Universal Appeal: Italian filmmakers whose work transcends nationality

by Francesco DEL GROSSO

Italy boasts an extremely rich film tradition, which over the years has also become a burden difficult to bear and almost impossible to get rid of. In the last few decades, Italian filmmakers have made every effort to prove that Italian cinema has moved beyond the glories of the past, beyond the “Peplum” epics that dominated the Italian film industry from the first decade of the 20th century to the 1960s, beyond Neorealism and the Italian-style Comedy, beyond the Spaghetti Western and the Dolce Vita. Although the most recent productions “made in Italy” have not been able to live up to this glorious past, there is a variegated number of authors from different backgrounds, styles and ages whose work is particularly noteworthy: they are actually “mavericks” moving within an absent film industry that is neither financially sound nor effective in terms of regulations able to support technical and creative professionals.


Most of their films have successfully crossed the national borders and become famous abroad, especially in the United States. Some of these authors – like Gabriele Salvatores, Giuseppe Tornatore and Roberto Benigni – have become popular at Hollywood thanks to their Academy Award-winning motion pictures: respectively, Mediterraneo (1991), Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) and La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997).

Others – Gianni Amelio, Daniele Luchetti, Marco Tullio Giordana, Nanni Moretti – have gained an international reputation thanks to the cultural value of their works: their movies come from a background of economic recession, political instability and cultural aridity and deal with social and political issues, which are intertwined with more emotional and intimate themes.

Gianni Amelio’s films are celluloid paintings depicting novel-like scenes of misery and nobility. Among his most well-known movies are Il ladro di bambini (Stolen Children, 1992), a journey of initiation into contemporary Italy, Special Prize of Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and Lamerica (1994), an intense portrait of the Albanian immigration in Italy, which explores one of his recurrent themes: the search for roots. His last movie, Il primo uomo (The First Man, 2011), is an adaptation of the homonymous novel by Albert Camus and was premiered at the last Toronto Film Festival. Daniele Luchetti’s career spans from the successful political movie Il portaborse (The Yes Man, 1991), a hard-hitting drama film about the corruption and arrogance of Power, to the grotesque feature film La scuola (School, 1995), up to his most intense movie Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother is an Only Child, 2007), which explores the ideological and political extremisms of the 1960s and 1970s through the relationship of two working class brothers. His last film, La nostra vita (Our Life), competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and its leading actor, Elio Germano, won the Best Actor Award.

Family sagas and history are also the main themes of Marco Tullio Giordana’s films, from I cento passi (One Hundred Steps, 2000), a passionate account of the story of Peppino Impastato, who paid for his anti-Mafia activism with his life, to La meglio gioventù (The Best of Youth, 2003), a six-hour film that chronicles the Italian history from 1960s to 2003, and won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Award at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. His last work, Romanzo di una strage (A Novel about a Massacre, 2012), is dedicated to the Piazza Fontana bombing, a terrorist attack occurred on December 12, 1969, at the headquarters of the National Agrarian Bank in Milan. The prestigious French film festival has been a showcase for many talented Italian filmmakers, starting with Nanni Moretti, who has recently been selected as the President of the Jury for the 2012 edition. He won the Palm d’Or in 2001 with his internationally-acclaimed La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room), a dramatic depiction of family crisis and grief where the director shifts the narrative emphasis from the emotional to the rational side of pain.

All Moretti’s films reflect a “moral”, consciousness- raising idea of cinema and contain an in-depth and sarcastic critique of the Italian society. His last film, Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope, 2011), screened in competition at Cannes, stars a wonderful Michel Piccoli as a Pope undergoing a spiritual crisis.

In 2008 the Jury of Cannes, chaired by Sean Pean, awarded a double prize, respectively the Grand Prix and the Jury Prize, to two Italian internationally acclaimed films: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008) by Matteo Garrone and Il Divo (2008) by Paolo Sorrentino. Based on Roberto Saviano’s bestseller, Gomorra was shot, as usual for the Roman director, with a very small troupe, in real-life locations, with handheld cameras, direct sound recording, and non-actors. Garrone is the only Italian filmmaker selected for competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival with his long-awaited Reality.

Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino instead prefers to alter and distort reality and subject it to narrative time dilations. Losers or winners, perpetrators or victims of power, his borderline characters are the insane, “ill” offspring of contemporary society. The surreal and the grotesque are recurring elements of his cinema. His filmmaking style is characterized by surgically precise camera movements, as magnificently shown by Il Divo, a biopic of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, brilliantly played by Toni Servillo. Such was the international success of Il Divo that three years later Sorrentino was given the chance to direct his first English-language feature, the tragicomic road movie This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a bizarre 50-year-old-former rock star.

We end this journey into the internationally acclaimed contemporary Italian filmmakers with two film directors who, for better or for worse, have tasted the “American Dream”: Emanuele Crialese and Gabriele Muccino. After studying filmmaking at the New York University and directing a series of short films, Crialese made his feature-film debut with Once We Were Strangers  (1997), an Italian-American co-production where his visionary and sensuous talent was already evident. After the international success of Respiro  (Grazia’s Island, 2002) and Nuovomondo (Golden Door,  2006), both set in Sicily, his fourth feature film, Terraferma  (“Dry Land”, 2011), deals with the thorny subject of African immigration into Sicily, and received a standing ovation at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, where he won the Special Jury Prize.

As for Gabriele Muccino, he seems to have no intention to leave Hollywood. After The Pursuit of Happiness (2007) and Seven Pounds (2009), in 2011 he directed his third “American” film, a romantic comedy about football, Playing the Field (2012), starring actors of the caliber of Gerard Butler, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman and Dennis Quaid. Most well known for his sentimental pictures, which combine drama, comedy and old-style melodrama, he achieved success with L’ultimo bacio (One Last Kiss, 2001), a cynical and disenchanted reflection on the difficulties of sentimental relationships, which won the Audience Award for World Cinema at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and brought him to the attention of the American film industry. The film, ranked by “Entertainment Weekly” among the top ten movies of the year, was later remade into The Last Kiss (2006) by Tony Goldwyn, which was however deemed by the critics as inferior to the Italian original.

About the Author


Born in Rome in 1982, he graduated from the Faculty of Performing Arts at Roma Tre University, with a dissertation on David Fincher. He works as a writer and film critic for a number of magazines. He has written, directed and edited commercials, short films and documentary films, which were selected for numerous international film festivals and received many awards, such as Gli invisibili, Stretti al vento and Negli occhi. The last one won the “Special Mention – Controcampo Italiano Prize” and the “Biografilm Lancia Award” at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, the “Nastro D’Argento for the Best Documentary” and the “Special Globo d’Oro Speciale”. In 2011 he directed 11 metri, a documentary on the life of the late football player Agostino Di Bartolomei, which was presented as a special event at the 2011 Rome International Film Festival.