Reflections of Post-War Life: A History of Italian Neorealism
As Italy's Fascist government began to disintegrate and World War II spiraled toward its conclusion, the Italian film industry scrambled to further their nation's rich cinematic history. While their largest film studios rested in piles of rubble, Italy's most vibrant auteurs changed the language of their national cinema to focus on the plight of the common man and woman in the midst of daily life. Characterized by on-location shooting and non-professional actors, these low-budget social films started a movement known as Italian neorealism. Although the majority of the films in this movement came after the conclusion of World War II, the aesthetic forerunners of the movement shot several films in the midst of the conflict. Luchino Visconti's groundbreaking crime film Obsession (1943) featured elements of neorealism, as the film seemed to be grounded within the Italian everyday through on-location shooting and non-professional performances. Vittorio De Sica's The Children are Watching Us (1944) took neorealism a step further, focusing on the every day life of young children in Italy during the war. As Italy met their final hours at war, Roberto Rossellini organized a troupe of non-professional actors to film Rome, Open City (1945) in the midst of the destruction caused by the war. Through this film, Rossellini allowed the camera to inhabit the neorealistic Rome, offering a glimpse into wartime life as the Italian public prepared to pick up the pieces of a post-war reality. Rossellini continued his acclaimed War Trilogy with Paisan (1946), a film featuring six vignettes of daily life during and after the war that detail miscommunication and reconciliation in the face of trauma. Followed by Vittorio De Sica's tragic masterwork Shoeshine (1946), these brilliant auteurs solidified this short-lived yet extremely influential movement, which offered an unprecedentedly realistic perspective of human emotion, community interaction, personal psychology, and the ebb-and-flow of everyday life. Two years after Paisan and Shoeshine, De Sica's magnum opus, Bicycle Thieves (1948), would spread the influence of Italian neorealism across the globe by winning universal critical acclaim and multiple international awards. Although Bicycle Thieves features the simple narrative of a father and son searching Rome for a stolen bike, De Sica's sympathetic camera and vibrant view of Rome as a character amplified the universality of the film's exploration of human emotion and personal experience. The popularity of Bicycle Thieves provided several Italian filmmakers with both the opportunities and funding to create their own neorealist films. In the final years of the decade, Roberto Rossellini transposed the neorealist formula to Berlin to finish out his War Trilogy with the bleak Germany Year Zero (1948). That same year, Luchino Visconti released The Earth Trembles (1948), which focused the tumultuous experiences of a fisherman attempting to start his own business in the midst of a corrupt work environment. Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice (1949) combined a noir-tinged crime narrative with a primarily female cast; the experimental nature of this project foreshadowed the transition from neorealism to the Italian New Wave at the end of the following decade.
Although the Italian Neorealism movement persisted through the 1950s with various works by the aforementioned auteurs, new voices, such as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, would begin to challenge the aesthetic foundation of the movement. Although Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) is a masterclass in neorealist film making, his films Variety Lights (1950) and La Strada (1954) began to blur the lines between neorealism and surrealism, interweaving elements of carnivalesque style into the narratives of circus performers and street artists. Similarly, Michelangelo Antonioni's Le Amiche (1955) and Il Grido (1957) pushed the boundaries of realism and neorealism, championing spatial environment over human experience in his neorealist efforts. As these new voices of experimentation and innovation began to arise, Visconti and De Sica offered cynical perspectives of the post-war world through films such as Bellissima (1951) and the heart-breaking Umberto D. (1952), a depressing albeit technically brilliant film that many attribute to be the death knell of neorealism. In addition to aesthetic experimentation and a growing cynicism in established neorealist auteurs, the influence of American performers and producers greatly altered the country's cinematic landscape, compromising the "slice-of-life" style of neorealism for more structured studio efforts. Throughout the 1950s, Rossellini set aside his pure exploration of neorealism to provide several star vehicles for his wife, Ingrid Bergman, and other Hollywood icons, including: Stromboli (1950), Europe '51 (1952), and Journey to Italy (1954). While these films employed the style of neorealism, the addition of professional actors and influence from Hollywood producers degraded the authenticity of the neorealist cinematic experience. Vittorio De Sica's Terminal Station (1953) faced even more American influence when Columbia Pictures commandeered the production and recut the film for American audiences under the title Indiscretion of an American Wife, filling it with American stars and costumes designed by Christian Dior.
After an abundance of aesthetic and cultural challenges, Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) provided a smooth transition from neorealism into the Italian New Wave, masterfully blending Fellini's love for the surrealistic carnivalesque with a suspended neorealism. Even after this change in artistic directions, elements of neorealism remain interwoven in the fabric of Italian cinema in films from La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini) and L'avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) to Gomorrah (2008, Matteo Garrone) and The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino). In addition to further influence on Italian cinema, Italian neorealism served as a foundational influence on the French New Wave, as auteurs and critics, including François Truffaut and Agnès Varda, championed the on-location shooting style and naturalistic representation of life throughout the movement. Elements of neorealism can be found in Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), as Paris comes alive throughout Antoine's difficult day-to-day life, and in Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), as Cléo meanders around Paris and awaits a looming diagnosis. Even today, the films of auteurs as diverse as Noah Baumbach and Sean Baker delve into the world of neorealism, respectively showcasing a young lady's daily life in New York City in Frances Ha (2012) and the experiences of America's "hidden homeless" in The Florida Project (2017).
The Films of Italian NeorealisT Cinema
- Bellissima (1951, Luchino Visconti) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Miracle in Milan (1951, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Europe '51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Rome 11:00 (1952, Giuseppe De Santis) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Two Cents Worth of Hope (1952, Renato Castellani) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- I Vitelloni (1953, Federico Fellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Terminal Station (1953, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Journey to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Le Amiche (1955, Michelangelo Antonioni) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Il Ferroviere (1956, Pietro Germi) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Il Grido (1957, Michelangelo Antonioni) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Obsession (1943, Luchino Visconti) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- The Children Are Watching Us (1944, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Shoeshine (1946, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- The Earth Trembles (1948, Luchino Visconti) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Germany, Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Bitter Rice (1949, Giuseppe De Santis) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Under the Olive Tree (1950, Giuseppe De Santis) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- The Path of Hope (1950, Pietro Germi) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Stromboli (1950, Roberto Rossellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
- Variety Lights (1950, Federico Fellini) IMDb, GoWatchIt
Bicycle Thieves (1948): Theft Scene
This scene highlights Lamberto Maggiorani's excellent non-professional performance and showcases Rome as a character in the film, highlighting the vibrancy of city life that served as a foundation for the movement.
Journey to Italy (1954): Ruins Scene
This scene perfectly illustrates the clash of cultures presented by the inclusion of American producers and actors in Italian Neorealist cinema.
Umberto D (1952): Dog Scene
While this scene provides an excellent slice of Italian daily life, it also combines non-professional acting with a cynical perspective of post-war life through the protagonist's depression as he struggles to make ends meet.
Nights of Cabiria (1957): Final Scene
In the final film of the movement, Federico Fellini predicts the forthcoming Italian New Wave by meshing neorealism with surrealism in the film's parade-like finale.
What is Neorealism?
This video essay defines Italian Neorealism by comparing and contrasting two cuts of the same Luchino Visconti film — one by an American studio (Indiscretion of an American Wife) and one by an Italian studio (Terminal Station).
How Italian Neorealism Brought the Grit of the Streets to the Big Screen
This video essay provides a comprehensive view of the historical context, formal innovations, and cinematic traits of Italian Neorealism.
- Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (2001, Peter Bondanella) Buy on Amazon
- A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (2014, Joseph Luzzi) Buy on Amazon
- Italian Film in Light of Neorealism (1987, Millicent Marcus) Buy on Amazon
- Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City (2006, Mark Shiel) Buy on Amazon
- Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema (2007, Laura E. Ruberto and Kristi M. Wilson) Buy on Amazon
- In Session Film: Italian Neorealism Series (Listen Here)
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