Like most great cinematic movements, that of Italian Neorealism is not without its share of controversy and conflicting definitions and designations. Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film Roma, città aperta stands as a preeminent example of the approach to filmmaking, and perhaps is its first true filmic representation. Yet, one could just as easily ascribe the adjective “neorealist” to a preceding work such as Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti. And then there is the discussion of when did this very time- and location-specific movement come to an end. Of the three major directors of the era—Visconti, Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica—certainly their Senso (1954), Viaggio in Italia (1954), and Stazione Termini (1953), respectively, signal clear departures. Curiously, De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (1951), which in many ways is a major deviation from neorealist aesthetics, actually came before his Umberto D. (1952), the neorealist work that perhaps comes the closest to André Bazin and Cesare Zavattini’s ideal of a pure, in many places uneventful, real-time duration, and authentic film realism. Additionally, prior to Viaggio in Italia, with pictures such Stromboli (1950), Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), and Europa '51 (1952) Rossellini already seemed to be setting his cinematic sights elsewhere; a strong case could be made for Stromboli being still largely in the neorealist vein however.
Nevertheless, within this typically accepted 1944/45-1952 timeline, enough works were created to firmly establish, albeit with some debate, a stylistic and thematic consistency that provides a guiding set of characteristics to signify an Italian Neorealist work. Like starting and ending dates, some of these traits are open to contention, but most are constant and are the basis for the judgments of films previous and following, as well as their relation to Italian Neorealism.
If the arguments for Visconti’s Ossessione as the initial neorealist work hold up, they are largely due to the fact that the film does contain several features that would remain through the duration of the movement, by its customary identification. Though certainly with an extra dose of melodrama, the film contains scenes of notable rawness, of a genuine authenticity that exposes the views of its main characters Giovanna, Gino, and Giuseppe. “Ossessione avoids conventional beauty and grandeur in its representation of the Po valley, presenting instead a haunting and windswept terrain whose unromanticised (sic) bleakness reinforces the sense of doom which pervades the narrative from the outset,” writes Mark Shiel. (38) This representation of often harsh realities, in this case those faced by a young couple, their affair, an ensuing death, and their subsequent guilt, would become staples of neorealist work. With Ossessione, Visconti would heighten the emotional pull of these scenes, keeping the realism but adding a sense of exaggerated passion, but the unglamorous individuals and locations pointed towards a style of film clearly distinct from those made in Hollywood (seemingly the consistent barometer for how far a film strays from a “typical” movie), but also those dubbed the “white telephone” films made in Italy previously.
Visconti’s next feature, La terra trema (1948), would more adequately come to be exemplary of the characters and lives neorealism would come to exhibit. Here, Visconti, much less melodramatically than Ossessione, quite objectively and more naturally, shows a group of hard-working and impoverished Sicilian fishermen and their family. Filmed on location in the genuine Sicilian dialect of the people, the film is minus all artifice and emerges as the ultimate in realistic characters and stories that would become, though in a normally different locale, a key ingredient in neorealistic works. These two films by Visconti would stand as his only two real contributions to the Italian Neorealist movement, but they would quite noticeably have a profound impact on films throughout the world, let alone Italy.
The thematic elements of a genuine world portrayed, of characters true-to-life and unaltered from their real-world basis, would permeate the key neorealist works of De Sica and Rossellini as well. Aside from some outstanding episodes from Rossellini’s Paisà (1946), shot along the Po delta as one is for example, the major neorealist pictures would now turn their focus to war-ravaged urban hubs, locations devastated by World War II, and it would be through this scope that much of what we consider to be an Italian Neorealist work would be viewed.
Paradoxically aided by the bombed out structures and streets, films like Roma, città aperta, Paisà, Germania anno zero (1948), Il Miracolo (1948), Sciuscià (1946), Ladri di biciclette (1948), and Umberto D. received considerable impact from the areas in which they were shot. Indeed, location shooting, frequently in areas of rubble, filth, claustrophobia, and war-torn devastation, would become major elements of neorealism’s makeup. While sets were occasionally used, the power of this location shooting gave neorealism its distinction and would pave the way for other film movements like the French Nouvelle Vague or later types of filmmaking like Cinema Novo in South America and the independent film in North American cinema. Location shooting on these Italian pictures gave a sense of urgency with regards to the characters and their struggle to adapt to life after World War II. Audiences were “in the now.” The sense of “this is happening,” “this is how it is,” gave these films an emotional resonance without the aide of artificial manipulation. The locations, while certainly prominent, were not metaphoric in any way; they didn’t reflect the characters, they informed them.
The characters of these films, from the children so often featured in films like Sciuscià and Germania anno zero, to the elderly in pictures like Roma, città aperta and Umberto D., to middle-aged people just trying to get by (as in Paisà and Ladri di biciclette as two examples), were also aspects of what is considered to be the most paramount of Italian Neorealist films. These were not Hollywood-type characters, living lives of luxury and comfort, dealing with trivial matters, and these were not Hollywood-style actors. These performers, even the professionals (the great Anna Magnani, for instance), were selected based not necessarily on how well they could act—though they could certainly act—but on their looks, how well they fit into these worlds, how believable they were doing the things they were directed to do. De Sica has said that the non-professional actor is “raw material that can be molded at will,” and that it was “much easier to achieve a sense of authenticity and spontaneity with a nonprofessional than with a fully trained actor who must ‘forget his profession’ when working on a neorealist film.” (Shiel, 56) Also looking at character representation, Bazin writes, comparing characters in De Sica’s films with those of Rossellini, that, “Rossellini’s love for his characters envelops them in a desperate awareness of man’s inability to communicate; De Sica’s love, on the contrary, radiates from the people themselves.” (62) Either way, there was nothing about these characters to in any way lift them above the audience, no matter who the audience is. Spectator/character relation was critical.
In terms of narrative and themes, these films existed in a world void of events out of the ordinary, sometimes tragically so (as in searches by occupying Germans being routine). Plots of these neorealist works were typically episodic in form, Paisà itself is a series of six vignettes, but they were not without cohesion; they were simply showing life as it is—women really do tinker around the kitchen as Maria-Pia Casilio’s character does in Umberto D., young children have to, by any means necessary, make a living, honestly (shining shoes and working at a gas station) or cunningly (selling black market blankets and delivering Hitler speeches). These lives are a series of episodes. The action is frequently anything but action-packed. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not Italian Neorealism is a cinema of normal life, of genuine emotions.
The juxtaposition of horrific events with comedy, of national issues and personal ones, is also a hallmark of neorealist film. With Roma, città aperta, there is, on one hand, a priest hitting a man over the head with a frying pan, followed by a brutal murder on the other; within a city brewing with resistance fighting, a young couple can still plan their marriage. Neorealism was, in many ways, a cinema of conflict and contrast. History collides with the present, society collides with the self. Additionally, plots were not tightly constructed; they were free-flowing, as seen in La terra trema, Ladri di biciclette, and Umberto D. There was an obvious forward narrative progression, but the stories were told without the use of heightening devices.
Thematically, Italian Neorealism, as already alluded to above, is basically about the individual struggle within a society torn by economic and political strife. These films deal with the ways in which people interact and how they begin to heal after years of violence and upheaval. They are characters, most often of a lower- or working-class, trying to find their place in a world that is unlike what they had known before. Even if the details of World War II are not explicitly dealt with the atmosphere of conflict, disquiet, and despair are.
Aside from the location shooting, stylistically Italian Neorealist films also contain several additional elements that endure throughout the period. Yet, it is still crucial to keep in mind that, like anything else already discussed, these aesthetic features are not without exception. For example, the dominant idea of neorealist camera work is one of a documentary-like visual style, where hand-held cameras are utilized and a consciously composed mise-en-scéne is of unimportance. Millicent Marcus, of Roma, città aperta, writes that it “is not only antirhetorical in its technical simplicity, but in its subject matter as well. … Though the events of the narrative are certainly fictionalized, the term chronicle is not misapplied, for the story is a pastiche of actual occurrences fused into a coherent whole whose general fidelity to the historical record far outweighs its recourses to any formal or aestheticizing effects.” (36) To be sure, much of Rossellini’s work during this time would be categorized as such. Separating the actual footage from the fictional is, in many cases, rather difficult. Even what is not real at least looks it.
But, conversely, when one looks at especially the films of De Sica during this time, one can see (probably a result of his past in more sensational films as an actor) a more controlled and polished style. For all of his superb use of real locations, and his amazingly effective talent for directing unprofessional actors, De Sica, in Ladri di biciclette as one example, equally uses smooth tracking shots following young Bruno and father Antonio, lower angles taking the point of view of the child’s trepidation, pans and dollies to clearly signal where our attention and emotions should go, and framings that keep all necessary details (a bike just off center in the background) clearly in view. Still, as André Bazin puts it, “If Ladri di biciclette is a true masterpiece, comparable in rigor to Paisà, it is for certain precise reasons, none of which emerge either from a simple outline of the scenario or from a superficial disquisition on the technique of mise-en-scéne.” (51) He also writes that, with regards to De Sica, “the natural setting is to the artificial set what the amateur actor is to the professional. It has, however, the effect of at least partly limiting the opportunity for plastic compositions available with artificial studio lighting.” (65) I would argue that, stylistically, De Sica quite effectively maneuvers beyond this limit, bridging the gap and presenting the best of both worlds. Visconti, with his penchant for long takes and deep-focus, was the most overtly stylish of the three, his work from the 50s onward being especially so. Of La terra trema, Bazin wrote that, “The images … achieve what is at once a paradox and tour de force in integrating the aesthetic realism of Citizen Kane with the documentary realism of Farrebique.”(43)
Editing was kept to a minimum, or, at least, was not expressively used. Actually much like Hollywood films, an invisible style of editing was favored, opting for focus on plot (such as it sometimes was) and character, as opposed to self-conscious, distancing effects like those of the Soviets in the 1920s or the avant-garde previously, and Nouvelle Vague later. A less-stylized lighting was also preferred, using natural illumination in many cases. This would not only affect the drama of certain scenes, some taking place almost in total darkness, but it would also add stylistically in the form of a varying and erratic depth of field.
Additional Italian filmmakers would also try their hand at contributing neorealist works—Alessandro Blasetti, Luigi Zampa, Alberto Lattuada, and Giuseppe de Santis all produced works during this period. But it was with the films of Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica through which the idea and study of Italian Neorealism would be defined. Despite this fact, as already alluded to, each of the three would still depart considerably from these stylistic or thematic concerns, for better or worse. “Rossellini’s personal, spiritual concept of reality and Visconti’s stylized understanding of reality as history and culture long outlived the neorealist period. … De Sica’s humanistic perception of reality, however, was more attached to the postwar cultural and political atmosphere and exhausted its potential as soon as its model—Italian society marked by collective tragedy—became more diversified and complex.” (Liehm, 73)
Nonetheless, as opposed to what some believed, for these filmmakers this was not so much a betrayal, but simply an artistic evolution, one which, in many ways, actually did keep the neorealist roots still reasonably within reach. Take Rossellini for example. While his more cerebral films of the 50s seem to stray from the simple people and the simple stories he dealt with during the 40s, they are actually still concerned to some extent with an individual’s struggle to mesh into a world, to deal with others, to find and understand their place in a changing existence. These are not anti-neorealist themes. Even his historical films, like the great La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966), still thrive on their objectivity, their authenticity of detail, and their avoidance of rapid narrative succession. Only later, in the excellent (and De Sica-starring) Il generale della Rovere (1959) would Rossellini, at least on the surface, return to an overt neorealist world.
So what then is Italian Neorealism? What are its key features? Most agree that it was a massively important and influential moment in cinema history, and most of the above-discussed thematic and stylistic details are widely-accepted, but much else of the movement (if it was indeed even that), is less unquestioned. Federico Fellini, who contributed as a screenwriter for many neorealist works and had a major (and interesting) role in Rossellini’s Il Miracolo, said that neorealism meant, “the liberation of artistic expression, ‘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.’” (Bondanella, “Fellini,” 70) For Rossellini, neorealism was “simply the artistic form of the truth.” De Sica? “His work, according to him, reflected ‘reality transposed into the realm of poetry.’” (Bondanella, “Italian Cinema,” 32) Whatever definition one places on Italian Neorealism, however one defines its stylistic, thematic, spatial, or temporal parameters, there can be little doubt that the influence of these films, and of these filmmakers, is immense.
Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Volume II.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
New York: Continuum, 2004.
Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City.
London: Wallflower, 2006.