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The Critically And Financially Successful Neorealist Film History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The movies involved in this essay tell us two different stories during the War. Yet, they share one thing in common: they both happened in Italy.

Roma, città aperta means “Rome, open city”. This film was directed by Roberto Rossellini. The picture features Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani and Marcello Pagliero. It is set in Rome during the Nazi occupation period. The film won several awards at different film festivals and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

La vita è bella means “life is beautiful”. The film was directed by Roberto Benigni, who was also the actor of the hero, Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian. It is set in the time of WWII and tells the story that lasts for several years. The film was cast at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and went on to win the Grand Prize (festival-cannes.com). At the 71st Academy Awards, the film won awards for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, and Best Foreign Language Film. Benigni won Best Actor for his role as the funny father. The film also received Academy Award nominations for Directing, Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

First of all, some background information about WWII will be introduced; the part for Italy will be emphasized. The main part will argue on the representation of the period of time in WWII in both movies then contrast the difference in the ways of the representation. The essay will prove that the story in Roma, città aperta took place in the year 1944 while the story in La vita è bella took place during the years of 1939-1945. The contrast of the two films argues that Roma, città aperta is a movie that is realistic while La vita è bella tell the story in a tragedy-comic way. Some additional thought will be cast on the representation of history at the end of the article.

Background and supporting facts

This part mainly introduces some background information of WWII.

Although the Empire of Japan which was one Fascism country at that time, was already at war with the Republic of China in 1937, (David P, Barrett. & Lawrence N Shyu, 2001, p.6.) the War is generally said to have begun on 1 September 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Germany, and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and most of the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth.

Acutually, historians have different points of view towards the starting date of the war. Other dates for the beginning of war include the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War on 7 July 1937.( Roger Chickering, 2006, p. 64.) Sometimes the starting point is said to be the Italian invasion of Abyssinia on 3 October 1935 (Hevrah Mizrahit Yisreelit,1965, p. 91.). British historian Antony Beevor views the beginning of the Second World War as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in August 1939(Antony Beevor, 2012, p. 10).

The exact date of the war’s end is also not universally agreed upon. It has been suggested that the war ended at the armistice of 14 August 1945, rather than the formal surrender of Japan (2 September 1945);However, in some European histories, it is said to be ended on 8 May 1945.

For the purpose of argument, it is best that the history of WWII concerning the fact of Italy be introduced in this part. The belligerents were basically divided into two sides:Allies and Axis. The Axis comprised mainly of three nations: Germany, Japan, and Italy. In WWII, Kingdom of Italy was allied with Axis countries during 1940-1943. At that time, Italy was controlled mainly by National Fascist Party rule from 1922 to 1943 with Benito Mussolini as totalitarian leader. The fascists imposed totalitarian rule and crushed the political and intellectual opposition.

“The Fascist regime passed through several relatively distinct phases,” says Payne. The first phase 1923-25 was nominally a continuation of the parliamentary system, albeit with a “legally organized executive dictatorship.” Then came the second phase, “the construction of the Fascist dictatorship from 1925 to 1929.” The third phase was 1929-34. The fourth phase, 1935-40, was characterized by an aggressive foreign policy, the invasion in Ethiopia, confrontations with the League of Nations sanctions, growing economic autarchy, and semi-Nazification. The war itself (1940-43) was actually the fifth phase, and the final stage was the Salo regime(1943-45) (Stanley G. Payne, 1996, p.212).

The surrender of Kingdom of Italy in 1943 took place, after which the Nazi Germany invaded and controlled the northern and central Italy. The city of Rome was taken over by Germany army.This is closely related to the story in Roma, città aperta.

Another important set of events that is related to the story of La vita è bella is the Holocaust.The Holocaust was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, throughout Nazi-occupied territory(Donald L Niewyk, 2000, p.45). Extermination camps (or death camps) were built to systematically kill millions of victims mainly comprised of Jews by gassing and extreme work under starvation conditions. This genocide of the Jewish people was the Third Reich’s “Final Solution to the Jewish question”.(François Furet,1989,p.182)

Arguments on the representation

Given the background introduced above, we can discuss the representation of period of WWII in the two movies.

Analysis of representation

At the beginning of the movie Roma, città aperta, the subtitles tell us about the source of the story: the tragic but moving story that happened during nine months of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Italy in 1943. The story begins with the search for a hero named Giorgio Manfredi who was the head of the resistance force. The search by the Gestapo was in vain.

After that the scene moves to an office of a German Gestapo. It should be noted that in this scene, there is a man who speaks German while the two men in the room are talking in Italian. This reflects the reality at that time—the city was controlled by both Italian and German authorities, i.e. it was open to foreign invaders.

Other details in the film also reflect the reality. For example, this scene is directly shot in the real place. Similar scenes include the street and the old houses made of bricks. The emphasis on the details is the important feature of the film.

The story line goes to a tragic part as the hero Giorgio and the priest Don Peitro who helped him were both captured by the Gestapo. Gestapo tried to use Pietro’s religious beliefs to convince him to betray his cause, Pietro answered that those who strive to help others is on the path of God regardless of their beliefs. They forced Pietro to watch Giorgio being tortured to death. When Don Pietro still refuses to tell Gastapo any useful information, he was executed.

The death of the heroes and many other plots in this movie are depicted in a close-to-real style. The purpose of this approach was to tell the truth of people’s suffering under the pressure of Nazi Germany with a very real sense. It looks like part of the actual history although the story and characters are claimed to be unreal.

In the movie of La vita è bella, first of all we know that it’s the year 1939 and the location is Arezzo, in the central part of Italy. The story begins with a sense of humor in that the brake can’t work and the car dramatically drove through a welcoming crowd which was meant to welcome the King of Italy. We can find that people in the crowd give a Roman salute (the gesture adopted by Fascists to express their commitment to the Party and respect for the head of the Party). This sends a signal that Italy was broadly influenced by Fascism.

Another important scene in the movie takes place in a school where the Jewish hero Guido pretends to be the inspector from Rome. In the course of the so-called education about the superiority of German races, Guido makes some weird jokes. This is sarcasm of the racism point of view propagandized by Facists. However, this reflects the social reality at that time.

At the wedding, there comes an interesting scene: the presentation of Ethiopian cake. Carried by four Ethiopian waiters, the giant cake with an artificial cream ostrich on it was presented to the guests. We should note that the colors of feathers of the tail of the ostrich and those above the waiters’ hats reflect the fact that Ethiopian was invaded occupied by Italy since white, red and green are the colors on Italy’s national flag.

Several years after the hero and heroine were married; they had a child called Giosuè. Before long, the book store of Guido was shut down due to the racism. Soon after that the Nazi came to capture Guido and his son since they are Jewish people.

From this scene, we can find that the Nazi army has actually occupied Rome, indicating that this year is at least 1943.In the scene shown below, the sign reads “No Jewish and dogs allowed”, reflecting the wide spread anti-Jew atmosphere in Italy.

Later in the story, Guido and his son had to live in the extermination camp. The environment was tough but Guido did not want to ruin his son’s young mind so he told him a lie about a game, which may win his son a real tank if they succeed in the game.

At the end of the story, Guido was killed by a soldier in the camp while his son escaped after hiding for the whole night. In the morning, a funny and inspiring piece of news came: the Allies reached the camp. Giosuè saw a real tank as he had wished. It should be the year of 1945 since in that year the Allies pushed forward in Italy.

Contrast of the Representation

Albeit the movie tells two different stories that happened in Italy, the approaches in representation are quite different. The main differences between the approaches of representation lie in two aspects. The first one is the style of telling the story. The second is the configuration of plots.

The style of the movie Roma, città aperta is called neorealism. It uses real places for some of the filming. The action by the characters and the setting of clothes of characters are close to real. The details of life of people reflect directly the true situation they were facing so that the documentary style presents the truth of suffering at that time. This is contrary to the Hollywood movies which were dramatic and idealistic at that time. In La vita è bella, the entire story is basically set in a relatively easy and entertaining atmosphere. The sense of humor is broadly spread throughout the plots. Although it employs some realistic style in representing the historical environment surrounding the main heroes and heroines, it mainly looks like a light fairy tale. The only tragic plots are presented near the end of the story where Guido was killed (it was even not directly depicted to the audience). However, the stressful and uneasy atmosphere was presented to the audience in Roma, città aperta throughout the movie.

The arrangement of plots was also very different. The story of Roma, città aperta is mainly about the heroic resistance movement against the fascism while the story of La vita è bella concentrates on a group of small characters that lived in the era of WWII. The former ends in a total sadness while the latter generates a sense of hope and pity.

While they share the two differences in the style of telling the story and the arrangement of plots, the two movies have a lot in common. They are both directed by Italians and represent the same spirit which is anti-fascism. Roma, città aperta tries to encourage people to fight against fascism in the tragic fate of heroes, being unable to tell people how to fight. La vita è bella tells a sad story of a Jew reflecting the social reality of Holocaust and racism, the severely committed crime by fascism, while entertaining the audience with a good sense of humor. They both remind people of the truth of history in that very era.


As the argument above proves, the representation of historical periods in the two movies is in different styles while they have some features in common. The conclusion is that the first movie mentioned, Roma, città aperta, tells us a story in 1943 during the Nazi Germany occupation in Italy while the second movie, La vita è bella, shares a story of a normal Jewish guy and his son in the Holocaust in Italy during WWII; The former one employs more realistic approach in the representation, a style which is called neorealism while the latter uses a good sense of humor in telling the story that is less realistic and more dramatic with some parts being indicative of the historical periods.

“It is with Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta that we find the first and only critically and financially successful neorealist film.”(Ben Lawton, 1979, pp 8-23) The movie itself is a good example of neorealism.

While the wave of neorealism faded gradually a few years after the movie was made, the documentary approach used in it was employed more often in some historical movies.

The best example in recent years might be the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List directed by Steven Spielberg, the story about a Nazi party member and merchant Schindler who protected 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust. This movie can be deemed as neorealism style movie to some extent. In this movie, the story in the main body was depicted in black and white to create a stressful and miserable atmosphere to the audience. The documentary approach employed is adequate and impressive. One can see from the scenes the real misery of Jewish people in the special historical era. The movie is classical in almost every respect: its story, its background music, its actors and actresses, its technique of filming. Schindler’s List is unprecedented yet deeply rooted in neorealism. In contrast, the movie La vita è bella is not really a great movie, but is also an excellent work of art.

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