In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Cinema

  • Introduction
  • Reference
  • General Histories
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Monographs on Major Directors
  • Stars
  • Italian Cameramen, Scriptwriters, Musicians, and Technicians
  • Film Theory and Criticism

Cinema and Media Studies Italian Cinema
Peter Bondanella
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0107


Italian national cinema developed quickly between the last decade of the 19th century and the outbreak of World War I (particularly in Turin and also in Rome), and it won a sizeable share of film audiences around the world for, in particular, its epic films set in classical settings. The outbreak of the war virtually destroyed the industry, but with the coming of sound and the advent of the Fascist government, support for the industry grew before World War II broke out, with the building of the film studio complex at Cinecittà (“Cinema City”), the establishment of Luce (the government agency charged with producing documentaries and newsreels), and the opening of an important national film school in Rome, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Unlike its counterparts in totalitarian Russia or Germany, the Italian industry was not completely dominated by government propaganda, and in fact some of the major Fascist figures in the industry wanted to imitate the entertainment of Hollywood rather than support a completely ideological cinema. Major directors emerged during this period, such as Mario Camerini, Alessandro Blasetti, and Vittorio De Sica (all of whom continued to work after the end of the war), and the cinema during the Fascist period trained a great many people involved in basic film production who were to play a vital role in the dramatic rebirth of Italian cinema after 1945. With the end of the war, Italian neorealism burst on the international scene. Such figures as Roberto Rossellini, De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Giuseppe De Santis won international acclaim for their “realistic” portrayal of contemporary Italian social and economic problems. During the 1950s, many young directors (Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Pietro Germi among them) sought to move beyond the kind of programmatic social realism Marxist critics in Italy and France championed, and in the 1960s a second generation of even younger figures (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Bellocchio, Bernardo Bertolucci, Gillo Pontecorvo, and Francesco Rosi) looked both backward to their Italian neorealist heritage and abroad to French cinema for inspiration. During the same time, but less beloved by film scholars and critics, Italian cinema began to produce an enormous number of highly profitable works that might be described as genre films or, to use the Hollywood term, B films. First, in the late 1950s and the 1960s, the peplum or “sword and sandal” epic film starring foreign bodybuilders became immensely popular and was quickly exported. This genre was followed closely by the spaghetti western, an incredibly successful genre that produced almost five hundred films in a very short time and revolutionized the face of a classic Hollywood genre almost overnight. Subsequently, in the 1970s and 1980s, the thriller (known as a giallo in Italy) and the spaghetti horror film (with its zombie and cannibal variants) were also extremely popular. Perhaps the most popular genre of all, one that continued to thrive during the entire postwar period, was the so-called commedia all’italiana or “comedy, Italian style,” a form of comic film indebted not only to the traditional commedia dell’arte but also to a collection of brilliant actors and scriptwriter-directors who combined humor with a biting and often cynical vision of Italian culture, providing a type of social criticism that Italy’s politicians often avoided. The period between 1945 and around 1975 thus witnessed an Italian cinema that managed to combine popular entertainment in a variety of film genres with art films, box office power with critical acclaim at film festivals and among auteur-oriented critics and film historians. Nevertheless, directors and technicians of genius continued to work, and in the last decade some new faces have added luster and box office appeal to the national cinema’s treatment of new themes (racial and gender identity in a multiethnic and multicultural Italy, terrorism, crime, and the Mafia), themes that have evolved in Italian cinema’s reflection of everyday reality in the peninsula. Italian film scholarship has evolved dramatically in the recent past, moving from a focus on postwar neorealism and the art film toward a broader definition of film history that encompasses an interest in multicultural themes, more film theory imported from abroad (especially from the United Kingdom and the United States), and more interest in two periods (the silent era and the Fascist period) that have long been neglected in comparison with postwar Italy.


An unusual number of reference works are available on the Italian cinema; those in English address different audiences (students in Celli and Cottino-Jones 2006, Nowell-Smith, et al. 1996, and Forshaw 2006; scholars and more experienced cinephiles in Bayman 2011, Marrone and Puppa 2007, Mereghetti 2010, and Moliterno 2008). Mereghetti 2010 has long remained the primary reference work in Italian and is updated every year. Hughes 2011 is particularly good for popular Italian film genres, while Kehr 2003 is the best reference available for Italian film posters.

  • Bayman, Louis, ed. Directory of World Cinema: Italy. Bristol, UK: Intellect Press, 2011.

    The most recent reference work, also available in e-book form. Contains various academic essays on chronological periods, directors, film genres, and themes.

  • Celli, Carlo, and Marga Cottino-Jones. A New Guide to Italian Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Designed for students, this guide contains a number of important appendices on box office records and major directors.

  • Forshaw, Barry. Italian Cinema: Arthouse to Exploitation. London: Pocket Essentials, 2006.

    Popular in format, this brief guide is particularly useful for information on the so-called B films—spaghetti westerns, thrillers, horror films, peplum musclemen epics—which it juxtaposes to the “arthouse” classics of the major directors.

  • Hughes, Howard. Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

    A popular and useful guide to Italian films listed by type (art film, various genre categories), particularly important for its discussion of various popular film genres.

  • Kehr, Dave. Italian Film Posters. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003.

    An important history of Italian posters and an invaluable reference tool.

  • Marrone, Gaetana, and Paolo Puppa, eds. Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies. 2 vols. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    This extremely useful literary encyclopedia contains extensive treatments of Italian cinema, with essays on major directors and key films. It underscores the fact that Italian studies in the English-speaking world embrace the Italian cinema.

  • Mereghetti, Paolo, ed. Il Mereghetti: Dizionario dei film 2011. Milan: Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2010.

    This commercial work in three volumes contains an astounding amount of information on Italian films, directors, actors, and technicians.

  • Moliterno, Gino, ed. Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008.

    The most complete and detailed English reference work devoted to the subject currently available.

  • Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, with James Hay and Gianni Volpi. The Companion to Italian Cinema. London: Cassell, 1996.

    Now a bit dated but still very useful for a tour through the major periods, themes, and directors over the span of a century.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.