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10 Must-See Movies Before Visiting Italy

Here are a handful of brilliant movies made in Italy—enjoy at least three before your Italian vacation. Some celebrate food and romance. Others celebrate family and relationships. All of them are a love song to various Italian locales. The movie stars are like gems on a beautiful woman. They serve to highlight, but they’re not the central character—no one can outshine Italy. Make some popcorn, get inspired, and then make plans.

Journey to Italy – 1954

The Movie Stars: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, directed by Roberto Rossellini.

The Real Stars:  Journey To Italy was shot at a variety of locations throughout Italy, including Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and in the studio in Rome.

Trying to salvage their marriage, an English couple takes a trip to Italy.  Here, set perfectly against the ruins of Pompeii, we see the marriage in its decline.  It is poignant, it tugs at the heart, and it is a true classic.  Italy, when shot in black and white, tends to pop in ways that make the subtle appear vibrant.  It was listed in Sight & Sound magazine as one of the fifty greatest films made.

This is considered by many to be director Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece. (Besides being a magician with film, he was the husband of actress Ingrid Bergman and father of Isabella Rossellini.)  Also known as Journey to Italy, this is one of the most influential films made after WWII due to its loose storytelling. 

The Godfather – 1972

The Movie Stars: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton.  Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Other Stars:  The towns of Savoca and Forza d’Agrò, Sicily.

The story, which takes us from 1945 to 1955, shows us the aging and ruthless don of a mob family, the Corleone’s, preparing his son to take control of their organized crime dynasty.   His son, Michael, is an outsider and reluctant to take on the mantel of power.  Over time, we watch Michael transform into a ruthless boss, wielding weapons of violence and treachery.  As he rises in the family, his marriage and his relationships crumble. 

For a time, the film was the highest-grossing movie ever made, earning $287 million at the box office.  At the 45th Academy Awards, The Godfather won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Puzo and Coppola).  It boosted Brando’s flagging career, and it launched Pacino’s and Copolla’s place in the film industry.  It was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990, being deemed, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Under the Tuscan Sun – 2003

The Movie Stars: Diane Lane, Raoul Bova, Sandra Oh

The Real Stars: Positano on the Amalfi Coast and Montepulciano (standing in for the lovely town of Cortona) in Southern Tuscany. 

Regardless of why you’d like to get away, it’s easy to fall for Under the Tuscan Sun.  The main character’s (Frances’s) marriage abruptly falls apart, leaving her at loose ends and questioning her own worth.  Friends encourage her to join a bus tour of Tuscany, and there Frances falls in love with a ramshackle villa.  A crew of characters comes into her life as she fixes the place and pieces together a new family.  Loves comes again, but she is fine on her own under the warmth of the Italian sun.

Montepulciano, the filming location, is a medieval hilltop town.  It’s known for its wine, vineyards, cheese, fresh meat, pasta, and seductive appeal to dreamers.

Roman Holiday – 1953

The Movie Stars:  Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert.

The Real Star:  Rome, in all her iconic glory.

This movie is a must-see before heading to Rome—it’s enchanting to view the Eternal City through the eyes of a sheltered princess, played by Audrey Hepburn. 

When Princess Anne and her entourage arrive in Rome, she longs for the freedom to explore.  Anne sneaks out of her room, hops into the back of a delivery truck, and escapes.  But, a sedative that was pushed on her by a royal doctor takes effect, and she passes out on a city bench.  Joe Bradley, an American reporter stationed in Rome, finds her and takes her back to his apartment.  Joe hears the buzz, realizes who’s snoozing on his couch, and he promises an exclusive with his boss.  Of course, love has other ideas and, along the way, we have a terrific time in Rome!

Interesting note: Roman Holiday won the Best Picture award.  Its screenwriter, Trumbo, won a posthumous award.  His name wasn’t on the movie when it was released—he’d been blackballed during the McCarthy hearings.

Eat Pray Love – 2010

The Movie Stars: Julia Roberts, Viola Davis, Javier Bardem, James Franco.

The Real Stars: Rome, Naples, Beautiful Italian Food, along with India and Bali.

Writer Liz Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, is newly divorced and hungry for a fuller life. She goes on a quest to find what she needs, and her first stop (of course) is Italy.  It’s there she learns the genuine pleasure of food cooked with joy and shared with fine companions.  India gives her the power of prayer, and Bali, balance.  A mid-life crisis may be cliché, but begin your journey in Italy and you’re on the right path.  This movie will give you dreams of a foodie tour in Rome.

Big Night – 1996

The Movie Stars:  Stanley Tucci, Minnie Driver, Tony Shalhoub, Isabella Rossellini.

The Real Stars:  The Foods Of An Extraordinary Italian Banquet

Two brothers, Primo and Secondo, left Italy, moved to America, and opened an Italian restaurant.  Primo is a wild-eyed, and talented, chef.  Secondo is the front-man, trying to keep the restaurant afloat—although, their main client is a poor artist who pays his bills with paintings. A neighbor offers to call his friend, a big-time jazz musician, to play a benefit at the restaurant.  The brothers are spending every last cent to fete Italian singer, Louis Prima.  What follows next is Primo’s masterpiece, the feast of a lifetime.

If you are any kind of foodie, or simply love Italy, you’ll be ready to head to Italy for both the cuisine and the culture.

The Talented Mr. Ripley – 1999

The Movie Stars: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Real Stars: Naples, Positano, Venice, Rome, Sicily, Ischia.

It’s the 1950’s and Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon, is a classic underachiever, attaching himself to a wealthy family.  They take the bait and send him to Italy to find their son, Dickie.  Once in Italy, with the son and his fiancé found, Tom wants Dickie’s lifestyle, and takes his shady talents to the extreme.  This movie is a thrilling suspense that takes us to gorgeous off-the-beaten path spots.

The opening scenes are filmed in New York, but the rest of the film is shot in Naples, Positano, Venice, Rome, Sicily, and Ischia—a small destination off the coast of Campania.

Angels and Demons:  2009

The Movie Stars: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer.

The Real Stars: Rome, The Vatican.

This sequel to The DaVinci Code is pure heaven for people who love ancient antiquities, art history, and Rome’s secret side.   Father Silvano Bentivoglio, a well-known physicist, is murdered.  Harvard’s Robert Langdon, along with scientist Vittoria Vetra, are determined to solve the crime.  They set out on a dangerous adventure that involves a secret brotherhood, the Illuminati. Clues lead them through the Vatican, including the four altars of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.  They must stop an assassin from killing four cardinals, and time is running out. This is intrigue on a grand scale. 

The film gives a backstage look at the Vatican and Secret Archives.  There are also shots of Rome’s most breathtaking art, including some relatively unknown works.  Prepare for your tour of the Vatican with this film.

Letters to Juliet – 2010

The Movie Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Marcia DeBonis, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave.

The Real Star: Verona, Italy.

In this romantic comedy, a young woman, Sophie, visits Verona.  She’s with her fiancé, but he’s busy with everything but her.  Sophie visits Juliet’s balcony, immortalized in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She sees thousands of letters left by broken-hearted lovers at the courtyard there.  Finding one letter from 1957, Sophie decides to write to its now elderly author, Claire. 

This is a touching movie with nice shots of Verona, a place well worth a visit on any trip to Italy.

Life is Beautiful – 1997

The Movie Stars: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini

The Co-stars: Arezzo, southeast of Florence in Tuscany. Some scenes are from nearby Cortona and some in Terni in Umbria.

This movie portrays Italy’s heart, humor, and passion as well as its darker past.  A joyous man, Guido, falls madly in love with a woman from a prosperous family.  She’s engaged, but he wins her over—he’s irresistible in the best way.  They have a son, and life is beautiful.  When evil and politics crash down upon them, Guido protects his son by fantasizing their concentration camp is part of a game they’re playing to win a tank.

Critically acclaimed, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and three Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor. 

When you dream of Italy, watch movies and read books that were set there. Imagine the food, the light as it plays upon the Mediterranean, and exploring streets that are thousands of years old. Your Italy vacation is even richer when you’ve immersed yourself in her vibrant world in advance.