneer of this golden era in filmmaking, Rossellini’s film portrays the hardships of wartime survival through the eyes of a resilient resistance leader. Even today, the film acts as a memorial to Italians who suffered under Nazi occupation.
2. 8½ (1963) by Federico Fellini
As the Italian economy gradually recovered from the effects of war, Italian neorealism took a backseat, and movies became more comedic and surreal. In this one, charming protagonist Guido Anselmi (played by one of Italy’s biggest film stars Marcello Mastroianni) journeys around the city while attempting to get his film made. As the numerous setbacks begin to mount, the narrative of Anselmi’s movie begins to mirror his own personal life. Fellini’s emphasis on imagery not only shows viewers a city renewed with time, but also echoes a section of Roman society obsessed with a new sense of aestheticism. From Tivoli to Filacciano, Fellini takes us beyond the city centre to show that there’s more to Rome than meets the eye.
3. Tenebrae (1982) by Dario Argento
An American murder-mystery writer visits Rome to promote his book, only to find himself on the hunt for a criminal who appears to be inspired by his work. While Argento was already well-known for his supernatural films such as Suspiria, Tenebrae was his formal return to pure giallo, a term ascribed to a dramatic, stylised subgenre of Italian crime fiction. Wanting a more futuristic-looking Rome, Argento eschewed the typical city locations and instead headed to the EUR, also known as the Esposizione Universale Roma, a district south of Central Rome filled with fascist-era architecture. The area was first established during Mussolini’s administration, but was only completed in the ’60s. Even if you’re not an Argento fan, the area is well worth a visit as there are many museums and sights to better understand Roman history.
4. La grande bellezza (2013) by Paolo Sorrentino
While Sorrentino was born in Naples, this art film, which won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars, really is a love letter to Rome. Within well-loved locations such as Santa Maria del Priorato church, Palazzo Braschi and the Aqueduct Park, our protagonist, aging and disillusioned journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), goes in search of “the great beauty” – an English translation of the film’s title. In a way, Sorrentino pays homage to Rossellini and Fellini, preserving a portrait of Berlusconi-era Rome and its people, who experienced growing nostalgia at a time of economic uncertainty.
5. Lazzaro felice (2018) by Alice Rohrwacher
While her cinematic forebears invented and then adhered to the rules of their respective movements, Roman-native Rohrwacher opts for a mixed approach with her tale about Italian inequity, told through impoverished tobacco farmers. While not exclusively shot in the heart of Rome, but instead set in rural Central Italy, Lazzaro felice reflects an inherently Roman state of mind: a city in conflict – where modern buildings exist alongside ancient structures (a motorcycle dealer situated opposite the Amphitheatrum Castrense in Gerusalemme, for example), and where eons of religious history go up against present-day pursuits. As a new-generation filmmaker, her third feature film essentially compounds close to a century of Roman cinema and shows you just what might be next.