Oh, Rome. Are any movies from one singular city as cinematically diverse as the films set in Rome? One minute, you’re watching forlorn monochromatic characters stroll aimlessly through shadowy, cobbled streets wearing dark sunglasses and weathered Armani suits. And the next minute, chariots hurtle past your screens at a million miles an hour in glorious technicolour surrounded by thousands of underpaid extras wearing potato sacks in ancient arenas.
Rome artfully straddles the ancient, the plain old and the contemporary so it’s only fair that its cinema reflects this. Both homegrown Italian neo-realist cinema from the 1960s as well as the modern, shall we say ‘critically panned’ Hollywood fare, too. There’s a Roman film for everyone!
Just as there is a Roman holiday for everyone. I do not know a single person who hasn’t either already visited Rome or wouldn’t mind visiting someday. Whether it’s the history, the food or the weather, there seems to be at least one side to Rome that appeals to everyone. So whether you’re planning a city break to Rome or you want to reminisce about your time already spent in the eternal city, here is my list of all the top films set in Rome for every kind of Roman holiday! Yes, I’ll probably be saying that a lot.
Top Films set in Rome
1. Rome, Open City (1945) dir. Roberto Rossellini
Languages: Italian, German Run time: 105m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
We’re beginning this list of films set in Rome with a not-very-inspiring tale about Nazi-occupied Rome during the end of WWII. The title of Rome, Open City refers to the declaration made by any city that surrenders itself to the opposing military force to prevent further destruction. Which is exactly what happened to Rome in 1944 and was the basis for one of Roberto Rossellini’s masterpieces of cinema.
The film was released the year WWII ended and there was just absolutely no money for cinema at the time, as you can imagine. The screenwriters were writing the film as the city still lay in ruin and the money was gifted by a wealthy elderly lady. But even then, the film was rough around the edges, and the many non-professional actors added to the gritty realism. Rome, Open City received a lacklustre reception when it was released as audiences preferred escapism from the war. But of course, years later it’s appreciated as a triumph of cinema. Just in case your expectations of this film weren’t high enough.
2. Bicycle Thieves (1948) dir. Vittorio De Sica
Language: Italian Run time: 93m 98% Rotten Tomatoes
When you think of films set in Rome, you might think of epic big-budget movies set during the Roman Empire, busty blonde ladies prancing about in the Trevi Fountain or teenage Americans hopping onto the back of Vespas with good-looking Italian boys. You might not think about films like Bicycle Thieves. A film that Sight & Sound recently ranked as the sixth greatest film ever made.
In a poor neighbourhood in Rome, a working-class man’s bicycle is stolen which he needs for employment. He and his son desperately scour the city in an attempt to retrieve it. It’s a heartbreaking film about how seemingly insignificant events to some are actually life-changing for others. And how poverty in post-war Rome seemed like an endless, inescapable circle.
Lighthearted stuff, eh? You might wonder why I’d put ‘depressing’ films on a list of films set in Rome to watch before a trip. But I think films like this are important because a) they’re brilliant and b) they offer a non-glitzy, non-superficial side to Rome that can help us better understand the city’s history.
3. Roman Holiday (1953) dir. William Wyler
Languages: English, Italian Run time: 118m 98% Rotten Tomatoes
And just like that, we’ve flipped a switch and we’re watching glitzy, Hollywood films about Rome! What can I say? There’s room for both types of films set in Rome on this list! Especially when the Hollywood film is as wonderful and enjoyable as Roman Holiday.
The ever-delightful Audrey Hepburn plays a Princess from an undisclosed European country on a tour of Europe. When she reaches Rome, she grows tired of the endless schedules and formalities of being a Princess and escapes into the night to experience the ‘real’ Rome. She happens to meet Gregory Peck’s American Journalist who recognises the Princess and spends all day with her galivanting around Rome in the hopes of writing a highly-paid exclusive article about her.
Cue Vespa rides through Piazza Venezia, sampling gelato on the Spanish Steps and guided tours of the Colosseum. There’s no other travel-inspiring film that showcases the hotspots of Rome like Roman Holiday! Lucky for you, I wrote an entire blog post detailing every Roman Holiday filming location around Rome.
4. Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) dir. Jean Negulesco
Language: English Run time: 102m 67% Rotten Tomatoes
Another throwback to old Hollywood, Three Coins in the Fountain is about three American women working in Rome, sharing an apartment, who want to find love but most importantly, a husband. A song also named Three Coins in the Fountain was written for the film and refers to the legend regarding how many coins you throw into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. One coin means you will return to Rome, two coins means you’ll return and find love and three coins means you’ll return to Rome, find love and get married. Every girl’s dream, right?
Three Coins in the Fountain shot all over Italy including Venice, Trentino and Rome which included the scenes at the Trevi Fountain.
Both Three Coins in the Fountain and Roman Holiday helped contribute to a Hollywood era nicknamed ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ because there was a boom of American films made in Rome (which is on the River Tiber) during the 1950s-1970s (normally at the Cinecittà Studios). After WWII, Italy was desperate to rebuild its film industry and offered lower costs and Government subsidies to foreign productions. So a lot of sword-and-sandal epics were shot in Rome and allowed Italian actors like Sophia Loren to gain worldwide notoriety.
Just a little bit of film history there for you, but let’s move on!
5. Ben-Hur (1959) dir. William Wyler
Language: English Run time: 212m 86% Rotten Tomatoes
I just had to throw in a couple of films set in Ancient Rome, right? And where better to start than the daddy of all sword-and-sandals epic, Ben-Hur! The titular character is a Jewish Prince living in Israel who is sold into slavery by a childhood friend who is a Roman citizen. He then manages to obtain his freedom and seeks revenge. So while much of the film isn’t set in Rome, you still have to watch a few films about the Roman Empire before visiting the eternal city.
Ben-Hur did extremely well at the Academy Awards, winning a whopping 11 awards from 12 nominations (and there were only 15 categories at the time!) Like Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain, Ben-Hur also filmed scenes at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Locations in Rome include the Rovine Canale Monterano Commune but the film was also shot in the wider Lazio region and in Lebanon.
6. La Dolce Vita (1960) dir. Federico Fellini
Languages: Italian, English, French, German Run time: 174m 97% Rotten Tomatoes
Ahhhh, La Dolce Vita. Is there a more classically Roman film than La Dolce Vita? Translated in English as ‘The Sweet Life’, La Dolce Vita follows the exploits of socialite journalist Marcello over one week in Rome. The plot has an episodic structure and the most famous scene is probably the one where Marcello meets Sylvia, a famous actress, and they find themselves unexpectantly alone and Sylvia randomly decides to go for a dip in the Trevi Fountain. As you do.
Director Fellini apparently prefers to build sets over filming on location, but luckily he shot many scenes in La Dolce Vita around Rome. The Trevi Fountain in the film is the actual Trevi Fountain and the Quirinale Palace featured too.
7. L’Eclisse (1962) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Languages: Italian, English Run time: 126m 89% Rotten Tomatoes
L’Eclisse is the final film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy following on from L’Avventura (1960) set in Sicily and La Notte set in Milan. In English, the title means ‘The Eclipse’ and follows the life of Vittoria, a literary translator who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. She happens to meet Piero, a young stockbroker who Vittoria begins a new relationship despite their different moral values. It really delves deep into the nuances of why relationships work and I also love that Vittoria is the central focus of L’Eclisse rather than Piero. Just makes the film much more interesting to see it from a woman’s perspective.
8. Mamma Roma (1963) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Language: Italian Run time: 106m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of Italy’s top filmmakers and Mamma Roma is another example of the hard times the people of Rome fell on after WWII (akin to Bicycle Thieves, for example). Mamma Roma is about a mother who leaves a life of prostitution behind to sell vegetables with her son. However, when he discovers the truth about her former life he quickly spirals out of control. Pasolini shot the film entirely on location in Rome.
I can’t help but think about the Bollywood film Mother India (1957) and compare it to Mamma Roma. The ladies in the films come from very different backgrounds. But ultimately, they’re both matriarchs trying to do the best for their families in challenging circumstances. People around the world really aren’t that different at all!
9. Roma (1972) dir. Federico Fellini
Language: Italian, German, English, French, Latin, Spanish Run time: 128m 69% Rotten Tomatoes
Roma is the second Fellini film on my list of top films set in Rome! I had to include a film literally titled ‘Rome’ didn’t I?! But Roma definitely won’t be for everyone’s taste because it isn’t exactly mine.
Not to be confused with Roma (2018) which is a Mexican film by Alfonso Cuarón, Fellini’s Roma is more of a love letter to the city told in loosely-connected episodes based on the director’s experiences. There’s not really much of a plot and I’m very much a plot-driven kind of gal. He shot the film around Rome and also in Cinecittà Studios.
10. The Belly of an Architect (1987) dir. Peter Greenaway
Language: English Run time: 120m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
Skipping ahead by over a decade, we’re getting into the more Hollywood/populist English-speaking films. Gotta be honest, I’m much more likely to watch any of these types of films set in Rome than re-watch La Dolce Vita. I’m probably just lazy but I also think it’s sometimes more travel-inspiring to watch someone you relate to visit Rome and see the city from their perspective.
The Belly of an Architect is about an American architect (shocker) who is hired to commission an exhibition in Rome. The stress of the job, as well as his strained marriage, puts so much pressure on the architect that he starts experiencing stomach pains. The film features a truckload of filming locations all over Rome! I’m talking about the Aurelian Walls, the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona, Piazza Venezia… So many Piazzas!
11. Gladiator (2000) dir. Ridley Scott
Language: English Run time: 155m 76% Rotten Tomatoes
A lot of these period films set in Rome might not seem very travel-inspiring from the outside. And especially not Gladiator which is about a former Roman General who plans his vengeance on a corrupt Emporer who murdered his entire family. But to some people, they are. Some travellers want to dive into the recent bleak history of a city like in Rome, Open City and some absolutely love Empire-set films with sword fights and live tigers. The Colosseum is still standing, after all! Which is exactly where some pivotal scenes in Gladiator were set.
However, director Ridley Scott shot the majority of Gladiator in Morocco and Malta in one of their many forts. So you can’t visit any Gladiator filming locations on your trip to Rome but at least there are enough ruin sites and relics to keep you busy regardless.
12. When in Rome (2002) dir. Steve Purcell
Language: English Run time: 85m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
Okay… If you weren’t nine-years-old in 2002, then you probably weren’t a huge fan of Mary-Kate and Ashley like I was. But their travel-inspiring movies were HUGE to pre-teen girls back in the early 00s. I do wonder whether or not I’d want to travel so much if it wasn’t for those direct-to-video films.
One of my favourites is When in Rome. The twins’ star in the film as Leila and Charli who have won summer internships for a big company in Rome. Due to no fault of their own, they’re fired but rehired by the company director who allows Charli to design her own line of clothes (yeah, sure) and Leila gets to photograph them. And of course, one twin falls for the company director’s bad boy nephew and the other falls for a local Italian boy also doing the internship.
It’s a terrible, corny film, but what can I say? They live in an apartment directly opposite the Colosseum and take Vespa rides all over the city!
13. The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) dir. Jim Fall
Language: English, Italian Run time: 94m 41% Rotten Tomatoes
And even if you weren’t a Mary-Kate and Ashley fan as a young girl in the early 00s, you definitely watched The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Based on the hit Disney Channel TV show, Lizzie McGuire, the titular character travels on a summer class trip to Rome. At the Trevi Fountain, she is approached by an Italian pop star called Paolo because she looks identical to his singing partner, Isabella, who has gone AWOL. She pretends to be ill for the rest of the trip so she can hang with Paolo and masquerade as Isabella for the pop duo’s upcoming performance at the Italian Music Awards.
There are quite a few filming locations around Rome featured in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Mainly all the tourist hotspots that you would expect to see on an educational trip to Rome including the Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and Piazza di Spagna.
A class trip that turns into a holiday romance and the chance to be a famous pop star? This is what dreams are made of!
14. Mission: Impossible III (2006) dir. J.J. Abrams
Language: English Run time: 126m 70% Rotten Tomatoes
Though I very much enjoy the more recent Mission: Impossible films, I’m not a massive fan of Mission: Impossible I-III. But if you’re visiting Rome soon and also have a hankering to watch Tom Cruise climb up a building or eat fire or… whatever he does… then Mission: Impossible III is the one to watch.
Agent Ethan Hunt has seemingly retired from fieldwork but is pulled back in when a violent arms dealer threatens to kill him and his fiancee. The team discover that the bad guy will be in Vatican City to retrieve a mysterious object called ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ so Ethan travels to Rome in an attempt to track him down.
So, most of Mission: Impossible III‘s Rome scenes are actually set in the Vatican, but they sure as heck didn’t film there. The Royal Palace of Caserta in Campania near Naples stood in for St Peter’s Basilica as it did for Angels and Demons (2009) three years later.
15. Angels and Demons (2009) dir. Ron Howard
Language: English, Italian Run time: 138m 36% Rotten Tomatoes
I’ve said this many times on my blog, but I love The Da Vinci Code Trilogy more than I probably should. They are not good films, yet I watch them again and again in the same way I cannot just eat one chocolate digestive. I have to have more. They are also the only films that combine three of my loves: travel in European cities, religious conspiracy theories, and taking lighthearted things too seriously.
Angels and Demons (2009) is the middle film in the trilogy following The Da Vinci Code (2006) and before Inferno (2016). Dr Robert Langdon is back and he must help the Vatican retrieve a vial of antimatter from an unknown location before it blows up the entire city of Rome and save the four Cardinals (apparently kidnapped by the Illuminati) before they are killed, once an hour, before midnight. Langdon races all around the city and city-state, teaching us tidbits about Rome and the Catholic church along the way. You don’t just get a gripping race-against-time drama from Angels and Demons, you also get a history lesson that may be useful for your next pub quiz!
I wrote an entire blog post detailing all the Angels and Demons filming locations in Vatican City and Rome which you can read here. I also wrote another blog post on The Da Vinci Code filming locations in Paris and how to visit Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, which is the church featured at the end of The Da Vinci Code.
16. Eat Pray Love (2010) dir. Ryan Murphy
Languages: English, Italian, Portuguese Run time: 133m 36% Rotten Tomatoes
Another film I probably shouldn’t love, but I do. Eat Pray Love has got to be one of the most travel-inspiring films set in Rome. And more than half of the film doesn’t even take place there! Based on the best-selling memoir, Eat Pray Love is about writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s personal journey to find herself. She lives in Rome for four months learning Italian and enjoying life’s pleasures (eat), spends four months in an Ashram in India (pray). And finally, learns how to balance the two with the help of a medicine man in Bali (love).
There are so many Eat Pray Love filming locations in Rome, far too many to list here. But luckily I’ve written them all up in a blog post for you to read! And Eat Pray Love isn’t just a great travel film to watch only if you’re visiting the same countries she visits. It’s actually just a great wanderlust-inspiring film in itself! And I do recommend the book, too.
17. To Rome with Love (2012) dir. Woody Allen
Languages: English, Italian Run time: 112m 46% Rotten Tomatoes
Whether you love it or late it, you cannot deny that To Rome with Love shows off many more Roman street corners, cafés and tourist hotspots than basically any other film set in Rome. I documented at least 11 filming locations in Rome from watching Eat Pray Love. But in To Rome with Love? There are at least 43!
One of Woody Allen’s ‘Ode to European capital cities’ movies (along with Midnight in Paris (2010) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), To Rome with Love tells four unrelated stories about several characters and their lives in Rome. Though it’s not regarded as a ‘good’ film and I’m not sure I should be recommending Woody Allen films anymore, it’s still one of the best films for inspiring people to travel to Rome and to watch before your trip.
Also, I wrote an entire blog post listing every single To Rome with Love filming location in Rome I could find.
18. The Great Beauty (2013) dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Languages: Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish Run time: 142m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
Well, at least maybe I can redeem myself somewhat by recommending a recent film that is not only in the Italian language but is actually a great film. Paolo Sorrentino is one of the best Italian filmmakers working right now. And his previous film Il Divo (2008) is worth a watch, too.
The Great Beauty follows a journalist who has spent most of his 65 years chasing women and attending the most lavish, wildest parties. On his birthday, he realises he has been living superficially and begins searching for ‘the great beauty’ of life. Sometimes we need a film that gives us a reality check and The Great Beauty is one of those films. It also helps that this film is set a little in Tuscany but mainly in the gorgeous city of Rome. Filming locations include the Baths of Caracalla, Piazza Navona, Fontana dell’Acqua Paola and Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio.
19. Spectre (2015) dir. Sam Mendes
Language: English Run time: 148m 63% Rotten Tomatoes
We’ve reached the final film set in Rome to watch before your trip! How on earth are you going to squeeze in 19 films before you catch your flight, eh? *wink emoji*
Ah, I don’t expect you to watch all of these films set in Rome but here is one you may have already watched. Spectre is the most recent James Bond film before No Time to Die (2020) is released next year. In this instalment, a posthumous message received from M sends Bond on the trail of a super-dangerous crime organisation. He attends the funeral of a member in Rome and infiltrates a group meeting somewhere in the city before starting a car chase.
Spectre doesn’t linger too long in Rome, unfortunately, before Bond jets off to Austria and Morocco. But while in Rome, he drives passed the Colosseum, visits Villa di Fiorano, the Garibaldi Museum, the Roman Forum, St Peter’s Basilica and a few other landmarks. He also drives rampantly through the streets of Trastevere and onto Stadium of Domitian before jetting away from the bad guy.
Other films set in Rome: Rome 11:00 (1952), When in Rome (1952), An American in Rome (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), Accatone (1961), 8 1/2 (1963), Il Boom (1963), Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), EuroTrip (2004), Il Divo (2008), When in Rome (2010)
And those are all the best films set in Rome! Are you planning your own Roman holiday? Or have you watched any of the films on the list? Let me know in the comments below!