Italian Cinema and its influence on American films

by Marzia Parmigiani
12 minutes read
Italian Cinema and its influence on American films

When it comes to cinema, few countries have had as profound an impact on Hollywood as Italy. From the groundbreaking works of the Italian neorealist movement to the stylized crime dramas and spaghetti westerns that inspired generations of American filmmakers, Italian cinema has left an indelible mark on the art form. In this article, we’ll explore the rich history of Italian film, its influence on American movies, and provide recommendations for festivals and retrospectives that celebrate the cinematic legacy of this remarkable country.

“When I am shooting a film I never think of how I want to shoot something; I simply shoot it”.

Michelangelo Antonioni

Roma Città Aperta

Italian Cinema: the birth of Neorealism

In the aftermath of World War II, a new breed of Italian filmmakers emerged, determined to capture the harsh realities of post-war life. This movement, known as Italian neorealism, eschewed the glamorous sets and melodramatic plots of traditional cinema, opting instead for a raw, unvarnished depiction of the struggles of everyday Italians. Films like Roberto Rossellini’s “Roma, Città Aperta” (Rome, Open City, 1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s “Ladri di Biciclette” (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) were shot on location with non-professional actors, creating a sense of authenticity that was both groundbreaking and deeply moving. These films resonated with audiences worldwide, inspiring a new generation of filmmakers to embrace a more naturalistic and socially conscious approach to their craft. The influence of Italian neorealism can be seen in countless American films, from the gritty urban dramas of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee to the independent cinema of Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola have cited the works of Rossellini and De Sica as pivotal influences, with their emphasis on character-driven narratives and the exploration of societal issues.

Italian Cinema: classic neorealist films to watch

  • – “Roma, Città Aperta” (Rome, Open City, 1945) by Roberto Rossellini
  • – “Ladri di Biciclette” (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) by Vittorio De Sica
  • – “Umberto D.” (1952) by Vittorio De Sica
  • – “La Strada” (The Road, 1954) by Federico Fellini.
La Dolce Vita

The Renaissance of Italian Cinema: Fellini, Antonioni, and Beyond

While neorealism laid the foundation for a new era of Italian cinema, it was the visionary filmmakers of the 1960s who truly cemented Italy’s place on the global stage. Directors like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Luchino Visconti created works that were not only technically and artistically groundbreaking but also explored profound themes of alienation, identity, and the human condition. Fellini’s “8½” (1963), a surreal and dreamlike exploration of a filmmaker’s creative crisis, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Its innovative use of symbolism, surrealism, and autobiographical elements influenced countless American directors, from Woody Allen to David Lynch. Antonioni’s trilogy of alienation – “L’Avventura” (The Adventure, 1960), “La Notte” (The Night, 1961), and “L’Eclisse” (The Eclipse, 1962) – challenged conventional narrative structures and pushed the boundaries of cinematic language. The impact of these Italian auteurs can be seen in the works of American filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky, who have embraced a more contemplative and philosophical approach to storytelling, eschewing traditional plot structures in favor of exploring the depths of human experience.

Sergio Leone

Italian cinema: classic Italian Films from the 1960s

  • – “8½” (1963) by Federico Fellini
  • – “L’Avventura” (The Adventure, 1960) by Michelangelo Antonioni
  • – “Teorema” (Theorem, 1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • – “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard, 1963) by Luchino Visconti.

The gritty and the stylish: Italian crime films and Spaghetti Westerns

While Italian cinema was pushing the boundaries of artistic expression, it was also developing a reputation for gritty, stylish crime dramas and westerns that would captivate audiences around the world. Directors like Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava brought a new level of violence, suspense, and visual flair to their respective genres. Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – revolutionized the western genre, introducing a grittier and more morally ambiguous tone that would influence countless American westerns, from Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” to Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The iconic score by Ennio Morricone, with its haunting whistles and thundering percussion, became as iconic as the films themselves. Italian giallo films, a subgenre of crime and horror movies characterized by stylized violence and convoluted plots, also left an indelible mark on American cinema. Dario Argento’s “Profondo Rosso” (Deep Red, 1975) and Mario Bava’s “Sei Donne per l’Assassino” (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) influenced a generation of American horror filmmakers, from John Carpenter to Wes Craven, with their innovative use of camera work, vivid colors, and shocking violence.

Italian Cinema: classic Italian crime films and Spaghetti Westerns

  • “Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo” (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966) by Sergio Leone
  • “Profondo Rosso” (Deep Red, 1975) by Dario Argento
  • “Milano Calibro 9” (Milano Calibre 9, 1972) by Fernando Di Leo
  • “Sei Donne per l’Assassino” (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) by Mario Bava.

Italian Film Festivals in the U.S.

For film enthusiasts eager to explore the rich tapestry of Italian cinema, several film festivals and retrospectives in the United States offer a unique opportunity to experience these cinematic treasures on the big screen.

  • Open Roads: New Italian Cinema (New York City): organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this annual festival showcases the latest and greatest in contemporary Italian filmmaking, offering a glimpse into the diverse stories and perspectives emerging from Italy today.
  • Italian Film Festival of Minneapolis/St. Paul: celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023, this festival is dedicated to promoting Italian culture through the art of cinema, featuring a carefully curated selection of classic and contemporary Italian films.
  • N.I.C.E. Italian Film Festival (Brooklyn, NY): Hosted by the N.I.C.E. (New Italian Cinema Events) organization, this festival aims to bridge the gap between Italian and American cinema, showcasing the work of both established and emerging Italian filmmakers.
  • Italian Film Festival USA (Various Locations): touring several cities across the United States, this festival brings the best of Italian cinema to audiences nationwide, offering a diverse lineup of feature films, documentaries, and shorts.

Attending these festivals not only provides an opportunity to experience the magic of Italian cinema on the big screen but also offers a chance to engage with fellow cinephiles and gain a deeper appreciation for the cultural richness of Italy’s cinematic legacy.

American films that have been influenced by Italian cinema

  • The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Director Martin Scorsese has cited the stylized crime films of Italian directors like Sergio Leone as influences on this darkly comedic look at Wall Street excess. The film’s operatic tone, rapid editing and fourth-wall breaking narration evoke films like Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.
  • Killing Them Softly (2012) – This brutal crime thriller from director Andrew Dominik drew comparisons to the gritty Italian neo-noir films of the 1970s, with its unflinching violence and dark worldview reminiscent of classics like Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?
  • First Reformed (2017) – Writer/director Paul Schrader has been open about the influence of spiritual films from directors like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson on this critically-acclaimed drama about a priest’s crisis of faith. But the introspective tone and metaphysical themes also recall the works of Italian auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni.
  • Mudbound (2017) – While not an overtly Italian-influenced film, Dee Rees’ powerful drama about racism in the Mississippi Delta drew praise for its neorealist approach, shooting on location with a largely unknown cast to capture the harsh realities faced by its characters, much like the pioneering Italian neorealist films.
  • Nightmare Alley (2021) – Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller starring Bradley Cooper as a manipulative carny has been likened to the shadowy, operatic crime films of Italian directors like Dario Argento, with its grotesque visuals and grim meditation on human monstrosity.

So, while the influences range from the tenacious neorealism of the postwar era to the bloody giallo thrillers and sweeping epics, contemporary American filmmakers continue to find inspiration in the daring, innovative works of Italian cinema’s rich history.

 The bottom line

From the gritty pragmatism of neorealism to the surreal visions of Fellini and Antonioni, and the stylish crime dramas and spaghetti westerns that captured the imagination of audiences worldwide, Italian cinema has left an indelible mark on the art form. Its influence can be seen in the works of countless American filmmakers, who have drawn inspiration from the boldness, innovation, and emotional depth of these Italian masterpieces. As we continue to explore and celebrate the rich tapestry of world cinema, it is essential to recognize and appreciate the profound impact of Italian filmmakers on the medium we love. By attending film festivals and retrospectives dedicated to Italian cinema, we not only honor this legacy but also ensure that these cinematic treasures continue to inspire and captivate audiences for generations to come.

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