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Neo Realism In Italian Cinema Film Studies Essay

In complete contrast to the Fascist cinema it superseded, Neo-Realism was committed to ‘representing life as it is lived’. With this in mind, analyse the reasons why Neo-Realism as a movement lasted only ten years. Please refer to at least two films.

In contrast to the Fascist cinema that it superseded, Neo-Realism was committed to ‘representing life as it is lived’; its films are therefore characterised by narratives set amongst Italy’s poorest, examining the difficult economic and moral conditions experienced during World War Two and in the post-war years. The movement has therefore been labelled a ‘moral and aesthetic cinema’ (lecture, Heath-Williams, A., 2009). This essay will discuss and examine the reasons why Italian Neo-Realism lasted just ten years, between 1942 and 1952 (Cook, P., 2007: 233). It will focus briefly on Fascist cinema and then examine Neo-Realism and some of its key films, notably those by Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti, and the subsequent moves by these directors away from Neo-Realism to more individual projects. It will then assess the variety of state and Church constraints imposed on Neo-Realism during its ten years, and will discuss changes in the tastes of contemporary audiences, to determine whether it was these changes that ultimately sounded the death-knell for the movement.

Italian film production was virtually non-existent after World War One and cinemas were forced to show only foreign films, which was intolerable for the Fascist regime (filmreference.com, 2010). Following intervention by Mussolini’s government the industry slowly revived throughout the 1930s, creating an Italian, rather than a specifically ‘Fascist’ cinema (Cook, P., 2007: 233). Fascist filmmakers did make some films that have been rightly dismissed as propaganda, such as the short newsreels that were made to educate - not entertain - the public. However, of the seven hundred or so films produced by them, most were not actually propaganda films, but rather were entertaining, patriotic epics, such as Red Passport (dir. Brignone, 1935), which highlights an Italian peasant’s love for his country, as he returned home from abroad and fought and died for Italy in The Great War (Bondanella, P., 2009: 49).

In complete contrast, the same film industry also produced ‘White Telephone’ films - a derogatory name coined by the Italian public (allmovie.com, 2010). These films are big-budget melodramatic productions frequently set in grand hotels, fancy nightclubs or on luxurious ocean-liners, with each film featuring a distinctive white telephone, which was viewed as a symbol of middle-class bourgeois wealth. They portray a false view of Italian life, as the existence led by most Italians was the exact opposite of that being shown onscreen. Indeed, within these films, the simple protagonists always found a simplistic resolution to their equally simplistic and “insipid dilemmas” (greencine.com, 2010), which was wholly unreflective of Italy’s reality. These films were intended to distract the Italian public from that reality and to recreate the box office success of the popular Hollywood narratives of the 1930s. Mussolini also encouraged the filming of grand, historical epics that were intended to make Italians proud of their Roman history (greencine.com, 2010) – again, another distraction from contemporary problems.

Whilst Fascist cinema tended to produce decadent ‘white telephone’ films, there were calls for filmmakers to develop a “film realism that was authentically Italian” (filmreference.com, 2010). With the outbreak of war in 1939 and the increasing breakdown of Italian society, a number of screenwriters also began to call for a cinema that resembled the Verismo – or reality - of 19th century Italian literature (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 459). Italian directors and writers were also influenced by French films of the 1930s and by Calligraphist films of the early 1940s, which were heavily reliant on the finest of detail (Bondanella, P., 2009: 52, 53). This use of fine detail and mise-en-scene would become a major aspect of the Neo-Realist movement. Although philosophical ideas formed the basis of the Neo-Realist movement, the main aim and true goal of the movement was to express society’s issues in an entirely new and innovative way. Accordingly, Neo-Realist films may be seen as something of a reaction against the ‘white telephone’ dramas and superficial Hollywood imports of the 1930s (cinema-scope.com, 2010).

Neo-Realism was therefore a “rejection of Fascism and fantasy” (criterion.com, 2007) but its realism was also born from absolute necessity. Indeed, the reasons for shooting on location and over-dubbing dialogue were purely practical, as Rome’s Cinecitta studios were heavily bombed by Allied forces and could not be utilised and sound equipment was of poor quality and in short supply (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 459). However, the use of exterior locations rather than studio sets lends the films a great deal of authenticity, because they show the actual physical destruction of the Italian landscape. This destruction - as shown in various scenes of bombed-out shells of buildings throughout Rome, Open City (dir. Rossellini, 1945), and Germany, Year Zero (dir. Rossellini, 1947) could not easily be recreated in the studio. Similarly, in Obsession (dir. Visconti, 1943) the director uses the natural degradation of a typical farming community to set his film, and this too is difficult to recreate in the studio. Filmmakers were also allowed much more freedom on location with sound and dialogue because everything could be carefully re-recorded later in the studio (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 459). This is evident in the scene from Obsession where the characters are walking back from a singing contest and are filmed chatting together from some distance away; their conversation is obviously over-dubbed, as it could not be recorded naturally during filming with the poor sound equipment available. The use of conversational speech and non-literary dialogue also lends Neo-Realist films an authentic air because it makes characters more realistic, to which audiences can relate.

Neo-Realist filmmakers also use many non-professional actors for supporting roles, which adds realism and depth to their characters. Professional actors usually portray the principle characters but sometimes non-professionals are also utilised. The reason for the use of amateurs is because many professional actors perished during the Allied bombings or were exterminated by the Nazis (lecture, Heath-Williams, A., 2009). The use of non-professionals in principle roles gives the films added realism, especially in critical scenes. For example, when Vittorio De Sica was casting actors to play the main character in his iconic film Bicycle Thieves (dir. De Sica, 1948) he chose an ordinary factory worker to play him because, according to De Sica, “everything about him was perfect” (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 460) for the working class character he had envisioned. A professional actor would simply not have had the life experiences to draw upon to accurately portray him.

Neo-Realist films are divided into two distinct categories, that is, Ideology and Style (facstaff.gpc.edu, 2010). Ideologically, Neo-Realist films portray Italy with a new, revitalised democratic spirit, strongly emphasising the value of ordinary, working class people. The films also show a compassionate viewpoint and refused to make superficial moral judgements (lecture, Heath-Williams, A., 2009). Many films are pre-occupied with Italy's Fascist past and others deal with the difficult economic and moral conditions faced by Italians throughout the war and during its aftermath. There is one particular scene in Rome, Open City where a mob raids a bakery, stealing everything, including the weighing scales, which perfectly portrays the fear and desperation prevalent in contemporary Rome. Neo-Realist films also have a tendency to emphasise strong emotions rather than abstract ideas to convey their ideas, thereby inviting audiences to empathise with the plots and characters, whose experiences mirror their own.

Stylistically, Neo-Realist films avoid neatly plotted stories in favour of a loose and episodic structure, whilst mixing in a documentary-like visual style (facstaff.gpc.edu, 2010). Obsession is a prime example of the use of this ‘loose’ structure, with the plot revealing itself like the chapters of a book. Its documentary-like style is shown through its use of real-time long shots, which convey the natural coming-and-goings of the characters, capturing life as it happens. This is perfectly illustrated by the infamous scene in Obsession where Giovanna eats a bowl of pasta and falls asleep at the table in her ramshackle kitchen, which confirms her exhaustion and carefully matches film-time with real-time. It is this style that gives Neo-Realist films their unique perspective, because real life is loose and episodic, it is not neatly plotted or clearly defined, sometimes literally ‘nothing’ happens – as in the pasta eating scene - and it often ends unhappily or uncertainly.

One of the first directors to focus the attention of international film critics onto Neo-Realism was Roberto Rossellini, a close friend of Mussolini’s son, Vittorio. Despite his Fascist background, one of the most notable examples of Neo-Realism can be found in Rossellini’s highly acclaimed film, Rome, Open City (lecture, Heath-Williams, A., 2009). The film is centred on the unlikely collaboration between Catholics and Communists fighting the Nazi occupation of Rome, shortly before the Americans liberated the city. Some footage was allegedly shot during the Nazi occupation and subsequent retreat out of Rome because of its accurate portrayal of society at the time. Indeed, Rossellini wanted to convey the cruel atmosphere that existed during the Nazi occupation, and the scene wherein Rome’s socio-political reality is vividly demonstrated, is when Pina is mercilessly gunned down by German soldiers as she chases the vehicle that takes her lover, Francesco, away. Perhaps, more importantly, for a director with links to Mussolini’s regime, the film – with Rome’s resistance movement at its core – has a very real anti-Fascist message.

The box-office success of Rome, Open City hinted that a “film revolution” (ccat.sas.upenn.edu, 1996) was underway, and Rossellini remains true to Neo-Realism in his next two films, Paisan (dir. Rossellini, 1946) and Germany, Year Zero. Paisan is another example of Neo-Realism’s use of an episodic structure, as its six sections – loosely capturing the Allied defeat of Italy - are edited together by authentic newsreel footage. The film further revolutionised filmmaking when Rossellini chose much of his cast from people who simply gathered around when his film crew set up in a town square (ccat.sas.upenn.edu, 1996). His next film, Germany, Year Zero, is set in the ruins of Berlin and shows a German viewpoint of the war and its aftermath. This film, however, was criticised by some Marxist Neo-Realists, who sensed something of a moralistic, less objective tone in this work and a distinct change of direction from Rome, Open City (archive.sensesofcinema.com). Indeed, Rossellini establishes his moral perspective at the outset of the film when a brief written quotation and accompanying voice-over, appears to suggest that a society that strays from a decent, moral and religious path will undoubtedly plunge into chaos (Bondanella, P., 2009: 80). This is a damning indictment of Germany and its recent experiences under Hitler, but it strays a long way from Neo-Realism and its supposed reluctance to make moral judgements of this nature.

Rossellini seems to suggest that German society may have broken down irretrievably because of Hitler, as Germany, Year Zero is full of relentless, bleak imagery, which illustrates its downfall, such as in the scene where desperate Berliners are reduced to eating a horse that has died in the street because they are starving (Bondanella, P., 2009: 81). In contrast, Rome, Open City differs in that Rossellini shows some vestige of hope for Italy, most notably in the scene where a group of young children - even though they witness the execution of Don Pietro - still find the courage to return to Rome and continue their resistance efforts. However, Rossellini’s change of direction is more apparent in his films of the late 1940s and early 1950s as he moves from attempts to capture social realism to the investigation of more complex issues, such as “marriage, emotional alienation, and personal despair” (Bondanella, P., 2009: 130). Indeed, Rossellini’s exploration of these subjects requires the expertise of professional actors rather than the ‘gritty’ amateurs who worked on his Neo-Realist films, which is perhaps his most blatant change of style.

Whilst Rossellini brought Neo-Realism to international attention, it was Vittorio De Sica who maintained its impetus (facstaff.gpc.edu, 2010). De Sica was an established film and theatre actor when he turned to filmmaking in 1939, but his films lacked any renown until he began to examine the harsh realities faced by Italians during the war (starpulse.com, 2010). Elements of Neo-Realism can therefore be found in The Children Are Watching Us (dir. De Sica, 1942) with its simple plot, social problems and use of children in key roles. However, it was during the post-war era that De Sica became one of the key figures of Neo-Realism with such classics as Shoeshine (dir. De Sica, 1946) - a tragic account of the lives of two children during America’s occupation of Italy - and Bicycle Thieves (biography.com, 2010). The latter is undoubtedly his greatest film and, in true Neo-Realist style, is acted mostly by non-professionals, is shot on location and deals with various social issues, including the impact of long-term unemployment and familial relationships, in this case, between father and son.

Shot on the streets of Rome, the film’s protagonist is Antonio, who finally secures work putting up film posters, but to keep the job he has to have his own bicycle; Antonio and his wife are therefore forced to pawn their bed sheets to secure one. The scene in the pawnshop is poignant, as the shop is overflowing with household goods that have been exchanged for money or alternative goods, which highlights Italy’s desperate poverty. However, the bike is stolen and the film deals with Antonio and his son’s attempts to recover it (facstaff.gpc.edu, 2010). Antonio ultimately steals someone else’s bicycle and is apprehended by angry locals, becoming the very person that drove him to where he is now - a bicycle thief! There are clearly depths to which even desperate Italians must not descend. Bicycle Thieves successfully highlights Italy’s bleak situation during the post-war years, and it is this accurate, heartbreaking portrayal that makes it such an achievement. The film is not, however, without controversy, as it exposes society’s problems but does not offer solutions to them. Certainly Bicycle Thieves does not have a satisfying ‘happy ending’, so perhaps De Sica simply intends that society find its own solutions to the problems he reveals in Bicycle Thieves.

His next Neo-Realist production was Miracle In Milan (dir. De Sica, 1951) - a comic parable about the clash between Milan’s rich and poor - followed a year later by Umberto D. (dir. De Sica, 1952), which is now accepted as a film masterpiece. However, Umberto D. was a contemporary “box-office disaster” (starpulse.com), as Italian audiences appeared to prefer Hollywood escapism to De Sica’s themes of loneliness, poverty, suffering and the plight of the elderly in society. De Sica was therefore forced to return to more lightweight and commercial films, such as It Happened In The Park (dir. De Sica, 1953). When subsequent films also failed commercially, De Sica’s career as a director stalled and, struggling to secure funding for further projects, he returned to acting and did not direct again until 1960 (starpulse.com).

Neo-Realists struggled to find funding because the Italian film industry was effectively under state control by the early 1950s (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 460). Indeed, Giulio Andreotti, the Under-secretary of Public Entertainment, introduced a law that limited foreign imports and provided loans for domestic film production, as long as these films were not overtly critical of post-war Italy (Bondanella, P., 2009: 112). Unfortunately, Neo-Realist films clearly fell outside this strict funding criterion. A government committee was actually established to read prospective film scripts and to deny finance to openly political productions (matthewhunt.com). The Catholic Church also began to censor films according to their suitability for screening in its parish cinemas, which had been opened to combat the supposed menace of immorality and Communism – as portrayed in Cinema Paradiso (dir. Tornatore, 1989) many years later. And, in 1949, the Vatican actually excommunicated “Communist voters, sympathizers, and their allies” (Bondanella, P., 2009: 112), which made producing and watching Neo-Realism films extremely risky in an era when any form of social criticism seemingly equalled Communism.

Similarly, as economic prosperity returned to post-war Italy, Neo-Realist films no longer felt as relevant and they started to become obsolete. Italians had recently lived through a very dark time in their history and did not appear to want it continually replayed on the big screen. Perhaps the realism of these films was just a little too accurate and a reminder of times sooner forgotten. Consequently, many Italians turned to the glamorous escapism of imported Hollywood productions and whilst Rome, Open City was the highest grossing domestic film of 1945 (cinema-scope.com, 2010) by 1952 Umberto D. was the aforementioned disaster at the Italian box-office. Indeed, “historians date the end of the Neo-Realist movement with the public attacks on… Umberto D.” (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 461). The Neo-Realist movement therefore had to adapt and a modicum of escapist comedy was introduced to dilute the realism and make the films more socially acceptable. The resulting new film style is known as “Pink Neo-Realism” (matthewhunt.com) that eventually gave way to the distinctive “Comedia All’Italiana” (matthewhunt.com). The Neo-Realism movement was therefore effectively at an end.

During the occupation years the message of the Neo-Realist movement led to a social revolution amongst Italy’s people and government. However, as Italy’s post-war resurgence gained strength this message faded, as audiences preferred to forget issues like mass unemployment, extreme poverty, social decay and politics. Realism therefore became the antithesis of social change and filmmakers and audiences ironically gravitated towards the types of films made by the Fascist cinema - popular taste had come full circle. With hindsight, however, it is apparent that no other film movement has achieved such an accurate portrayal of real life and won such recognition as the Italian Neo-Realist movement. Its impact on contemporary filmmaking was enormous, establishing the reputations of its key directors and offering audiences some of the outstanding films of the post-war era. And while Italian Neo-Realism lasted just ten brief years, its influence was felt immediately amongst filmmakers of the 1950s (Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008: 461), and it is still felt amongst filmmakers of today.

Bibliography

Bondanella, P., 2009, A HeatHistory of Italian Cinema, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Bondanella, P., 2007, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism To The Present, 3rd edition, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., 2008, Film Art: An Introduction, 8th edition, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cook, P., 2007, The Cinema Book, 3rd edition, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heath-Williams, A. (2009) Introduction to Italian Neorealism, FV2S13 [Lecture] Italian Cinema, Bridgend College, School of Creative Arts, Seminar Room, Queen’s Road Campus, 24th September.

Heath-Williams, A. (2009) Neorealism: Wartime Resistance, FV2S13 [Lecture] Italian Cinema, Bridgend College, School of Creative Arts, Seminar Room, Queen’s Road Campus, 8th October.

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