Defining Italian Neorealism

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In my history of film courses I have at various times taught three films defined in film histories as quintessential examples of Italian neorealism: Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), and Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952). Open City is famous for launching the movement, The Bicycle Thief for reaffirming the neorealist aesthetic, and Umberto D for being the last "real" or genuine neorealist film. Before showing the film, I try to define Italian neoreal-ism by listing the stylistic and thematic features of the movement that the film will exemplify. The problem is that for each film I have to create a different list.

While neorealism cannot be pinned down or defined according to one style or even in terms of the themes or kinds of stories told, scholars agree on its origins and some of its basic traits.1 Neorealism emerged in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, the product of filmmakers who were trained in Mussolini's state-subsidized film school (the Centro Speri-mentale) and who learned to make films in the lavishly well-equipped studios that Mussolini fostered (in a complex called the Cinecitta), but many of whom were politically on the left and in revolt against the kind of cinema produced under Mussolini's fascist regime. So, in some respects, neorealism is best defined by what it is not. Mussolini's cinema was a cinema of distraction, one whose primary goal was to entertain, and indeed the films had enormous popular appeal, rivaling Hollywood on the world market. Although scholars are continually pointing to exceptions, discovering films made under Mussolini's regime that anticipated neo-realism, the fascist cinema's most characteristic genre was scornfully described by Giuseppe De Santis, a neorealist film director and critic, as calligraphism, which he defined as decoratively photographed adaptations of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction. Since cal-ligraphism drew on materials from the past, it was seen as an escapist retreat from the social and economic problems of contemporary Italy. Mussolini's cinema was for the most part studio-bound, representing the world through elaborately constructed sets. The plots were also elaborate constructs, following formulas and conventions similar to those of the classical Hollywood film.

When Fascism fell, not only was Italy liberated from the Nazis, but its most talented filmmakers—such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Giuseppe De Santis—were freed from making what they saw as artificial, contrived, escapist films. Rather than projecting a falsely optimistic picture of Italian society, as they felt the films under Fascism tended to do, by focusing on the wealthy classes and the images of Italy that tourists see, neorealist filmmakers sought to expose the poverty and social malaise of a postwar Italy in shambles. Vittorio De Sica wrote: "We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were and to seek salvation."2

Neorealist films tell stories that take place in the present day, not in the distant past. They also focus on the lives of the lower rather than the upper classes: on workers, not professionals; on the poor, not the rich; on the ordinary man, not the superhero. The problems and conflicts of neorealist protagonists derive less from inner psychological turmoil than from external social conditions. Most of the filmmakers associated with Italian neorealism were political leftists whose goal was to bring about social change through the creation of a new, socially engaged, national cinema, one that would replace the sanitized, retouched Italy of the films made under fascism with films that reflected the reality of contemporary life in Italy.

In our postmodern era, of course, we look with skepticism upon the claim that any film or group of films can reflect reality. All film images are representations, different ways of signifying the world. Even in a medium based on the seeming objectivity of the photograph, there is no such thing as a direct, objective recording of reality on film. As the Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander Hammid observes:

the camera records only in the manner in which the man (or woman) behind it chooses to direct it . . . even if we put the camera in front of a section of real life, upon which we do not intrude so much as to even blow off a speck of dust, we still arrange: by selecting the angle, which may emphasize one thing and conceal another, or distort an otherwise familiar perspective by selecting a lens which will concentrate our attention on a single face or one which will reveal the entire landscape and other people; by the selection of a filter and an exposure . . . which will determine whether the tone will be brilliant or gloomy, harsh or soft. . . . This is why, in films, it becomes possible to put one and the same reality to the service of democratic, socialist or totalitarian ideologies, and in each case make it seem realistic.3

Although we can agree that no film movement has a pipeline to the "real," neorealist films broke with the conventions and practices of Mussolini's cinema of distraction in a number of ways that made their films seem more real, especially in comparison to the films that came before them. The most obvious way neorealist films differed from their predecessors was that rather than being made in the well-equipped studios of Cinecitta, neorealist films were shot on location. At first this was out of necessity. At the end of World War II, Cinecitta had been heavily damaged and was mainly utilized to house refugees. Thus, Rossellini and his crew took to the streets to photograph Open City, a tense drama of partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation. After the huge international success of Open City, it soon became evident that shooting in the streets of Italy was an aesthetic plus, lending an aura of authenticity to the filmed fictions.

A second way neorealist films differed from their predecessors was in their use of post-production sound. Because of the difficulty and expense of filming on location, Italian neorealist directors, beginning with Rossellini in Open City, shot their films silent, dubbing in the dialogue and sound effects later. Unburdened by cumbersome sound equipment, the camera had greater freedom of movement, creating the effect of capturing events fortuitously, on the run, the way images of life appear in documentaries and newsreels. Open City, moreover, was shot on a very low budget at a time when film stock was scarce, mostly of poor quality, and had to be bought on the black market in bits and pieces. These circumstances, in combination with Rossellini's lack of reliable power units, gave the film a grainy, grayish, uneven, rough-hewn look which also contributed to its documentarylike aura. And some of the footage of Open City does not just resemble documentary footage, but is actual docu-

Figure 28. Expressionist lighting in Open City during the scene in which the priest, Don Pietro, witnesses Manfreddi's torture. (Open City, 1947, Film Preservation Associates.)

mentary footage secretly taken of German troops in the final days of their occupation. So powerfully did the documentary appearance of Open City heighten the dramatic effect of the film's story that future filmmakers imitated its location shooting, post-production sound, and low-budget look, even when they could afford better. These stylistic traits became hallmarks of Italian neorealism.

I also should point out, however—and now come the sputtering and contradictions—that many neorealist films, including Open City itself, do not adhere to a spartan documentarylike aesthetic. Not all of Open City was shot on location. The interiors were shot on constructed sets created in an abandoned warehouse. For most of these interior shots, Rossellini used standard three-point lighting, a style associated with mainstream commercial Hollywood filmmaking. Occasionally, Rossellini even employed artificial, expressionistic lighting techniques to heighten the drama in Open City, as, for example, in the powerful scene in which the priest, Don Pietro, witnesses Manfreddi's torture. (See figure 28.) Paisan (1946), Rossellini's second influential neorealist film, which also dramatized the final days of Nazi occupation and Italy's heroic and often tragic resistance efforts, likewise has many conventionally lit sequences obviously shot in a studio. Umberto D had no scenes at all shot on location. But despite the inevitable exceptions, Italian neorealist films have, nevertheless, become strongly associated with location shooting, poor-quality black-and-white film stock, post-synchronized sound, and the use of a mobile camera, all of which contribute to producing films that look more like newsreels than fiction films, and hence seem starkly realistic.

Aside from their look, Italian neorealist films also seem more real than Hollywood films or the films made under Mussolini's regime because of the kinds of stories they tell. Rather than recounting extraordinary exploits of the high and the mighty, neorealist scenarios focus on common, even banal events in the lives of humble working-class people. For some reason, the depiction of lives of workers or the poor strikes us as more real than the depiction of the more insulated lives of the rich. Neorealist stories also tend to end abruptly, without closure, with loose ends dangling and problems unresolved, also making them more like life and less like fictions. The actors who play the leading roles in neorealist films, moreover, are often nonprofessional actors or stage actors who are cast because they look like ordinary people. Hence they give the appearance of being authentic, not glamorous stars "playing" at representing real people.

The above description of Italian neorealistic storytelling may well make us pause to consider an important question: Why was Italian neorealism as a film movement such an international success? What exactly is the appeal of films about poor or common people to whom nothing extraordinary happens and whose fates are left unresolved at the end? Why would anyone want to watch such films? In order to answer this question, I would like to focus on Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, a film that epitomizes the peculiarly intense pleasure and pain of the Italian neorealist aesthetic.

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Responses

  • Tanta
    What is the definition of italian neorealism film?
    8 years ago
  • Steven
    What specific qualitites of umberto d define it as a neorealist?
    8 months ago
  • ilmari
    Why was umberto d neorealism?
    8 months ago
  • Raymond
    How does umberto d reflect the traits of italian neorealism?
    5 months ago
  • lauren
    How do you know if a film is italian neo realism?
    1 month ago
  • kristiina
    How to make neorealism with shots?
    13 days ago

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