Movie buffs and novices alike should watch these 12 films before visiting the Eternal City for the first or 20th time. Italian cinema, and those filmed in Rome in particular, have been a staple on the international film scene for over half of a century. The films of the 1950s and 1960s helped shape the world’s view of Rome, creating the glamorous La Dolce Vita period that immortalized such actors as Audrey Hepburn and Anita Eckberg on the silver screen. More recent films, like The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law from 1999 and The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorentino from 2013 use the setting of Rome to show its current state as a living museum still full of secrets and mystery.
Our selection of 12 films spans over 6 decades of Italian movie magic! From post-war Rome in 1948 to the 2013 Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe winning film The Great Beauty. Each era depicts a very different side of Rome, from the simplest of lives to the most glamorous. Which is your favorite?
The Bicycle Thief is a classic, black-and-white film that follows the story of a poor father in search of his stolen bicycle. The setting for the film is immediately post-war WWII Rome where the struggling father needs his bicycle to do his job of posting advertisements and posters around the city. Without it he’s unable to provide for his family. The film shows a less glamorous Rome before the height of La Dolce Vita that captures the hearts of the world in the following decade.
Starring Enzo Staiola, Lamberto Maggiorani
Director Vittorio De Sica
Probably the most iconic film in Rome, Roman Holiday (or Vacanze Romane as it’s called in Italian) follows the story of an undercover princess (played by Hepburn) who discovers the underbelly of the city thanks to two struggling journalists (played by Peck and Eddie Albert) who are seeking the story of a lifetime. The film not only launched Hepburn’s career but also international tourism in Rome and Italy.
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
Director William Wyler
Three Coins in the Fountain is a romantic comedy the debuted just a year after the iconic Roman Holiday film that captured the hearts of the international audience. The film follows the story of three American secretaries as they navigate the turbulent waters of love in the Eternal City, falling in love with both American and Italian suitors. The premise of the film is on the legend that if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain and make a wish to return to Rome, you will.
Starring Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan, Rossano Brazzi, Maggie McNamara
Director Jean Negulesco
The 1959 version of Ben Hur was a re-make of a 1925 silent film that was based off of an 1880 novel by Lew Wallace. The historical drama takes place in AD 26 follows the story of Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, struggle between his devotion to his faith and the freedom for Jews and his friends who are involved in the growing power of the Roman Empire.
At the time, the filming broke many production records, costing a whopping $15 million, which was the largest budget of its kind. The budget went to creating detailed sets and hundreds of period costumes for the actors. Much of Ben Hur was filmed in Rome’s film studios, Cinecittà, where original pieces from the set can still be viewed. The film went on to win 11 Academy Awards and 3 Golden Globes.
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe
Director William Wyler
Few films defined a period in Rome quite like the massive European success of La Dolce Vita, translated as “The Good Life” in Italian, directed by the legendary Federico Fellini. The story follows Marcello Rubini, a journalist for gossip magazines through a week in Rome, under covering the true meaning of La Dolce Vita in Rome. In a now iconic scene, Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg takes a nighttime dip in the Trevi Fountain until Mastroianni needs to wade in and get her.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Nadia Gray
Director Federico Fellini
The young queen of Egypt is forever immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal in this 1963 film. Surrounded by several other silver screen icons, the story follows the young queen’s struggle to defend her empire from the imperial ambitions of Rome. At the time the film was marred by many production mishaps, including a sick Taylor who caused a 6-week delay to the film and then her adulterous affair with Richard Burton which brought further misfortune to the film. Much of the film was filmed in Rome’s film studios, Cinecittà where sets and costumes are still on display.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy Mcdowall, Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, George Cole
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Particularly keen for architecture enthusiasts, the sad story depicted in The Belly of an Architect provides a kind of architectural documentary on Rome’s monumental urban landscape. The story follows American architect Stourley Kracklite who has been tasked with designing an exhibition on late 18th century French architect, Étienne-Louis Boullée. Kracklite becomes obsessed with the project and the work of the late French architect which alienates him from his American and Italian counterparts, eventually taking a toll on his marriage and health.
Starring Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson
Director Peter Greenaway
A fast-paced psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley follows the story of Tom Ripley (played by Matt Damon) who uses his slick talents for lying, forging signatures, and stealing identities to make a living in 1950s New York. The plot takes Ripley to Italy to search for Dickie Greenleaf (played by Jude Law), son of a wealthy shipbuilder, where he can utilize his special talents to get the job done.
Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, James Rebhorn, Sergio Rubini, Philip Baker Hall
Director Anthony Minghella
Russell Crowe is the ultimate Gladiator in the epic historical thriller where extensive computer-generated effects brought the life of Roman life and the Colosseum in AD180 to life. The story follows General Maximus Decimus Meridius, a celebrated war hero who is devoted to Emporer Marcus Aurelius, fight his way through gladiator life when Commodus (son of the Emporer who is deemed unfit to rule) seeks to kill the General. Many scenes recreate the violence of gladiator life with unfiltered realism, which resulted in the film winning big at the Academy Awards, BAFTA and Golden Globes.
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Dijimon Hounsou, Richard Harris
Director Ridley Scott
The 2006 memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of the same name inspired the film which was partially filmed in Rome. At a time when she finds herself at a personal crossroads, Gilbert heads to Italy to find nourishment through food, prayer in India, and self love in Indonesia. The sites where Julia Roberts, who plays Elizabeth Gilbert in the film, dines can still be visited today, including Ristorante Santa Lucia at Largo Febo, 12.
Starring Julia Roberts, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Javier Bardem
Director Ryan Murphy
A romantic comedy very allà Woody Allen, To Rome With Love follows four separate stories of love in different forms all set in Rome. Seemingly unrelated and nonsensical, the four stories follow an office worker who wakes up one day to find out that he has become famous for no reason over night, a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, an architect who returns to Rome to rediscover the street where he lived as a student, and a timid Italian man with an incredible voice but can only sing in the shower.
Starring Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Director Woody Allen
The narrative of The Great Beauty is not easy to follow for a non-Italian audience, but even if the storyline doesn’t capture your attention the cinematography will. The film follows the story of Jep Gambardella, a journalist who upon his 65th birthday decides he has lived his life superficially. He departs on a quest for the Great Beauty, and the audience is rewarded with refreshing and obscure images of Rome behind closed doors and secret locations.
Starring Tony Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso
Director Paolo Sorrentino
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Which films did you watch to prepare for your trip to Rome? Share your picks with us in the comments below!