The earliest films in history often depicted exotic and distant locations, essentially serving as travelogues for early cinema-goers who had never had any kind of exposure to certain parts of the world before. Though today our world is increasingly well connected and gaps between cultures and countries seem smaller, in many ways film continues to serve this same purpose. It’s with this in mind that I bring you a list of films that explore European cities. In these movies, the cities are not only background settings but often come alive as characters themselves, allowing audiences to bask in their distinctive charms and enjoy the temporary illusion of traveling there. Though an entire other list could have been composed with classic films, my focus is on contemporary films that present their cities in characteristic and unique ways. So, whether you’re preparing yourself for your next Euro trip or just want a quick, two-hour ‘getaway’, consider these as part of your travel plans:
Paris, France: “Amélie” (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
For many film viewers, scenes of Paris and of the Montmartre neighborhood in particular are inseparable from Jeunet’s “Amélie”, a whirlwind modern fairytale of a film in which the city comes alive in all its nostalgic charm and picturesque grandeur. From the eerie Paris subway to the delightful little café in which Amélie works as a waitress, the settings produce a Paris that seems alluring and timeless. It’s both mythical and accessible, drawing on Jeunet’s characteristic gold, green, and red tones to produce a combination of reality and fiction in its construction. Though many critics complained that Jeunet’s film ‘corrected’ the city in removing unpleasant elements (such as dog poop from the sidewalk), the truth is that this is Amélie’s idea of Paris, and, much like the protagonist herself, does not seek to be brought back to an unnecessarily harsh ‘reality’.
Berlin, Germany: “Goodbye Lenin” (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
“Goodbye Lenin” is notable for the manner in which it captures a historical moment, representing the confusion mingled with excitement that characterized the city of Berlin in the wake of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism. Alex tries to keep his mother from finding out about the events at hand in an effort to look after her health after she has recently awoken from a coma. His comedic attempts to keep communism alive for the sake of his family are tempered with an inevitable sense of change as capitalistic enterprises sweep the city, and the drab grey of East Berlin gives way to a new, vibrant city spirit. It’s a film that treats its setting with love even as it simultaneously celebrates and questions the fall of communism and its consequences upon such a recently divided metropolis.
Barcelona, Spain: “All About My Mother” (Pedro Almodovar, 1999)
Forget “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. If you want to delve into an authentic look at one of the most enticing cities in Europe, it’s got to be Almodovar or nothing. In this flamboyant classic of his, a mother copes with the sudden death of her son by going to Barcelona to search for his father, whom she had lost contact with years ago. The film is wildly entertaining, mixing a brand of moving melodrama with kitsch comedy that fits perfectly with Barcelona’s contradictory vibes. Both upbeat and relaxed, cosmopolitan and natural, the city’s pulse is brought to life by Almodovar’s wickedly clever script and will doubtless become a part of your next travel itinerary.
Rome, Italy: “The Great Beauty” (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Sorrentino’s ode to one of the oldest cities in Europe is evident from the title and the film’s very first frame. The director utilizes grand, sweeping cinematography to convey the splendor and opulence of this antique gem of a location, making Rome a central character in its own right. The ‘other’ protagonist, Jep, wanders through its streets philosophizing about life and happiness, in a manner reminiscent of much of Fellini’s work. Rome feels concurrently historical and hip, extravagant and wasteful, but above all it retains a sense of fading glory that is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Though many films have sought to make its crumbling streets their subject, none has approached it with such reverence and awe.