10 great Italian films of the 1970s

Fellini, Argento and Antonioni are included in our round-up of some of the best Italian cinema to come out of the 1970s.

7 July 2017

By Pasquale Iannone

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

The 1970s is usually considered a decade of steady decline for Italian cinema, with many accounts of the period lamenting a notable qualitative drop from the previous decade. Critics such as Lino Micciché have argued that while the early 1960s saw a range of boldly iconoclastic feature debuts – from Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, Elio Petri, Lina Wertmüller to name just a few – the same cannot be said of the early 70s.

There is certainly some truth to this, but a closer look reveals some impressive debuts from the likes of Dario Argento, Sergio Citti, Alberto Bevilacqua, Aldo Lado and Fabio Carpi. In the second half of the decade, filmmakers such as Nanni Moretti, Maurizio Nichetti and Giuseppe Bertolucci came to the fore, with others such as Gianni Amelio carving out reputations in TV before making the leap to the big screen in the 1980s.

The 70s was a generally strong decade for genre filmmaking, with some of the most inventive gialli, horror films, poliziotteschi, westerns and comedies. But what of the canonical auteurs? Between 1974 and 1977, three of the great maestri who had made their names during the neorealist era passed away – Vittorio De Sica in 1974, Luchino Visconti in 1976 and Roberto Rossellini in 1977. All three had remained active until the end, with Visconti especially catching the eye with the defiantly decadent quartet of Death in Venice (1971), Ludwig (1973), Conversation Piece (1974) and The Innocent (1976). Pasolini, who for several years had been a vitally polemical presence in Italian culture, was murdered in 1975.

The following list tries to give a sense of the extremely high quality of work produced in Italy during the 1970s. It showcases the very different landscapes and dialects of the peninsula – from Campania to Lombardy, Sardinia to Emilia-Romagna. Some of the titles were commercial hits, others scooped major awards, while some even managed both.

On the subject of international recognition, it should be remembered that Italian films won Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or two years running – Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Padre Padrone in 1977 and Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs in 1978. The latter film is currently making a welcome return to UK cinemas before a DVD/Blu-ray release later in the year.

Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (1970)

Director: Elio Petri

Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (1970)

There’s little doubt that the work of Elio Petri is still extremely undervalued, especially outside of Italy. His most famous picture, the Oscar-winning tale of a high ranking, more-than-machiavellian police inspector who toys with his fawning underlings, is one of cinema’s most effective dissections of the use and abuse of power.

After their 1967 Leonardo Sciascia adaptation, To Each His Own, Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion saw Petri continue his collaboration with Salerno-born screenwriter Ugo Pirro and features a central performance of barely-contained twitchiness by Gian Maria Volontè as well as an eccentric main theme by Ennio Morricone. Petri and Pirro returned to the subject of the dynamics of power in The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Property Is No Longer a Theft (1973).

Amarcord (1973)

Director: Federico Fellini

Amarcord (1973)

In 1975, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord came away with the Academy Award for best foreign film ahead of pictures such as Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Károly Makk’s Cat’s Play (1974). A bittersweet collection of episodes and characters from the director’s childhood in provincial Emilia-Romagna during the first half of the Fascist era, it saw him team up with Michelangelo Antonioni’s regular screenwriter Tonino Guerra for the first time.

Amarcord features some of the most memorable passages in the director’s filmography, including his riotously funny depiction of school life under Mussolini and a hauntingly beautiful snow scene that unfolds in the town square. Nino Rota’s lilting score is justly celebrated and will be recognisable even to those who haven’t seen the film.

We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974)

Director: Ettore Scola

We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974)

Often referred to as the director’s masterpiece, Ettore Scola’s comedy drama We All Loved Each Other So Much follows the fortunes of three male friends, Gianni (Vittorio Gassman), Antonio (Nino Manfredi) and Nicola (Stefano Satta Flores), from their time as partisans during the Second World War through to the boom years of the 1950s and 60s and beyond. We follow the changes in the characters’ circumstances, as well as their individual relationships with the same woman, Luciana (Stefania Sandrelli).

Working with his regular screenwriting collaborators Age & Scarpelli, Scola crafts a work that is dazzlingly self-reflexive (including cameos from De Sica, Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni) but also profoundly melancholic. In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, French actor Daniel Auteuil talks movingly about the effect the film had on him: “It makes me sad because it’s a story of a failure – how life can be a failure […] Very early on, the film marked me and made me aware of the implications of relationships, of guilt […] I’ve seen it since and I’ve showed it to my children, but I don’t want to watch it anymore. I can’t!”

The Passenger (1975)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

The Passenger (1975)

Shot in the UK, Germany, Spain and North Africa, with a screenplay co-written by film theorist and filmmaker Peter Wollen (author of the influential 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema), The Passenger features New Hollywood cinema icon Jack Nicholson as a jaded TV journalist working in the Sahara who assumes the identity of a dead man.

It was the fourth consecutive film Antonioni made outside Italy after Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970) and Chung Kuo China (1972), and the cosmopolitan modernist makes highly expressive use of landscape and architecture – from London’s Brunswick Centre to Barcelona’s Palau Güell. Ever the specialist in enigmatic endings (witness L’avventura and L’eclisse, to name just two), Antonioni surpasses himself with a quietly breathtaking finale.

Seven Beauties (1975)

Director: Lina Wertmüller

Seven Beauties (1975)

From its memorable credit sequence – a montage of Second World War newsreels accompanied by the wry lyrics and bluesy melody of Enzo Jannacci’s ‘Quelli che…’ (‘Those who…’) – it’s clear that Lina Wertmüller’s 10th feature is anything but a conventional war film. It centres around self-satisfied Neapolitan hood Pasqualino Frafuso (Wertmüller regular Giancarlo Giannini), the only male in a family of seven adult daughters. When he commits a violent honour killing, Pasqualino embarks on an ordeal that’s by turns farcical and grotesque, his struggle to survive at all costs culminating in the seduction of a concentration camp commandant (played by The Honeymoon Killers’ Shirley Stoler).

Seven Beauties was a big success in the US, and Wertmüller received a best director Oscar nomination – the first woman filmmaker to be nominated in the category.

Amici miei (1975)

Director: Mario Monicelli

Amici miei (1975)

As the 1970s progressed, it became more and more of a rarity to see a non-Hollywood film top annual Italian box office tables. The last picture to do so during the decade – edging past Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), no less – was a black comedy about a group of friends who try to enliven the doldrums of middle age with a series of wild escapades and pranks.

Amici miei was meant to have been directed by Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned) but due to illness the Genoan filmmaker passed the project over to Mario Monicelli, another master of ‘Comedy Italian Style’. With its foregrounding of male friendship, the film has clear links with other pictures of the time, such as Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much, Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973) and Claude Sautet’s Vincent, François, Paul and the Others (1974). It went on to become a popular favourite, spawning two sequels, in 1982 and 1985.

1900 (1976)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

1900 (1976)

It’s certainly a film of breathtaking ambition, but the concept behind Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-hour epic is relatively straightforward. Alfredo and Olmo are born on the same day in the same region of Emilia-Romagna in 1901; Alfredo into a family of prosperous landowners, Olmo into a family of peasants. Despite their differences in social background, the pair (played from young adulthood onwards by Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu respectively) develop a friendship that is severely tested by tumultuous historical events.

Responding to criticism that the film was not completely accurate in terms of its depiction of the workers’ struggle, Bertolucci told critic Aldo Tassone that the PCI (Italian Communist Party) chiefs “took it to be a documentary when it was more of an epic poem […] I didn’t want to get involved with the political discourse of the time [when the film was released] because politics changes day-to-day, if not minute-to-minute.”

Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento

Suspiria (1977)

The work of a filmmaker at the very top of his game, Dario Argento’s sixth feature was produced by his brother Claudio and co-written with his then wife, actress Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red, Property Is No Longer a Theft). Shot in nightmarishly saturated, burning Technicolor, Suspiria sees a young American ballerina (Jessica Harper) drawn into the macabre practices of a dance school in the German city of Freiburg.

The film’s influence on generations of directors is undeniable, with Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) currently working on a long-gestating remake starring Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz and Tilda Swinton.

Padre Padrone (1977)

Directors: Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani

Padre Padrone (1977)

Filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were awarded the Palme d’Or (by a jury headed by Roberto Rossellini) and gained international recognition for their chronicle of the extraordinary life of Sardinian Gavino Ledda. Taken out of school as a small child and forced by his father to work the land, Ledda finally broke away to pursue an education before going on to become a professor of linguistics.

Positioned between 1900 and The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Padre Padrone can be seen as the second in a triptych of mid to late 70s films exploring Italian peasant life. It’s the most stylistically bold of the three, owing as much to Bertolt Brecht as to Rossellini.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

Director: Ermanno Olmi

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

“The reason for this spontaneous return to the peasant roots of our culture is that I’m now 46 years old and I feel profoundly disoriented by the situation I find myself in.” This is how director Ermanno Olmi outlined the genesis of The Tree of Wooden Clogs to Aldo Tassone around the time of the film’s release. “Reacting to the impossible task of planning the future, I felt the need to interrogate the past.”

The emphasis for Olmi was on the word ‘interrogation’. “It all depends on how you look back,” he notes. “There’s a kind of nostalgia that becomes regret, and regret is giving up on life. I don’t think this is the case with me.” While 1900 features an array of international stars, Olmi’s starkly beautiful ensemble drama turns to non-professional actors to chronicle the harsh lives of four peasant families in turn-of-the-century Lombardy.

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free