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Not just Oppenheimer: 10 of the best film biographies in history

Not just Oppenheimer: 10 of the best film biographies in history

Oppenheimer is the latest and superlative work of Christopher Nolan, one of the most critically and publicly acclaimed directors of recent years. The cinematic biography, released here in Italy just over three weeks ago, already holds several records: Oppenheimer is the highest-grossing film set during the Second World War in the history of cinema, and the first R-rated film to have grossed more than $10 million a day in the US for 7 consecutive days.

Oppenheimer tells the life of the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the story that saw him involved in the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. Nolan’s film, as exciting as it is engaging, has given light to one of the best cinematic biographies of recent years, focusing on every single detail of the physicist’s life and those around him with meticulous attention to detail. But the history of cinema does not stop here, and if we look at the past, we find many other biographies that have told the life of an important character with scrupulousness and wonder.

Today we talk about those cinematic biographies that, like Oppenheimer, have left their mark on history:


Gandhi is a 1982 biographical film produced and directed by Richard Attenborough, and based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the nonviolent struggle that led to India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947. The film follows the events of the ‘great soul’ during the years of satyagrahaa term coined by himself, i.e. resistance to oppression through mass civil disobedience that led India to independence. The cinematic biography begins in 1893 when Gandhi, a young lawyer headed to Pretoria to defend an Indian company in a trial, was thrown off a train by white stationmasters because he had sat in first class. From that moment until 1947, the date of Gandhi’s death, the film studies the thought of the Indian theorist, and how this thought inspired civil rights movements and personalities such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela(4) and Aung San Suu Kyi.


Abraham Lincoln he is still considered one of the most relevant and popular presidents in the history of the United States. His speech, given at Gettysburg one afternoon in 1863, represents a milestone in the building of the future American nation: Lincoln talks about how human beings are equal, taking up what was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The film, directed by an extraordinary Steven Spielberg, tells the story of the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, and his actions after his second term, in the years of the bloody American civil war. I greatly appreciated this film biography because, in addition to narrating the political facts of the war, was able to pay homage to the crisis of conscience experienced by the American president, and to his incredible work in favor of equality between whites and blacks. The film ends with the bombing of April 14, 1865, the day Lincoln’s blinding dreams were shattered by John Wilkes Booth as part of a larger conspiracy to try to weaken the Union.

A thrilling biography to see if you loved Oppenheimer’s historical thoroughness: 12 Years a Slave

Since mine is the story of a man born into freedom, who was able to enjoy the benefits of this condition for thirty years in a free State and who was then kidnapped and sold as a slave and remained so until his happy rescue, which took place in the month of January 1853, after twelve years of captivity, it was suggested to me that these vicissitudes of mine could prove very interesting to the general public.”

This is the heartbreaking incipit of 12 Years a Slave, the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and enslaved during the years of the harsh civil war. Solomon was a talented African-American violinist deprived of his freedom and sold as a commodity until 1853, changing masters three times and working mainly on the cotton plantation of the evil slaver Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave, like Oppenheimer, is a hard film to digest, which hits the stomach like a punch, and which stops to talk about Solomon’s emotions, a man who struggles not only to survive, but also to maintain his dignity. 12 Years a Slave will be an unforgettable journey through the ranks of human madness.


Mozart is counted among the greatest geniuses in the history of music and among the most prolific, versatile and influential composers of any era. The film directed by Miloš Forman tries to tell the life of the musician through a heated debate between the young Mozart and the composer from Legnago Antonio Salieri. What makes the film unique is the choice to accompany each segment with the Salzburg musician’s greatest masterpieces, so that you will listen to The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni while the images of the film flow before you like an unstoppable flow. Through Salieri’s words and memories, Mozart’s biography retraces the most important stages of his life, from the phenomenology of the artist’s most important musical works to his meetings with the most important figures of the time. The film ends with a tribute to the music of Mozart, an indelible ink in the life of all of us.


Nolan has created yet another masterpiece starting from extremely profound writing, a gift that continues to christen him as one of the greatest directors of our era. Oppenheimer focuses predominantly on Oppenheimer’s studies, his leadership of the Manhattan Project during World War II, and his fall from grace following his 1954 security hearings. The biography is Nolan’s mirror, a technical marvel that starts from a historical context to delve into the spiritual dimension of the human being in the name of existentialist thought. Oppenheimer thus becomes an epochal film, an indelible mark in the history of cinema as well as a majestic work enriched by the acting performance of a stratospheric cast. The eternal struggle between good and evil becomes the beginning and the end of a story that has involved the whole world in the darkest page ever.

Malcolm X

MalcolmAutobiography of Malcolm, written by the African American leader with the collaboration of Alex Haley. To attend the premiere of the film Spike Lee called on all African Americans to strike and skip school, declaring: “I will teach you a part of American history that has hitherto been kept under wraps.” This page kept hidden concerns Malcolm, a champion of African American rights who pushed his own population to rebel against the forms of racial discrimination in force in America in the 1950s. The most precious comment regarding the film comes from Fernanda Moneta, author of the biography of Spike Lee, director of the film: “The film is not a heavy celebration, nor a didactic work, it is not a political propaganda film, nor a sociological investigation. It is rather the chronicle of a life experience, an exemplary story

Oppenheimer and other titans of cinematic history: Goodfellas

Goodfellas or if you prefer Goodfellas, is one of those films to watch at least once in your life, and also one of Martin Scorsese’s best films. Goodfellas is, without a shadow of a doubt, a memorable cult, a film that does not know the signs of memory or the wrinkles of adverse weather. Scorsese’s work analyzes habits, behaviors, mentality, material life of a special ethnicity, namely the Italian-American delinquency of Manhattan, and does so through documentary accuracy and timeless dialogues. The story Henry Hill, a American of Italian-Irish origins who makes a career in the New York mafia of the 1950s, therefore becomes the anthropology of the underworld through a breathtaking story in which the sense of horror of a life outside of any possible law and logic. Those Goodfellas will remain in history also for a crazy cast: Ray Liotta, De Niro, Joe Pesci gave life to memorable and unforgettable characters.

Schindler’s List

The theme of the Shoah has been treated in many films that have marked the history of cinema and Schindler’s List is probably one of the best movies about it. Inspired by the novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, the biography follows the events of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who, putting his life and career at risk, manages to save thousands of Jews from a tragic fate. The greatest and most obvious peculiarity of the work is that of having been shot entirely in black and white, with the exception of four scenes, one of which, the final one, is set in the present day and sees the stones placed on the tomb of the real Oskar Schindler at the Jerusalem cemetery. Some scenes, such as the one in the shower at Auschwitz, are among the most terrifying ever filmed and among those that best convey the memory and awareness of the Holocaust.


The film narrates the first part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, from 1781 when he attended the military college at the age of twelve, passing through 1789 when he participated, as a boy, in the storming of the Bastille, stopping in 1792 when he had almost become an army colonel, until to 1796 when he became general, and made the Italian campaign. Napoleon’s conquests remain the fulcrum of a film that is considered a classic of French silent cinema, fertile in technical and linguistic innovations, and in which we see the director’s passion for close-ups, such that the film was entirely dominated by personality of the protagonist. The leading role is entrusted to Albert Dieudonné and child actor Vladimir Roudenko (Napoleon boy). Thanks to the director’s energetic and revolutionary direction, the two actors gave what many critics say is one of the most memorable performances in silent cinema in a dramatic role.

Raging Bull

Raging Bull, like Goodfellas, is among Scorsese’s most important works, and one of the films in which we appreciate the director’s fantastic collaboration with De Niro. Robert De Niro plays the role of the Italian-American middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, with a brusque and paranoid character, who, having grown up in the Bronx, trains tenaciously to reach the top of boxing, only to then suffer a real fall, accompanied by notable problems with his family and the friends. His performance is unanimously considered one of the most intense in the history of cinema and was awarded the Oscar for best actor. Man’s descending parable drags us into a deep vortex as if we were ourselves protagonists of the descent into hell, and in which there seems to be no way out. This biography, as well as the others we have told you about in this article, tells life and all its upheavals without filters.