Rome: 10 “Must-See” Films Set in the City

Being a cultural and historical centre for centuries, Rome has always attracted leading cinematographers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Rome was considered the European “Hollywood”, embodied in the famous Cinecittà film studio that produced such epic films as Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963). To this day, this historic city remains the one to which filmmakers flock to: (i) showcase its main beauties and cultural delights, as is the case with Roman Holiday (1953), Plein Soleil (1961), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); (ii) to ridicule Rome’s high society and decadent lifestyle, as in La Dolce Vita (1960) and The Great Beauty (2013); or (iii) to provide a setting for a grim, chaotic, (post-)war, almost apocalyptic scenario, as embodied in such films as Rome, Open City (1945), Bicycle Thieves (1948), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il Conformista (1970). 


I. Roman Holiday (1953)

Directed by William Wyler (Ben-Hur), this tale about a princess who escapes from her tiresomely busy daily duties while in Rome only to meet and have a romantic connection with a journalist is fascinating, echoing in plot It Happened One Night (1934). In Rome, Princess Ann and Joe Bradley (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in their respective leading roles), go through the famous sights of Rome, including: meeting at the Roman Forum (more precisely at the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Septimus Severus), where the Princess falls asleep; trying their luck at the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita) at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin; going past on a scooter by the Colosseum; having breakfast near the Pantheon; taking in the sun on the Spanish Steps; and attending the interview at the Palazzo Colonna.


II. Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Hailed a masterpiece by critics and audiences alike, Vittorio De Sica’s award-winning film is about Antonio Ricci and his son who hunt for a stolen bicycle in the city of Rome. Shot on location, Rome here is presented in a very modest way, but the city still manages to form a character of its own. Firstly, there is Via Francesco Crispi presented, where Antonio’s bicycle gets stolen, and Antonio pursuits it along the Lungotevere Ripa to the tunnel Traforo Umberto I. Then, there is the bicycle flea market takes place at the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, where father and son search for their missing bicycle; and then Antonio chases the thief he spotted through the gateway of the Porta Portese. Through the frenzied chase across the city, including via Via Vecchiarelli, a number of bridges could be seen in the film, including the Ponte Palatino, Ponte Sublicio and the Ponte Duca d’Aosta, as well as the church of Santi Nereo e Achilles, among other notable locations.


III. La Dolce Vita (1960)

Directed by Federico Fellini and starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimée, this great comedy-drama follows an opportunistic journalist Marcello Rubini on his week-long quest through Rome’s high-flying life of excess, indulgence, boredom and meaninglessness. The film’s opening sequence features the Vatican; and then we follow Marcello and the Swedish-American actress as the duo explore the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican; splash in the Fontana di Trevi (one of the most iconic film sequences); and dance in the Baths of Caracalla; while the film also features the then fashionable Via Veneto (partly reconstructed by Fellini), the Piazza del PopoloPiazza San Giovanni Bosco and the EUR area of Rome (for example, EUR’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana), among other locations.


IV. The Great Beauty (2013)

This film, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is about an ageing socialite, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who explores Rome as he reflects on his own lavish, but unfulfilled life. In his twenties, Jep wrote an acclaimed novel, and now, in his 60s and after years and years of comfortable retirement, tries to make sense of the place and people around him. In his escapades through the city, Jep washes up at the Fontana del Mascherone di Santa Sabina; takes a walk through the Lungotevere Farnesina, along the river Tiber; watches a performance at the Parco degli Acquedotti; searches for a girl in the vault at the Tempietto di Bramante, Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio; and attends a party at the Villa di Fiorano, among his other endeavours. The film also features the Piazzale Giuseppe GaribaldiFontana dell’Acqua Paola at the Via Garibaldi; the Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino at the Piazza Pietro D’Illiria and the Baths of Caracalla, among other locations.


V. Rome, Open City (1945)

A favourite of Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard, Roberto Rossellini’s film Rome, Open City is set during the German occupation, and the title of this film refers to the declaration of Rome being an “open city” after 14 August 1943. The characters in the film is the widow Pina who struggles to get by with her son Marcello; Don Pietro, the local Catholic priest; Francisco, Pina’s fiancee; Manfredi, a resistance leader, etc. Rossellini shot his film in the Prenestina area of Rome. The opening sequence of the film is the view to the famous Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna, and at one point, Pina (Anna Magnani) is seen running via Via Montecuccoli (a street which also provides an exterior for Pina’s apartment). The film also features via Casilina and the bridge on via Tiburtino, among other locations. 


VI. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient (1996)), and starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, The Talented Mr Ripley is an adaptation of the novel by Patricia Highsmith of the same name about a “wanna-be” Tom Ripley, whose lucky acquaintance with the boat tycoon leads him to strike a friendship with his rich and carefree son Dickie Greenleaf in Italy. This unlikely friendship will have dire consequences. The film also features Venice, and the islands of Ischia and Procida, Italy, as well as New York, US. In Rome, Tom and Dickie meet Dickie’s friend at the Piazza Navona, near the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi; and on his sightseeing tour, Tom also takes in the beauty of the Roman Forum at sunset and admires the artefacts on display at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Piazza del Campidoglio. Tom also walks with a lady friend through the Spanish Steps, and has lunch with friends at the Piazza di Spagna. The film also features the Piazza Lovatelli and Parco degli Acquedotti, among other locations.


VII. Plein Soleil (1961) 

René Clément’s thriller Plein Soleil is another adaptation of the novel by Patricia Highsmith The Talented Mr. Ripley, but, this time, starring Alain Delon (as Tom Ripley), Maurice Ronet (as Philippe Greenleaf) and Marie Laforet (as Marge). While in Minghella’s version the spotlight of attraction is Jude Law – Dickie Greenleaf, here the spotlight is undoubtedly on Alain Delon – Tom Ripley, who is as magnetic as he is dangerous. As its “twin” film above, this film also features the islands of Ischia and Procida, Italy. Through the streets of Rome, Tom can be spotted renting an apartment at Via Savoia; going out and shopping on the Piazza della Rotonda and Piazza del Grillo; visiting an American Express office at the Stazione Termini, Piazza dei Cinquecento; and fleeing the police on Via Civitavecchia, among other locations featured.

EL CONFORMISTA - Spanish Poster

VIII. Il Conformista (1970) 

This hugely influential political drama directed by Bernardo Bertolucci is set in Paris, France and in Rome, Italy, and is based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. This cinematographically ground-breaking film is about Marcello, a man working for the Fascist secret police in the 1930s. When Marcello plans to take a honeymoon trip to Paris, France, his bosses assign him a task: to assassinate his old professor. As for Rome’s film locations, Marcello and his friend see people celebrating on the Ponte Sant’Angelo; Marcello meets an acquaintance at the Teatro di Marcello; and we also follow Marcello’s earlier years’ traumatic events at the Villa MianiVilla Celimontana and at the Palazzo dei Congressi dell’EUR (a mental institution in the film), where he and his mother visit his father. In the most well-known scene, Marcello could also be seen against the background of the Colosseum. 


IX. L’Eclisse (1962) 

In this film by Michelangelo Antonioni, Piero (Alain Delon) and Vittoria (Monica Vitti) meet and have a seemingly unemotional love affair due to Piero’s cynical and materialistic side. The background to their love affair is EUR, a modern area of Rome, where Benito Mussolini wanted to stage an event in the celebration of the twenty years of fascism, an event, which, thankfully, never materialised. In the film, by focusing on the EUR area of Rome, the director wanted to portray the city’s life as boring, repetitious and void of meaning through the showing of the EUR’s bleak alleys and modern, practical architecture, which contrasts strongly with the ancient ruins or baroque designs of the city centre. In that quarter, the films shows Viale del Ciclismo, Viale dell’ Umanesimo, Palazzo dello Sport, EUR “little lake” (where Piero’s stolen car was found) and EUR water tower, among other locations. The film also features the Rome’s Stock Exchange at the Piazza di Petra, filmed when it was a Sunday. It is here that the young lovers meet in the film for the first time.


X. My Own Private Idaho (1991)

There is not much Rome in this film directed by Gus Van Sant, but it is still a great, poetic film with River Phoenix in it, and the excellent use of the locations (apart from Rome, the film also features Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon). The film is about a close friendship between two guys, an heir to a great fortune Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) and narcoleptic Mike Waters (River Phoenix), who are in the same gang. Their friendship is soon in trouble as one of them decides to have a girlfriend, and considers turning away from his vagabond lifestyle to follow the steps of his well-to-do father. When the pair is in Rome in search of Mike’s mother, Mike wakes up at the glorious Obelisk of the Piazza del Popolo (with its twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto), and then the pair continue hustling at the Via Celio Vibenna, Piazza del Colosseo.


16 Comments Add yours

  1. Rome, Open City is a masterpiece!! I just saw it for the first time the other day. Glad to see it made it on the list.


  2. MIB says:

    Where is Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon? The big fight with Chuck Norris in the coliseum alone is worth the price of admission! 😉 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Madame Vintage says:

    A lovely post to read. 😊 Some great movies shot in the beautiful city of some potential loving. I really enjoyed watching the scenary in Roman Holiday, Angels and Demons, and Talented Mr. Ridley.

    When in Rome..


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks! I wasn’t too impressed by Angels and Demons, hence it is not on this list, but location-wise it is right there high.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Madame Vintage says:

        Oh I wasn’t as excited for the movie either but seeing as your post also featured the beautiful locations of Rome for such movies, I thought I’d mention it. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jade says:

    Nice! Talented Mr Ripley sprang to mind when I saw the title, happy to see it on here. 😁 Also love the mention of My Own Private Idaho. It’s one of the most beautifully written and acted films I’ve seen. Thanks for introducing me to Rome, Open City. I’ll be checking that one out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Yes, after Roman Holiday, The Talented Mr Ripley is like THE English-language movie to watch to spot Rome’s main attractions. Also, glad to find someone who shares my enthusiasm for My Own Private Idaho!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Renate says:

    These looks pretty darn cool, need to check them out! Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. vinnieh says:

    Roman Holiday is a sublime movie. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were a charming pair.


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