Italian industry was born between 1903 and 1908 with three companies: the roman Cines, the Ambrosio of Turin and the Itala Film. Other companies would soon have followed in Milan and in Naples. In a short time these first companies reached a fair producing quality and films were soon sold outside Italy too.
One of the first filoni (sub-genres) regarded the historical movies: the first work is Filoteo Alberini's La presa di Roma, 20 settembre 1870 (The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870), of 1905. Other films described the facts of many famous historical names such as Nero, Messalina, Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra. Ambrosio's Ultimi giorni di Pompei (1908 - The Last Days of Pompeii) soon became famous, and immediately was followed by a re-make by Caserini (1913). In the same year Guazzoni directed an appreciated Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
Actresses Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini were the first "dive" (stars), specialised in passional tragedies. The last one, in reality, was the first "star" of cinema, and also the first actress to be filmed partly naked.
Other genres regarded social themes, often based on literary stories. 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).
After WWI, also due to consequent general economical crisis, Italian cinema produced less interesting works despite the introduction of sound, and it was only at the end of the 1920s that some innovative films were directed by Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Camerini and his cousin Augusto Genina.
Blasetti opened his long career with a vanguard project (Sole, 1928) and in the following years directed the famous Italian comedian Ettore Petrolini in his comic Nero (an extremely sophisticated satire on Mussolini that, it is said, the dictator himself allowed to pass censorship), then he turned toward historical themes.
Another genre was at the same time obtaining a certain success: it included films that described a wealthy society, with a heavy dose of formal morality reflecting the culture of the age; the genre was called of Telefoni Bianchi (white telephones), by the constant characteristic presence of this object in the represented scenes. These films, generally little reputed, launched many of the stars of later times, like Vittorio De Sica and Alida Valli.
In the meanwhile, the fascism had created a dicastery for the popular culture; this administration suggested, and Mussolini fully approved, the creation of some important structures for Italian cinema. An area was found in the southern-east of Rome, where to built ex novo a town of cinema, Cinecittà. The town was conceived in order to provide all what could be needed for making a film inside it: the theatres, the technical services, and even a school of cinematography for younger apprentices. Still now, many films are entirely shot in Cinecittà. On another field Vittorio Mussolini, son of the dictator, created a national producing company and organised the work of the best gifted authors, directors and actors (among which some political oppositors too), also creating a notably interesting communication among them, resulting in famous friendships and, beyond this, in a stimulating cultural interaction. Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and many others were among these people.
Italian cinema had little prices to pay to dictatorship, and perhaps only when approaching the war, when (like in every fighting country) many works were produced for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, Blasetti could produce in 1942 his Quattro passi tra le nuvole (Four Steps in the Clouds), which is the story of a humble employee, by many indicated as the first neorealist work.
Neorealism exploded soon after the war, with unforgettable works such as Rossellini's trilogy and with extraordinary actors such as Anna Magnani, as an attempt to describe the difficult economical and moral conditions of Italy, the changes in the mentality, in everyday life. Also because Cinecittà was occupied by the refugees, films were shot outdoor, on the devastated roads of a defeated country. This genre was soon instrumentally used for political purposes too, but in the generality of 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 De Sica wrote and directed together with scenarist Cesare Zavattini: among all, Sciuscià (Shoeshine - 1946), Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief - 1948) and Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan - 1950). The sad, bitter Umberto D (1952), the touching story of an old poor man with his little dog, that 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 most important works of the whole Italian production. Baptised with a heavy polemic with government, that would have censored it for alleged anti-national sentiments, the film did not score a commercial success and since then it has been transmitted on Italian TV once, perhaps twice only. Yet it is perhaps the most violent attack, in the apparent quietness of the action, to the rules of the new economy, the new mentality, the new values, and happens to be at the same time a conservative and a progressist view.
It has been said that after "Umberto D." nothing more could be added to neorealism. Was it for this or for other reasons, effectively neorealism formally ended with this film. Following works turned toward lighter atmospheres, perhaps more coherent with the more satisfactory general conditions, and this genre was called the pink neorealism. It was the filone that allowed better "equipped" actresses to became real celebrities: the encouraging figures and measures of Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Pampanini, Lucia Bosé, together with other types of beauty like Eleonora Rossi Drago, Silvana Mangano, Claudia Cardinale, Stefania Sandrelli populated the imagination of Italians just before the so-called "boom" of the 1960s. Soon the pink neorealism was replaced by the Commedia all'Italiana (Italian Comedy), a unique genre that, born on an ideally humouristic line, talked instead very seriously about important social themes.
In these years, on the more commercial side of production, exploded the phenomenon of Totò, a neapolitan actor that is reputed as the major Italian comic. In his films (often with Peppino De Filippo, quite always with Mario Castellani) a sort of neorealistic satire was expressed in the means of a guitto as well as with the art of the great dramatic actor he also was, like (too late but finally at least) Pierpaolo Pasolini would have shown. A "film-machine" (dozens of titles per year), his repertoire was frequently repeated, but never ennoying (if not the austere Film critics). His personal story (a prince born in the poorest rione of Naples), his unique twisted face, his special mimic expressions, his gesture, created an inimitable personage and made of this man one of the most beloved Italians in his country.
Italian Comedy is generally considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti Ignoti (Persons Unknown) and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'Italiana (Divorce Italian Style - 1961) and for long time this definition was used with a derogatory intention.
Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti, were among the stars of these movies, that described the years of the economical reprise and investigated the costumes of Italians, 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, a.k.a. 15 From Rome), In nome del Popolo Italiano (In the Name of the Italian People), Profumo di donna (Scent of a Woman).
Monicelli's works include La grande guerra (The Great War), I compagni (Comrades, a.k.a. The Organizer), L'armata Brancaleone, Vogliamo i colonnelli (We Want the Colonels), Romanzo popolare (Popular Romance) and Amici miei.