Italian cinema: 10 little known gems set in Rome

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When you think about Rome in movies, you suddenly face a bunch of titles that brutally take the scene, leaving little space to a whole genre which we could boldly call “romexploitation”. That said, while approaching this list you shouldn’t expect quotations from La dolce vita, cuts from Eat, Pray Love (watching that particular movie is probably considered a fellony in various countries) or devoted tributes to La Grande Bellezza, for we’re going to approach romexploitation from a less traveled path, the one with the hidden gems. Although not every movie of this list is a masterpiece, each one of them depicts Rome with a particular palette, giving a vivid picture of what the Eternal City was, is or will be.

1. Roma contro Roma, Giuseppe Vari (1964). As promised, let’s start with a cult b-movie which mixes historical drama with… zombies! Except for some scenes, the movie is not literally set in Rome (the main plot takes place in the geographic area of Asia Minor), but the omnipresent theme of the Caput Mundi, openly described as “the Queen of civilization”, endangered by an obscure goddess of terror, puts this movie right on the top of our list. Distributed in the US with the title The War of Zombies, this work is a bright example of the flourishing italian b-movie movement which has been inspiring masters such as Quentin Tarantino among others.


2.Brutti, sporchi e cattivi, Ettore Scola (1976). Although this brilliant depiction of the roman slums in the early 70s is a little more known, this story is both unique and disturbing, especially if you consider that this often cruel fresco of human miseries doesn’t alter reality to create (both phisically and morally) monstrous characters, but uses real life as it was – and sometimes is – to show how the human condition can be as repulsive and unbelievable as a grotesque decoration. Having become famous both among cinephiles and language loving freaks for its outstanding mix of roman and southern dialects (the main charachter, played by immortal Nino Manfredi, is an immigrated patriarch from Puglia), this movie also contains one of the most sadly hilarious scenes in the history of italian cinema.

3.Amore tossico, Claudio Caligari (1983). This movie has spurred such a cult that actual urban legends were born around it. Directed by standoffish author Claudio Caligari, this work ideally continues the tradition of italian neorealism, portraying its extreme consequences. Entirely played by non professional actors, literally collected from the worst drug streets of Ostia, Amore tossico offers an unprecedented insight in the world of heroin addiction during the early 80s. It is commonly believed that many of the performes died after the movie was shot, but this was the case for just two of them; nevertheless, this movie is so crude that watching it today, 35 years after the events depicted, still sends chills down your spine.

4.Febbre da cavallo, Steno (1976). Enough with the bad feelings, let’s take a look at a title ascribable to the great tradition of italian 70s comedy. Directed by Steno, a master of the genre, this movie analyzes, with an amused and accomplice look, the world of horse betting in the sunny and easygoing scenario of the roman suburbs. Supported by a more than prestigious cast (Gigi Proietti, Katherine Spaak and Enrico Montesano above all others), this delicious comedy smells like hay and cigar smoke, and its surreal plot never fails to amuse the audience. Simply a must.

5.Cosmonauta, Susanna Nicchiarelli (2009). Entirely shot in the Trullo neighborhood, located in the far western outskirts of the city, Cosmonauta is a delicate and empathetic narration of the ideological, political and personal growth of a young woman in the late 60s. Especially reccomended to those viewers who are not familiar with the role that Italian Communist Party (PCI) has been playing in the cultural history of the Belpaese.

6.Mille bolle blu, Leone Pompucci (1993). Set in the district of Prati, near the Vatican City, during the summer of 1961, the plot of this nostalgic drama is characterized by two elements: the eponymous song, which evocates a whole set of cultural and historical references related to a that sort of paradise lost which Italy was in the years of economic boom; the solar eclipse, which actually took place that year and marked the childhood of so many of our parents (personally my mum told me nearly 1000 times about that unforgettable day).

7.Un borghese piccolo piccolo, Mario Monicelli (1977). Being proud inhabitants of the Monti neighborhood, we couldn’t miss the chance to include our patron saint Mario Monicelli in this list. This movie, adapted from a book by Vincenzo Cerami and starring a majestic Alberto Sordi, is considered one of the highest peaks of Monicelli’s productions, though it is also one of his most bitter and dramatic works. Having nothing to envy from other movies focused on revenge and its aftermath, Un borghese piccolo piccolo turns out to be extremely disturbing both for the social environment in which it is set (roman middle class with its miseries and its tragedies) and for the dramatic and moral burden it carries, telling the story of a desperate father – once a charmless average man who loses his only son in a tragic accident.

8.Mortacci, Sergio Citti (1989). Again a grotesque comedy, but not as desperate as Brutti, sporchi e cattivi. Starring Vittorio Gassman and Sergio Rubini and set in a roman cemetery, the movie is a long and elaborated theatrical piece in which the souls of the deceased are discussing life, afterlife, destiny, love, grief, war, heroism, cowardice and any other human condition. The whole spirit of this enjoyable movie is summarized in the following line by Alma, one of the spirits that haunt the cemetery: «Le cose che prima ci facevano piangere adesso ci fanno ridere» (literally: the things that once made us cry, now make us laugh).

9.In barca a vela contromano, Stefano Reali (1997). From the cemetery heading backwards to the hospital! This gracious comedy, starring roman icon Valerio Mastandrea among others, tells the story of a young man, Massimo, which is waiting for a knee surgery in a roman hospital and gets involved in an illegal black market within the hospital itself. Although this movie reports a serious problem of misconduct that afflicts the italian healthcare system, the tone in which the story is told lightens the atmosphere and makes the movie enjoyable without nullifying its moral and formative message.

10.Et in terra pax, Matteo Botrugno (2010). Back to the suburbs with this dramatic story set in the ill-famous slum of Corviale (aka er serpentone, “the big snake”), one of the worst examples of urban architechture of the XX century. The plot itself doesn’t appear to be so original (it is the usual story of a failed redemption and harsh return to brutal reality), but what stuns the viewer in this movie is the clean photography, the genuine and immersive atmosphere of the roman suburbs, the psychological depth of some of the characters, alongside with some good choices concerning the sountrack (as suggested by the title). To us, one of the best movies of 2010 and altogether one of the best movies about Rome made in the last ten years.

And that’s it, our non-exhaustive list of hidden treasures. Needless to say we will get very disappointend if you won’t watch all of those movies and have your say in the comments. 😉

As an extra content, you can take a look at this beautiful tumblr, in which frames taken from old movies set in Rome are compared with modern pictures shot in the same streets. Enjoy!

[Special thanks to our bright student Andrea for cleaning up this mess and putting it into intelligible English!]

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