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September 06, 2007
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)
I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.
Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.
I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.
Technical Aspects of the Book
It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.
What is Neorealism?
The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta
(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)
Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:
Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).
Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.
De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D
Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement
Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.
Rossellini's Germany Year Zero
The Structure of the Book
The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.
I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm of neorealist cinema.
Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)
He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.
Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.
It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth. However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)
Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:
…neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).
As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.
A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear
Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore
In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.
Rossellini's Voyage in Italy
In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:
Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).
Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.
Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:
Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)
Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.
Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.
From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs
As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.
May 20, 2007
Italian Neorealism: An Introduction
Immediately after the war Italy was deluged with Hollywood films which controlled between two thirds to three quarters of the Italian market 1945-1950. The importance for a strong relationship with the US government in the post-war stabilisation phase ensured that Hollywood wasn’t challenged by calls for protectionism or other measures to curb the flow. Eventually in 1951 an agreement was signed which capped the level of Hollywood imports to 225 per annum. The same period saw the flowering of an Italian film movement called neorealism. This movement has become an important part of film history although it was based upon a relatively small number of films. The influence of these films has been out of all proportion to both the numbers of them made and their impact at the box-office at the time, for it was the Hollywood films which were pulling in the audiences. It was powerful aesthetic approach allied to a loose politically left position movement in Italy which has influenced film styles there for decades afterwards but it had a profound influences on other national cinemas particularly in Europe. It influenced French New Wave practitioners such as Godard and Truffaut and it also influenced the makers of the British new wave based upon social realism such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.
Sitney (1995) has identified Italy as having two intensely productive periods when its cinema earned the respect of the world. He has named these periods as ones of ‘Vital Crises’ after the description of these by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first period is identified as that of neorealism which is commonly understood as being a movement of the 1940s and is associated primarily with notions of Resistance and solidarity. The second period is associated with reflections upon the Italian ‘Economic Miracle’ which took place in the late 1950s until 1963. Sitney suggests that by 1964 this central vitality was beginning to wane. For Pasolini neorealism was a contradictory phenomenon: It is useless to delude oneself about it: neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic and enthusiastic at the beginning...’ (Pasolini cited Sitney 1995: p 1).
Contemporary films in other coutries
The Italian contribution to cinema as a whole needs to be set against the best of the American and European films of the time. US films of the time includedspellbound, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lady from Shanghai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. In the rest of Europe Britain made films from Powell and Pressburger such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But these were based upon a studio inspired professionalism as were films by Bresson and Cocteau The Ladies of Bois du Boulogne and Beauty and the Beast respectively. In France Clement’s Battle of the Railroad bears a direct stylistic comparison as well as one by content but nevertheless the Italian contribution to original cinema:
lies in their stylistic organisation of elements of apparent rawness, their emotional intensity and their focus on current political and social problems. Sitney (1995: p 6)
The Political Background to Postwar Italy
Political background to postwar Italy
Throughout the late 1940s the possibility of revolutionary change from the Communists was perceived of as a constant threat by the incumbents of the Italian government and their backers in the US and GB. The Parri government of late 1945 had seen the Prime Minister also serve as Interior Minister. This was a strong indicator of the primary concerns of the government of the time. Parri was followed by the Christian Democrat leader De Gasperi in December 1945. Initially De Gasperi had a Socialist Interior minister who had suppressed Communist inspired revolts, however De Gasperi took over the job himself in his second government of July 1946 - Jan 1947. In May 1947 De Gasperi was able to form the first Italian postwar government without any participation of the far Left. The post of Interior Minister then went to the Sicilian Mario Scelba through the next 6 cabinets until 1953.
The coalition governments based upon the Christian Democrats as the largest party meant working with a range of right-wing parties including Liberals, Monarchists, and Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man) who were anti-centrist and largely composed of southern ex-Fascists.
Scelba organised a special anti-riot police force armed with sub machine-guns. They were used to good effect during the election campaign of 1948 when left inspired demonstrations were frequently broken up with demonstrators occasionally killed. It was at this time that the Uomo Qualunque movement dissolved itself and the MSI a nationally based neo-Fascist party was formed.
The 1946 elections had seen the socialist and communist parties gain nearly 40% of the vote. For the 1948 election they had decided to pool their resources in a popular front. However the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 lost them support as did a split in the Socialist Party itself. Spiritual threats from the Vatican and rather more materially based ones from the United States served to weaken the communist party's electoral base still further.
Sicily was a case study in its own right. The US had incorporated the use of gangster links through the Mafia to facilitate the invasion putting Mafiosa in political power. Ironically this undid the efforts of the Mussolini government to control and eradicate the Mafia. The Mafiosa tended towards separatism. This was overcome by De Gasperi by offering considerable concessions to them in terms of autonomy. When it was clear coming up to elections that the left still had the majority the Mafia supported the De Gasperi government but at a price of ensuring that anti-Mafia activities were minimised.
The Christian democrats maintained power throughout the 1950s. This had largely alienated the intellectual and artistic forces which had been so prominent during Italy’s immediate postwar period. In parallel the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was also losing the moral standing and respect which they had earned during the Resistance. Elio Vittorini broke with the PCI in 1947 and in 1949 Pier Paolo Pasolini was expelled for his homosexuality. Cultural Stalinism was exercising its grip. Eventually the revelations from Khruschev at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956 lost it a lot of support. This was followed by the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. Following that the great writer Italo Calvino left the party in 1957.
The Christian Democrats didn’t benefit from this breakdown in the left. Its habitual use of excessive force to suppress strikes and demonstrations was alienating its own supporters. In 1953 the CD still led by De Gasperi tried to push through what became known as ‘The Swindle Law’. It was designed to allow a simple majority vote at an election to be translated into a two thirds majority at the National Assembly. It was eventually defeated by the slimmest of majorities - a minuscule 0.15%. It was the disturbingly fast growth of the neo-Fascists which helped to defeat this proposal. The CD managed to control Parliament until 1957 without the support of the neo-Fascists. But the price of this was what Ginsborg has described as ‘Immobilism’. This featured on the one hand, steady economic growth as postwar recovery through the Marshall plan came to fruition. On the other hand the ‘Byzantine’ system of public agencies controlled everything from transport and natural resources to culture and sport. This became a fundamental feature of the period. At the same time there was much evidence of scandal and corruption at the highest levels of the CD elites.
The cinema at this time was also a centre of scandal and gossip. In 1950 the pregnancy and subsequent marriage of Ingrid Bergman to Rossellini ‘attracted more attention than any of his films’ suggests Sitney. Cinecitta became an extension of Hollywood with its lower cost labour attracting producers to make extravagant spectaculars like Ben Hur.
The steady economic growth of the mid and early 1950s meant that Italy’s GDP was growing at a rate of 5.5% p.a. From 1959-1963 the years of the ‘economic miracle’ this leapt to a growth rate averaging 6.3 % seeing a doubling of industrial production.
Literary Origins of the Term Neorealism
The term was coined by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930 to describe the style which arose in reaction to elegiac introversion of the contemporary Italian letters. By comparison it offered a dramatic representation of a tormented human condition including the conventions of bourgeois life and the emptiness and boredom of existence. Some of Italy’s most illustrious pre and post war writers were associated with this movement including Alberto Moravia, Elio Vitorini, Cesar Pavese, and Vasco Pratolini .
Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted:
‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar, cited Bondanella, 2002, p 34.)
What is Neorealism in Cinema?
The moment of ‘neorealism’ is consider by most critics as a very important moment in the development of cinema. Bondanella (2002 p 31) notes that neorealism is a confusing term and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (2003 pp27-28) notes that to characterise neorealism is very difficult. He argues that critics have settled upon five key characteristics of the films which belonged to the moment of what is described as the neorealist movement.
Nowell-Smith emphasises that few films ‘satisfied all these conditions together’. In summing up the key aspects of neorealism Nowell-Smith locates the resistance movement as the key focus of neo-realism. The conditions are:
- A realist treatment of the story
- A popular setting
- Social content
- Historical actuality
- Political commitment
Henry Bacon (1998) also highlights that an essential aspect of neorealism was its anti-facist stance in which this new aesthetic movement and the new multi-party postwar government of Italy were linked. Bacon (1998 p 26) cites Alberto Lattuada a leading scriptwriter of the time:
The actor's costumes were those of the man on the street. Actresses became women again, for a moment. It was a poor but strong cinema, with many things to say in a hurry and in a loud voice without hypocrisy, in a brief vacation from censorship; and it was an unprejudiced cinema, personal and not industrial, a cinema full of real faith in the language of film, as a means of education and social progress.
Millicent Marcus prefers to go beyond technical considerations and sees neorealism as primarily a moral movement of the moment which finds a genuine consensus amongst the artists of the period.
However, if we go beyond technical considerations to the ethical impetus behind neorealism , we are apt to discover far more of a consensus among artists of the period and to find ample reason for grouping them together as upholders of a certain school , tendency, or style, broadly construed’. Indeed for many critics, neorealism is first and foremost a moral statement , “una nuova poesia morale” whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity - one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the ”others” , be they persons or things, with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails. (Marcus, Millicent, 1986: p23)
Marcus notes the neorealism has had vast cultural and ideological reverberations which:
may explain the seemingly disproportionate impact of a movement that lasted only seven years, generated only twenty-one films, failed at the box office, and fell short of its didactic and aesthetic aspirations. (Marcus:1986 :p xvi).
The films which can be described as neorealist have frequently been categorised as a ‘film movement’. The critic Andre Bazin has claimed that the development of the use of deep-focus photography in neorealism allowed a greater democracy for the eye by being closer to ‘reality’. Bazin associated an ontology or ‘beingness’ with the combination of the long take and the use of deep focus. Whilst as early as Visconti’s Ossessione this cinematic technique had come into use there is little evidence of a concerted attempt by the directors to do this. The exception is the scriptwriter Zavattini who wrote several statements espousing realism with its associated use of non-professional actors. Bondanella argues that too much has been made of the relationship to Italian social problems minimising the importance of the artifice that directors had added to the films.
Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted ‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar cited Bondanella 2002, p 44).
Bondanella argues that neorealism wasn’t strictly a movement although the emphasis has been that the films deal with real problems, with believable characters found in everyday life:
However the great neorealist directors never forgot that the world they projected upon the silver screen was one produced by cinematic conventions rather than an ontological experience, and they were never so naive as to deny that the demands of an artistic medium such as film might be just as pressing as those from the world around Them. (My emphasis; Bondanella, 2002, p 34).
Here one can note the dramatic treatment of the Nazis trying to catch an anti-fascist in the block of flats in Roma citta aperta. The intercutting between Nazi troops rushing up the stairs and the priest hiding the anti-fascist was using film language to heighten the drama. similarly in this film the overly Germanis mise en scene of the Gestapo cell block and the representation of the Gestapo officer as gay with his subordinate a vampish lesbian was the start of an association of Nazism with sexual perversion which Rossellini also explored in Germany Year Zero with a key character an unreconstructed Nazi pedophilic teacher.
It is useful to note that the number of films which can be defined as neorealist produced 1945-1953 was about 10% of the total number of films produced which equates to about 90 out of the 822 produced overall. The critical and historical discourses have focused upon these as the key films aesthetically of the period however they were not that important in the context of the industrial system as a whole. The films were not great box office hits at the time despite becoming described as masterpieces now. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City achieved first place in the box office 1945-1946, after that even the most popular of the neorealist films slipped down the box office lists as the wartime concerns receded. By 1949 de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves could only achieve 11th place in the annual box-office returns. The films were often praised by critics abroad; this helped to create a small but financially useful internationalo market for these directors.
The Shift Towards Neorealism
The Italian neorealist movement is effectively bracketed by two films made by Visconti, Ossessione made in 1942 loosely based upon James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Ring’s Twice. This film transposed an American popular crime novel into an Italian setting with an aesthetic influenced by French Poetic Realism. Visconti had worked with Renoir during his great poetic realist period of the interwar years and had gained some of Renoir's political outlook from this period. However, Nowell-Smith (2003 p 13) notes that the stylistic debt to Renoir was confined to this one film.
Visconti follows Renoir in a naturalistic way when he establishes the relationship of the character to the landscape. Where Renoir’s naturalism was influenced by Maupassant and Zola, Visconti’s was influenced by Giovanni Verga the Sicilian writer of the late 19th century who wrote in a style called Verismo which was a form of naturalism and a part of Italian regional literature. The beginning of the end of the neorealist movement is marked by La Terra Trema (1948).
Nowell-Smith argues that despite the many claims to associate Ossessione with neo-realism it was marked by realism without the 'neo', rather the film can be seen as a precursor of what was to come for it was missing the essential political elements although the style was present. In a similar vein La Terra Trema is marked by going beyond the central aspects of neo-realism. De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is usually seen as the film which marks the end of this current. Nowell-Smith emphasises that:
The real heart of the neo-realist movement was the resistance film and the often agonisingly direct contact it re-established between the spectator and recent events, and the decline of this movement can be traced to the moment when this genre lost its immediacy and became at best reflective, at worst sentimental’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003: 29).
Visconti had belonged to an artistic resistance movement that had started to emerge in the early 1940s, although he was on the margins. At that time it seemed vital to go beyond the conformist cinema of Mussolini’s period and there was a growing shift towards the verismo aesthetic of Verga. However at this stage Ossessione was made directly under the government of Mussolini during 1942. The film was subject to the censors when it came out in 1943, although later in this year the invasion of
Ossessione is marked off from most of Visconti’s other films by having a lack of historical and political perspectives which also distinguishes it from most of the neo-realist films as well. However, with the script being written by four politically committed film critics and writers including both Visconti and de Santis, all of whom were based in the journal Cinema, it would be unwise to write it off as an entirely apolitical film. Whilst Cain’s novel appears to have provided the inspiration the story-line, the visual coding of the film and the more realist aesthetic can be interpreted as signs of cultural resistance at a time when Italy was still under full control of Mussolini during its making.
Perhaps, it is possible to read Ossessione as an allegory of the way in which Italy had become seduced by fascism. The crash at the end of the film could be seen to be the disaster that Italy was heading for at the time. Look carefully at the way in which Giovanna changes from a light flowery summery frock into a morbid black dress after making love with Gino the tramp for the first time. This is a powerful visual statement after a moment of high passion, that can be read as highly symbolical given the moment of the film’s production and its release. Note too the association of Gino and the husband frequently described as ‘boorish’, yet he is an affable and generous man and bonds with Gino the tramp when he realises that they have served in the same part of the military together, and were even trained by the same drill sergeant. Perhaps this can be seen as harking back to the national solidarity of the Risorgimento, as reworked into Mussolini’s notion of the ‘national popular’ .
For Marcus (1986), Morandini (1997) and Bondanella (2002) the neo-realist movement proper starts with Rossellini’s Roma, citta aperta (Rome Open City, (1945). Here the city can be seen as a synecdoche (a part that equals the whole) for the whole of the Italian nation. The film examines the consequences of the Nazi occupation of the city after Italy has declared itself as being on the side of the Allies after the arrest of Mussolini. Of the neorealist core films two more are by Rossellini Paisa (1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero,1947). These three are sometimes known as his war trilogy. to these films can be added to three by de Sica: Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Umberto D (1952). Morandini also includes Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and Bellissima, 1951) as core films of the movement.
De Sica and the early Rossellini films although not strongly politically motivated like the work of De Santis still were attuned to the specifically politically sharpened moment of their making:
In Rossellini’s case his interest in the immediate realistic representation of actions and events attached itself to a situation that was one hundred per cent political, in which political action was immediate to an exceptional degree’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003:27)
Bondanella argues that the conditions of production under which Rossellini worked during the making of Roma citta aperta helped to create many of the myths surrounding neorealism. There was little studio work, the film stock was bought on the black market , often in short strips. The development of the film was done without the use of rushes and the post-synchronisation of the sound were all contributory factors to the myth-making of neorealism.
Roma citta aperta in its style was far more than just naturalistic including a range of styles moods through the use of documentary to the ‘most blatant melodrama’ comments Bondanella:
Beneath the surface of the work, which often seems to possess the texture of a documentary and frequently seems closer to a newsreel than to a fictional narrative there is a profoundly tragicomic vision of life which juxtaposes melodramatic moments or instances of comic relief and dark humour with the most tragic of human experience which reconstructs the reality of a moment in Italian history. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 38-39).
By comparison Paisa is closer to the conventions of a newsreel style documentary whilst going beyond the straightforward depiction of events. It is organised around several episodes going through the Allied invasion of Italy. It starts with the landings in
The name Paisa was a colloquial form of the word paesano meaning countryman, kinsman, neighbour or even friend. It was typically used as a form of greeting between the American GI’s and the local Italians. For Rossellini the deeper meanings become a route for exploring the Italo-American relationships in which ‘...linguistic barriers ...give way in the face of moral commitment.’ Suggests Bondanella in which the self-sacrifice of an American for his partisan comrades demonstrates a love of fellow man which links with Rossellini’s Christian humanism. Interestingly the episodes set in Florence and on the Po have an anti-British sentiment within them.
Germany Year Zero (1946) is dedicated to Rossellini’s young son who died in that year. It is based on the story of a young boy Edmund in his early teens. Edmund ultimately murders his sick father and eventually commits suicide. The film shows the breakdown in morality announced in a voice-over at the start of the film.
Bondanella argues that comparison of these three seminal works of neorealism by Rossellini with the work of De Sica shows that:
it becomes abundantly clear that thee was no single or aesthetic programmatic approach to society in their works. (Bondanella, 2002 p 54)
Neorealism can be understood in both cinema and literature as a reaction against the classical and rhetorical stance of the arts of the Fascist period. In La Terra Trema Visconti chose as a model not only Verga but also the realism of the American 1930s. The naturalism and verismo fundamental to Ossessione are absent from La Terra Trema beyond the use of Verga for the initial story. Visconti’s had by then become influenced by Flaherty and Eisenstein. A fuller account of this film is present in a separate posting on this blog. Suffice it to say here the film is frequently understood as the last film made which can be attributed to the neorealist movement and moment.
The Shift Away from Neorealism
Neorealism, never a film movement based upon a manifesto of strict conventions, began to decisively shift away from its aesthetic roots through films by De Sica and Rossellini which incorporated a realm of fantasy and imagination rather than a naturalistically based ‘reality’. De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1950) for example sees an escape from poverty symbolised by flying over Milan cathedral on a broomstick.
Other filmmakers like Visconti and Lizzani chose to explore the historical legacy of Italy and as such began to engage with the historical processes which brought about the fascist state through adaptations of literary texts. Visconti’s Senso (1954) is a film which is exploring history through a Gramscian inflected lens going beyond a reportage of events during the Risorgimento (the Italian movement for national liberation and unity of the 19th century) to explore the ideological differences and the outcomes of these in the form of fascism.
Visconti uses the format of operatic melodrama to explore this using the lives of individuals to intersect with what he envisioned as the motor of history. The use of Verdi in the opening scene was used to great effect to connect with the artist who in Italy best exemplifies notions of Italian patriotism and nationalism. Here Bazin’s critique of the film suggested that viewers were forced to engage more with their intellect rather than their emotions. Bondanella suggests that this disjunction was achieved through the creation of a sumptuous and meticulously researched mise en scene which lends ‘...the film a certain sterile splendour... (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 98).
The original release of Senso was very controversial, for Visconti had made it with the intention of drawing parallels between the failure of the Risorgimento and the antifascist resistance. The film was released at the Venice film festival whereupon the Ministry of Defence forced an important cut on the original:
...which confused Visconti’s original comparison of the Risorgimento and the Resistance, thus weakening much of the film’s political impact upon its public’. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, p 99.)
As far as neorealism as a style was concerned the film was a combination of spectacle, melodrama and critical realism and represented a distinct shift away from the idealist version espoused by Zavattini.
Zavattini: Major scriptwriter within the neorealist framework often thought of as a purist as far as neorealism is concerned.
There are some interesting issues concerned with the film in terms of the general development of Italian cinema as an institution. It was the first colour film made by an Italian director, and marked a shift towards a level of dependence upon American financing. An American star Farley Granger was imposed upon Visconti - he had originally wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando. Despite these attempts to make an international package the film failed to attract large overseas audiences. This seems largely due to their ignorance of the Risorgimento.
One important underlying issue is revealed by this. Lack of wider historical knowledge especially amongst American audiences vitiates against the success of even more expensively and well made films in the American marketplace. Some level of de-historicisation and a greater focus on the romance and melodrama might well be necessary to impress a genre constructed audience.
Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the shift away from neorealism came with the production of Love in the City (1953) made by Zavattini in conjunction with several other directors each doing an episode. Whilst Zavattini was the defender of the neorealist faith, trying to promote the film as something close to cinematic journalism, the contributions from Antonioni and Fellini pointed towards the move into highly abstract psychological representations of love affairs through the suicides of several women from Antonioni. Fellini’s contribution was based on a story-line about a client who wished a marriage bureau to advertise for wife willing to marry a werewolf.
Rossellini often regarded as the core neorealist, along with the younger Fellini and Antonioni, were moving away rapidly from the neorealist ‘mode of production’ based upon using ordinary people instead of actors. They were shifting to stories with more psychologically complex characters which required professional actors.
George Sander and Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini's post neorealist Voyage to Italy
Rossellini was now having a public affair with Ingrid Bergman and made a range of films that were largely vehicles for her such as Stromboli (1949), Europea ’51 (1952) and Voyage in Italy (1953). The content tended to revolve around aspects of contemporary marriage, emotional alienation and despair. Whilst they were failures at the box office they were lauded by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema. Rossellini commented that
..life has changed, the war is over, the cities have been reconstructed. What we needed was a cinema of Reconstruction. (Rossellini cited Bondanella 2002 p 105)
The Cahiers critics considered Voyage in Italy to be one of the twelve best films of all time up to that date. In the recently re-released BFI version on DVD Laura Mulvey who provides a commentary says it is her favourite film. It tells the story of an English couple who visit Italy needing to dispose of an inherited property. It becomes a play on the stuffiness of the middle class English and the deep rooted passions of Italy which are quite literally in the case of a couple in Pompeii embedded in the soil. Alexander makes a visit to Capri renowned for the sexual exploits of Caligua and Tiberius where he fails to seduce an attractive woman he meets. It was a site later visited by Godard in Le Mepris, - perhaps a homage to Rossellini. Eventually the couple become reconciled meeting up at a religious festival. Bondanella suggests that the way the Anglo-Saxon speaking press treated Rossellini’s affair might have been a reason for this denunciation of English morality. The film itself received little critical attention outside of France.
Fellini had been closely involved with writing several scripts for Rossellini including Rome, Open City and Paisan. He also wrote scripts for Lattuada, Without Pity, and Mill on the Po. Fellini became co-director with Lattuada on Lights of Variety (1950). The film explored the seedy underside of the entertainment world, examining the charlatans and the opportunists. The leading female roles were played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, and Lattuada’s wife Carla Del Poggio. A complete break with any form of naturalism occurs when Checcho the leading impresario who has been trying to seduce Liliana (Del Poggio), has been had an argument with Liliana in which a reconciliation takes places. Checcho leaves the building in the early hours of the morning and walks up some steps to the sound of applause for in his imagination at least he has achieved his aims of making a successful variety show which will star Liliana and be toured in the biggest cities. It is this which will in his desire at least seal a truly loving relationship with Liliana. The laughter turns into the sound of a passing tram bringing the viewer at least back into reality.
The film is the start of one of Fellini’s major concerns of examining the reality behind performance and entertainment in Lights of Variety, celebrity the media and the growth of ‘infotainment’ in La dolce vita, and in 8 1/2 a reflection on filmmaking itself. A theme that was to be continued in the 1980s in Intervista (1987)
Umberto D, 1952: Directed Vittorio de Sica
A case study of Roma citta aperta will be added to this blog in due course. A link will be provided.
For a small reference piece on the importance of specific Cinematographers of Neorealism
You may also find it useful to access the Italian directors hub on this site
All the references can be found in the Bibliograpy of Italian Cinema on this blog.
Suggested Core Reading for Neorealism
Bondanella, Peter. 2002 3rd Edition. Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present . Continuum. Probably your first port of call. Chapters 2 & 3 are useful reviews of the period.
Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press. Not only does this deal with neorealist films directly with very good chapters on Rome Open City, Bicycle Thief and Umberto D the rest of the book traces the powerful influence upon Italian cinema into the 1980s. There is also a useful discussion about realism as a set of ever changing artistic conventions. It is a very good in depth book.
Musico, Giuliana. 2004. Paisa / Paisan. In Bertellini, The Cinema of Italy . 2004. Wallflower Press is a useful article on Rossellini’s film.
Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema pp 83 - 114 places neorealism in the context of popular cinema as a whole.
Landy, Marcia. 2000. Italian Film. CUP has an interesting chapter which follows the theme of Landscape and Neorealism, Before and After. This is an engagement with a cinematic geography and is best left until you have more familiarity with the field.
Shiel, Mark 2006: Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
Sitney, P. Adams. 1995. Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. University of Texas Press. This provides useful chapters on Visconti, Rossellini de Sica and Zavattini.
Critical reviews of specific directors and their neorealist films include:
Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge University Press. This has sections on Ossessione, La Terra Trema. Bellissima.
Core films to view:
Germany Year Zero: Rossellini
Bicycle Thieves: De Sica
Sciuscia (Shoeshine): De Sica
Miracolo a Milano: De Sica
La Terra Trema: Visconti
Ossessione : Visconti
I bambini ci guardano: De Sica