Italian film has enjoyed something of a revival in the last couple of decades, and lively soundtracks have played their part. Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario (1993) sees the director and protagonist exploring Rome to the beats of Khaled, Leonard Cohen and Keith Jarrett, whilst Nicola Piovani's tragicomic score for Begnini's masterpiece La vita è bella (1997) received Oscars for both Best Music and Best Original Dramatic Score. Only last year, Paolo Sorrentino's La grande bellezza featured Jep Gambardella, a disenchanted socialite played by Toni Servillo, who wryly surveyed his party guests to the gyrating music of El Gato DJ's “Mueve la Colita" in what has already become an iconic opening scene.

Italy's film industry was born in the early 20th century with the emergence of the Cines film company in Rome and Ambrosio and Italia Film in Turin. The Futurists saw film’s potential as a propaganda tool (heralded by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his “Manifesto of Futurist Cinematography”), and the Fascists followed suit from the 1930s. It was not until the post-war “Neorealist” era that Italian film was to enjoy its "golden age", where actors like Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani came to the fore. Here, dramatic scores represented the stark social realities of 1940s Italy, and notable contributions include Renzo Rossellini's thumping music for war-torn Rome in Roberto Rossellini's Roma città aperta, and Alessandro Cicognini's heartbreaking theme for Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette.

"Spaghetti westerns” and crime thrillers (or “giallos”) extended Italian film's global reach in a continuation of a process that had gained momentum with the age of “Hollywood on the Tiber”, where large American companies decamped to Italy to shoot blockbusters on large sets. Operating amongst all of this, there was of course Federico Fellini, whose surreal films often transcend categorisation, whilst nevertheless marking a shift away from the broad social concerns of Neorealism to a more personal exploration of the individual. If Neorealism was the golden age of Italian film, then this was the golden age of its soundtrack, and for this we have to thank Nino Rota – the fascinating composer who produced all of the scores for Fellini's films from 1952-1979, in addition to those of countless other directors including, of course, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.

Born in Milan, Rota gained a reputation as a child prodigy with his oratorio L'infanzia di San Giovanni Battista at the age of 11, before Arturo Toscanini, who dubbed him the "Italian Mozart", encouraged Rota to pursue a career in composing. This led to studies in Rome, America and, ultimately, to a professorship at the Conservatory in Bari, where the composer would eventually become director (and where one of his most famous pupils would be Riccardo Muti). His large body of works comprises symphonies, choral works and 11 operas, though by far the single largest component is his collection of over 150 film scores. The composer's output was prodigious – he wrote 13 film scores in 1954 alone – and his significance was unparalleled. Fellini changed the face of cinema, and he referred to Rota as "the most precious collaborator I have ever had".

Rota repeatedly found the right colour against which his directors' images could dazzle. It therefore seems remarkable the extent to which he appeared disinterested in the images themselves. Rota would famously fall asleep during Fellini's screenings, admitting that "in most of his films, I never understood what was going on until after I had completed the score", though Fellini himself recognises that Rota possessed a musical approach "worthy of the celestial spheres. He thus had no need to see images from my movies." Few of Rota's scores follow the action of the film line for line, perhaps with the notable exception of his pummelling music for Raffaello Matarazzo's Treno popolare. Instead Rota takes an interest in presenting the larger idea as a whole.

The result is a series of scores highly evocative of time and place. The score for Fellini's La Dolce Vita captures the frenetic chic of 1960s Rome, whilst that for Amarcord is stylish and infinitely cool.

Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) portrays the plight of a Sicilian aristocratic family in the 1860s, and Rota treats this subject with a meld of classical themes and tunes from the south inspired by his own Sinfonia sopra una canzone d’amore (Symphony on a Love Song). Il Gattopardo is often performed as an orchestral suite, which Muti featured in the programme for the 2011 opener of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's subscription season. The piece demonstrates just how playable Rota's music is.

Rota spent some time studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he met Gershwin and developed a penchant for Jazz amongst other non-strictly classical forms, including village band tunes and sentimental ballads. Much of Rota's work is characterised by its energy and fizz, and one of his most animated scores is that for Le notti di Cabiria, where Fellini's depiction of a fun-loving woman of the night is treated through a foot-tapping mix of jiving mambos and circus songs. But a sense of melancholy is never far away with Rota, and elegant, eccentric waltzes repeatedly appear all over his oeuvre to add an ironically rueful edge to many of his scenes. Simple as it often seems, Rota's musical language sustains complex emotions, and this is especially so in the final scene of Le notti di Cabiria, where desolation turns to joy in a matter of seconds.

Pastiche is a large part of what makes Rota's language so efficient and direct, where the composer draws on half-familiar musical styles to provoke emotional responses in the audience by means of association. Rota's score for Il Casanova di Federico Fellini parodies Stravinsky, whilst the main theme for La Dolce Vita adapts Brecht's "Mack The Knife" to hint at Fellini's underlying element of social criticism in a film that can only on the face of it be seen as a harmless story about the frolics of gadflies in Rome. Rota was also a scholar (he wrote a thesis on the 16th century musicologist Gioseffo Zarlino), and his score for Zeffirelli's Romeo e Guilietta combines lush melodies with elements that drew on Renaissance practices, with the effect that Zeffirelli's potentially kitsch interpretation is given a feeling of historicity. 

Rota brought a certain gravitas to the ideas of his directors, which is nowhere better demonstrated than in his score for Fellini's La Strada. A brutish street performer, Zampanò, purchases a naïve peasant girl, Gelsomina, whom he subjects to relentless cruelty, beating her often. Gelsomina meets the Fool, who spins her a tune full of painful nostalgia (borrowed by Rota from the Larghetto in Dvořák's Serenade for Strings in E major), and the tune repeatedly reappears as Gelsomina reproduces it throughout the film, an apparent strand of hope as her situation worsens. In a closing scene of devastating power, Zampanò learns of Gelsomina's death, before going to die alone on a beach, and a final incantation of her tune has the effect of revealing that he had loved her all along without ever knowing it. It is a typical moment of Rota's genius, where music illuminates its characters in intense colours, here adding credence to that archetypal Fellinian character that renounces love and potential fulfilment for a life searching for the unknown in an unhappy world.