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ITALIAN NEO-REALISM

 

BEGINNINGS

Finding any sort of critical consensus as to when precisely Italian neo-realism began, when it ended or, most importantly, what exactly it was (or, perhaps, as I will discuss, what it is) is not an easy task. But what are pretty unequivocal are the circumstances that brought it about. Let’s start with that.

In broad terms neo-realism was, as Shelia Johnston says, “the product of the Second World War and the defeat of Italian and German Fascism.” (1)  Italy’s gradual defeat in the war and the consequent Allied occupation left the Italian film industry out of action. Prior to the war, Italian cinema had been dominated by commercial studio fare (known as “white telephone” films)—but these proved unfeasible in the immediate post-war period; partly because of the general economic decline, but also because of the interference of the American occupied forces, “whose main objective,” Johnston tells us, “was the reopening of the Italian market to American films”. Further obstacles to filmmaking were created by the expropriation of film studios such as Cinecitta as refugee camps and military storage spaces, the removal of equipment either to Venice or to Germany, and the unreliability of electrical power supply.

These drawbacks not only did not prevent a new cinema from emerging, but actually instigated many of the hallmarks of the neo-realist style. Shooting on location and in available light became a necessity, and because of the impact of the war on the landscape (both visually and socially), contemporary reality became inevitable prime subject matter. Likewise, lower budgets and limited resources resulted in a gritty aesthetic that filmmakers had no choice but to embrace.

However, describing the genesis of neo-realism in these purely practical terms, one could get the impression that the only difference between the neo-realist filmmakers and their “white telephone” predecessors was the resources they had to make do with. But the defining characteristic of neo-realism wasn’t material; it was philosophical. After all, even with the practical restrictions of post-war filmmaking, Italians could still have attempted to make commercial entertainment. Indeed, one might imagine that is exactly what people would have desired: an innocent escape from the serious struggle of day-to-day life. But, interestingly, the Fascist regime that had dominated Italy for over two decades had made escapist entertainment seem anything but innocent. As Giorgio Bertellini pointed out,

The Fascist regime’s strict control over the national cultural production and consumption invested post-war Italian cinema with profound political connotations. Mere entertainment and escapism were known as suspect ploys. Consequently, several post-war film directors—whether politicised intellectuals or not—felt that their work … bore an inherent political responsibility. (2)

In other words, the way in which cinema had been used to support the Fascist regime created an awareness that filmmaking was not and could not simply be a business or a form of entertainment—it had profound moral consequences. The objection held against earlier Italian cinema was, of course, not that it was enjoyable—it was that it was false. It didn’t engage with or address reality—an untenable position in the turmoil of post-war Italy when, as Roberto Rossellini said, “it seemed criminal not to suggest to people the need to sink their hands in, to feel what things are made of. (3)” This sense of responsibility—what Tag Gallagher called a moral imperative “to see clearly” (4)—is what drove the neo-realists.

The neo-realist project as a whole could perhaps be summed up as just that: an attempt to put reality back on the screen, to “see things as they are.” (5) Yet such a task isn’t ultimately achievable, and they could hardly claim to be the first or only filmmakers to try to do so. What, then, distinguishes Italian neo-realism? The typical dictionary definition tends to emphasise a few key characteristics: use of non-actors, real locations, documentary style, social issues, poor working class characters, episodic rather than plot-driven narratives, etc. However, as Tag Gallagher pointed out, while some of these elements usually played a part, “‘Neo-realist’ movies generally had plot, script, professional actors, dramatisation, studio sets and lighting, and elaborate montage.” (6)

So what is neo-realism?

 

NEO-REALISM IS…

It’s impossible to look at neo-realism without addressing the question of realistic representation in film in general. Can film capture reality?

On the one hand, film does, scientifically speaking, consist of visual records of real events—even if the real things it records are sometimes fake. In this sense, all films are equally realistic. On the other hand, those records of real things are inevitably manipulated both in terms of their mise-en-scene (using actors, scripts, selective framing, etc) and in their editing (creating relationships and meanings that didn’t exist in reality), in ways that set them apart from the reality we see with our own eyes. In fiction filmmaking (and also often in documentary), this manipulation is used to create meanings and understandings often completely alien to the reality of the images themselves.

Neo-realist cinema is no exception to this. Yet when the first neo-realist films drew international acclaim, the quality most of them singled out was their unprecedented realism. When Rome, Open City was first released in America, Bosley Crowther praised its “candid, overpowering realism”, while John Mason Brown remarked that “characters appear to have been photographed without knowing it.” The French critic, Georges Altman, said of Paisa: “One might say there is no longer dramatic, technical, or artistic mediation between the subject and the one capturing it.” (7) The complete inaccuracy of all these appraisals shouldn’t stop us from recognising their significance. Neo-realism wasn’t reality but it was arguably closer to reality than anything that had come before. It opened up new possibilities, new forms for getting at reality, or truth, through film. How did it do this?

The material hallmarks of neo-realism deserve partial credit: location shooting, the use of non-actors and contemporary subject matter, and a general “documentary”  look, all lent a certain authenticity. But, as Gallagher noted, “historically [this] was not novel at all.” For example, “documentary and fiction had been mixed in American cinema from the very beginning.” Also, none of these elements were used consistently or exclusively: Bicycle Thieves had a real worker in the lead part, but his voice was dubbed by a professional; a lot of both Open City and Paisa was shot on location, but partswere shot on artificial sets; etc etc.

But there was also something deeper at work, something which can be traced back to the moral imperative outlined in the introduction. While the hallmarks above were, when they applied at all, largely borne of necessity rather than choice, the key thing about neo-realism was both voluntary and significantly more radical—a rejection not just of conventional production practice, but of the conventional filmmaking forms. As Gallagher says, “For moviemakers…capturing truth meant getting free of convention.” (8)

Christopher Wagstaff said that many believe neo-realist films “eschew the conventional cinema’s obsession with narrative” (9)—concluding perhaps like Georges Altman above that they have instead depicted their subjects without “artistic mediation”. But “in fact,” Wagstaff argued, “the neo-realists developed a new narrative.” In other words, what may at first have appeared formless, was simply a new kind of form.

Wagstaff argued that the latter hallmarks were “unintended superficial characteristics” which neo-realism had been defined by for too long, and that

Neo-realism … is not so much a matter of choice of subject and setting, as a new dramaturgy in the cinema; it replaces the dramaturgy of ‘givens’ contained in genre cinema with a dramaturgy of search and discovery.

In other words, the most important thing about neo-realism isn’t what the films are about, or where they were shot—but the form (or “dramaturgy”) in which they exist; a form created in an attempt to get closer to reality. As Rossellini said, “There doesn’t exist a technique for capturing truth.” He believed “only a moral position can do it.” (10)

So rather than taking a supposed technique for achieving “realism”—like, say, using non-actors and shooting on location—the central tenet of neo-realism is to start with that “moral position”—what Shelia Johnston called “a commitment to the representation of human reality”—and see where it takes you. Johnston pointed out that “this commitment could not and did not translate … into any precise technical or stylistic prescriptions.”  (11) This is because the form, or style, isn’t something predetermined; as Gallagher writes, “Rather that knowing how a film will work out before he begins it, a filmmaker like Rossellini interrogates”. The style results from a dedicated attempt to “see things as they are”. Obviously in the end what we are left with is not the truth, but the artist’s personal truth; a.k.a. their style. In the case of Rossellini, what we are left with is neo-realism.

Consequently, Gallagher is right when he asserts that

Neo-realism was more than exploration. It was making. It no sooner “discovered” or “captured” reality than it reconstructed it, and created a new reality, which bore the maker’s mark. (12)

So what exactly was this “new reality”, this “dramaturgy of search and discovery”? In one word: uncertainty. The neo-realist moral imperative necessitated both an ambiguous representation and a constant questioning. In Wagstaff’s words:

The function of cinema became enquiry.  … Neo-realist films ask, rather than confirm; they wonder, rather than reassure. … Nothing is ‘given’ at the outset in a neo-realist film: values have to be explored.

Ray Carney outlined the specific ways in which this was achieved. Carney sees three main formal innovations in the neo-realist style: narrative, photographic, and editorial.  “The neorealist style,” Carney says, “cultivated narrative digressions, interruptions [and] pauses,”, freed from “the determinism of plot and the tendentiousness of intentionality”—and photographed and edited in a way that “communicate[s] a sense of each shot being only a partial view of a larger reality that defies more than provisional comprehension or stylistic containment.” (13)

French critic Amédéé Ayfre saw neo-realism along similar lines. It left in

unimportant, irrelevant, and distracting details, so that, if afterward one wanted to understand an event as sociology, drama, psychology, or symbol, one would have the impression of working on raw events not yet abstracted. … In this way, a human event is considered “globally” (without dissection or analysis)… (14)

Yet realism in cinema is generally not thought of in this way. In fact, Bazin saw neo-realism as “from the outset opposed to … certain well-known features of realism … specifically naturalism and verism.”  (15) Bazin calls neo-realism a realism “directed not at the choice of subject-matter but at the process of awareness.” (16) In other words it’s not what you shoot but the style in which you shoot it, and the relationship that style creates with the viewer. Neo-realism gave the viewer “a sense of the ambiguity of the real”  (17) rather than merely the appearance of it. This again goes against the conventional notion of neo-realism as signified by location shooting and other material factors.

Speaking about art in general, Carney best summed up the philosophy of this approach:

We have misunderstood the maxim that art should imitate life. It doesn’t mean that art should imitate the appearance of life, but the experience of it—the turbulence, concreteness, turbidity, uncertainty, and immersion of what life feels like. (18)

The imitation of the experience of life rather than the appearance is analagous with Rossellini’s preference of a “moral position” over “technique”, and Bazin’s emphasis of “a process of awareness” over “choice of subject matter”.

The effect of this is what Ayfre called “a call to liberty”.  As Gallagher says, “our attitude, as spectators, must alter radically.” “The viewer is empowered as a meaning maker,” says Carney. (15) We become “actively engaged in making sense of these experiences.”  Gallagher: “To look becomes an action: everything is open to question: we have to respond, we have to act.

Rossellini: “For me a realistic film is precisely one which tries to make people think.” (19)

 

WHICH NEO-REALISM?

Arguably, there are as many neo-realisms as there are neo-realists. The concepts outlined above could be said to be one neo-realism—and one primarily associated with Roberto Rossellini. For some, Rossellini was neo-realism. Bazin called him “the truest neo-realist of all” (20) and Federico Fellini once said that “when talking about neo-realism one can only refer to Rossellini.” (21)

Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is generally accepted as the first neo-realist film. His next film, Paisa, has been described as “the most impressive film of the neo-realist movement”. (22) Yet it is Vittorio De Sica who is responsible for the most famous—and most popular—film of neo-realism: Bicycle Thieves. Carlo Celli described it as “the canonical film of the neorealist period” and it is probably more synonymous with the movement than any other. (23)

But how does it relate to the neo-realist characteristics discussed so far? In terms of the material hallmarks, Bicycle Thieves certainly seems as neo-realist as it gets. As Gallagher writes, it was

about what neo-realism was supposed to be about (unemployment and the desperate proletariat) and was filmed the way neo-realism was supposed to be filmed (on actual city streets, in a working quarter, gray and gritty). (24)

Yet narratively, Bicycle Thieves is remarkably conventional. Leaving aside its subject matter, the film is essentially a high-concept, plot-driven tale. While it does deserve praise for bringing traditional narrative tools down to earth to deal with relevant and ordinary themes, it hardly represents the new type of narrative described by Wagstaff, Carney, Ayfre, Gallagher and Bazin. In fact, since its originality is precisely its “choice of subject matter” rather than a “process of awareness”, one could almost see it as opposed to Rossellini’s neo-realism. (25)

For Gallagher, the success of Bicycle Thieves “solidified the tendency to think of neo-realism as social realism” (26) rather than a stylistically radical “call to liberty”.

De Sica was preferred because he better fulfilled traditional story values. He had none of Rossellini’s off-putting qualities. Instead of incomprehensible tales … De Sica provided straightforward people …, straightforward problems, straightforward suspense, and tearful situations that made everyone cry.

Indeed one could argue that the very reasons that make Bicycle Thieves popular are what sets it apart from neo-realism. That is, if one believes Rossellini is neo-realist at all. Adriano Apra once said:

The more I go on, the more I am convinced that either we recognise that Rossellini was the unique neo-realist filmmaker, in which case we need to redefine the term, or else Rossellini was never neo-realist and all the others were, in which case the term has a negative, disparaging meaning.  (27)


ENDINGS

According to Gallagher, neo-realism in its original form “died in 1948” when the post-war sense of fraternity that had initiated the movement ended with the April 18 elections. (28) Others set the closing date later, with De Sica’s Umberto D in 1952. But the only elements of neo-realism that really “died” were what Wagstaff called “unintended superficial characteristics.”

What never died in filmmakers like Rossellini was the moral position that was at the heart of neo-realism, “a commitment to the presentation of human reality.” His style changed, but only in response to the times. “ The sort of realism I inaugurated with Rome, Open City and Paisa,” he said, “is no longer useful today.” (29)  Fellini believed Rossellini’s “way of seeing needed to be pursued in more depth because reality was becoming more complex, more concealed, less external, less outwardly dramatised.” Out of this development came the masterpiece Voyage in Italy (1953), which Bazin maintained was still neo-realist.

Visconti—who’s La Terra Trema (1948) was in many ways the quintessential neo-realist film—likewise followed his own peculiar neo-realist path, with a series of historical epics beginning with Senso (1954). These went against all the material hallmarks of neo-realism, but Visconti still considered them realistic in that they were an honest attempt to get to the bottom of things. (30)

Fellini and Antonioni—who had both been peripherally involved in neo-realism from the beginning—followed similar paths, creating intensely stylised and introspective bodies of work. Antonioni believed that “it was time to transcend a cinema about a man whose identity resided solely in having lost a bicycle to turn to films that explored what was in the mind and heart of the man who had had his bicycle stolen.” (31) Interestingly, De Sica was the only major neo-realist who failed to “transcend” this cinema. His style was too attached to the postwar cultural and political atmosphere to survive the period. His agenda was primarily social rather than stylistic and therefore could not be sustained.

“Setting an end point to the development of neo-realist cinema has become a critical convention, as has the use of the term itself,” says Morando Morandini (32) and the more one looks into it the more that appears to be the case. The only way to give neo-realism coherence as a period of film history is to define it by its superficial characteristics. Perhaps the best way to consider neo-realism is not as a time, but as a turning point. In the end, it’s useless to talk about neo-realism starting here and finishing there; better simply to talk about cinema before and after neo-realism.

Neo-realism changed cinema. It created new cinematic forms, and as Wagstaff writes, “it would be difficult to overestimate how influential the opening up of such possibilities for the cinema has been.” (33) Bazin credited Rossellini with pushing “furthest the aesthetic of neo-realism”, but others would push further. For example, neo-realism was the formative influence on John Cassavetes, who inspired a generation of young filmmakers with Shadows (1959)—a film more neo-realist than anything De Sica ever made. In the years that followed, others such as Rob Nilsson or Abbas Kiarostami could be said to have taken things even further.

Of course, all these films look very different. But that is because the essence of neo-realism, as Rossellini keeps telling us, is a moral position, not a technique. Gallagher described it as “transcending any party or faith, inspired by both Christ and Gramsci” (34). The allusions to Christianity and Communism are apt, since like neo-realism, they represent aspirations that are talked about a lot more than they are reached: in Brecht’s surmise, “the simple thing so hard to achieve.” Indeed, in 1974, Rossellini was still saying:

To see things as they are, that’s the main point. It’s not easy to reach that point. I’m searching for it. I’ve not found it yet.  (35)

 

ENDNOTES

  1. Shelia Johnston, “Italian Neo-realism” in Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink, The Cinema Book, p76
  2. Giorgio Bertellini, Introduction to The Cinema of Italy (Wallflower Press, 2004), p1
  3. Roberto Rossellini (ed. Adriano Apra), My Method: Writings and Interviews (Marsilio Publishers, 1995)
  4. Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Da Capo, 1998), p
  5. Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews
  6. Gallagher, p277
  7. Quoted in Gallagher, p219, 225
  8. Gallagher, p267
  9. Christopher Wagstaff, “Rossellini and Neo-Realism” in David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (BFI, 2000)
  10. Quoted in Gallagher, p267
  11. Johnston, p77
  12. Gallagher, p277
  13. Ray Carney, Films of John Cassavetes (Cambridge University, 1994)
  14. Ayfre as summarised in Gallagher, p304
  15. André Bazin, “Defence of Rossellini” in Forgacs, Lutton & Nowell-Smith (ed.), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (BFI, 2000), p159
  16. Ibid., p159
  17. Bazin quoted in Gallagher, p736
  18. Ray Carney, “Path of the Artist Part 2”, http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/indievision/pa2.shtml
  19. Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews
  20. Bazin as paraphrased by Johnston, “Italian Neo-realism” in Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink, The Cinema Book, p78
  21. Fellini, “on Rossellini” in Forgacs, Lutton & Nowell-Smith (ed.), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (BFI, 2000), p170
  22. Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (University of California, 1984), p67
  23. Carlo Celli, “The Bicycle Thieves” in Giorgio Bertellini (ed.), The Cinema of Italy (Wallflower Press, 2004), p44
  24. Gallagher, p296
  25. It might seem bizarre to suggest Bicycle Thieves isn’t truly neo-realist when its screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, is acknowledged as the key theorist of the movement. Yet the discrepancies between Zavattini’s theory and his practice are huge. He famously described the ideal neo-realist film as ninety unedited minutes in an average worker’s average day—but he also admitted that, by these standards, the most neo-realist film was only ten percent neo-realist at best.
  26. Gallagher, p295-6
  27. Adriano Apra quoted in Gallagher, p296
  28. Gallagher, p266
  29. Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews
  30. Outlined in C. Paul Cellors, “Senso” in Giorgio Bertellini (ed.), The Cinema of Italy (Wallflower Press, 2004), p65
  31. Paraphrased by Peter Bondanella, “La Strada” in Giorgio Bertellini (ed.), The Cinema of Italy (Wallflower Press, 2004), p73
  32. Morando Morandini, “Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism” in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford University, 1997), p358
  33. Wagstaff, “Rossellini and Neo-Realism” in David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (BFI, 2000), p46
  34. Gallagher, p267
  35. Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (BFI, 2000)
  • Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Da Capo, 1998)
  • Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (University of California, 1984)
  • Roberto Rossellini (ed. Adriano Apra), My Method: Writings and Interviews (Marsilio Publishers, 1995)
  • Ray Carney, Films of John Cassavetes (Cambridge University, 1994)
  • Shelia Johnston, “Italian Neo-realism” in Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink, The Cinema Book
  • Giorgio Bertellini (ed.), The Cinema of Italy (Wallflower Press, 2004)
  • Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford University, 1997)

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