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Visiting Italy in the movies

by Steve McKee on August 2, 2009

Can’t afford to visit Italy this summer, eh? If a flat economy has put a damper on travel plans, then you can do the next best thing and visit vicariously, and do so from the comfort of your own home. All with help of movie magic.

I’m quite fond of that certain sunny peninsula – you know, the one shaped like a boot – so I had the idea of listing the most engaging movies on that subject. Of course I then had to watch a wide variety of movies. (Thanks Netflix.) All in the line of duty as a column writer, of course

I didn’t evaluate movies in terms of cinematic significance or importance to film history (bye bye “La Dolce Vita” with your dreary lack of any narrative storyline and absence of characters worth caring about), but simply chose films for their ability to fill up mind and soul with their “Italian-ness.”

Yep, those were some pretty tough hours, sitting there watching those movies on the T.V.  But I took a few hits for the team and have arrived at my list of favorites.

Tea with Mussolini
Master filmmaker Franco Zefirelli (you may know him from such wonderful films as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Jesus of Nazareth”) created this fairly autobiographical story of an orphaned boy (disowned really) in 1930’s Florence who is taken in and raised by a group of English women who are living there because of their love of Italian art. They must weather life as the fascists take over and relations deteriorate between Britain and Italy. The movie provides a good blend of Italian locations, both famous and vernacular (mostly Florence and the tower-filled city of San Gimignano) as well as interesting characters who love the art and architecture of Italy.

The Talented Mr. Ripley
This is a depiction of Italy in the late fifties as seen through the eyes of privileged American youths living there just because it was fun to do so. Matt Damon really is quite good as the bland but scheming imposter who attempts to break into their ranks.

Remarkably, despite the fact the movie was filmed in 1998, it does a good job of showing us 1950’s Italy – more relaxed and not yet overwhelmed by tourists. You get to see Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps and the waterways of Venice being used by locals the way they were intended to be used. A compelling story line too.

Cinema Paradiso
A wonderful movie made by Giuseppe Tornatore about a boy growing up in a small town in Sicily. The sun-bleached town is not very picturesque, but the humanity that shines through just about every frame of this movie is pretty amazing. I prefer the shorter original release to the longer director’s cut.

It’s subtitled, but that just lets you enjoy the music of the spoken Italian. And speaking of music, pay attention to the soundtrack by the incomparable Ennio Morricone. Rich, emotional and highly melodic, it’s great. I got the CD after seeing the movie and have been a Morricone fan ever since. He’s a legend in the world of movie music for good reason.

Under the Tuscan Sun
Since we are choosing films for the way they lead us to enjoy all things Italian, then this movie makes the list. Life slows down when an Americana played by Diane Lane decides to chuck it all on a whim and relocate to the Tuscan countryside. In her villa, even small adventures loom large. Quite charming.

Rome (the miniseries on HBO)
Has there ever been juicier drama than the early days of the Roman Republic? There was human passion and betrayal and power seeking and conquering and a whole lot more on a scale that has never really been equaled at any other time in human history. Oh, those Romans! And this 22 part series captures the realness of the people that were behind those moments. The violence and sex are both pretty blunt. It’s like a cross between the movie “Gladiator” and an R-rated soap opera based on historical people and real events, even if purists say that liberties were taken with complete historical accuracy. (I didn’t mind one bit.)

I particularly enjoyed watching the highly observant and politically precocious young nephew of Julius Caesar grow up while intently ruminating on the machinations of Roman politics and then shape his own fate to become Augustus Caesar, one of the greatest Roman Emperors ever. And that’s just one storyline among many.

Three Coins in the Fountain
The good news is that this movie starts with an extended ten minute montage of every fountain and worthwhile water feature in Rome or near Rome (including the incomparable hillside fountains of Villa d’Este in Tivoli) but then unfortunately turns into a completely average fifties movie in which three American women strive to find husbands while in Rome. Shot mostly on soundstages with dumb antics. But that first ten minutes allows it to make my list.

Also worth mentioning:
“A Room with a View” is an engaging film about Victorian English tourists in Florence in which true love finally triumphs. I thought the Merchant-Ivory version was slightly better than the Masterpiece Theater version. “The Italian Job” has high paced action in the canals of Venice. “Angels and Demons” has even higher paced action in Rome. “Roman Holiday” shows us Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck sharing a forbidden twenty-four hour romance in the Eternal City. “Only You” is a passable romantic comedy with Robert Downey Jr and Marisa Tomei that makes excellent use of Rome and the Amalfi coast for ambiance.

There you have it, fellow Italophiles, enough cobble stones, vine covered walls and the best statues and fountains in the world to maybe temporarily satisfy your urge.

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