10 great films set on the Mediterranean

With the rerelease of Journey to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s piercing account of marital breakdown during a holiday along the Italian coast, we’re packing our suitcases to head off in search of 10 great films set on the European Mediterranean.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Journey to Italy (1954)

Journey to Italy (1954)

Like painters and writers before them, filmmakers have always been drawn to blue waters of the Mediterranean. Just as American film producers flocked to the bright, desert light of Los Angeles in the early days of cinema, so the warm climate of southern Europe, and the endless pictorial opportunities provided by clear skies, tumbling cliffsides and the infinite expanse of sea, has provided cinematic allure from the silent era to the present day.

Film directors were not alone. With the rise of leisure culture throughout the 20th century, holidaymakers flocked to the Mediterranean in their droves – pilgrims in search of the holy holiday trinity of sun, sea and sand. Two such voyagers, if sightseers rather than sun-worshippers, are Katherine and Alexander Joyce (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), a prim English couple holidaying in Naples in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954).

Charting tensions in the Joyces’ marriage, which deepen as the couple is confronted and bewildered by the very un-English sights and sounds of Italy, it’s a film which captures the undramatic textures of life and the wayward turbulence of our emotions. In holiday terms, this may be the best movie ever made about the chasm between our expectations of foreign climes, and the earthy, difficult-to-prepare-for reality.

To celebrate the rerelease of this 60-year-old classic, we’ve picked out 10 more great films set on the Mediterranean. We’ve limited our recommendations to films set on the European Med, partly for focus and partly because the availability of relevant North African films for home viewing is very limited. This also excludes marvellous (and available) Turkish films such as Times and Winds (2006) and Climates (2006) in which the sea provides an important backdrop.

But the films of France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and tourist American directors, provide ample riches for a 10-film sojourn to Mediterranean shores. So slip into your swimwear, rub on the factor 15, and bask in some cinematic sunshine.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950)

Director Albert Lewin

Two entwined dead bodies are dredged up from the Mediterranean depths in a fishing net in the opening scene of Albert Lewin’s strange, unforgettable fantasy. The story of Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American living in a Catalan port town, and the mysterious sailor (James Mason) whose yacht is moored off the coast, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is an intoxicating blend of myth, romance and the glamour of continental expat life in the 1930s.

Himself a fish out of water in the mainstream cinema of his time, Lewin was a highly literary and design-minded director, peppering his film with poetic allusions and luxuriating in ornate sets and ravishing Technicolor camerawork. The blue of the sea and the reds of lipstick or a matador’s costume are as vivid as wet paint, while the odd, flat line delivery by the actors only adds to the film’s delirious, sleepwalk aura.

To Catch a Thief (1954)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock had used the French Riviera as a location for his silent film Easy Virtue (1927) and set the opening scenes of Rebecca (1940) in Monte Carlo, but in 1954 repaired to the Côte d’Azur once more to take advantage of the turquoise waters and plunging coastlines in glorious Technicolor.

One of Hitchcock’s glossiest, most seductive entertainments, To Catch a Thief stars Cary Grant as John Robie, a retired cat burglar who falls for the charms of Riviera socialite Francie (Grace Kelly), while a spate of robberies along the coast finds Robie fighting to clear his name. This is a Hitchcock movie, so there’s no shortage of suspense, but the film is more notable for its sunny, relaxed tempo and its naughty suggestiveness: Kelly offering Grant “a leg or a breast” during the classic picnicking scene; Hitchcock cutting away to a fireworks display at a moment of heated passion. It’s not often considered one of the Master’s more influential films, but Mediterranean caper films from The Pink Panther (1963) to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) are cut from the same cinematic cloth.

The scenes of Grant and Kelly driving along the cliff-hugging Grande Corniche between Nice and Monte Carlo now have a melancholy undertone: Kelly, by then the Princess of Monaco, died after crashing her car there in 1982.

Bonjour tristesse (1958)

Director Otto Preminger

By the late 1950s, the arrival of Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s 1956 film And God Created Woman had put Saint-Tropez (and the wider Riviera) firmly on the map for jetsetters and filmmakers alike. The sensation of Françoise Sagan’s 1954 novel Bonjour tristesse, written when she was just 18 years old, became an obvious filmic property to capitalise on the Côte craze.

Filmed one hazy summer in ‘Saint Trop’ and along the coast, Otto Preminger’s Hollywood version stars Jean Seberg as Cécile, the decadent teenage daughter of an English playboy (David Niven), who resents the intrusion of her father’s straitlaced new paramour (Deborah Kerr) into her idle life of boys, parties and sun worshipping. Infused with a doleful tone of lost innocence, Bonjour tristesse switches from black and white scenes of the matured Cécile, bored by Paris, to radiant colour flashbacks of Cécile’s life in the south of France, in which we can all but smell the scent of pines and feel the soft breeze from the sea.

Jean-Luc Godard was among the early viewers intoxicated by Preminger’s paean to the halcyon days of youth, and cast Seberg as the American girl in Paris in his debut film, À bout de souffle, in 1960.

L’avventura (1960)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

A woman goes missing during a boat trip around Italy’s Aeolian islands in Michelangelo Antonioni’s controversial (it was booed at Cannes) 1960 arthouse sensation, and many of the long-cherished foundation stones of film storytelling go missing with her. Her bourgeois companions – including Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) – begin scrabbling over the rocky landscape in search of their disappeared friend, but neither they nor Antonioni show much stamina in finding out what happened to her.

The Ferrara-born auteur overturned the idea that a film mystery needed to be solved, preferring a modernist ambiguity and only hinting that a pervasive ennui may be at cause. It’s almost as if Anna (Lea Massari) has simply disappeared within the cracks of the film itself, somewhere between the reels, and Antonioni traces the absence in flowing, lingering camera movements, mapping the emotional spaces between people and the blank disaffection of a society.

Le Mépris (1963)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Celebrated for his radical upending of film style and narrative, the best kept secret about the films of French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard are their sheer sensual pleasures. This was never more true than in his two ‘Mediterranean movies’: 1965’s Pierrot le fou, in which an on-the-run Parisian couple set up camp on the shores of the Med before boredom and gunrunners catch up with them; and 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt), set during a film shoot on the island of Capri.

The film in question is an epic of Ancient Greece (tying Le Mépris to a far older tradition of Mediterranean stories) directed by Austrian auteur Fritz Lang (playing himself). Michel Piccoli plays Paul, a screenwriter struggling to keep hold of his integrity in the face of the crass demands of his American producer (Jack Palance), who’d like more scenes of naked mermaids swimming. A study in the allure and compromise of the cinema, Le Mépris is also an aching portrait of marital breakdown (inspired by Journey to Italy), as irreparable fissures open up in Paul’s relationship with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Much of the action is set in and around Casa Malaparte, a jaw-dropping modernist villa overlooking the infinite blue waters.

La Piscine (1969)

Director Jacques Deray

Beginning with a lingering shot of Alain Delon bronzing himself by the side of the eponymous swimming pool, Jacques Deray’s languid 1969 thriller La Piscine is a film that revels in the sight of lithe, good-looking bodies spoiling with inertia in the sweltering Mediterranean sun.

Staying in a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur, writer Jean-Paul (Delon) and his girlfriend Marianne (Romy Schneider) are enjoying a summer of indolence and low-level sexual perversion until record producer Harry (Maurice Ronet) turns up to join them. Marianne’s former lover, Harry’s presence – and that of his nubile 18-year-old daughter Pénélope (Jane Birkin) – brings myriad lusts and jealousies to boiling point. Ronet and Delon had starred together in Purple Noon (1960), the French version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and another tale of decadence and duplicity on the Med. La Piscine makes a crisp, sexy, Pastis-cool companion to that film. The pool, with its limpid depths, is the focus for Deray’s drama, with the sea only a ribbon of blue on the horizon, a calm backdrop to the follies of men.

Eternity and a Day (1998)

Director Theo Angelopoulos

Films from Never on Sunday (1959) via Zorba the Greek (1964) to Shirley Valentine (1989) and Mamma Mia! (2008) have capitalised on the photogenic Greek islands and coastline, inspiring multitudes to pack their holiday suitcases in search of some Adriatic sunshine. Greece’s most famous auteur, Theo Angelopoulos, was also drawn to the country’s beaches and seaside towns, but painted a picture of a living, breathing nation a world away from the tourist industry. A recurring Angelopoulos image is that of figures on a beach, enshrouded in wintry fog and set against a grey, heavy sea.

The story of an ailing poet, Alexander (Bruno Ganz), musing on his life as he travels Greece in the company of an Albanian boy he’s taken under his wing, Angelopoulos’s 1998 Palme d’or winner Eternity and a Day does, however, acknowledge a summertime Greece of the senses, with flashback sequences of the poet’s happier past holidaying with his wife, family and friends. Here – for once – Angelopoulos takes pleasure in the delicate gild of early-evening sunlight, the sapphire waters and the joys of a summer boat trip.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director Anthony Minghella

Purple Noon, René Clement’s original adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley, remains a classic, brilliant in Alain Delon’s performance as the slippery, chameleonic Tom Ripley. But it speaks to the fascinating ambiguities of Highsmith’s story that a second version made by director Anthony Minghella in 1999 proved similarly seductive.

Matt Damon puts his placid amiability to terrific use as Ripley, who comes to Italy to help persuade Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, above), the indolent son of a rich American couple, to return to the fold from his life of leisure. Trouble is he finds Greenleaf’s expensed lifestyle, his coterie of chic friends and beautiful girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) so intoxicating that he starts to covet Greenleaf’s privilege for himself. Unlike the Clément version, which was made shortly after the novel’s publication, Minghella’s ravishing thriller is necessarily a period film. Lovingly recreating the ambience of the Italian Mediterranean coastline in the 1950s, The Talented Mr Ripley warms the senses even as it sends chills down the spine.

Sex and Lucía (2001)

Director Julio Medem 

From Orson Welles’s playful, Ibiza-set essay-film F for Fake (1974) to party-island yoof flicks like Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000) and The Inbetweeners Movie (2011), the Balearic islands have been done varying levels of cinematic (in)justice. In Julio Medem’s erotically charged melodrama Sex and Lucía, Lucía (Paz Vega) is a young woman who, believing her author boyfriend – Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) – has killed himself, travels to Formentera to discover the isle that her lover often talked about.

Juggling time zones and locations, and worlds of fiction and nonfiction, Medem charts the unbridled physical passion of the couple’s early relationship, Lorenzo’s discovery that he has a child after casual beach sex with a stranger, and his subsequent, tragic fling with the child’s nanny. It’s a disorientating, slightly overcooked story, but one that quivers with a strange Balearic mysticism, with the moon and the sea recurring motifs. Filmed in bleached out colours, the climactic scenes on the island have an enchanting sense of fate pulling strings to resolve convoluted lives.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Director Wes Anderson

Having established a cult reputation with Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), his quirkier-than-life portraits of a precocious prep school student and an eccentric Upper East Side family respectively, Wes Anderson pushed the boat out further still with this madcap, Mediterranean-set deep-sea-diving comedy.

Modelled on the famed French marine conservationist and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an American oceanographer and captain of the Belafonte, an extravagantly equipped research vessel. After his partner is killed by a jaguar shark, Zissou puts all his resources in the service of tracking down the maneater. Quizzed about the scientific rationale behind the expedition, Zissou offers one word: “Revenge.” Filmed off the coast of Rome and Naples, this modern-day Moby-Dick story almost overwhelms with its picture-book primary colours and freewheeling idiosyncrasies, but it’s anchored by a brilliantly deadpan performance from Murray, whose Ahab-like monomania culminates with a surprisingly poignant climax on the bottom of the sea.

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