Op-ed: A Brief Journey Through Italian Neorealism
Much like how French Poetic Realism captured the attitudes and experiences of a country just before World War II, Italian neorealism took a similar method towards the war and the immediate postwar period. Though it began during the midst of the war, the bulk of films that defined this movement were released from 1945 to the early 1950s. Neorealist films took a far different approach than the propaganda films that highlighted Italy’s film industry under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Rather than glorify the country, these films exposed the cruel effects of the war on ordinary people. Most of the lead characters are those who experience poverty, and they were often played by non-professional actors. Films were usually shot in the streets of cities such as Rome, rather than in the studio. All of this mixed with a particular sense of social consciousness and critique created a highly realistic nature for these films. As always, this list is not meant to be a complete look at the movement (keeping it within reasonable length meant leaving out notable films such as Bitter Rice and Journey to Italy), but rather a look into six films that helped define Italian neorealism.
Obsession (1943, Luchino Visconti)
Often considered the beginning of Italian neorealist filmmaking (though it is debated), this is the only film from this list that was actually released during World War II. It’s also the only one where the presence of the war isn’t distinctly felt. The film–one of multiple adaptations of the novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice”–is the story of a young, poor drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) who winds up working for the owner of a rural tavern and gas station, Giuseppe (Juan de Landa). The catch is that he falls in love with Giuseppe’s unhappy wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Giovanna also loves Gino, but she fears leaving the financially stable marriage with Giuseppe. This leads to dire actions taken by the two lovers to make their relationship a reality.
Here we have a battle of two men: the working class tramp and the man with money. Their situations are easily distinguishable, but the world around them is more reflective of Gino’s existence. We are exposed to an Italy that is not exactly clean or completely put together. All of the walls are stained, and many structures appear on the verge of collapse. The film is not heavily stylized, aside from a zoom-in shot of our lead character reminiscent of John Wayne in Stagecoach. And though the film could have given more time to the central relationship and the reasons behind the burgeoning love, it’s easy to understand the difficult situations our main characters face. In addition to these aspects, and the overall implications of economic considerations, the film also features a sorrowful and essentially hopeless ending. This would also become very common in the movement.
Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)
Released five months after the Allied victory in Europe, perhaps no film portrayed the impact of the war on individuals in Italy as directly as Rome, Open City. Roberto Rossellini’s film is the story of a small group of people involved in an underground resistance movement against the Nazis and fascists in Italy. While they are led by Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), much of the film is focused on the efforts of a cooperative priest, played by Aldo Fabrizi. The film also features a wonderful performance from actress Anna Magnani, who is responsible for one of the most heartbreaking and iconic scenes to come out of the neorealist movement.
While the film features perhaps the most cinematic plot of the movement, it never fails to treat the experiences of ordinary people as its basis. The strength of the film is in how effectively it portrays the sense of anxiety felt by citizens of Italy at that time, who could think of almost nothing other than the devastating war. For example, Magnani’s character states, “How will we ever forget all this suffering, anxiety, and fear?” Rossellini displays a realization that the effects of war will be felt long after it ends, even with the Allied victory. Though this does not keep the film from presenting the sheer brutality and violence of wartime Italy, taking an unflinching look at the treatment of individuals who dared to go against the fascist state. Such portrayals had an impact both at home and abroad, as the film was one of multiple neorealist pictures to receive a nomination for its screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini)
A year after Rome, Open City, Rossellini took on World War II once again in a much different fashion. Rather than telling one direct story, this film tells six. As a way to provide a brief history of the Allied campaign in Italy, Rossellini delivers six segments which tell unique stories with interlocking themes. As is often the case for films like this, the level of achievement depends on each installment. While the film begins and ends with a bang, a few of the middle segments do not quite live up to the tier of excellence seen in many neorealist films. Overall, however, the film represents a fascinating way to present the war from varied perspectives.
This film stands out from most other neorealist films by focusing heavily on the action of the war. It was shot on location and features some stunning cinematography that indicates the destruction of war. So much rubble appears in this film that it’s a wonder how any buildings are left standing. But what really allows the film work are its central themes that run through each segment of the film. Though the vignettes are not related in terms of character or plot, they all feature a sense of loss. This includes loss of love, loss of faith, and oftentimes loss of life. It’s also been noted that the film features many instances of miscommunication and misinterpretation, normally as a result of different languages and cultures. The film is unique in this way, as it features a number of non-Italian characters and actors. It was also distributed by MGM in the U.S., allowing the film to have a strong presence abroad.
Shoeshine (1946, Vittorio De Sica)
While Shoeshine was not the first neorealist film from acclaimed director Vittorio De Sica, it had an impact that no other film before could claim. The film received an honorary Oscar, which would soon be adapted into the category now known as Best International Feature Film. But the film’s influence extends beyond its history within the Academy. It tells the story of two boys who shine shoes on the streets of Rome in hopes of raising money to buy a horse. While they eventually succeed with their goal, they unknowingly get involved in a scheme with conmen. This results in them being thrown in juvenile prison, where they face appalling conditions and the possible destruction of their friendship.
This is the first film on this list to explicitly situate itself in the period immediately after the end of World War II in Europe. But the presence of the war is still felt in numerous ways. For instance, the majority of the shoeshine customers are soldiers who roam the city. And both boys are absorbed by the poverty that became so common in the postwar era. While one must work to ensure the survival of his family, the other lost both of his parents and lives in an elevator. The level of fascism faced by Italians during and before the war is signalled by the treatment of the children in the prison, and such circumstances lead to the changing of attitudes before our two main characters, both of whom were played by non-professional actors at the time. Despite this, both give undeniable performances that allow us to connect with their characters before the gut punch of an ending.
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
Often considered one of the greatest films of all time, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves holds up completely as an emotional portrayal of the desperation that can arise with the difficulties of poverty and being without work. In the film, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor man in Rome trying to provide for his family of four. While he does get a job putting up posters around the city, his bicycle is stolen on the first day. Unfortunately, the bicycle is not just a luxury to help him get around quicker; it’s an essential part of holding the position. Much of the film is the story of him setting out to find this mode of transportation, with his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola, in one of the best child performances) at his side.
While De Sica worked with a larger budget than normal and was able to construct some unique set pieces, the film maintains the hyper-realistic style of the movement and a focus on social issues. Once again, the phenomenal Maggiorani and Staiola were both non-professional actors when they were brought on, and the film is still shot on the streets of Rome, rubble and all. What the film does add is a pure sense of ardor and emotion, which helps explain why it connected with overseas audiences (and the Academy, as this film won the same award as Shoeshine before it). To help the viewer understand the situation of so many people in postwar Italy, De Sica centered the film on the necessity of an object that might seem so banal in other cases. What results is a fantastic film that captures the height of the movement and may leave the viewer in tears.
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica)
I know, I know. It may seem strange to have one director make up half of the films on this list. But De Sica’s three great films within this period are so undeniable as part of the movement, and they do have their notable differences as unique portrayals of working-class characters. Here, he trades young boys and their fathers for a retired elderly man on a lousy pension. Carlo Battisti – yet another non-professional actor – plays the title character. He worked for the government for thirty years, but he now struggles to pay rent and survive. His only true companions are the maid (Maria Pia Casilio) who works for his wicked landlady and his wonderful little dog, Flike. Neither one of them can do anything to truly help Umberto.
While all Italian neorealist films captured the ghastly experiences of impoverished citizens at the time, this one has a particularly pointed focus on the structural failures of the Italian government. Though Umberto put in years of service, his pension is so low that it’s nearly impossible for him to survive. This results in a film that is a true testament to the lack of empathy in such situations. While everybody is aware of Umberto’s struggles, they are often shrugged off. For many, this may be because their own particular struggles are too overwhelming. And though this was his only film appearance, Battisti gives one of the all-time great leading actor performances, allowing us to enter the life of this character and follow every step he takes.
There are numerous indicators of Italian neorealist films that can be discovered just by viewing the six mentioned here. Though the subtext is just as important as the low-key visual style. While these films may first be identifiable by their portrayals of the working poor and the destruction of postwar Italy, they are also emphasized by their call for empathy. They represent not only a portrayal of individuals who were not typically portrayed in film but a necessity to understand them and their situations. Most films with strokes of realism owe something or another to Italian neorealism, and the era delivered a number of fantastic movies and filmmakers.