We’ve all witnessed a wooden Gregory Peck woo Audrey Hepburn at The Mouth of Truth in Roman Holiday. Hell, some of us have even watched Woody Allen fall off the Love, Actually bandwagon in To Rome with Love. But surely there must be a movie or two set in the eternal city that’s not a dreadful disappointment, right? Right indeed. Over the years, Italy’s photogenic capital has attracted about as many film directors as it has sun-hatted tourists. Here’s a count down of five jewels in Rome’s IMDb crown.
#5 – La Dolce Vita (1960)
Most looking to seek out films set in a particular city will have sightseeing eye-candy at that top of their agenda. If this sounds like you, look no further than La Dolce Vita. The movie opens on a helicopter flying a statue of Christ the Redeemer over Vatican City, and its convertible-dwelling characters make pit-stops anywhere from The Trevi Fountain to Piazza del Popolo.
More importantly, though, Federico Fellini’s most famous feature is a film fan’s dream. Under Hollywood’s direction, seven days and seven nights in the life of a philandering playboy journalist would’ve made for either tiresome tragedy, cringy comedy, or madcap musical. Here, however, Fellini’s episodic, non-didactic approach to filmmaking offers us something completely unfamiliar: a portrait of life that’s all at once human, unpredictable, evocative and charming. The film isn’t flawless, and it certainly has its dull moments, but there’s so much pizazz, you won’t even care.
#4 – Caligula (1979)
You can’t have a list of the Top 5 Best Films set in Rome without featuring an epic about the empire – and Caligula is a sword and sandal flick like no other.
The only feature film ever to have been produced by Penthouse magazine, Caligula is penned as an eroticised portrayal of one man’s descent into power-hungry insanity. In other words: A crazy roman porno. Think Malcolm McDowell playing Mr. Mentalist, cross cut with closeups of masturbating extras, random orgies and chicks peeing on corpses. No kidding.
The film’s surrounded by shocking (and mostly true!) rumours, McDowell is fantastic and, quite frankly, the notion of “Roman Excess” has never quite looked so excessive. Think of it as an alternative insight into what Ancient Rome might’ve looked like…
#3 – Mamma Roma (1962)
Sure, we all want to see the sights, we all want to see the history, but how about a snapshot of what it looks like to actually live in Rome? In the 60s. With a cackling ex-prostitute Mother played by Anna Magnani.
Following family struggles in post-fascist Italy, Pier Paulo Pasolini’s neo-realist drama is a genuinely good character flick set in the Eternal City. Mamma Roma is an engaging movie about wandering boyhood and disenchanted youth and, to top the A-grade drama, there’s Roman eye-candy to boot: Pasolini purposely shot the film so his frames would resemble famous Italian paintings. Need any more reasons to go see it?
#2 – Roma (1972)
In the film world, Rome is often referred to as “Fellini’s city”, so it makes sense that Fellini should pop up twice on this list. It makes even more sense that a Fellini a film called “Rome”, set in Rome, and about Rome should take one of the high spots.
Regularly criticised for having only one developing character: the city itself, Fellini’s loveletter to the city focuses on anything from fascism and first-time arrivals, to bawdy brothels and mining discoveries during the digging of metro lines. In all, it’s completely plotless, but it’s also completely unrivalled in its political and poetical musings on the city. Plus it has biker gangs speeding through piazzas, hippies getting hammered with truncheons and an ecclesiastical catwalk in the Vatican. Roma is utterly unforgettable, and the city has seldom looked better on screen.
#1 – L’Eclisse (1962)
In a single sentence, L’Eclisse is best described as: Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece of mood cinema. The great Italian auteur brings us a bemusing barrage of sumptuous images, aching distances and incommunicable desires, and the film is probably the most haunting romance you’re ever likely to see.
You could say L’Eclisse is Mamma Roma-esque, in that it depicts life on the outskirts of Rome, as opposed to life through a tourist’s camera lens, but don’t let that but you off for a second. Antonioni’s awkward, hypnotic picture explores the ever-relevant idea of the material world as a barrier to human communication and intimacy; and it packs a real, solid punch. Leading lady Monica Vitti somehow pulls off a portrait of a troubled introvert caught in an extroverted world, and we watch in agony as she slowly succumbs to an uncertain romance with an authentic Italian creep. Ouch.