In the years between the mid-1950s (when the "crisis" of neorealism had clearly passed) and the mid-1970s (a time of violent social and political upheavals in Italy), the Italian cinema achieved a level of artistic quality, international popularity, and economic strength that it had never before achieved before and that it would never again reach. Film production continued at well above two hundred films for a number of years, while a prolonged crisis in the American industry reduced Hollywood competition within the domestic market and abroad. Italy could boast a number of distinguished auteurs (Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini) who were producing their greatest masterpieces. Their films not only fascinated critics and festival audiences but also were highly successful commercially. Such hits as Visconti's Rocco e i suoi fratelli ( Rocco and His Brothers , 1960), Il Gattopardo ( The Leopard , 1962), La Caduta degli dei ( The Damned , 1969), and Morte a Venezia ( Death in Venice , 1971); Fellini's La Dolce Vita ( The Sweet Life , 1959), 8½ (1963), Satyricon ( Fellini Satyricon , 1969), and Amarcord (1973); Antonioni's trilogy on modern love L'Avventura (1960), La Notte ( The Night , 1961), and L'Eclisse ( The Eclipse , 1962) in black and white and the important color films Il Deserto rosso ( Red Desert , 1964) and Blow-Up (1966); and De Sica's La Ciociara ( Two Women , 1960) and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini ( The Garden of the Finzi-Contini , 1970) all show highly complex stylistic shifts in films created by four auteurs whose origins evolved beyond the simpler neorealist approach of their early work.
De Sica's two films were awarded Oscars ® and are highly wrought commercial films, skillful adaptations of literary works that might well have been made in Hollywood. Two Women portrayed a woman's horrifying experiences during the war and provided a successful star vehicle for a performance by Sophia Loren (b. 1934) that earned her an Oscar ® for Best Actress. The Garden of the Finzi-Contini presented a moving portrait of the Holocaust in Ferrara. Both films were far removed from the spirit of the simple storylines about humble people that established De Sica as neorealism's most poetic director. Visconti's films portrayed broad historical themes with lush, opera-like mise-en-scène : The Leopard , for example, was a pessimistic interpretation of Italy's national unification, while The Damned and Death in Venice both examined different aspects of German national character from the standpoint of European decadence and modernism. Visconti's films often seem as if they could easily unfold on the operatic stage of La Scala. In Antonioni's films, both those in color and in traditional black and white, photography preempted the central function of traditional plot and character, as his characters came to grips with a sense of alienation and futility in the modern industrial world. Antonioni was particularly brilliant in relating characters to their environments, and he framed his shots as if he were a contemporary abstract painter, asking his audience to consider people and objects as equally important and meaningful.
Fellini's baroque style in La Dolce Vita , or his celebration of artistic creativity in 8½ , present broad strokes of fantasy, informed by the analysis of the director's own dreams and his desire to recreate his own bizarre fantasy world. For Fellini, the imagination, rather than reality, had become the cinema's proper domain because only fantasy fell under the director's complete artistic control. Since cinema entailed expression, not the communication of information, its essence was imagery and light, not traditional storytelling. The film 8½ also made an important statement about the nature of film art itself. The harried protagonist of the film, the director Guido, possesses many of Fellini's own traits. The narrative employed by Fellini in this work moved rapidly and disconcertingly between Guido's "reality," his fantasies, and flashbacks to the past of dreams—a discontinuous story line with little logical or chronological unity. Considered by many directors to be the greatest and most original film ever made ( Citizen Kane may be its only true rival), 8½ has been imitated by directors as different as François Truffaut, Spike Jonze, Joel Schumacher, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Bob Fosse, and Peter Greenaway, not to mention certain episodes of David Chase's TV series The Sopranos . Fellini Satyricon presented a psychedelic version of the classic novel by Petronius, while Amarcord offered a bittersweet portrait of Italian provincial life under fascism, the main characters of which may be considered the parents of the postwar slackers in The Vitelloni . Amarcord asserted Fellini's belief that Italian fascism displayed the nation's arrested development, its paralysis in adolescence, and the average Italian's wish for a delegation of moral responsibility to others, an unusually ideological position taken by a director who was often criticized for ignoring social problems by his leftist critics.