Every film fan knows how awesome Italy’s film industry is for innovating, life-affirming and thoroughly entertaining works of cinema. And that includes the films set in Sicily. Not only has Sicily birthed some of Italy’s best filmmakers, but Sicilian cinema also showcases how beautiful, epic and diverse the region is.
Sicily seems a bit like the black sheep of the Italy family. The indifferent Uncle who reluctantly shows up, unannounced, on Christmas day but inevitably slinks away, back doing their own thing, not caring what the other regions think. Sicily couldn’t give a sh*t. And I think the films set in Sicily, especially those on my list, prove that Sicily has its own unique cinematic charm very separate from the mainland.
Sicily is, unfortunately, known for its history with The Mafia, for being one of the more deprived regions of Italy, economically speaking, and for its rugged islands and landscapes like Mount Etna and the lush farmland. I visited Sicily in September for less than a week. But luckily, I can watch these amazing, travel-inspiring films set in Sicily before I get the chance to visit again. And yes, there is at least one film on this list you will have heard about before and probably watched several times. So let’s dive into my list of great films set in Sicily that I have no doubt will inspire you to visit…
Top Films set in Sicily
1. Stromboli (1949) dir. Roberto Rossellini
Languages: Italian, English, Spanish Run time: 107m 71% Rotten Tomatoes
First up, if you’re not a film fan then you’d be more likely to recognise director Roberto Rossellini’s wife (actress Ingrid Bergman) or famous daughter (Isabella Rossellini). But to Italian cinema fans, he’s kind of a big deal.
Stromboli is one of the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily, home to one of Italy’s three remaining active volcanoes. It’s also a film starring Rossellini’s soon-to-be wife, Ingrid Bergman, as a Lithuanian displaced in Italy who manages to leave an internment camp by marrying an Italian fisherman. He promises her a fantastic life on his home island of Stromboli, but of course, the island’s isolation and the suspicious, conservative locals don’t make her life easy.
Stromboli is a great film and still unfortunately relevant today. And Rossellini actually shot the film on the island of Stromboli, too!
2. L’Avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Language: Italian Run time: 143m 96% Rotten Tomatoes
Out of all the films set in Sicily on this list, I’d bet that L’Avventura is maybe the third most commonly-watched film. Especially amongst film fans, as it always ranks very highly in lists about World Cinema.
L’Avventura is the first film in director Antonioni’s trilogy which he followed with La Notte (1961) set in Milan and L’Eclisse (1962) set in Rome. This film is about a young woman who disappears during a boating trip in the Mediterranean and her boyfriend and best friend trying to find her. Doesn’t seem like a very nice ‘adventure’ if you ask me!
L’Avventura shot aaall over Sicily. I mean everywhere. Filming locations include Messina in northeastern Sicily, the Aeolian Islands, several areas of Palermo (Sicily’s capital city), Catania, Syracuse and Mount Etna even makes an appearance. If you want to drive off on a virtual road trip through cinema, then L’Avventura is the travel-inspiring film to watch.
3. Divorce Italian Style (1961) dir. Pietor Germi
Language: Italian Run time: 108m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
Gotta be honest, I don’t know as much about Italian cinema as I should. But I do know one thing: if it’s a good film made before 1970, the actor Marcello Mastroianni (pictured below) is probably in it. And Divorce Italian Style was actually nominated for several Academy Awards, winning one for Best Original Screenplay. And it has 100% on rotten tomatoes, so I think it’s safe to say this film is well-liked.
Divorce Italian Style is a comedy about a rich Sicilian man who, because divorce was illegal in Italy in the early 1960s, plans to kill his wife so he is free to marry another. Of course, even the best-laid plans never quite work out as expected. But the quirky thing I love most about Divorce Italian Style is that the characters go to the cinema to watch La Dolce Vita (1960). Which is a phenomenal film Marcello Mastroianni also starred in! That’s probably just a tidbit that film fans will find interesting…
Divorce Italian Style filmed in Ragusa and Catania in Sicily and at the De Paolis Studios in Rome.
4. Salvatore Giuliano (1962) dir. Francesco Rosi
Languages: Italian, Sicilian Run time: 123m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
Salvatore Giuliano might be a bit of an ‘out there’ choice for most people. But, if you love a good Italian neo-realist film shot in a documentary style that also has a non-linear plot then BOY is this the film for you!
I think Sicily has one of the most fascinating backstories. And the real-life Salvatore Giuliano is a mere footnote in the history books detailing Sicily’s lengthy past. He was an outlaw in the 1940s who was involved in the black market food-smuggling business, at a time when around 70% of Sicily’s food was fueled by the black market. He was well-known and violent towards the police whenever possible and all of these shenanigans left him dead at the age of 27. You know, ‘live fast, die young’ and all that.
Salvatore Giuliano primarily follows the lives of people he affected, so Salvatore Giuliano doesn’t really appear onscreen. The film utilised Trapani and Palermo for filming locations.
5. The Leopard (1963) dir. Luchino Visconti
Language: Italian Run time: 161m 98% Rotten Tomatoes
Another classic film set in Sicily: The Leopard. Seriously, the 1960s were a fantastic time for Italian cinema with the neo-realist movement so that’s why a lot of recommendations are from this time period! Luckily, Sicily-set films didn’t miss out on the fun.
The Leopard is a period film set in 1860, where the Prince of Salina tries to hold onto his titles and wealth during a time of great social and political change in Sicily. It’s an epic (not just because of the running time) akin to Gone with the Wind (1939) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) so the production values are fantastic and very lavish. The Leopard shot a lot of scenes in Palermo (on grand estates like Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, for instance) but also in Rome, too.
6. The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
When you think of ‘films set in Sicily’ your mind immediately goes to The Godfather trilogy, am I right? I don’t blame you, they’re some of the very few English-speaking movies that are set (partly) in Sicily. Not to mention they’re some of the most beloved, highly rated films in the history of cinema. Well, the first two are.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock for your whole life, here’s a brief synopsis. The Godfather films follow the Corleone family who are Sicilian-Americans living in New York. They’re one of the five most powerful Italian families in the city and run a less than legit business. The films are essentially about maintaining their status and taking out their enemies. And that’s to put it very simply.
For part of each film, some of the characters end up in Sicily. They’re named Corleone because the head of the family, Don Vito, is from the town of Corleone in Sicily. However, when filming took place in the 1970s, Corleone had developed substantially from 1940s when the first film was set. Instead, The Godfather shot primarily around Messina and Taormina on the east coast where, I’m guessing, the towns and places hadn’t progressed much since WWII.
The Godfather films are often the entire reason why travellers choose to visit Sicily. For violence/crime/death heavy films, they’re very travel-inspiring!
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988) dir. Giuseppe Tornatore
Languages: Italian, Sicilian, English, Portuguese Run time: 155m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
If you’re reading this list and thinking ‘jeez, I’m really not going to watch all of these Italian-language films‘ then I completely understand. I hate to admit it, but it sometimes takes a lot of effort for me to watch subtitled films. But if you watch just one film set in Sicily in a different language then please make it Cinema Paradiso. It is such a beautiful film, both the narrative and the locations, and a semi-modern classic. And if I convince just one person to watch it from this blog post I’ll be a happy woman!
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, too.
Cinema Paradiso follows the life of fictional filmmaker Salvatore Di Vita and his childhood growing up in the small village of Giancarlo in Sicily. There, he spends all his free time in a cinema called ‘Cinema Paradiso’ where he watches films through the projection booth. This film is a true celebration of cinema and the village of ‘Giancarlo’ is actually an amalgamation of some amazing locations in Cefalù and Palermo.
8. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) dir. Kenneth Branagh
Language: Engish Run time: 110m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
So Much Ado About Nothing was shot almost entirely in a villa in Tuscany called Villa Vignamaggio (look it up, it’s a hotel you can stay at!). I ummed and ahhed about putting it on my more general list of films set in Italy, but Much Ado About Nothing is actually set in Messina, Sicily.
Much Ado About Nothing is a Shakespearean play adapted for the screen by noted Shakespeare fanboy Kenneth Branagh. Like many Shakespeare stories with lots of characters who all fancy/betray different people, Much Ado About Nothing centres on soon-to-be-wed couple Hero and Claudio who attempt to matchmake their single friends Benedick and Beatrice. Which would be a relatively straightforward task, if Benedick and Beatrice didn’t loathe each other.
There are A LOT of terrible Shakespeare film adaptations out there, but this definitely isn’t one of them. Plus Keanu Reeves is in it and people seem to be fawning over him (with good reason) at the minute!
9. Respiro (2002) dir. Emanuele Crialese
Languages: Italian, Sicilian Run time: 95m 76% Rotten Tomatoes
Set on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean sea, a free-spirited mother lives with her three children and timid fisherman husband. Her seemingly ‘mad’ behaviour draws unnecessary attention from her community who think she should be institutionalised.
Respiro represents the good and bad about island life really well and of course how mental health can be misunderstood. And even better, Respiro was filmed on the Sicilian island it’s set on! I think one of the main differences between films set in Sicily and mainland Italy is how much Sicily (and Sicilians) have built an identity around being an Island nation. As travellers, we see islands as beautiful, exotic places which offer tourists a relaxing break. And the more the remote, the better in some instances. But for locals, the story can be very different.
10. Palermo Shooting (2008) dir. Wim Wenders
Languages: German, English, Italian Run time: 124m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
A lot of the films set in Sicily, including the ones on this list, have been very focused on island life. Obviously Sicily is an island anyway, but a lot of films like to cover the isolation and problems that occur living on isolated, albeit extremely picturesque, islands.
But let’s have a look at some films focusing on city life in Sicily, specifically Palermo. Which is great because Palermo is the only part of Sicily I’ve visited! Palermo Shooting is about a German photographer who visits Palermo to take a break from his wild lifestyle. But is Palermo really the best city to visit if you want to ‘relax’ and ‘calm down?’ Probably not! Part of the film was shot in Germany but the Sicilian scenes were all shot in Palermo, unsurprisingly.
11. A Street in Palermo (2013) dir. Emma Dante
Language: Italian Run time: 90m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
I’ve got another Palermo-based film for you and it’s even directed by a woman. Woohoo, finally! Also, I just love the bonkers plot of this film and the ‘look’ of the film really makes me feel like I’m back in Palermo.
A Street in Palermo (which also shot in Palermo) is about two cars that come face to face down a narrow street and neither driver wants to budge. Is that not just the most simplistically amazing plot to a film ever? And so Italian, too, because the streets ARE so narrow! You could actually see this happening in real life.
12. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (2013) dir. Pif
Language: Italian Run time: 90m 63% Rotten Tomatoes
If you want to know more about the Mafia in Sicily, you could not watch a better film than The Mafia Kills Only in Summer. A fictional black comedy inspired by true stories, the main character is a young boy named Arturo who lives in Palermo and wishes to become a journalist. It is set during the Mafia’s height of power between the 1970s-1990s where Arturo’s growing love for a young girl names Flora mirrors the city’s slowly realising the true extent of the Mafia’s power.
The Mafia Kills Only in Summer mocks the Mafia while paying tribute to all the police officers and anti-Mafia judges who lost their lives speaking out against organised crime. Plus, it’s such a pretty sweet-shop, Wes Anderson-esque coloured film set in Palermo which will definitely want to make you visit Sicily’s capital city.
13. A Bigger Splash (2015) dir. Luca Guadagnino
Languages: English, Italian Run time: 124m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
A Bigger Splash is not only the most wanderlust-inducing of the films set in Sicily on this list but my personal favourite. Before the wonder that is Call Me By Your Name (2017) which is set in Northern Italy, Luca Guadagnino directed an all-star cast in a film set and shot on the absolutely BREATHTAKING Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Apparently, Palermo-born Guadagnino visited this island on holidays when he was younger.
A Bigger Splash is about world-famous singer Marianne who takes a much-needed break with her boyfriend to Italy. An ex-lover of Marianne’s crashes their holiday and brings his daughter along for the journey. Bubbling tensions turn into tragedy and a dreamy holiday into a nightmare. All played out against the backdrop of this gorgeous mountainous, paradise-like island Sicilian. Pantelleria is on my filming locations bucket list for sure.
Other films set in Sicily: The Earth Trembles (1948), The Voyage (1974), Excellent Cadavers (1976), Kaos (1984), Johnny Stecchino (1991), The Star Maker (1995), One Hundred Steps (2000), Malèna (2000), Baarìa (2009)
And those are the top films set in Sicily, Italy! Are you planning a trip to Sicily? Or have you watched any travel-inspiring Sicilian films? Let me know in the comments below!