Italian Neorealism – the most precious moment in film history?
Michael Strevens looks at the most precious moment in film history…
Having been bombarded by both the Allies and the Nazis during the Second World War, many of Italy’s beautiful historic cities lay in ruins by the time the fighting was over. The country not only faced a daunting task of reconstruction, but a long and painful transition from fascist dictatorship to modern democracy. Amidst all the rubble and destruction, Neorealism emerged and flourished for a brief period to become one of the most important landmarks of cinema.
By making a radical break from the conventions of the past, the neorealist directors developed a new type of filmmaking committed to representing the harsh reality of life in post-war Italy. Drawing on a range of influences, neorealist cinema is marked by a preference for filming on location; employment of a ‘documentary’ approach to cinematography and the use of non-professional actors.
So what gave the movement such a distinctive visual style and why did it influence filmmakers for generations to come? Before attempting to answer those questions, it’s worth taking a quick look at what came before it.
Italian cinema forged a strong reputation in the early silent era, but like France and Germany, its film industry was crippled by the First World War. When Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power in 1922, it gradually appropriated the medium for its own ends and gave directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, a strong grounding in film. This included the foundation of a national film school called the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in 1935 and the opening of the vast Cinecittà studios in Rome two years later.
The dominant genre in the 1930s was light-hearted ‘white telephone’ comedies, so called because the white telephone was an object of desire among the middle classes – not unlike the iPhone is today. De Sica enjoyed great success as an actor in this era and Rossellini’s early career was given a boost by Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who invited him to make propagandist films. The Centro Sperimentale counted Visconti, the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and future directors Giuseppe De Santis and Michelangelo Antonioni amongst its alumni, whilst its journal, Bianco e Nero, gave them a forum to develop their theories and get their ideas out to the public.
The outbreak of war and anti-fascist resistance proved to be the catalyst for neorealism, but prior to that, Visconti made Ossessione (1943), the first screen adaption from James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. A gritty tale about a fatal love triangle, its portrayal of the working classes around the Po Valley is markedly realist, in stark contrast to contemporary films that rarely bore any resemblance to everyday life. In the farewell scene between Gino (Massimo Girotti) and Giovanna (Clara Calamai) on a country road, agricultural workers can be seen in the background tending the fields. When the action moves to the port town of Ancona, the camera lingers on the seedier aspects of urban life, such as the funfairs, bars and boarding houses. Sadly, heavy cuts by the censor and the timing of its release shortly before the overthrow of Mussolini limited Ossessione’s impact.
It was Roma, città aperta (1945), Rossellini’s vivid recounting of ordinary Italians’ heroism against the Nazis in occupied Rome, that heralded the true birth of neorealism. Widely considered a masterpiece, its legendary production was driven by a combination of necessity and choice.
Rossellini began shooting in January 1945, just six months after the city’s liberation (although he also edited in footage of German soldiers he shot during the occupation). No studio facilities were available as Cinecittà had become a makeshift refugee camp, so he was forced to film on location using primitive equipment and film stock picked up on the black market. The resulting grainy textures and variation in picture quality capture the war-scarred city with all the visual immediacy of a newsreel.
The realism is further enhanced by the two leads – both well-known comic actors cast against type. Aldo Fabrizi plays Don Pietro, a Catholic priest whose bravery in assisting the partisans costs him his life, whilst Anna Magnani’s Pina is a working class widow who meets a tragic fate on her wedding day. Their earthy, authentic performances have since become iconic in Italian cinema, resonating strongly at the time with the public who had lived through similar experiences themselves so recently.
The film’s most famous sequence, in which the SS raid Pina’s apartment block to capture her fiancé Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), demonstrates the movement’s tendency for abrupt and startling tonal shifts. With skilful cross-cutting, Rossellini dissolves tension into comedy when we see Don Pietro pretending to give an old man his Last Rites, having knocked him out with a frying pan in order to conceal weapons under his bed. In a beat, the tone switches to despair with Francesco’s arrest and ultimately tragedy when Pina is shot dead in the street chasing after her loved-one.
The second instalment of Rossellini’s war trilogy, Paisà (1946), bears an episodic structure, containing six vignettes about the Allied invasion and the clash of Italian and American cultures. He blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction by introducing each story with a voiceover, military movements on a map and inserting real newsreel footage of the invasion. The critic Mira Liehm summed up this blending of styles as ‘art and information becoming one’.
Germania Anno Zero (1948) is the pessimistic conclusion to the trilogy and the only neorealist film to be shot outside of Italy. It tells the story of a young boy in post-war Berlin, forced to hustle for food to support his family and under the malign spell of his former teacher, who has the unfortunate distinction of being both a Nazi and a paedophile. Rossellini’s camera takes in the remarkable extent of the almost total destruction of the city, which resembles an eerie post-apocalyptic landscape, climaxing with a famous extended tracking shot following the film’s young protagonist through ruined streets before he jumps to his death.
This sequence illustrates the contrast between Rossellini’s moral neorealism, in which the camera functions as a witness to events, and the more sentimental version seen in the films of De Sica. The celebrated film theorist Andre Bazin defined the difference in style between the two as ‘a way of seeing’ against a ‘way of feeling.’
De Sica’s collaborations with Zavattini, which include Sciuscià (1946), Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), focused more on the social inequality in post-war Italy and the plight of the urban poor. They are richly evocative representations of the Italian city, achieved with highly detailed urban mise-en-scène, captured by employing a deep focus technique pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941).
Whereas classical Hollywood cinematography typically draws the audience’s focus exclusively to one plane of action, De Sica’s increased depth of field forces the viewer to decide where their attention should be directed. This crops up time and again during a number of carefully choreographed scenes throughout Ladri di biciclette, in which the father and son disappear in and out of an anonymous throng of people.
Zavattini developed an extensive body of work theorising the movement. In his 1952 manifesto Some Ideas on the Cinema, he hailed Neorealism’s ‘innate capacity for showing things…as they happen day by day – in what we might call their “dailiness”, their longest and truest duration.’ His conviction that actions should be shown as they happen in real time became an elemental facet of the movement. A prime example of this occurs in a well-known sequence of Umberto D., in which we see the maid (Maria Pia Casilio) perform domestic chores in the kitchen and make a pot of coffee in one long take.
Arguably the most notable feature of neorealist films is the use of non-professionals and children in leading roles (although a professional actor’s voice was usually dubbed in afterwards). For Ladri di biciclette, De Sica selected a humble factory worker, Lamberto Maggiorani, for his lead, whilst the character of Umberto D. was played by Carlo Battisti, a professor of linguistics at the University of Florence. Both give incredibly convincing performances thanks to expert coaching by De Sica, who once said that an ordinary ‘man in the street’ was ‘ raw material that can be moulded at will.’ In La terra trema (1948), Visconti takes this realism even further by casting the inhabitants of a Sicilian fishing village in every role; using not only their real voices, but their dialect, which would have been incomprehensible to most Italians living on the mainland.
The movement gradually ran out of steam in the 1950s as the economic situation in Italy improved and the political climate became less favourable. The Christian Democrat Minister of Culture, Giulio Andreotti, disapproved of its socialist messages and claimed that neorealism projected a negative image of the country abroad, likening it to ‘washing dirty laundry in public’. His law of 1949 not only curbed the imports of foreign films, but gave the government power to block the exportation of anything they deemed unsuitable. As material deprivation became less of an issue, the directors began to expand neorealism to incorporate more metaphysical concerns, which laid the foundations for the auteur-driven cinema that dominated Europe in the 1960s.
Even with limited resources, the freedom that the neorealist filmmakers found during the immediate post-war years allowed them to experiment and fully exploit the potential of the medium. It was a period in which great art collided with a forceful social purpose to become a true cinematic watershed – one which Martin Scorsese proclaims as ‘the most precious moment in film history’.
This article is adapted from an essay submitted as part of an Introduction to Cinema module at Birkbeck College.