10 great Italian pastoral films

Alice Rohrwacher, Bernardo Bertolucci and the Taviani brothers are just some of the filmmakers who’ve been drawn to the beauty and harsh realities of rural Italy.

15 February 2024

By Pasquale Iannone

The Wonders (2014)

In its first century as a unified country – 1860s to the 1960s – a significant proportion of Italy remained rural. However, as historian Gian Piero Brunetta has argued, Italian cinema initially tended to downplay this fact in favour of a celebration of life in the rapidly-developing cities and towns. “The countryside was cancelled, removed or it was depicted as bucolic picture postcards” Brunetta notes. “There didn’t seem to be an interest in representing country life with any nuance or complexity.” During the Fascist era (1922 to 1943), rural dramas became more commonplace, most notably through the work of Alessandro Blasetti and films such as Sole (1929) and Mother Earth (1931). “[Blasetti’s] interest was in landscape, in the time-honoured traditions of rural Italy,” Stephen Gundle has noted, “and in the possibility of restoring these to the centre of a culture that was also embracing the modernity of which cinema itself, as a modern urban medium, was a part.”

While many of the most indelible images from the neorealist period – from works such as Rome, Open City (1945), Germany Year Zero (1948), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952) – concerned life in the cities, there were some notable exceptions, especially the films of Giuseppe De Santis (1949’s Bitter Rice, 1950’s Under the Olive Tree). With the so-called ‘economic miracle’ in the late 1950s, millions of agricultural workers moved to major urban centres such as Rome, Milan and Turin for jobs in the industrial sector, and it wasn’t long before the effects of this dramatic and rapid industrialisation began to attract filmmakers. However, as you might expect, the majority of works centring on the economic boom focused on cities, on characters juggling and struggling with the demands of life in the metropolis.

In very different ways, the following 10 pictures all go beyond the ‘bucolic picture postcard’. They range from the lyrical to the weather-beaten, historical to contemporary, from decade-spanning, multi-character epics to works where human concerns and intrigues are decentred, where the focus shifts to the lives of animals, on the changing of seasons. A list of this nature could easily be made up entirely of films by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, by Ermanno Olmi or by Vittorio De Seta, but I’ve limited it to one title per filmmaker. I’ve also tried to include as many different Italian regions as possible – from Sardinia to Emilia-Romagna, Campania to Lombardy.

To Live in Peace (1947)

Director: Luigi Zampa

To Live in Peace (1947)

Luigi Zampa’s wartime comedy-drama tells of middle-aged farmer Tigna (Aldo Fabrizi) who lives with his wife, young nephews and elderly father in the Umbrian countryside. While out in the woods one day, the children come across a couple of American GIs on the run from the Nazis. They bring the escaped soldiers back to their uncle’s farm and hide them in the stables, even though the Nazi occupiers have made it known that any families harbouring Allied soldiers will be executed.

By the time Zampa’s film was released in 1947, lead actor Fabrizi had gained international recognition for his memorable role as an anti-fascist priest in Rome, Open City. If anything, his performance here is even more accomplished, with the character’s initial easy-going charm slowly turning into brooding melancholy as the gravity of his family’s situation becomes apparent. Zampa’s film is also notable for featuring early work by screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who would go on to write or co-write many classics of Italian cinema, from Bicycle Thieves to The Leopard (1963).

Bitter Rice (1949)

Director: Giuseppe De Santis

Bitter Rice (1949)

Giuseppe De Santis was a very important, though often overlooked, figure in Italian neorealism. Before becoming a filmmaker, he had been a passionate and forthright young critic in the 1930s and early 40s, arguing that fiction film under fascism had – among other things – lost a sense of the importance, the sheer diversity of the Italian landscape. “How can it be possible to understand and interpret man,” he wrote in his famous 1941 article ‘For an Italian Landscape’,  “if we isolate him from the elements in which he lives every day, with which he communicates every day?”

De Santis’s international breakthrough as a director came with Bitter Rice, a film which takes us to the fields of the north-western region of Piedmont and centres on two mondine (female rice workers) (Silvana Mangano and Doris Dowling) and their involvement with a petty criminal (Vittorio Gassman).

Bandits of Orgosolo (1961)

Director: Vittorio De Seta

Bandits of Orgosolo (1961)

Between 1954 and 1959, Sicilian Vittorio De Seta made a series of short documentaries exploring rural and provincial life in the south of Italy. Working initially with 16mm, he would move on to the broader canvas of 35mm cinemascope for vivid works such as Sulphur Mines (1955) and Peasants of the Sea (1955). These were achingly poignant snapshots of a vanishing world which De Seta presented without the traditional documentary tool of explanatory voiceover, relying instead on meticulous framing, editing and evocative (post-synchronised) sounds of people and place.

By the end of the decade, De Seta moved from documentary to fiction and his feature debut – Bandits of Orgosolo (1961) – focuses on a Sardinian shepherd (Michele Cossu) who finds himself on the run from the authorities. The film is a favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, who has often spoken of first seeing it at the New York Film Festival and noting how “it was as if De Seta were an anthropologist who spoke with the voice of a poet”.

1900 (1976)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

1900 (1976)

After the notable critical and commercial success of his early 70s films The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bernardo Bertolucci took on his most ambitious project to date, a ‘peasant epic’ spanning the first half of the 20th century and featuring Hollywood A-listers such as Robert De Niro and Burt Lancaster alongside non-professionals from the director’s home region of Emilia-Romagna.

Initially conceived for television and as a collaboration between the US and Soviet Union, the director was forced into a rethink after finding out that Soviet involvement would be dependent on Moscow’s approval of the film’s screenplay. The interweaving of the personal and the political is played out on a grand, operatic scale as Bertolucci ties the colours and moods of the four seasons to distinct periods in the lives of his two main protagonists. It’s all set to a typically rich and varied Ennio Morricone score, which includes some of the composer’s most memorable themes, such as ‘Romanzo’.

Padre Padrone (1977)

Director: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Padre Padrone (1977)

In the Taviani brothers’ 55 year joint career, rural landscapes dominate, whether it’s their native Tuscany, in works such as 1982’s The Night of Shooting Stars and 1993’s Fiorile; Sicily, in their 1984 episode film Kaos; or the Sardinia of Padre Padrone (1977). “We were born in Tuscany and we have an intimate knowledge of life in the fields,” Vittorio Taviani told Aldo Tassone in 1979. “It’s also why we have a deep love of Russian writers, who had such a close connection with the land.”

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, Padre Padrone tells the extraordinary true story of Gavino Ledda, a noted linguist who, as a young child, was taken out of school by his farmer father and made to work on the family’s land. The Tavianis follow Gavino from childhood to early adulthood when he learns to read and write and develops an insatiable interest in language.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

Director: Ermanno Olmi

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

One of the most clear-eyed, yet compassionate chroniclers of the world of work – especially the industrialisation of the ‘economic miracle’ – Ermanno Olmi made his name with his second and third features Il posto (1961) and I fidanzati (1963), both focusing on the lives of young office workers in the big city. His 1978 film The Tree of Wooden Clogs is set in late 19th-century rural Lombardy and is based loosely on stories told to the director by his grandmother. In a low-key register far removed from the often violent tumult of Bertolucci’s 1900 – a film to which it’s often compared – the director obtains deeply affecting performances from his entirely non-professional cast, including six-year-old Omar Brignoli as Minec, the boy whose story gives the film its title.

The film saw off some serious opposition – the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Carlos Saura, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol – to win the 1978 Palme d’Or, the second year in a row that the Cannes Film Festival’s top award went to Italy, after the Tavianis’ Padre Padrone in 1977.

Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979)

Director: Francesco Rosi

Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979)

In 1935, targeted by the authorities for his anti-fascist activity, the Turin-born writer and painter Carlo Levi was exiled to the southern region of Basilicata. He spent a year there observing first-hand the hardships suffered by rural communities that had been largely forgotten by the state. He went on to write about this period in his 1945 autobiographical novel Christ Stopped at Eboli where he argued: “unless there is a peasant revolution we shall never have a true Italian revolution, for the two are identical”.

In 1979, the novel was adapted for the screen by Neapolitan filmmaker Francesco Rosi with Gian Maria Volonté in the lead role. Rosi undoubtedly felt a certain kinship with the material, having tackled the various socio-political issues affecting the Italian south in films such as Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Hands over the City (1963). “If my film only manages to return some kind of dignity to the word ‘peasant’, it will have achieved a brilliant result,” Rosi told interviewer Aldo Tassone shortly after the film’s release.

Le quattro volte (2010)

Director: Michelangelo Frammartino

Le Quattro Volte (2010)

Rural Calabria is the setting for Michelangelo Frammartino’s second feature, a virtually dialogue-free meditation on the idea of metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul), the idea that the soul exists beyond death and can be reborn, even in animal form. “Pythagoras supposedly said that each of us holds within us four successive lives, each one enmeshed in the others,” the director told Jonathan Romney in a 2011 Sight and Sound interview. “Man is made of mineral, because he has a skeleton; he’s a plant, because he has blood flowing through his veins like sap; he’s an animal, because he has mobility; and he’s also a rational being. So in order to fully understand himself, man has to understand himself four times.”

Owing much to the documentaries of De Seta, and interested as much in the world of animals and plants as the men and women working on the land, Le quattro volte has its roots in director Frammartino’s memories of childhood summers spent in Calabria.

The Wonders (2014)

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

The Wonders (2014)

Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature draws on the filmmaker’s own experiences to tell of a family of rural Umbrian beekeepers headed by stern patriarch Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck). Events are seen from the perspective of the eldest daughter, 12 year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who one day comes across a TV competition setting up in the area and does all she can to convince her father to enter.

While the story of The Wonders isn’t autobiographical, Rohrwacher evidently has an intimate, first-hand knowledge of the world she depicts. When I spoke to her about the film for Sight and Sound in 2014, she noted how the film began with “my desire to show the changes the Italian landscape has gone through – the transformation of the countryside from a place of work to a theme park celebrating ancient values […] I wanted to show how agricultural work in the here and now isn’t being safeguarded.”

Poison – The Land of Fires (2017)

Director: Diego Olivares

Poison – The Land of Fires (2017)

Diego Olivares’ ripped-from-the-headlines drama is the story of Cosimo and Rosaria (Massimiliano Gallo and Luisa Ranieri), a couple who work as farmers in the southern Italian region of Campania, an area which is used by criminals to illegally dispose of toxic waste. Although it unfolds in a far darker register, Olivares’ film is similar to Rohrwacher’s The Wonders in its unflinching critique of contemporary attitudes toward the land. Salvatore Esposito (mob boss Genny Savastano in Gomorrah: The Series) takes on a supporting role as unscrupulous lawyer Rino Caradonna, but the heart of the film is Ranieri’s Rosaria, whose character really comes to the fore once the family learns of the human cost of the contaminated land.

Magical Realism: The Film Fables of the Taviani Brothers runs at BFI Southbank in February and March 2024.