Movies are a great way to learn more about the history of a country.
When you are learning a language or are just fascinated with a country, you may want to have a deeper knowledge of the history of that place you fell in love with or where your language of choice is spoken.
Reading history books can be a good way to acquire such knowledge, but they can be quite boring sometimes or just need too much time to be read.
Here’s when films come in handy. You can relax on your couch, spend a couple of hours of pure enjoyment – most of the time – and maybe even learn something you didn’t know about a certain period in time or about events you have just very remotely heard about.
This is why I decided to select a list of ten Italian movies which will give you a deeper insight into Italian contemporary history, basically covering a span of time between the beginning of the 20th century and our days.
I tried to include a wide variety of genres, years and events so that you can have a broader choice according to your interests and likes.
Since they are historical movies or movies where the action is set in a certain time period or focuses on certain events, don’t expect them to be light or entertaining comedies. Some of them can be quite tough – exactly as the topics they focus on, obviously – but they are all totally worth watching, in my opinion.
Let’s see what I selected for you, then.
La meglio gioventù (Best of Youth)
I can’t describe how much I loved this movie, when I first saw it. I was in love with the story, with the characters, with the setting, with everything. When it first came out, it was a four-part TV series and I remember waiting all week for the new episode to come out. It was then made into a movie and generally screened in two three-hour parts.
Don’t be scared by its length, though. It is really entertaining and will keep you hooked. It tells the story of a typical Italian family, especially focusing on the lives of two brothers, Matteo and Nicola, covering a period of time between 1966 and 2003. In this way, the main plot and the lives of the family members are constantly intertwined with the main events of contemporary Italian history. You’ll learn a lot about what happened in Italy in recent years.
This movie is a crime drama based on the novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo – it is among the 10 Italian books I recommended last summer – which was inspired by the true story of the Banda della Magliana, a criminal organization based in Rome (Magliana is a neighborhood in Rome) and active between the 1970s and the early 1990s.
Such organization, probably the most powerful criminal gang in Italian history, was active here during gli anni di piombo (the years of lead), those bleak years in the 1970s marked by political terrorism, and it seems to have taken part in some terrible massacres and other criminal acts. The movie tells the story of four gang members and follows their rise to fame throughout the years.
I cento passi (One Hundred Steps)
The movie is directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, who is the director of La meglio gioventù as well, and who focuses most of his work and career on movies about contemporary Italian history. For example, he is the director of Pasolini, un delitto italiano, about the death of the famous Italian writer and movie director, and Romanzo di una strage, about the Piazza Fontana massacre in 1969.
I cento passi, instead, tells the story of Peppino Impastato, a political activist who fought the Mafia in the 1970s. He lived in Cinisi, Sicily, and was strongly against the Sicilian criminal organization. He founded a radio, called Radio Aut, and used it to mock politicians and mafiosi. He was shot by the Mafia in 1978. The movie is called I cento passi (One Hundred Steps) because that was the distance between the house of Peppino and that of the Mafia boss Tano Badalamenti.
Nuovomondo (Golden Door)
With this movie, we jump in a whole different era. It’s the beginning of the 20th century and the story is that of the migration of a family from Sicily to New York. The family is that of the Mancusos, who leave poverty behind in Pietra Sottana, a small village in rural Sicily, to look for a better life in America.
The plot takes us with them first on the boat and then at Ellis Island, where they have to face a whole different reality than that of their dreams. The movie, whose language is primarily Sicilian dialect, has been acclaimed by the critics and received a number of awards.
Diaz (Diaz, don’t clean up this blood)
I have been deeply touched by this movie because it is about the terrible events that took place in the final days of the 2001 G8 World Summit in Genova. First of all, I was supposed to be there, together with some friends and ended up not going for some problems at work. Secondly, the events took place in Genova, which is a stone throw from where I live, and have been incredibly shocking for me.
The movie, which is really tough and violent, focuses on what happened at the Diaz school in the night between 21 and 22 July 2001, when more than 300 police officers attacked activists and journalists who were sleeping in the school. I may repeat myself, but this is one of the most shocking events in contemporary Italian history, and the movie brought me to tears. You may not be as moved as I was, but it can be a good way to learn about an event we have been discussing for years, here in Italy.
This movie is directed by Paolo Sorrentino, who won the Best Foreign Language Academy Award for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) and recently released another very acclaimed movie, Youth. Sorrentino is also famous for This Must Be the Place, an outstanding film starring Sean Penn as a middle-aged rock star who embarks on a journey throughout America – which is also one of my favorite movies.
Il divo is based on the figure of Giulio Andreotti, who has been Prime Minister in Italy for ages and was quite a controversial political man. It tells the story of just a part of his life, from his seventh election in 1992 to his trial for his relationship with the Mafia in 1995.
Il caimano (The Caiman)
Another movie on a controversial political figure: this time it’s Silvio Berlusconi, who has been a key figure in the Italian life in the last 20 years. The movie tells the story of a B-movie producer, Bruno Bonomo, who is on the verge of bankruptcy and decides to produce a movie on the life of Silvio Berlusconi, titled Il caimano (the caiman).
The movie, directed by Nanni Moretti, was released shortly before the 2006 elections and caused a strong debate among Italian politics. Some even said that it may have influenced those elections (lost by Berlusconi), but Silvio Berlusconi didn’t seem to be touched by it.
I am sure you have heard about this movie. Together with La grande bellezza, it is probably the most famous Italian movie of our days. Based on the famous book by Roberto Saviano, which I also mentioned in my list of 10 Italian books I recommended last summer, the movie is about the Casalesi, a criminal organization belonging to the Camorra, currently operating in the area of Naples. It portrays events that are similar to the real, historical ones.
Actually, the book and then the movie after that inspired a TV series, called Gomorrah as well, which is completely fictional yet carefully describes the world where the Camorra operates and the way it behaves. Even if some journalists criticized it for its celebration of a criminal lifestyle, it is a very good TV series.
Buongiorno, notte (Good morning, night)
This movie tells the story of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, which took place in 1978. Aldo Moro was a very important Italian politician who was kidnapped by the Brigate Rosse on March, 16th 1978 and then killed 55 days after. The photos of his dead body on a red Renault 4 have haunted our lives for many years.
In this movie by Marco Bellocchio, the whole story is seen through the eyes of Chiara, a fictional character representing one of the kidnappers, who is haunted by doubts and a sense of guilt.
L’uomo che verrà
I opened this list of movies with one of my favorite Italian movies and I decided to close it with another one. When I saw this film for the first time, I was touched beyond words. The movie is set in a small village in Central Italy during World War II and tells the story of Martina, who suddenly stopped talking when his brother died and his now waiting for the arrival of a new baby because her mother is pregnant again.
But on the same day of the birth of the baby, the infamous Marzabotto massacre takes place. This event is one of the cruelest massacres in Italy during World War II, as the SS killed more than 770 civilians in houses, cemeteries, and churches. The movie ends with a small light of hope but it is a powerful remembrance of how cruel those times were.
Well, I hope you liked this list. But now tell me, what is your favorite Italian movie and why? Let me know in the comments below!
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my brand-new program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up to Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, listen or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.