10 great Italian films of the 1960s

As many a film director’s favourite film, Fellini’s grand opus 8½, is set to return to UK cinemas, we round up 10 more masterpieces from what was a golden age for Italian cinema: the 1960s.

8½ (1963)

It may not have experienced a new wave in the same way as its French counterpart, but Italian cinema produced an incredible range of films in the 1960s. Not only did mature auteurs such as Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini cement reputations carved out during the immediate postwar years, there was also a dramatic flowering of new talent – from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Marco Bellocchio, Lina Wertmüller to Francesco Rosi, Marco Ferreri to Liliana Cavani, Bernardo Bertolucci to the Taviani brothers. During a veritable decennium mirabilis, Italy produced westerns, comedies, gialli, historical epics, horror films, cop thrillers, family dramas and much more.

In 2015, Fellini’s 8½ (1963), one of the decade’s canonical pictures, saw a welcome rerelease in a brand new digital restoration. Fellini favourite Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a filmmaker who struggles to get his latest project off the ground while juggling the myriad demands of his producer, his wife and his mistress. An impressive supporting cast includes Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale and Rossella Falk, while the music comes courtesy of Fellini’s regular collaborator Nino Rota.

Surprisingly, Fellini completed just four features between 1960 and 1970 (La dolce vita, 8 ½, Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon) as well as episodes in a couple of anthology films, Boccaccio 70 (1962) and Spirits of the Dead (1968). There was also the small matter of The Journey of G. Mastorna – a project that the director was obsessed by and which remains one of cinema’s most famous unrealised films. But Fellini aside, what other great Italian films appeared in the 1960s?

In putting together the following selection, the brief was the usual one: each title had to be available on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK, with one film per director. All fairly straightforward. Except that after scribbling down 20 or so titles off the top of my head, I found that half of them were unavailable in the UK. There was no sign of films like Family Diary (Valerio Zurlini, 1962), Numbered Days (Elio Petri, 1962), The Lizards (Lina Wertmüller, 1963), Fists in the Pocket (Marco Bellocchio, 1965), Almost a Man (Vittorio De Seta, 1966), The Subversives (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1967), Dillinger Is Dead (Marco Ferreri, 1969) and several others. There were also very few commedie all’italiana (Comedies Italian Style) available in the UK. Titles such as The Passionate Thief (Mario Monicelli, 1960), Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned (Pietro Germi, 1961 and 1964) or Il sorpasso and I mostri (Dino Risi, 1962 and 1963) couldn’t be included.

Having said all that, some filmmakers – Fellini, Rosi, Visconti, Mario Bava – are very well served, with extras-laden HD editions from labels such as Masters of Cinema, Arrow, BFI and Shameless that often surpass releases currently available in Italy or indeed anywhere else in the world.

L’avventura (1960)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

L’avventura (1960)

Although Michelangelo Antonioni had made several features by the late 1950s, it was the four films he directed between 1960 and 1964 that confirmed his status as one of cinema’s great modernists. Often referred to as the ‘tetralogy of alienation’, L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964) tell of middle class emotional sterility and existential angst and were written together with the celebrated poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra.

In L’avventura, architect Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) embarks on a boating trip along the Mediterranean with his lover Anna (Lea Massari) and a group of friends, including Claudia (Monica Vitti). After a couple of enigmatic exchanges with Sandro (“I know it’s absurd, the idea of losing you kills me and still, I don’t feel you anymore”), Anna disappears. Both Sandro and Claudia search for her, but Anna is nowhere to be found and, as their search loses momentum, Sandro and Claudia embark on their own ill-fated affair.

Its unhurried rhythm, inscrutable characters and use of landscape may have puzzled both critics and audiences on its original release, but there’s little doubt that L’avventura set a new standard for the European art film.

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Director: Luchino Visconti

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Towards the end of the 1950s, and after a busy few years directing theatre and opera, director Luchino Visconti started planning his sixth feature together with his regular screenwriting partner Suso Cecchi D’Amico and novelist Vasco Pratolini. It was to be a highly topical tale of internal migration – the story of a family (a widowed mother and her five sons) who migrate from Lucania in the south of Italy to the industrial city of Milan in the north.

Like most Visconti films, Rocco and His Brothers drew from literary sources; in this case, Milanese author Giovanni Testori’s short story collection Ghisolfa Bridge (1958) and Thomas Mann’s epic four-part novel, Joseph and His Brothers (1943). Visconti follows the fortunes of all five of the brothers – Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier), Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) as they adapt to life in the city.

Accattone (1961)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Accattone (1961)

Looking across Pier Paolo Pasolini’s filmography of the 1960s we see a restless, formidable intellect adapting to, and experimenting with, a medium he was never formally trained in. If we compare his first film of the 1960s, Accattone, with his last film of the decade, Medea (1969), they seem poles apart in both form and content. While the latter is an enigmatic retelling of the Greek myth featuring opera superstar Maria Callas, Accattone – Pasolini’s feature debut – is set among low-level criminals in the harsh world of Roman housing projects and is played out by a cast composed largely of non-professionals.

When he first stepped behind the camera – his 20-year-old assistant Bernardo Bertolucci by his side – Pasolini had already worked on various projects as screenwriter (Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Mauro Bolognini’s Il bell’Antonio), but it was his involvement in Carlo Lizzani’s 1960 war drama, The Hunchback of Rome – in which he also acted – that prepared him for the leap to directing.

Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

Director: Francesco Rosi

Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

Francesco Rosi’s incisive filmic investigations seem a world away from the introspection of Fellini or the existential crises of Antonioni. Rather than focus on the personal, Rosi was interested above all in the public: what went on in the corridors of power, who made deals with whom. This was the approach he used for films such as The Mattei Affair (1972) and Lucky Luciano (1973), but for many his greatest achievement remains Salvatore Giuliano (1962).

In approaching the life of the ‘Sicilian Robin Hood’, most filmmakers would have been tempted by spectacle or hagiography, but Rosi decentres the figure of Giuliano and instead explores the motives of those that allowed him to remain at large, including politicians and the mafia. “For us, Giuliano […] was a beautiful, intense picture,” novelist Leonardo Sciascia wrote in 1963, “Sicily had never been seen on film with such precise realism or in such minute detail.”

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Director: Mario Bava

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

The giallo, that uniquely Italian take on the murder mystery with its heightened, highly stylised doses of sex and violence, came of age in the 1970s through the work of filmmakers such as Dario Argento, Aldo Lado and Sergio Martino. In the 1960s there were several pictures that are usually identified as important progenitors of the genre – two of these coming from the pioneering cinematographer, writer and director Mario Bava.

In The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), a young American tourist called Nora (Letícia Román) witnesses a murder in Rome that could be the work of a serial killer. Made two years later, Blood and Black Lace tells of a series of gruesome, sadistic murders in a high-class fashion house. Just as innovative in its use of colour as any Italian picture of the 60s and featuring a latin-tinged score by Carlo Rustichelli, the film went on to influence directors as varied as Argento and Pedro Almodóvar.

Before the Revolution (1964)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Before the Revolution (1964)

The son of celebrated Italian poet Attilio, Bernardo Bertolucci was a precocious talent. His first experiences in filmmaking came under the guidance of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had been a family friend for some years. Completed when he was only 21, Bertolucci’s first feature, The Grim Reaper (1962), unfolds in a Pasolinian setting (the Roman underworld of novels such as A Violent Life and films such as Accattone) but uses the famous multi-perspective formal structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951).

Bertolucci’s second film, Before the Revolution, saw the Parma-born filmmaker take inspiration not from Pasolini but from French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard in a story based very loosely on Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma. In a 1980 interview with Aldo Tassone, Bertolucci admitted: “In the film, you’ve got my relationship with politics […] my romantic relationship as well as my relationship with a city that I left during adolescence […] I was living through all these things and they can all be found in [Before the Revolution].”

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Director: Federico Fellini

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Since their first films together, the careers of husband and wife Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini had developed very much in tandem. They had worked together on five films in the 1950s – Variety Lights (1950), The White Sheik (1952), La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955) and Nights of Cabiria (1957) – winning two Academy Awards in the process. Masina also starred in Fortunella (1958), a film co-written by Fellini but eventually directed by Eduardo De Filippo. As her husband’s international fame skyrocketed with La dolce vita and 8 ½, Masina’s own career slowed down (although one of her best roles came during this period – opposite Anna Magnani in Renato Castellani’s 1959 prison drama, Nella città l’inferno).

Masina hadn’t made any films for five years before Fellini created the character of a bourgeois housewife who, after learning of her husband’s infidelity, gains solace in the world of psychic phenomena. Juliet of the Spirits was Fellini’s first full feature in colour and – together with regular DoP Gianni Di Venanzo – he employs a purposefully heightened, anti-naturalistic palette to get a sense of his protagonist’s worldview.

The 10th Victim (1965)

Director Elio Petri

The 10th Victim (1965)

Still best known for Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, his Oscar-winning police thriller from 1970, Elio Petri made an eclectic range of films in the 1960s – from proto-giallo L’assassino (1961) through to psycho-horror A Quiet Place in the Country (1968). Mid-point in the decade, he made The 10th Victim, a kaleidoscopic science-fiction extravaganza featuring international sex symbols Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.

Some time in the future, a game called ‘The Big Hunt’ has taken the place of large-scale conflicts. It has players matched up by computer and given five chances as hunter and five as victim. If they manage to survive all 10 stages, the players win handsome cash prizes as well as the adulation of the masses. In the guise of playful sci-fi, Petri’s film has much to say about 1960s society, as we follow prolific ‘hunter’ Caroline Meredith (Andress) homing in on her 10th victim, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

His career in cinema spanned more than 50 years, but Gillo Pontecorvo’s feature films can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Between 1957 and 1979, he made The Wide Blue Road (1957), Kapò  (1960), The Battle of Algiers (1966), ¡Queimada! (1969) and Ogro (1979) – a remarkably low output which he put down not to faithless producers or the fickleness of the industry, but to his own self-doubt. However, if the director had only made one picture – The Battle of Algiers – he would still be considered an important figure.

Pontecorvo started thinking about a project on the Algerian war in the early 1960s. He had in mind the story of an ex-paratrooper who returned to Paris from Algeria to become a magazine photographer – Paul Newman was pencilled in for the lead role. In the end, that project fell through, but the research Pontecorvo carried out proved extremely valuable as, after the country gained independence in 1964, he was approached to make a film on the conflict from an Algerian perspective. The resulting picture has been described as one of the great political films. “I was mainly interested in showing this unstoppable process of liberation,” Pontecorvo told Edward Saïd in a Cineaste interview from 2000, “not only in Algeria but throughout the whole world.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Director: Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

By the time Sergio Leone came to make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the third film in his ‘Dollars trilogy’, the golden era of the spaghetti western was very much in full swing. 1966 was the year of Sergio Corbucci’s original Django as well as other staples of the genre such as Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red and Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General.

Set during the American Civil War, Leone’s epic follows three characters – Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), mercenary Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Clint Eastwood) – and their ruthless, relentless search for buried confederate gold. All of Leone’s characteristic formal tropes are here, most notably his widescreen set pieces brilliantly choreographed to the music of Ennio Morricone. The composer’s main theme remains one of cinema’s most recognisable cues, while another piece ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ – featuring the vocal of his regular collaborator Edda Dell’Orso – has also become a cult favourite.

Your suggestions

L’eclisse (1962)

To our list above, you voted to add these great 1960s Italian films…

  1. L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
  2. Hands across the City (Francesco Rosi, 1963)
  3. Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
  4. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
  5. Girl with a Suitcase (Valerio Zurlini, 1961)
  6. Marriage Italian Style (Vittorio De Sica, 1964)
  7. Il posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)
  8. Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)
  9. Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962)
  10. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Antonioni ruled the roost this week when we asked you what we’d missed from the list. We included his groundbreaking 1960 film L’avventura (see above), but a lot of you thought that the director’s subsequent collaboration with Monica Vitti, 1962’s L’eclisse, also deserved inclusion. Teaming Vitti with Alain Delon, it’s the story of a tentative love affair between a young woman and a Rome stockbroker, and another of Antonioni’s desolate pictures of life and love in an era of alienation. There was also support for the later Antonioni-Vitti collaboration: 1964’s Red Desert.

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