Italian Neo-Realism
by Megan Ratner

Greencine
2005




Before the indies and even before the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism staked out new cinematic territory. One of those blanket terms that mean all things to all people, neo-realism has few absolutes, though there are elements that set the Italian version distinctly apart. Screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini wrote an actual manifesto to guide these films, but their creation was just as much a result of timing, chance and fluke. Unquestionably, their greatest single influence was the anti-Fascism that marked World War II's immediate postwar period. Key elements are an emphasis on real lives (close to but not quite documentary style), an entirely or largely non-professional cast, and a focus on collectivity rather than the individual. Solidarity is important, along with an implicit criticism of the status quo. Plot and story come about organically from these episodes and often turn on quite tiny moments. Cinematically, neo-realism pushed filmmakers out of the studio and on to the streets, the camera freed-up and more vernacular, the emphasis away from fantasy and towards reality. Despite the rather short run - 1943 to 1952 - the heavyweight films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and continue to shape contemporary global filmmaking.

Origins


A little history goes a long way toward understanding Italian neo-realism. By the outbreak of World War II, the country had been under Benito Mussolini's hefty thumb since 1924. In the regime's 1930s heydays, swank productions set in big hotels, tony nightclubs and ocean liners made up the "white telephone" movies, the shorthand term for their decadent Deco interiors. The protagonists always found a resolution to their insipid dilemmas, the prevailing Italian style as unchallenging as blowing bubbles. There were also plenty of American imports, equally unreflective of Italian realities. Describing this time, Federico Fellini said, "For my generation, born in the 20s, movies were essentially American. American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed a paradise on earth, a paradise in a country they called America."

Whether they were being shown the glories of their Roman past, their fascist future or of l'America, a country unreal outside the movie-house, what Italians rarely saw were images that reflected their lives. As early as 1935, anti-Fascist journalist Leo Longanesi urged directors to "go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born."

Aside from the political realities, it's worth remembering that Italy was still in the first stages of a huge transition from agriculture to manufacturing. People struggled; the economic miracle was still more than a decade away. Yet few films showed this, the exceptions being Treno popolare (1933) by Rafaello Matarazzo and, paradoxically, in documentaries produced by LUCE institute, under complete control of the regime.

For many Italians, neo-realist films put images to the ideas of the Resistance. In the film journals Cinema and Bianco e Nero, writers called for a cinema that resembled the verismo (realism) of literature. This had begun as a 19th century literary movement which was expanded by Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Pier Paolo Pasolini, most of whom wrote for - or about - the movies as well. Although philosophical ideas informed Italian neo-realism, it is very much a cinematic creation. As Calvino pointed out, "neo-realists knew too well that what counted was the music and not the libretto." The aim was not to record the social problems but to express them in an entirely new way.

Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) and Alessandro Blassetti's 1860 (1934) influenced neo-realism, but the movement was to a great extent a matter of 1940s practicalities: with Cinécittà (Rome's studio complex) relegated to refugees, films had to be shot outside. Surrounded by the shambolic ruins of World War II, human and structural, filmmakers had ready-made drama even in their backdrop, the atmosphere anxiety-charged and utterly uncertain. After twenty-one years under Mussolini, all bets were off as to what direction Italy would take. In the war's aftermath, members of the Resistance (including several of the neo-realist directors) had to come to terms those who collaborated. Though unstated, this almost civil war-like tension fuels neo-realist cinema.

So what is neo-realism? André Bazin called it a cinema of "fact" and "reconstituted reportage," its antecedents in the anti-Fascist movement with which these directors identified. Although they owed a debt to Renoir (with whom both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni had worked), the neo-realists "respected" the entirety of the reality they filmed. This meant occasionally showing scenes in real-time and always resisting the temptation to manipulate by editing. Scenes are shot on location, with no professional extras and often a largely unprofessional cast. Set in rural areas or working-class neighborhoods, the stories focus on everyday people, often children, with an emphasis on the unexceptional routines of ordinary life.

Cesare Zavattini, who functions as a kind of godfather of the movement, stated: "This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist." The aim, method and philosophy was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice. Breezy fare this is not, but it did significantly alter European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world. Neo-realism reflected a new freedom in Italy and the willingness to pose provocative questions about what movies could do. As director Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo's brother) noted: "The cinema was born with neo-realism."

Unexpected American Influences


It's no accident that Michael Tolkin chose neo-realism's classic Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to rock his studio exec's world in The Player. Though it's in some ways anti-Hollywood, neo-realism drew a great deal from American noir writing and films. Luchino Visconti based Ossessione (Obsession, 1942) on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti used long takes and complex shots to convey the dismal and ridiculous world of the three protagonists, the lovers (played by Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) and the husband they bump off (played by Juan De Landa). Visconti's neo-realism heightens the interplay between characters and surroundings, the bleak, unforgiving interiors and street shots reflective of the lousy hand these no-hopers have been dealt.

Visconti described his own style as "anthropomorphic cinema," declaring, "I could make a film in front of a wall if I knew how to find the data of man's true humanity and how to express it." Although Mussolini himself approved of the film, his son Vittorio (who ran the film journal Cinema) had a fit about its bleak Italian landscapes, the natural light, and all the shooting on location in the Po Valley.

Roberto Rossellini's Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946) shows most clearly neo-realism's link with the Resistance movement. Set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, it mines the tensions of the foreign presence and the divisions among those who abetted and those who opposed. Made under duress (black market film stock, little studio shooting, rushes unexamined, sound synchronized in post-production, and, no surprise, a tiny budget), Open City has an eyewitness immediacy tempered with operatic emotion. Pragmatic realities drove the film as much as the script, co-written by Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini. The hybrid of melodrama and actual footage was the result of Rossellini's populist, episodic approach, the story told in bursts, intense and unsparing details of ordinary lives undone by the trauma of occupation. Veracity rather than comfort informed the narrative. As the Gestapo search for and find a key member of the Resistance, Rossellini keeps his primary focus on Pina (Anna Magnani), engaged to marry an unassuming but Partisan typesetter by whom she is already pregnant. Open City may be most cited for two unforgettable scenes - a torture scene, to which Reservoir Dogs's lopped-ear scene bears a marked resemblance; and a sudden and dramatic death scene, a final posture evocative of painterly renditions of Christian martyrs. It also emphasizes the futility of war, its senselessness, a theme Rossellini struck throughout his war trilogy.

In Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Rossellini directly engaged the effects of the American presence in Italy, complicated by the Yankee shift from enemy to ally. In each of the six episodes, he examines the expectations and disappointments inherent in the crossing of two such different cultures and the inevitable - sometimes fatal - misapprehensions. Newsreel footage separates the vignettes and, throughout, Rossellini plays with the stereotypical images held by each side, his overall theme being that war is an equal-opportunity brutalizer.

Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947) has a more personal feeling, influenced, no doubt, by the death of Rossellini's eldest son in 1946. Set in the rubble of Berlin, the film has a young protagonist (rare for Rossellini), a 15-year-old who lives with his father and sister, who falls under the spell of a pedophile, eeking cash from the sale of this scammer's Third Reich memorabilia. Potent and unbearable images make the desperation of the city clear; early on, for example, a horse lies dead in the street, hit perhaps by a tram, as people matter-of-factly carve-and-carry its meat away. Corrupted on all sides, the boy eventually resorts to the most desperate of measures.

As in Obsession, the cityscape is here used to reflect the anomie and disconnection. Open City ends horribly but with a glimmer of hope as young chidren witness an execution yet, together, return to the city; in Germany Year Zero, life is as stony as the razed city. It completes Rossellini's World War II trilogy, strikingly ending his work from the German perspective, the devastations occasioned by Third Reich policies no easier on its own people.

Labor Intensive

La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) took Luchino Visconti to Aci Trezza on Sicily. Far more documentary in style than the other neo-realist films, The Earth Trembles relies on a completely nonprofessional cast. Visconti explained the day's shooting to the villagers and used ambient sound, allowing the people to speak their dialect (necessitating subtitles even for the rest of Italy). The film is loosely based on Giovanni Verga's novel, I Malavoglia (The House of the Medlar Tree). When an island family risks their savings to buy a boat and fish for themselves, they struggle to pay it off, fishing in bad weather until a storm destroys their boat. Classically organized - Visconti was a veteran of opera - the film allowed him to linger on a cyclical life on the verge of disappearance (Orson Welles once noted that Visconti photographed fishermen as if they were Vogue models.) He used deep focus shots, lighting only the nighttime fishing scenes, showing their lives as an organic whole, with each aspect accorded value. The extremely spare soundtrack comprises few words, several silences, sometimes only the peal of bells and little music. And yet there's a timeless and deeply mythic quality to the film, its emphasis on the honor and dignity that had been attached to a life earned from the unpredictable sea.

Vittorio De Sica's Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) begins outside Rome, in a kind of idyll of the countryside. Two shoeshine boys set aside what they've earned to buy a horse. Back in the narrow and unforgiving streets of Rome, they're roped into a blackmarket deal that goes sour. Nabbed by the authorities, they're sent to a juvenile prison, their friendship strained nearly to breaking. After an escape, one of them accidentally dies, his death blamed on his friend. De Sica kept his exposition short, detailing the boys' existences through carefully composed scenes such as their neighboring prison cells, each one headed for a different fate. Opening and closing with the horse, De Sica shows the freedom that's denied these two boys. His use of nonprofessionals allowed him to draw natural, seemingly improvised performances from his actors and remain, in his term, "faithful to the character."

This is especially true of his next feature, Bicycle Thieves, the leading roles of father and son occupied by two nonprofessionals. (David O. Selznick was willing to back the film, but only with Cary Grant as lead, an offer De Sica fortunately had the confidence to refuse.) When the bicycle he needs to do his job is stolen, the young father and son scour Rome to find it; the father is finally driven to steal a ride of his own.

De Sica orchestrated the film carefully, shooting some scenes with multiple cameras and drawing attention to its existence as fiction, not a documentary. Bazin termed it the "only valid Communist film of the whole past decade" and the film was often seen as simply a criticism of working conditions in Italy at the time, when unemployment stood at 25 percent. But unlike the clearcut moralizing of Rossellini's films, De Sica's works focus on a humanist sense of individual and mass. Bicycle Thieves has a mythic feel, the father ultimately forced into thievery, each moral quandary no sooner solved than De Sica poses yet another, the father sympathetic but flawed.

Italian audiences hardly embraced these new films. To be shown their country in such stark terms made the majority very unhappy. It even became part of the law: the Andreotti Law (1949), named for its author Giullio Andreotti, offered subsidies for those who followed the neo-realist style in a manner "suitable... to the best interests of Italy," but with the proviso that they avoid the blemishes on Italian life.

Legislation had little immediate effect on what was made, though the stories began to reflect the scramble for work and stability that defined this period. Visconti's terrific Bellissima (1951) centers on a daughter and fanatic stage-mamma, the inimitable Magnani, eager to get her modestly talented daughter a spot in a movie. To her husband's dismay, she squeezes every extra penny into lessons and cosmetic improvements for the little girl. Ultimately, the mother all but puts herself on the market to get the recognition she's convinced will make life worth living. Set in a working-class Roman neighborhood, Bellissima gives rare insight into how provincial big-city life could be, each neighborhood a virtual small town, the neighbors sometimes helpful, often petty and jealous of any advantage. Though not traditionally considered a neo-realist film, Bellissima did focus on people's lives in the wake of war, the sense of wanting to better oneself and the struggle to find a way out of the grind of poverty. It becomes yet more poignant in this context.

This sense of Rome as a small town is especially acute in Umberto D. (1951), which was De Sica's favorite film and is in many ways the masterpiece of neo-realism, an overall superb piece of work. The crisis-filled days of a pensioner, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), and the complications of his relationship with his dog and a young maid in his apartment building become a study in the difficult drama that constitutes an ordinary life. As played by a dignified nonprofessional - a professor, who, in the event, was often subsequently taken for his character on the street - Umberto D. is stodgy, fussy, irritating and curiously sympathetic. Unlike other films of the era, this was shot nearly entirely in the Cinécittà studios. The indignities of the family-less and indigent old-age are laid out with sensitivity but not sentimentality. Umberto is vulnerable and all but invisible, barely distinguishing himself in a crowd of protesting pensioners, desperately trying to maintain his independence and self-respect. There is no real plot other than the minuscule and life-shaping crises of late-life impoverishment. Even the end strikes a melancholy note of ambiguity.

And Suddenly It Was Over

Giuseppe De Santis's Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) was described at the time as the "last gasp of the neo-realist movement." Like Obsession, its strongest overt influences are American films - noir and westerns and even a hint of musicals). It introduced audiences to a smoldering Sylvana Mangano, who played a rice weeder. By the hundreds they descended on the Piemonte region in the postwar years and into the 1960s. The brutally exhausting work demanded precision, suited, as the voice-over states, to the delicate "hand that rocks the cradle or threads the needle." Mangano's characters long to go to America, where she's sure "everything is electric."

In Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), De Sica kept to neo-realism's focus on the marginalized mass, but his approach marked a break with just about every other neo-realist premise. Miracle in Milan is a kind of neo-fantasy. He showed postwar conditions and real locations - in this case, the run-down outskirts of Milan - the dreariness leavened with make-believe. When his foster mother (Emma Grammatica) gives him a white dove, Toto (Francesco Golisano) can suddenly grant the wishes of his neighbors in the periferia or shantytown where they live. De Sica jettisoned chronological time, replacing logic with magic. And yet, this has some of the grittiest urban landscapes of any of its contemporaries, the long shots of the shantytowns conveying a sense of how imprisoned the characters are. De Sica termed it a "fairy story and only intended as such," yet the film had the unintended effect of essentially signalling neo-realism's official end.

A Long Shadow

In general, people look backwards when talking about neo-realism, acknowledging its roots, according it artifact status. But the films stand on their own even without the movement they've come to represent. More important, they pointed out new directions for filmmakers in Italy and elsewhere. Both Fellini and Antonioni worked on neo-realist films and even in Fellini's later, extremely fanciful work and Antonioni's brooding studies of men and women, there's a similar urge to document Italy's social realities.

Among the filmmakers influenced by Italian neo-realism are the French New Wave, Dogme 95 and, as Images writer Chris Norton points out, the Los Angeles School of Black Independent Filmmakers (known as the L.A. School). The latter include directors such as Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash, all of whom have at some level addressed the working-class experience in America with methods borrowed or inspired by neo-realism.

Even such apparent non neo-realists as Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ermanno Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Gianni Amelio and Lina Wertmüller carry over the ideas of neo-realism with their emphasis on class conflicts (the eternal north/south tension) and use of non-professional actors, particularly children, to great effect.

The last word on this goes to Fellini. He agreed in principle, he said, with the neo-realist idea of taking films from life but he redefined it for himself as "looking at reality with an honest eye - but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him." Fellini taps into the essence of neo-realism, the reason the films of that particular era still appeal and the reason they continue to inspire: they address the human condition which, despite technological advances and special effects, remains very much what it was when these filmmakers took to the streets and captured what surrounded them.