One of the first Italian filoni (sub-genres) was the historical film: the first work in the genre was Filoteo Alberini's La presa di Roma, 20 settembre 1870 ("The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870"), filmed in 1905. Other films portrayed famous historical figures such as Nero, Messalina, Spartacus, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Arturo Ambrosio's Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1908, "The Last Days of Pompeii") quickly became famous, so famous that it was remade by Mario Caserini in 1913. In the same year Enrico Guazzoni directed the widely appreciated Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
Actresses Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menichelli were the first "divas" (stars), specialising in passionate tragedies. Francesca Bertini became the first "star" of cinema, as well as the first actress to appear on film partly naked.
Other filoni featured social themes, often based on published literature. In 1916 the film Cenere (Ash) was based on Grazia Deledda's book, and interpreted by the theatre actress Eleonora Duse (also famous as Gabriele D'Annunzio's lover).
Meanwhile, Fascism had created a board of judgment for popular culture. This administration suggested, with Mussolini's full approval, the creation of some important structures for Italian cinema. An area was founded in southeast Rome to build ex novo a town exclusively for cinema, dubbed the Cinecittà. The town was conceived in order to provide everything necessary for filmmaking: theaters, technical services, and even a cinematography school for younger apprentices. Even today, many films are shot entirely in Cinecittà. At the same time Vittorio Mussolini, the son of the dictator, created a national production company and organized the work of the most gifted authors, directors and actors (including even some political opponents), thereby creating an interesting communication network among them, resulting in several famous friendships and, beyond that, stimulating cultural interaction. Notable directors that worked at Cinecitta include Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni among many others.
Neorealism exploded soon after the war, with unforgettable works such as Rossellini's trilogy Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), and with extraordinary actors such as Anna Magnani, as an attempt to describe the difficult economic and moral conditions of Italy and the changes in public mentality in everyday life. Also, because Cinecittà was occupied by refugees, films were shot outdoors, on the devastated roads of a defeated country. This genre soon also became an important political tool, although in most cases directors were able to keep a distinguishing barrier between art and politics.
Poetry and cruelty of life were harmonically combined in the works that Vittorio De Sica wrote and directed together with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini: among them, Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1950). The sad, bitter Umberto D. (1952), the touching story of a poor old man with his little dog, whom life forces to beg for alms against his dignity in the loneliness of the new society, is perhaps De Sica's masterpiece and one of the most important works in Italian cinema. Baptized with a heavy polemic with government, that would have censored it for alleged anti-national sentiments, the film was not a commercial success and since then it has been shown on Italian television only a few times. Yet it is perhaps the most violent attack, in the apparent quietness of the action, against the rules of the new economy, the new mentality, the new values, and it happens to have at the same time both a conservative and a progressive view.
At this time, on the more commercial side of production, the phenomenon of Totò, a Neapolitan actor who is acclaimed as the major Italian comic, exploded. His films (often with Peppino De Filippo and almost always with Mario Castellani) expressed a sort of neorealistic satire, in the means of a guitto as well as with the art of the great dramatic actor he also was, like Pier Paolo Pasolini would have shown. A "film-machine" who produced dozens of titles per year, his repertoire was frequently repeated. His personal story (a prince born in the poorest rione of Naples), his unique twisted face, his special mimic expressions and his gesture, created an inimitable personage and made this man one of the most beloved Italians in his own country.
Italian Comedy is generally considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'Italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961). For a long time this definition was used with a derogatory intention.
Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti and Nino Manfredi were among the stars of these movies, that described the years of the economical reprise and investigated Italian dress, a sort of self-ethnological research.
In 1961, Dino Risi directed Il sorpasso, now a cult-movie, then Una vita difficile (A Difficult Life), I Mostri (The Monsters, also known as 15 From Rome), In nome del Popolo Italiano (In the Name of the Italian People) and Profumo di donna (Scent of a Woman).
Monicelli's works include La grande guerra (The Great War), I compagni (Comrades, also known as The Organizer), L'Armata Brancaleone, Vogliamo i colonnelli (We Want the Colonels), Romanzo popolare (Popular Novel) and the Amici miei series.
The most important and popular spaghetti westerns were those of Sergio Leone, whose Dollars Trilogy, consisting of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which also featured Clint Eastwood and scores by Ennio Morricone, came to define the genre along with Once Upon a Time in the West.
Also considered spaghetti westerns is a genre of film that married the traditional western ambiance with the comic tradition of the Commedia all'italiana. Included among such films are Lo chiamavano Trinità... and ...continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità, which featured Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, the stage names of Carlo Pedersoli and Mario Girotti, respectively.
In 1961, Sophia Loren wins the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a woman who is raped with her adolescent daughter in World War II in Vittorio De Sica's Two Women. She became the first actress to win an Academy Award for a performance in any foreign language, second Oscar for an Italian leading lady after Anna Magnani.
During 1960s and 70s, Italians filmmakers Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti and Dario Argento developed horror films (belonging to the Giallo genre) that soon become classics and influence the genre in other countries. Representative films include: Black Sunday, Danza macabra, Reazione a catena, L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, Profondo rosso and Suspiria.
Following the 1960s boom of shockumentary "Mondo films" such as Gualtiero Jacopetti's Mondo Cane, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Italian cinema became internationally synonymous with violent horror films. These films were primarily produced for the video market and were credited with fueling the "video nasty" era in the United Kingdom.
Directors included Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato, Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato. Some of the most notorious films faced legal challenges in the United Kingdom, after the Video Recordings Act or 1984, it became a legal offense to poses a copy of such films as Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp. Italian films of this period are usually grouped together as exploitation films.
Italian studios were charged with stepping over the line in many countries with the late 70s series of Nazi exploitation films, which were inspired by American movies like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. These included the notorious but comparatively tame SS Experiment Camp and the far more graphic Gestapo's Last Orgy. These films showed, in great detail, sexual crimes against prisoners at concentration camps. These films are still banned in the United Kingdom and other countries.
Among the major artistic films of this era were La città delle donne, E la nave va, Ginger and Fred by Fellini, L'albero degli zoccoli by Ermanno Olmi (winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), La notte di San Lorenzo by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Antonioni's Identificazione di una donna, and Bianca and La messa è finita by Nanni Moretti. Although not entirely Italian, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, winner of 9 Oscars, and Once Upon a Time in America of Sergio Leone cannot be ignored.
At the same time, "trash films" reached great success with the Italian public. Films of little artistic value, these comedies reached their popularity by confronting Italian social taboos, most notably in the sexual sphere. Several actors, including Lino Banfi, Diego Abatantuono, Alvaro Vitali, Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet and Edwige Fenech owe much of their popularity to these films.
Also considered part of the trash genre are a group of films that have the ragionier Fantozzi, a comic personage invented by Paolo Villaggio; this character had a great impact on Italian society, to such a degree that the adjective fantozziano entered the lexicon. Of the many films telling of Fantozzi's misadventures, the most notable were Fantozzi and Il secondo tragico Fantozzi.
Other recent films of note include: Jona che visse nella balena directed by Roberto Faenza, Il grande cocomero by Francesca Archibugi, Il mestiere delle armi by Olmi, L'ora di religione by Marco Bellocchio, Il ladro di bambini, Lamerica, Le chiavi di casa by Gianni Amelio, Io non ho paura by Gabriele Salvatores, Le fate ignoranti, La finestra di fronte by Ferzan Özpetek, La bestia nel cuore by Cristina Comencini.