10 Italian Filmmakers You Should Know

It is time to take a look at some of the Italian filmmakers who are a little less extolled, but no less deserving of our time and attention

10 Italian Filmmakers You Should Know
Photo: Wikipedia, public domain.

Most of us have been recommended The Bicycle Thieves, La Dolce Vita, or even Cinema Paradiso. It is now time to take a look at some of the Italian filmmakers who are a little less extolled, but no less deserving of our time and attention

Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica: all recognizable names for even the most casual admirer of Italian culture. Most of us have been recommended The Bicycle Thieves, La Dolce Vita, or even Cinema Paradiso at one point along the way. While these directors and their oeuvres are truly worthy of endless analysis and praise, it is time to take a look at some of the Italian registi who are a little less extolled, but no less deserving of our time and attention.

Pietro Germi (1914-1974)

Though born and raised in Genoa, Germi managed to tap into the Sicilian psyche of his time with astonishing veracity, through films like Divorce, Italian Style and its companion piece Seduced and Abandoned. Both of these darkly comedic pictures cover honor killings, the decaying Sicilian nobility, and the massive hypocrisy running deep behind a fiercely religious facade. Marcello Mastroanni is masterful as Baron Cefalù and Stefania Sandrelli might just make you fall in love!

Fun fact: Divorzio all’italiana is the only Italian film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Sergio Corbucci (1926-1990)

Though he lived in the shadow of his more internationally known counterpart Sergio Leone, Corbucci was a close second in terms of the success of his spaghetti westerns and action films. I became familiar with his work after exhausting the The Man with No Name Trilogy a few years ago, and loved my first sampling, 1966’s Django. Franco Nero plays the titular character with the right measure of sangfroid as he takes down the KKK and Mexican bandits single-handedly. One of the best moments? When we figure out what Django has stashed in the coffin he drags behind him everywhere he goes.

The Great Silence came a couple years later, with Klaus Kinski as the blood chilling killer Loco stalking a mute gunslinger who comes to the aid of a beleaguered, snowbound town. Shot in the wintry Dolomites, the movie provides a refreshing change from the arid locales of most other westerns all’italiana. All told, Corbucci’s westerns are like the bloodier, brasher cousin to Sergio Leone’s work — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Fun fact: Django was so successful across the globe that when Pier Paolo Pasolini traveled to Uganda a couple years later to shoot footage for a documentary, villagers who realized he was Italian would mob him, yelling “Django! Django!”

Mario Monicelli (1915-2010)

The director of more than 60 films, Monicelli made his mark on the cinematic landscape of Italy by fathering the commedia all’italiana genre, a particular brand of Italian comedy that dominated box offices from the 1950s through the 1970s. The defining features of the films include tragic circumstances made light of, ranging from bankruptcy, to adultery, to even death. One of these, and by far my personal favorite, is I soliti ignoti, which somehow was translated into The Big Deal on Madonna Street for Anglophone audiences. The combination of Marcello Mastroanni, Vittorio Gassman, and Totò makes for a caper classic, and introduced audiences to the concept of the “bumbling burglar.” La grande guerra is another Monicelli gem, with Gassman and Alberto Sordi as cowardly conscripts who do all they can to avoid their inevitable fate during World War I. A perfect blend of the tragic and the comic, which garnered the director a second Academy Award nomination.

Fun fact: Monicelli “discovered” Claudia Cardinale when he cast her in a small role as the traditional Sicilian girl Carmelina in The Big Deal on Madonna Street. Her few lines had to be dubbed into Italian as she only spoke French growing up!

Ettore Scola (1931-2016)

I am a little surprised that my introduction to Scola did not turn me off to him completely, but Brutti, sporchi, e cattivi is the type of movie you love and hate at the same time. Simply based on the Leone-esque title, I chose to analyze this film for a class a couple of years ago. My professor commented on my paper that “This is a film I really dislike, but you did a great job delving deep into its socio-political commentary.” In brief, the movie tells of one-eyed patriarch Giacinto and the kingdom of both physical and spiritual filth that he lords over while hoarding the little money he has. In the distance throughout the film, we see the domes and spires of Rome, but the Eternal City might as well be on another planet for the inhabitants of the baraccopoli, who spend their days fighting, stealing, and fornicating.

If the cinema of the grotesque isn’t your cup of tea, go for the much more highbrow A Special Day, which refashions Adolf Hitler’s May 6, 1938 visit to Rome as a backdrop to the dalliances of a harried fascist housewife and an intellectual bachelor who despises Mussolini. The pairing of Marcello Mastroanni and Sophia Loren is never disappointing, and this doomed romance is no exception.

Fun fact: Scola was left-leaning throughout his life, and even ran as a communist candidate for the European Parliament in 1979.

Ermanno Olmi (1931-2018)

While most of the other filmmakers on this list hail from central or southern Italy, Olmi provides us with a northern perspective, reminding us that the poor and downtrodden exist in every corner of the Bel Paese. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is his most famous film, and rightly so, because it captures the highs and lows of the peasant experience with simple beauty. The three hour picture does not feel long at all as Olmi masterfully directs his nonprofessional cast, and carefully treads the line between documentary and feature film.

Olmi’s debut film Il posto is an early example of existentialist cinema, providing one of the most insightful looks at the grimmer side of the miracolo economico that brought new wealth to Italy beginning in the late 1950s. Olmi keeps it local, following a young office worker as he makes the leap from his provincial town in Lombardy to the bustling metropolis of Turin in order to support his parents. As he navigates brusque managers, a maze of offices, and mounds of pointless paperwork, he attempts to preserve his humanity by pursuing his coworker Antonietta and enjoying the little social events outside of work.

Fun fact: Olmi dropped out of high school and began working for Edison-Volta, an electric utility company, to support his mother. While employed there he began dabbling in industrial film, producing content for his company and building a portfolio.

Lina Wertmüller (1928-)

The reader might hesitate when seeing such a seemingly teutonic name, but the Roman Wertmüller is arguably the most admired female director in Italian cinema history. While she began her career on the stage, she gradually moved into film after working with Fellini on La dolce vita and 8 ½. Her collaboration with actor Giancarlo Giannini brought her sustained success, beginning with 1972’s The Seduction of Mimi, an uproarious look at a luckless laborer who is never quite able to escape the political and social morass of his time. Giannini is unforgettable as the frenetic and foulmouthed Mimi. Wertmüller became the first woman ever to land an Academy Award nomination for Best Director with 1975’s Seven Beauties, another look at an everyman character who manages to survive World War II and return home to Naples, but struggles to preserve his humanity in the process. To get a taste for the film, take a peek at its incredibly sarcastic opening montage.

Fun fact: She has a love for giving her movies ridiculously long titles. Her 1978 film, called Blood Feud in English, is known in Italy as Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino.

Marco Bellocchio (1939-)

There are few directors that experience a comeback in their eighth decade of life, but Bellocchio is one of them! His latest film The Traitor was released last year to widespread acclaim, ultimately winning six awards at the David di Donatello 2020 — the Italian Oscars — and before that, seven awards at the Nastri d’Argento ceremony last July. It tells the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a key mafioso who became an informant in 1984 and played a defining role in the Maxi Trial of more than 400 mafia members. Pierfrancesco Favino is brilliant as the conflicted Buscetta, and the crackling tension of his life rarely abates.

Rewinding back a few decades, we find that Bellocchio was considered a Marxist radical, making boundary-pushing films like Fists in the Pocket. I can’t say I personally enjoyed this film, but I appreciated it for what it was — a direct challenge to the ruling political party and Catholic social mores. Watching a medically ailing family cruelly self-destruct is not a pleasant experience, but it certainly causes the viewer to reflect on what was occurring within the walls of Italian homes at the time, and how much society would shift within the next decade.

Fun fact: Some of Bellocchio’s favorite films are Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and Orson Welles’s Othello.

Gabriele Salvatores (1950-)

Being a big fan of Niccolò Ammaniti’s writing, I decided one day to check out Salvatores’s adaptation of his 2001 novel Io non ho paura. It was the right choice, as Salvatores does the book justice and then some, coaxing extraordinary performances out of his young cast and even shooting the film from their height, giving us a uniquely authentic coming-of-age story. The atmosphere of an idyllic exterior contrasted with an interior evil reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock, especially his underrated Shadow of a Doubt. Salvatores also makes the most of the rough beauty of Basilicata, which does not often appear on the big screen. Highly recommended.

An earlier Salvatores picture worth watching is 1991’s Mediterraneo. This is a film to see if the viewer needs a break from the horrors of your average World War II picture, with all its blood, sorrow, and existentialist dread. Mediterraneo places a group of ragtag Italian soldiers on a strategically irrelevant, sun-kissed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, and follows them as they make the most of being “forgotten” by the ongoing global conflict. It is an enjoyable, heartwarming tale that causes my mind to wander back to a particularly blissful summer trip to Panarea a few years ago. While a fantasy, one wonders if there were similar pockets of quiet that really existed amidst the millions of lives lost and dreams shattered.

Fun fact: Mediterraneo is the third entry in Salvatores’s trilogia della fuga (Escape Trilogy) which began with 1989’s Marrakech Express and was followed by 1990’s On Tour. All three feature groups of men bonding over a shared experience away from home.

Marco Tullio Giordana (1950-)

My first encounter with Giordana’s work came when I was assigned to watch I cento passi, or One Hundred Steps, for a graduate class on Sicily and the “Southern Question” at New York University. The film did a fantastic job of retelling the story of antimafia activist Peppino Impastato, who was brutally murdered by the Cosa Nostra after making a stand against them. Our class trip to Cinisi and the chance to speak one-on-one with Impastato’s brother was a singular experience that shattered the romanticized concept of the mafia made popular through Italian-American films like The Godfather. Giordana’s epic The Best of Youth, which covers four decades in the macro and micro experience of two diametrically opposite brothers, is another film worth seeking out. I loved how Giordana managed to tell a deeply personal tale while interweaving major events of Italian history, such as the anni di piombo and the 1966 Arno River flood.

Fun fact: Giordana’s longtime partner is journalist Valentina Crepax, niece of comics legend Guido Crepax, who became known for his highly psychedelic and erotic Valentina series.  

Alice Rohrwacher (1981-)

A recent discovery of mine, Rohrwacher has been making films since 2005, but really broke out with 2011’s Heavenly Body. A moving tale about a young girl struggling to adjust to a new environment while maturing in her Catholic faith, it reveals Rohrwacher’s keen ability to extract powerful performances from inexperienced actors. Happy as Lazzaro is her latest feature film, and I found it enthrallingly mysterious, with a wash of magical realism that has been lacking in recent Italian cinema. From the starkly beautiful landscapes of Lazio to the grime of the Roman periphery, we follow the thread of the “prehistoric saint” Lazzaro as he serenely transcends the limitations of time and human frailty.

Fun fact: Rohrwacher often recruits nonactors for her films, reflecting her documentary roots and the influence of past filmmakers like Ermanno Olmi on her work. For Happy as Lazzaro, Lazzaro’s character was played by a college student studying economics who was selected based on his appearance.

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