When I watch an Italian film, I usually find myself thinking: could this be appealing to a foreign audience? Would I recommend this film to an American (or Swedish) friend, if I had one? Could they appreciate? The answer often affects my judgment as well.
It was just a thought… until the explosion of streaming services. Let’s go straight to the point: at the moment there are 83 Italian films on Netflix US. It’s a limited offer, but still: many among these titles are pretty good flicks. These 12 are my (very personal) selection.
The Good The Bad and The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) – Sergio Leone, 1966
To make you comfortable, I start with a big one: Sergio Leone is probably the most mentioned and influential italian director of all time, not only for the evident love declared by Quentin Tarantino. In the mid 60s, Mr Leone reinvented the whole genre (and discovered Clint Eastwood) in five absolutely gorgeous western movies. This epic, hilarious film is my favourite and the most exciting of the lot.
Also on Netflix: Once Upon a Time in the West is more demanding but, oh, such a great movie.
Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio) – Mario Bava, 1960
Mario Bava is the most represented italian director on Netflix with thirteen films, most of which are B-movies directed from the early 60s to the mid 70s. But Bava’s black & white debut is also his masterpiece: a splendid gothic flick (inspired by a vampire tale by Gogol) that radically changed the face of horror cinema worldwide. Without Black Sunday you’d have no Tim Burton at all.
Also on Netflix: Bava’s filmography is pretty cool, try a random choice and enjoy the ride. I personally love the amazing episodic Black Sabbath.
The Son’s Room (La stanza del figlio) – Nanni Moretti, 2001
A rare departure from Moretti’s most “political” films, this cold, intimate story of a middle-class couple that deals with the sudden death of their teenage son is one of the most devastating, heartbreaking films I’ve seen in my life. A universal, painful tale about loss and family and hope.
Also: We Have a Pope is Moretti’s prophetic film about a Pope resigning. Oh yes, it’s good.
Gomorrah (Gomorra) – Matteo Garrone, 2008
This strong, violent film turned Italian cinema upside down, revolutionizing the image of mafia on screen and imposing Matteo Garrone as one of the best directors of our time. Ruthless, relentless and painfully necessary, it’s a bleeding contemporary masterpiece.
Also: this is the only film directed by Garrone available on Netflix US. It’s such a pity. If you live in the UK though you can watch Reality, and you totally should.
Nirvana (Nirvana) – Gabriele Salvatores, 1997
Few “popular” italian directors are audacious as Salvatores. After winning a surprising Academy Award for his war-dramedy Mediterraneo (not one of his best) he never settled on a comfortable style. And dared to make a science fiction film! Fun fact: in Italy that’s a huge taboo, even nowadays.
The result is a weird film set in a Blade Runner-esque future-reality where the character of a 90s adventure videogame becomes self-conscious. It’s terribly naif as it sounds, but also ahead of its time (it came out two years before The Matrix and The 13th Floor, I mean). Far from perfect, but I LOVE it.
Also: on Netflix you have I’m not scared, one of Salvatores’ most beautiful, frightening and accessible films. I won’t tell you what it’s about. Ok, it’s about a kidnapping.
The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) – Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003
Italian tv dramas are mostly ugly and uninteresting, but this overlong, over-emotional miniseries set on the background of recent italian history makes an outstanding exception: 367 well-spent minutes of your time, and a pretty good showcase of then-young talented italian actors.
Also: no other Giordana film on Netflix, but if you liked Luigi Lo Cascio’s performance (likely that you will) you can check him out in Roberta Torre’s The Dark Sea.
The Last Kiss (L’ultimo bacio) – Gabriele Muccino, 2001
Forget that dreadful Zach Braff remake: this is the real deal. Immensely successful and awfully influential in Italy, shot with an unusual show-off attitude, this intricate, shouting tangle of lies and betrayals caused an undeserved backlash that still drags along in these days. Don’t listen to the haters, The Last Kiss is awesome.
Also: Muccino’s Playing For Keeps is on Netflix but it’s an american flick and I hear it’s bad, so skip it. If you liked Stefano Accorsi, he’s the star in Stefano Mordini’s Smalltown, Italy as well.
Golden Door (Nuovomondo) – Emanuele Crialese, 2006
Led by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s hypnotic screen presence, Crialese’s bizarre recollection of the italian immigration in the US blends history and dream-like sequences with a visually arresting style which was a bold, unmatched achievement for italian cinema in the last decade. Maybe Respiro is still Crialese’s best film, but Golden Door delivers a mesmerizing and memorable surrealistic imagery.
Corpo Celeste (Corpo celeste) – Alice Rohrwacher, 2011
One of the most surprising Italian debut in recent years, Rohrwacher’s southern teenage drama is a rough, introspective film, sometimes reminiscent of Dardenne bros’ style but with a strong personality, confirmed by her second film The Wonders. Smart European cinema at its best.
Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore) – Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950
Sadly, you have almost no Antonioni on Neftlix. Big shame on Netflix! However, you can watch his remarkable first film starring a beautiful, fascinating Lucia Bosé. Then you’ll be curious and you’ll go find The Lady Without Camelias, The Adventure, The Night, The Passenger, and so on.
The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury) – Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972
One of the more intriguing, divisive cultural figures of the last century, Pasolini is almost absent on Netflix. Of his compressed filmography (12 films in 15 years, until his mysteriously violent death in 1975) you can only watch his joyful, sexy and crazy version of Chaucer’s tales, second installment of his “trilogy of life”. I’ll admit this is not my favorite side of Pasolini’s excitingly diverse body of work, but it’s still an exceptional, unique vision of cinema.
The Bycicle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) – Vittorio De Sica, 1948
I know this is such a common and predictable choice, but wouldn’t it be a disgraceful shitty useless list without The Bycicle Thief? Which, by the way, is the only neorealist film on Netflix. Anyhow, De Sica’s most famous title is probably more known than actually seen (even in Italy!) so I guess now you should sit down and watch this amazing little film. It is so different from what you’re expecting. And it could change your life.
Also, the only film directed by Paolo Sorrentino available on Netflix US is This must be the place, which is an english-speaking feature shot abroad and definitely not his best one. If you’re in the UK, you can watch his greatest film Il Divo and the wonderful, Academy-awarded The Great Beauty.
If you live in the UK you only have 16 Italian films on Netflix (ouch!) but you can watch a true classic, Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
I’m sorry the 12-list doesn’t include any Mastroianni, ’cause you should watch some Mastroianni. Maybe his best films are not available on Netflix, but you can surely enjoy Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style, both with the fabulous Sophia Loren.
Among the 83 Italian films available on Netflix US, there are MANY other very good and/or much acclaimed films, like Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, Segre’s Shun Li and the Poet, Soldini’s Agata and the Storm, etcetera. Try and get inspired by all those weird posters but, dear god, stay away from Malena.