The power of cinema can transport us from our daily reality to armchair travel around different scenarios, countries and regions. Europe’s diverse history and culture has been the subject of thousands of films. In this list of movies about Europe, I curate a collection of films that are as entertaining as they are inspirational and educational.
I’ve divided the list into English language and non-English language films. Almost half of the films on these lists are set in France or French-made. This is unsurprising if you consider the French pioneered the science of cinema.
I’ve omitted films predominantly set in the UK as their prolific film industry has produced a list worthy of its own post.
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – The glorious French Riviera stars alongside Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the two conmen who agree on a bet to extract $50,000 from a US soap queen played by Glenne Headly. A hilarious comedy that will give you a feel for the beautiful coastline of South East France.
- Transporter – Jason Statham plays Frank Martin, a driver who delivers packages for high prices with no questions asked. This all-action film is also set on the French Riviera where the winding roads make for perfect speed chases.
- The Italian Job – Another Michael Caine caper where he plays a London criminal who plans to rob an armoured security truck of its gold bullion in Turin, Italy. The plan is elaborate, the team large and the film locations numerous including the Italian Alps, London, Dublin along with the beautiful city of Turin.
- The Day of the Jackal – The OAS are a group of French soldiers who feel betrayed by President Charles de Gaulle. Unsuccessful in their attempts to assassinate de Gaulle, they hire the Jackal, a suave, meticulous English contract killer played by Edward Fox. Based on the book by Frederick Forsyth (see my list of great fiction books), this thriller takes us to 1960s France, England, Italy and Austria.
- Frantic – Harrison Ford is a US doctor visiting Paris for a conference where his wife disappears. Meeting indifferent police and embassy staff, he teams up with a local drug smuggler in the search for his wife. This mystery film takes us on a trip of the familiar and of the seedier side of the French capital.
- Taken – Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA operative with a very particular set of skills that he uses to full effect when rescuing his kidnapped daughter in Paris. Another film that shows both sides of Paris, this film is an eye-opener into the dark world of trafficking.
- Michael Collins – If you want a quick history on the relationship between Ireland and the UK, this film is a good place to start. Liam Neeson stars as Michael Collins, the revolutionary who was Chairperson of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State (i.e. first Irish leader) up to his assassination.
- The Commitments – This musical comedy follows the fortunes of The Commitments, the hardest-working soul band in Dublin. A laugh and a song per minute, this enjoyable watch is as much of an ode to soul music as it is to pre-boom Dublin. Highly recommended.
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Vicky and Cristina are two American friends who intend spending the summer in Barcelona, Spain. Juan Antonio, whom they meet at an art exhibition, has other plans for them. And so begins Woody Allen’s comedy-drama of international relationships. With an all-star cast, the film takes us to Avilés and Oviedo along with the Catalan capital.
- The Talented Mr Ripley – Another all-star cast, this psychological drama takes us to beautiful Italy where we uncover the ugly truths of the rich American party set. Director Anthony Minghella delivers a top quality production in stunning locations.
- Before Sunrise – Ethan Hawke stars as American tourist Jesse who convinces the French Celine (Julie Delpy) to disembark their train in Vienna. They spend the evening together in the Austrian capital discussing life, love and everything in between in this slow burn modern classic.
- The Sound of Music – One of the most popular movie musicals of all time, Julie Andrews stars as the upbeat Maria, hired as a nanny to the Von Trapp family in Salzburg, Austria, during the Nazi invasion. I first saw the film after visiting the region and was amazed at how little had changed in the city since the film was made.
- Mamma Mia – Based on the musical that is based on the music of ABBA, this romantic comedy is set on a Greek island and is perfect viewing on a cold, wet day. Sophie is preparing for her wedding and invites her three possible fathers to the island. Shenanigans, song and dance follow. The gorgeous local scenery manages to upstage the combined talents of the experienced cast.
- Chocolat – Juliette Binoche stars as the mysterious Vianne who opens a chocolate shop in a rural French village at the beginning of Lent, much to the chagrin of the local authorities. Both Vianne and her produce are a catalyst for change which puts her in direct conflict with the repressive powers that be.
- Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson takes on the role of real-life Oskar Schindler, the German entrepreneur who saved over one thousand Jews in Krakow, Poland, from being sent to their inevitable deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Shot in black and white, Steven Spielberg’s powerful Holocaust drama is considered one of the best films ever made.
- Cinema Paradiso (Italy) – One of the most popular and acclaimed international films of all time, this Oscar-winning coming of age comedy-drama has charmed audiences all over the world. Set in Sicily after World War II, it tells the story of the young Salvatore and Alfredo, the cinema projectionist, who becomes a father figure to the young boy. The great Ennio Morricone scored the soundtrack.
- Life is Beautiful/La vita e bella (Italy) – Another modern classic, Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama is set during the Mussolini dictatorship and Nazi occupation of Italy. Jewish bookseller Guido and his son are sent to a concentration camp. To shield his son from the horror, Guido tells him it’s part of a game and sets out rules where he can win and lose points. A multi-emotional masterpiece not to be missed that features Offenbach’s stunning barcarolle.
- The Lives of Others/ Das Lieben der Anderen (Germany) – Set in 1984 East Germany, this drama sees Ulrich Muhe star as a Stasi captain tasked with the surveillance of a playwright and his actress girlfriend, played by Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck respectively. This atmospheric and gripping tale is a masterclass in film-making, deserving of the many awards it won including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
- The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany) – Terrorism from the far-left in West Germany is the subject of this true-life drama. Set in the late 1960s/1970s, Martina Gedeck stars as journalist Ulrike Meinhof who sympathises with and joins Andreas Baader’s Red Army Faction in their campaign of terror.
- Woman at War (Iceland) – Halla is a mild-mannered choir leader who leads a double life as an eco-warrior, disrupting the operations of an aluminium plant in rural Iceland. This quirky comedy-drama sees Halla’s attempts to evade the police plus deal with a long-forgotten adoption application.
- A Man called Ove/En man som heter Ove (Sweden) – Based on the best-selling book of the same name, Ove is the village grump who is at war with his neighbours. When a chaotic young family move in next door, the relationship he develops with them turns his and everyone’s life around. This feel-good comedy-drama is a tonic to life’s challenges.
- Amelie (France) – Amelie is a waitress in the Montmartre district of Paris who decides to better the lives of the eccentric characters who inhabit her daily life. This charming romantic comedy is another feel-good watch.
- La Cage aux Folles (France) – This 1970s comedy caper was remade by Hollywood as The Birdcage, containing as much of the story elements, perfectly-timed performances and farce as the French original.
- The Closet (France) – Where La Cage aux Folles attempts to keep everything in the closet, Daniel Auteuil’s Francois character is encouraged to come out of the closet that he was never in. Faced with redundancy, straight Francois is encouraged by his neighbour to feign homosexuality to discourage his employer from facing the wrath of equality legislation should they sack him. This is an entertaining comedy led by the brilliant Auteuil and also stars Gerard Depardieu as the office homophobe.
- Intouchables/The Untouchables (France) – Another French film that deals with employment, this is the life-affirming true story of wealthy, wheelchair-bound Philippe who hires unemployed immigrant Driss as his live-in carer. What develops is an enriching friendship full of laughs. One of the most successful French films ever, it’s well worth watching.
- La Vie en Rose (France) – My final French film tells the story of acclaimed French singer Edith Piaf. While the music is inevitably stunning, Piaf’s story is full of drama and difficulty with Marion Cotillard quite rightly winning a Best Actress Oscar for playing her. The film title is also the title of a Piaf song.
- Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown/Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Spain) – Celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodovar scored his first hit with this comedy-drama about an actress in Madrid coping with the break-up of her relationship. Add in a gun-wielding ex, a plane hijacking and the vivid colours that characterise Almodovar’s work for an enjoyable watch.
- No Man’s Land (Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Set during the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, it follows the story of two men, one Bosniak and one Bosnian Serb, trapped in a no man’s land trench. The portrayal of the UN in the film was consistent with the criticism of the organisation I witnessed when visiting Bosnia & Herzegovina.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden) – Based on the book by Stieg Larsson, this thriller covers many disturbing story threads but mainly focuses on the investigation of a missing girl. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by the wealthy Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece while Lisbeth Salander is the computer hacker who teams up with Blomkvist. While this is a well-acted film that showcases Sweden’s scenery, the graphic violence comes with a warning.
- A Perfectly Normal Family (Denmark) – Mikkel Boe Folsgaard stars as a married man with two daughters who transitions from male Thomas to female Agnete. This family drama is a story of the daughters adjusting to both their father’s decision as well as the challenges of adolescence. An outstanding performance from Folsgaard.
MOVIES ABOUT EUROPE: FINAL THOUGHTS
The combination of image, dialogue and music makes film a powerful work of art for conveying cultural insight. And as films are continually made, this list is a work in progress.
What are your favourite movies about Europe? Please leave your recommendations below to help other readers.