Sicily is an extraordinary place filled with gorgeous scenery, a fascinating history, and interesting people. While many famous films are set in Rome (La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, Bicycle Thieves) or Tuscany (Under the Tuscan Sun, A Room with a View), Sicily provides a spectacular backdrop for many famous and lesser known motion pictures.
The Godfather (Part I, II & III)
Frances Ford Coppola had a problem. He wanted to shoot scenes for his new picture “The Godfather” in Sicily. Don Corleone (portrayed by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro) was from a town in Sicily called Corleone, so that Sicilian town the obvious choice. But, in the early 70’s the town of Corleone had been developed and was quite modern, rendering it unsuitable.
So, Coppola used the villages of Savoca and Forza d’Agro as stand ins.
There are tours that will take you to places like the Bar Vitelli in Savoca where Michael “convinces” the owner’s father to let him meet his daughter. You can also see the church where Michael and Appollonia wed.
In the lesser appreciated third film, Forza d’Agro is again used. But, many scenes were filmed in Palermo including the climatic scene on the steps of the opera house, Teatro Massimo.
The people of Sicily have very mixed feelings about the popularity of the Godfather movies. On the one hand, they appreciate the commerce that comes with fans of the movies visiting Sicily and spending money. On the other hand, Sicily has fought long and hard to defeat the Mafia. And, even as the Mafia’s influence has waned, the reputation of Sicily as a dangerous placed populated with gangsters persists.
Which leads us to…
Shooting the Mafia
There is no denying the Mafia’s stronghold on all aspects of Sicilian life during the second half of the 20th century.
But, there is also no denying that the Mafia’s power has been greatly diminished in the last 30 years.
“Shooting the Mafia” tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia who spent her career chronicling the violence wrought by the Cosa Nostra in her hometown of Palermo. Letizia’s pictures of the victims are brutal and stark, contrasting with stylized violence of Hollywood Mafia movies. She also captures the heartbreak of families torn apart by violence and a city that finally rises up and says “Enough!”
One of the finest Italian films of the 1980’s, “Cinema Paradiso” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989. The movie tells the story of a young man who spends all his time at the local movie house, Cinema Paradiso. The movie is set in fictional Sicilian town of Giancaldo.
The town of Palazzo Adriano played the part of Giancaldo. The square, Piazza Umberto I, where the cinema once stood during filming, is still there. The actual cinema was dismantled after production, but the fountain still stands. There’s also a small Cinema Paradiso Museum in Palazzo Adriano.
Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale star in this epic film about Sicilian society coming to grips with the world changing around them as Italy became unified in the mid 19th century.
The film is worth seeing for the incredible ballroom scene alone. It’s 45 minutes (!) of dancing and socializing in a Sicilian Palace. This must be why the film is sometimes call the Italian Gone with the Wind. Or, perhaps it’s the battle scenes in the streets of Palermo with royal soldiers fighting Garabaldi’s unification army.
“The Leopard” is based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which garnered great acclaim. When the film was released, it received generally negative reviews, but is now considered a masterpiece with fans like Martin Scorsese.
Most of the Leopard’s filming locations are closed to the public, including Palazzo Valguarnera Gangi, where the ballroom scene was shot. However, the palace can be rented for private functions. However, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s home, Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, is owned by the author’s adoptive son and his wife. They rent out rooms in the palace and conduct cooking classes.
Famed Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti directed the movie. He also directed several other classics including La Terra Trema.
La Terra Trema
One of Luchino Visconti’s earliest films was “La Terra Trema.” The movie neo-realistic in style and Visconti uses locals from the Sicilian town of Aci Trezza rather than trained actors.
The movie tells the story of the poor fishermen in the town who try to pull themselves out of poverty, only to be beset by tragedy and exploitation. Aci Trezza is no longer a poor fishing village, but instead a seaside vacation spot. One of the prominent visual features in the movie, the Islands of the Cyclops, are still visible from shore of Aci Trezza.
Another Sicilian movie to feature fishing culture is Stromboli. The 1950 film takes place on the Sicilian island of the same name. The movie features the traditional Sicilian method of tuna fishing called Mattanza. The gruesome practice captures an entire school of bluefin tuna and slowly closing nets in around them before massacring in a ritual that turns the water blood-red. Today, Mattanza has almost disappeared from the Mediterranean due to overfishing of the tuna.
Upon release, “Stromboli” was more famous for what happened behind the scenes than on screen. Director Roberto Rossellini and star Ingrid Bergman had an extra marital affair during the filming of the movie. When Berman gave birth to her son, Robin, with Roberto as the father, conservative America revolted and the film bombed at the box office.
The island of Stromboli itself is rather barren, a speck of volcanic rock in the Mediterranean. The still-active volcano is a big attraction and the house on Via Vittorio Emanuele where Berman and Rossellini began their affair still stands.
Divorce Italian Style
“Divorce Italian Style” is a comedy released in 1961. The film was widely praised and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It also won Best Comedy at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.
In the movie Ferdinando Cefalù, played by Marcello Mastroianni, wants a divorce. However, in the 1960’s Italy, divorce is still illegal. So, Ferdinando daydreams of absurd ways to kill his wife like shooting her into space on a rocket or tossing her into a boiling cauldron.
Much of the film was shot in the town of Ispica, not far from Modica and Ragusa.
The Orange Thief
“The Orange Thief” is a film shot in the small town of Luca Sicula. The movie is told in three parts and was filmed by three directors independent of one another. Some have found this method of filmmaking to be disjointed, but I think it lends itself to the personality of Sicily, which at times can be contradictory. The three directors might also represent the Sicilian flag which has three wheat ears and three legs.
The film is also unique in that the actors speak Sicilian, not Italian. It also features several Sicilian songs. Overall, it’s quite charming.