Three Italian Flicks to Warm Your Heart

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Italy: Three Italian Movies to Warm Your Heart

We spent at least a part of our winter catching up on or viewing again after twenty five years, a number of Italian films: Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, Gillo Pontecorvo and others. But customer Sharyn Sala set me off on this nostalgia trip by flagging her "favorite" Italian movie to me, "For Roseanna." Indeed, it’s not even made by Italians. It is about Italy, set in Italy, and full of Italian clichés. But so are they all, and that’s what makes them so much fun.

Old friends: two Italian men talking in the piazza.Why is it that we are so fascinated with things Italian? A plate of pasta or pizza and the sound of an aria floating down an empty medieval street at lunchtime in summer evoke strong images. As do children playing soccer on quiet city streets or showing off on their bicycles to one another with split-second stops. Old men locked in conversation at a sidewalk café and elderly women sitting quietly on a bench in the piazza.

And the Italian landscape: why does it draw us so? Cypress trees like flames on ridgelines in Tuscany, a Romanesque church in a small stone village, fine country villas surrounded by vineyards and shade trees, and dining outdoors with views across poppy-filled wheat fields.

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do know that we Americans are fascinated by these and other things Italian. The essence of Italy? Just add Italians to these scenes and there you have one of the favorite places for Americans and certainly one of my favorite places.

Where do we get the clichés, the images, and the preconceptions about places like Italy? Certainly some of it is from movies but if you add some personal experiences I think you provide the mortar that solidifies those images for life.

I’ll never forget two clichés of Italy and Italians that I came across when I was barely eighteen or nineteen. I spent a semester studying in Iran my freshman year in college and there was an older student who delighted in teasing me about my being in love with an Italian girl. "Ricky," he would say, "you know those Italian women. . . . when they’re fifty, they are as big around as they are tall." I don’t think this would have impressed me so much if I hadn’t already met Paola’s grandmother who, at age sixty-five, came pretty close to my friend Bill’s description.

Another incident sticks in my mind as if it were yesterday. It was 1968 and I was on my way to visit Paola in Pisa after two years of writing letters. I was scared to death that our love affair might dissolve that same afternoon. I spoke little or no Italian and I really was blind with fascination with this girl and this country I’d obsessed about for two years. Paola shared a room with another student on a small square not far from the youth hostel in Pisa.

I made my way through the piazza, kids playing soccer, little old ladies sitting on the benches, and I spied her building just across the street. About that time a young woman – she might have been thirty years old – crossed the square, and shouted up to an open window in the same building. "Mamma," she shouted. "Mammmmma." No one else paid any notice as I watched this little drama unfold. She must have called out "Mamma," at least half a dozen times. Finally, mamma stuck her head out of the window and they exchanged a couple of sentences. The younger woman calmly walked away.
"I guess this is Italy," I remember thinking to myself.

Thirty-eight years later, years that have involved at least fifty trips across the ocean to Italy and at least three or four years, total, of living and traveling there, and still no place fascinates me so much. And yes, Paola often gets furious when I generalize about Italians ("a country full of actors" said Luigi Barzini in his wonderful book, The Italians; I couldn’t agree more!)

So if you’re looking for clichés to reinforce your view of Italy and Italians, here is your movie list for the next few weeks. Delightful, lighthearted, full of almost every cliché about this wonderful country, these films will amuse and entertain you until you can get back to Italy yourself for you next Italian "fix" (personally, I’m on my way March 6 for two weeks!)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

(by Vittorio de Sica; starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni; 1964)


Nothing is more Italian than Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni playing a Neapolitan couple raising a family of seven children with her being the breadwinner selling smuggled cigarettes (a typical livelihood in Naples in the 1960s and 70s). You’ll need subtitles to understand the Neapolitian dialect but you’ll understand the gestures and the facial expressions of these two classic actors of Italian cinema in the "Yesterday" portion of this movie.

The film is actually three vignettes with "Today" switching stories to Milano in the post World War II period. Again, Loren and Mastroianni are paired, playing a couple on a furtive outing into the countryside around Milano. She lets him drive her fancy Rolls Royce which he nearly wrecks as he is more focused on her than on his driving. She abandons him for someone driving a fancy red sports car.

Finally "Tomorrow" takes you to Rome where the setting is almost entirely in a garden terrace apartment overlooking the Piazza Navona. Piazza Navonna, of course, is the plebeian heart of Rome with the famous fountain by Bernini and the church of his rival, Francesco Borromini. Sophia Loren plays a high-class call girl who lives in the apartment where she entertains her clients. She is quite seductive, as you might imagine, and runs afoul of the grandmother on the neighboring balcony worried about her grandson, the novitiate priest. All’s well that ends well, though, and in the end grandmother and Sophia Loren are fast friends.

Under the Tuscan Sun

(book by Frances Mayes, screenplay by Audrey Wells; starring Diane Lane, 2003)

The Amalfi coast and Positano seen from the hillsideSet in southern Tuscany, the Tuscany of sweeping vistas, simple hilltop churches, cypress tress, and lonely wheat fields, I enjoyed this film. I can’t say as much for Frances Mayes book, which I never did finish. But the film was fun. Overflowing with clichés and stereotypes about Italians, Italian lovers, mannerisms – in short, the works. But even Paola laughed and enjoyed this fun portrait of Italy and Italians. Filled with quirky plot shifts, the film provides some variety in landscape as well with wonderful views of the Amalfi coast, including Positano. And yes, you can fantasize about buying a Tuscan villa for yourself as you live the vicarious process through Diane Lane.

For Roseanna

(First issued as Roseanna’s Grave; Directed by British director, Paul Weiland; Written by American Saul Turteltaub – comedy writer extraordinaire whose credits include The Carol Burnett Show and The Jackie Gleason Show (!) starring Jean Reno, Mercedes Ruehl; 1997)

Has it ever happened to you that you’ve watched a film and said to yourself, "I have to go to that place! Where is that?" This happened to me when I watched the film "Chocolat" (after the novel by Joann Harris). That particular film begins with low flying aerial views of the area around Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in the Cote d’Or northeast of Dijon, France. I designed a bicycle tour to go through the area several years ago after seeing that film.

Well something similar happened as I watched "For Roseanna" except that by the end of the movie I realized that I had ALREADY been there! I have yet to design a bike tour to pass through the village where it was filmed, but I suggest you go visit if you have the time. South of Rome, not far off the historic "Appian Way" is the village of Sermoneta. In the late winter of 2005 I was invited by regional tourism authorities to explore the countryside around Rome with an eye to offering walking or bicycling tours here.

After completing my work near Rome I jumped on my bike and pedaled 90 kilometers south to explore the Appian Way. The famous Roman road which carried Roman armies from Rome to the port of Brindisi is passable by bicycle only on the outskirts of Rome. Further south the medieval road which replaced it connects a series of villages. This is where Sermoneta is located – about 40 miles south of Rome. I didn’t recognize it at first because I got snowed upon last February as I pedaled through the village. Indeed, I was cold and ill equipped so I didn’t quite enjoy the place as much as I should have! Instead I just kept moving.

You’ll fall in love with Sermoneta when you see For Roseanna, another quirky film with strange plot shifts and more clichés and stereotypes about Italy and Italians than you would find in a two-week trip yourself. But it is a fun film that will warm your heart.

I hope you enjoy the films. If your favorite Italian film didn’t make the list, please let us know about it!