After studying Law, but hoping to study film, Rosi entered the industry as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on La Terra trema (1948). His emergence as a director is considered to be his 1958 film La sfida (The Challenge, 1958), based on the story of Camorra boss Pasquale Simonetti, known as Pasquale 'e Nola, and Pupetta Maresca. The realist nature of this film also caused a stir alluding to mafia control of the government.
Rosi's films always appear to have political messages, especially his work from the 1960s and 1970s. As he matured as a director his topics for films became less politically oriented and more angled toward literature. Despite the more traditional slant of his later work, Rosi continued to direct until 1997. The 58th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008 played tribute to Francesco Rosi by screening 13 films in its Homage section, the latter being reserved to filmmakers of outstanding quality and achievement. He received the Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement on 14 February 2008, accompanied by the screening of Salvatore Giuliano.