10 great films set in Rome

With the Audrey Hepburn romantic classic Roman Holiday back in cinemas, we pay tribute to the Eternal City on film.

Updated: 2 February 2023

By Pasquale Iannone

Roman Holiday (1953)

There’s a moment near the beginning of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) when, after a lavish ceremony at the ambassador’s residence in Rome, young Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) decides to escape from her royal duties and hides in the back of a delivery truck as it heads off into the heart of the Eternal City.

Squashed between jostling crates of Cinzano and San Pellegrino, she peeks out of the back and takes in the bustling nightlife. Streets lined with cafés, couples riding Vespas – it’s the classic image of Rome in the 1950s and 60s; the time when streams of Hollywood productions decamped to Cinecittà, the legendary film studios opened by Mussolini in 1937.

Wyler’s film, back in cinemas for its 70th anniversary on 3 February courtesy of Glasgow-based distributors Park Circus, was one of several dozen ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ productions – others included Quo Vadis? (1951), Helen of Troy (1956), War and Peace (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and – most infamously – Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), the film that very nearly sank 20th Century Fox.

Inside and outside its famous studios, Rome has always been a cinematic city, with generations of filmmakers captivated by its ancient, decaying grandeur. Federico Fellini, who made his home in the city (and Cinecittà) from the late-1930s, was once asked – provocatively – if he thought Rome was “culturally dead”. He responded:

Rome does not need to make culture. It is culture. Prehistoric, classical, Etruscan, Renaissance, Baroque, modern. Every corner of the city is a chapter in an imaginary universal history of culture. Culture in Rome is not an academic concept. It’s not even a museum culture, even though the city is one enormous museum. It is a human culture […] free from cultural faddishness, or neurotic trendiness.

To celebrate the re-release of Wyler’s Roman Holiday, here are 10 very different films set in the Italian capital, stretching across more than 50 years of Roman cinema.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

Director: Jean Negulesco

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) poster

The new CinemaScope format of the early 1950s certainly arrived at a propitious time for those filmmakers heading to Rome. Negulesco had made 20th Century Fox’s second ’Scope picture, How to Marry a Millionaire, in 1954 and followed it up with Three Coins in the Fountain, an irresistibly glossy, picture-postcard romantic comedy about three young American women looking for love in the Eternal City. The fountain in question is of course the Trevi fountain, immortalised just a few years later in Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960).

Like Roman Holiday only a year earlier, Negulesco’s film alternates between location work in and around Rome and studio shooting in Cinecittà. Milton Krasner’s cinematography – while often relying on the ‘clothes-line’ compositions so common in the early CinemaScope period – won a deserved Academy Award in 1955. The song of the film’s title also picked up a golden statuette and went on to become a standard.

L’eclisse (1962)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

L’eclisse (1962)

The third in Antonioni’s acclaimed ‘tetralogy of alienation’, L’eclisse was filmed mostly in the EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma), a district to the south of the city centre which was originally planned by Mussolini to celebrate 20 years of Fascist rule in 1942. However, it was only in the post-war period and later in the 1950s and early 60s that construction was completed, with new modern structures built to stand alongside those from the Fascist era.

Firm in his belief that landscape (urban or rural) should not serve as a simple backdrop to the action, Antonioni moves from the modern, wide-open spaces of the EUR to the closed-in bustle of central Rome for his modernist story of doomed romance. L’eclisse is famous for one of the most extraordinary final sequences in film history; young lovers (Monica Vitti and Alain Delon) fail to make a date and Antonioni turns to the eerily depopulated streets of the EUR to speak not only of the emotional sterility of his characters but also of a more global sense of unease.

Mamma Roma (1962)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Mamma Roma (1962)

There is no way to talk about Rome on film without special mention of both poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and actor Anna Magnani. They worked together only once – on Mamma Roma, the story of a middle-aged prostitute (Magnani) who, having been reunited with her teenage son, aspires to bourgeois respectability and is determined to leave her former life behind.

Magnani had gained international success with roles in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) and by the time she made Mamma Roma, was already a living legend of Roman culture. Pasolini, on the other hand, came to Rome in the early 1950s as a young poet and aspiring novelist. He became fascinated with the world of the Roman sub-proletariat, the disenfranchised characters that populated the borgate (public housing projects built first by the Fascists and then the postwar government). This was the setting for his novels Ragazzi di vita (1955) and Una vita violenta (1957) as well as his first two feature films.

Il boom (1963)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Il boom (1963)

Like Anna Magnani, actor/director Alberto Sordi was an icon of romanità (romanness). Although he took on a range of more serious roles – Francesco Rosi’s I magliari (1959) or Mario Monicelli’s An Average Little Man (1977) for instance – he is best known as one of the stars of the commedia all’italiana (Comedy Italian Style) with unforgettable performances in films such as An American in Rome (1954) and The Great War (1959).

In 1963, he collaborated with director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, 1948; Umberto D, 1952) on Il boom, a scathing satire on the Italian economic miracle. Sordi plays Guido Alberti, a struggling building contractor living way beyond his means. As he sinks deeper into debt, he is made an unusual offer by the wife of a wealthy industrialist, one which could put an end to his financial troubles. The film unfolds in a variety of well-known Rome locations – Villa Borghese, St Peter’s Square, St Sebastian’s Basilica – ending in another memorable final passage, once again in the EUR.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Director: Dario Argento

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) poster

The modern Italian giallo is often said to have begun with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the debut feature from Rome-born director Dario Argento. It’s the story of Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer living in Rome who witnesses the horrific murder of a woman by a black-gloved killer. As the police investigation begins, the murders continue across the city before Sam comes across a vital clue to the killer’s whereabouts.

Argento has always talked of his admiration for Antonioni and his influence can be felt in the lighting and composition of scenes, including the sequence where Sam and his girlfriend Julia are followed by a mysterious stranger along the streets of Trastevere. Later, the killer’s whereabouts are finally revealed in a high-angle shot over the Lungotevere Flaminio. Argento would return again and again to his hometown – most notably in classic gialli such as Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982).

Roma (1972)

Director: Federico Fellini

Roma (1972)

While La dolce vita, Fellini’s sprawling fresco of the Roman ‘sweet life’, is justly recognised as one of the greatest portraits of the Eternal City, the director always felt he had barely scratched the surface of his adopted hometown. A decade later, the city once again took centre stage in Fellini’s Roma, an episodic, highly subjective vision taking in ancient, Fascist and modern Rome with sequences shot both on location and on vast sets in Cinecittà.

“I have a curious eye,” Fellini noted, “but it sees only what I want to see […] I had before me an immense subject and I didn’t want to drown in it […] I had the Rome that I had imagined as a boy in Rimini, basing my fantasies on schoolbooks, Fascism, Mussolini, Julius Caesar, American films. There was the Rome of the vitelloni, [then] the Rome of 1938, the year when I settled in the city […] Finally there was the Rome of the 50s and 60s in all its craziness and explosive tension.”

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

Director: Peter Greenaway

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

Director Peter Greenaway had already visited Rome on several occasions before choosing to set his fourth feature in the city. On one particular trip – a promotional tour for his 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract – he suffered from severe abdominal cramps which, inexplicably, vanished as soon as he left Rome. Greenaway always believed that the pains were psychosomatic, brought on by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy at exhibiting his work in the city of Fellini, Pasolini and other towering chroniclers of the Eternal City.

Ever the auteur, Greenaway drew upon this experience for The Belly of an Architect, the story of an American architect, Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy), who arrives in Rome with his wife only to be struck down by serious stomach pain. Kracklite is in Rome to mount an exhibition showcasing the little-known work of an 18th-century predecessor, Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Shot in locations ranging from St Peter’s Square to the Vittoriano, The Belly of an Architect illustrates Greenaway’s trademark reflexivity by addressing themes such as the artist’s desperate dependency on others and the tension between art and business.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director: Anthony Minghella

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley remains one of the most compelling characters in American crime fiction. Since his first appearance in 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, he has been brought to the screen in various incarnations – Alain Delon in René Clement’s Plein Soleil (1960), Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavani, 2002) and Barry Pepper in Ripley under Ground (Roger Spottiswoode, 2005).

Perhaps the most famous, though, is Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Highsmith’s first Ripley book. The film opens in 1950s New York, when Ripley, hustling out a living as a forger and impersonator, is hired by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to track down his wayward son Dickie (Jude Law) who has been living in Italy. Tom first meets Dickie in Ischia, and Minghella then takes us to Naples and Sanremo before arriving in Rome and locations such as the Spanish Steps and Piazza Lovatelli.

The film is reminiscent of Three Coins in the Fountain in its picture-postcard prettiness but that’s where the comparisons end – there is something far darker at the heart of Ripley’s world.

Il divo (2008)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Il divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s fourth film is a dizzying snapshot of the ‘spectacular life’ of Giulio Andreotti, former Italian prime minister and one of the most controversial figures of post-war Italy whose career was dogged by accusations of links to the Mafia. Sorrentino’s approach is a world away from the dry political biopic, the director himself describing Il divo as a “rock opera about politics”, foregrounding its precise and hugely effective use of music. In one sequence, Andreotti (Toni Servillo) walks down Rome’s deserted Via del Corso to attend early morning mass flanked by a police convoy. Sorrentino uses a passage from Fauré’s Pavane to regulate the slow movements of Andreotti and his guards as they crawl along the empty street.

Other Rome locations include the Palazzo della Sapienza and Villa di Fiorano. The latter is used as the villa of Paolo Cirino Pomicino in a scene where Andreotti agrees to stand as Italian president.

The Salt of Life (2011)

Director: Gianni Di Gregorio

The Salt of Life (2011)

In 2008, 59 year-old writer/director Gianni Di Gregorio made Mid-August Lunch, a low-budget 75-minute comedy in which a middle-aged man (Di Gregorio himself) is forced to look after his nonagenarian mother and three of her friends during a sweltering Roman summer. The film – Di Gregorio’s directorial debut after many years spent working as assistant director and screenwriter – was almost a decade in the making and its unprecedented success led to a follow-up, The Salt of Life. In this film, Gianni juggles the continuing demands of his mother with a very personal crisis – having reached the age of 60, he feels that women don’t seem to notice him anymore. Determined to be more like his friend, ageing lothario Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), Gianni decides to shape up and overcome his natural shyness.

While Mid-August Lunch was filmed largely within Gianni’s Trastevere apartment, Di Gregorio’s follow-up moves out to explore his neighbourhood as well as the city more widely, including a scene towards the end of the film, when – in a tongue-in-cheek homage to Anita Ekberg in La dolce vita – a drunk Gianni splashes around in the Ara Pacis fountain.

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Originally published: 18 July 2013