Of all Italian locations to film in, Milan doesn’t exactly come first to mind.
In comparison to Rome, its eternal rival, Milan is usually considered unpleasant and not worth shooting. After all, there must be a reason Hollywood gave us “Roman Holiday”, and never a Milanese one.
But although it’s true Milan might not be as dreamy as the capital, the former certainly outdoes the latter in taste and style.
These cultural differences, together with less clement weather (forget the Mediterranean!) are also reflected in social structures. While Rome is still a stronghold of aristocracy, Milan is a deeply bourgeois city, in which the upper class – probably the most refined in the country – keeps reminding itself its source of wealth comes from manufacturing and not from inherited titles.
Arguably the only real global city in Italy, most certainly the only one to feel “European”, Milan has been the industrial and financial heart of the country for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the economic boom produced even more social disparity between North and South, the city turned into a promise of a better life for many. And it still is today, for some.
The “giargiana”, an expression in Milanese dialect indicating anybody who wasn’t born in Milan, moved to the city en masse, bringing with them their stories, traditions, and personal dramas. A far too fertile ground for screenwriters and directors.
In Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) Milan is presented as a bitter-sweet symbol of social redemption.
A young and handsome Alain Delon plays Rocco, one of five children of a poor family which emigrate from a southern Italian village to Milan. The film is structured in five episodes, each following a different brother, revealing their fragilities, hopes, and ambitions as they find their way in the big city.
Rocco e i suoi fratelli masterfully deals with existential themes such as the clash between preserving family’s unity and following personal ambitions, rivalry amongst brothers, the struggle to adapt to urban life and to macho culture. As if growing up wasn’t difficult enough.
Although VIttorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951) hasn’t kept up with the times, this blend of neorealism and fantasy is worth mentioning. Once again, Milan is chosen to stage a tale of social class differences, telling the story of a group of clochards confronting the upper-class.
Shot near the city’s station of Lambrate, the film was badly received by liberals and conservatives alike. A disappointing result, especially considering the enormous cost the many special effects had involved. Some consolation came years later, though. Allegedly, Gabriel García Márquez cited the movie as a source of inspiration for his magic realism style of writing; and the movie’s finale, in which the homeless leave Piazza del Duomo flying on brooms, famously inspired Steven Spielberg’s flying bike ride in E.T.
From class struggle to more intimate turmoil: Milan is the backdrop of the marital crisis staged in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night, 1961). The film follows a bourgeois couple, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, through a whole day and night, until the following morning. With seemingly no real purpose but escaping boredom, the couple moves through the city’s intellectual and high-society circles, avoiding to properly talk to each other during the entire two hour long movie.
The only episode from Antonioni’s “incommunicability trilogy” to be set in North Italy, La Notte features many familiar sights, including Gio Ponti’s Pirellone, one of the symbols of the city, which had just been completed at the time of filming.
Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love (2009) perfectly embodies the more modern spirit of the city. This stylish and visually impeccable film follows the dynamics of a wealthy family of industrialists living in Piero Portaluppi’s Villa Necchi Campiglio, a masterpiece of Milanese architecture which has turned into a Mecca for instagrammers since the film was released.
I am Love gives away beautiful takes throughout the city: the opening sequence with a snowy urbanscape, Tilda Swinton meandering on top of the Duomo looking for solace from social norm, and a dramatic scene set at the city’s impressive Cimitero Monumentale.
An absolute masterpiece of Italian comedy, Totò, Peppino e la… malafemmina (Totò, Peppino, and the Hussy, 1956) is the forerunner of all the later movies mocking cultural differences between rural southern Italy and the industrialized north.
National hero Totò and Peppino De Filippo play two uneducated landowners from southern Italy. When their nephew falls in love with a revue dancer and follows her to Milan, the two decide to travel to the city as well, in an attempt to stop the relationship which they consider improper. They get off at Milano Centrale wearing fur hats and coats because in “Milan it’s cold”, carrying with them food from home: pasta for an army, cured meat, cheese, and a couple of living hens.
In one of the most famous scenes of the movie, they get to Piazza Duomo, mistake the cathedral for the town hall, and confuse a traffic policeman with an Austrian general, to whom they coherently attempt to speak in French.
Social struggles, personal crises, infidelity; but also absolute glamor, cultural refinement, and sophistication. Milan can take it all.
Because, as even Ursula von der Leyen has recently reminded us, Milan l’è on gran Milan.