Italian Neo-Realism

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This essay will explore the brief duration of neo-realism and its dedication to portraying reality, which starkly contrasted the fascist propaganda films it succeeded. To support this argument, the essay will analyze notable films and directors associated with this movement.

The neorealist movement was led by Visconti, Rossellini, and De Sica (Hayward, 2000). Although critics credit Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film “Rome Open City” as the first true neorealist film, Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione” from 1943 actually began the movement. In fact, the scriptwriter of Visconti’s film, Antonio Pietrangeli, coined the term neorealism in 1943 when discussing “Ossessione” (Hayward, 2000 p. 02).

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Before the Italian neorealism movement, most films produced in Italy were referred to as “white telephone films.” These films were cheerful melodramas that often carried fascist propaganda and were heavily censored by authorities (Bordwell and Thompson, 1980, p. 316). They presented a version of life in Italy that was far removed from the actual reality at the time, depicting a society that was content, harmonious, and orderly.

These melodramas, known as white telephone films, depicted the seemingly carefree lives of Italian people during that time. They featured affluent characters engaged in melodramatic conversations over the telephone. However, these films lacked any real meaning and did not address the harsh reality of Mussolini’s oppressive regime and the widespread poverty, despair, and lack of unity among the people living on the city streets.

According to Woody Lindsey (2010), the Neorealist filmmakers viewed their gritty films as a response to the idealized Telefono Bianco style. They contrasted the extravagant tricks used in creating film sets and studios with the raw, harsh reality of everyday human life and suffering. As a result, they opted to film on location and cast non-professional actors.

The neo-realist filmmakers are commonly attributed to the ultimate downfall of government propaganda films, as they were criticized for not depicting the reality of how the majority of Italians lived in a fractured society. Controversial at the time, films like Bicycle Thieves (De Sica 1948) showcased the harsh reality of life for impoverished Italians. Through on-location shooting, De Sica depicts the breakdown of Italian society, highlighting the economic depression and dehumanization of its people. Additionally, he employs unknown actors to enhance the authenticity of the film.

Bruno, a factory worker in the film “Bicycle Thieves” (directed by De Sica in 1948), captures our empathy through his powerful hands, awkward stature, and expressionless face. These characteristics draw us further into the character’s psyche. The film’s documentary-style narrative, reminiscent of the Cinema verite technique, portrays the desperate and oppressive living conditions experienced by the people under Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. This stands in stark contrast to the white telephone films that came before it.

The neorealist movement can be viewed as a portrayal of the Italian society’s marginalized individuals – the unemployed, the desperate, and the desolate. This sentiment is mirrored in many neorealist films, where characters are primarily driven by their emotions. A notable example is Bruno in “Bicycle Thieves” (De Sica, 1948). As his world crumbles and his family struggles, he embarks on a search for employment. Upon finding a job opportunity, he and his wife resort to pawning their possessions to acquire a bicycle, which is essential for him to secure the job.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene in this scene effectively immerse us in the harsh reality faced by the characters, accurately portraying the oppressed individuals within Italian society. As the pawnbroker ascends the ladder to place the couple’s wedding dowry onto the pile, the camera angle changes to reveal the magnitude of their hardship. The never-ending stack of sheets symbolizes the severe poverty and economic depression that Mussolini’s fascist regime has caused this desperate society to endure.

In De Sica’s 1948 film “Bicycle Thieves,” the viewer is exposed to the absence of humanity and morality in Italian society during that era. The film depicts the story of a destitute individual who resorts to stealing a poor worker’s bicycle in order to survive. Through this narrative, De Sica highlights the desperation prevalent among the Italian people, illustrating how poverty drives one person to intentionally deprive another of their means of living. The film prominently showcases the grim hopelessness of the situation, emphasizing how a ruthless society ultimately leads to the complete deterioration of Italian society.

Due to the studios being used as refuge camps, the neo-realists had no choice but to engage in on location shooting (Ruberto and Wilson, 2007). On location shooting had advantages such as lower costs as there was no need to construct elaborate sets, and it created a distinct illusion of reality. Filming in the dilapidated streets of Italy resulted in a unique cinematographic look and feel for the shots. For instance, in Rome Open City (Rossellini, 1945), the run down bombed out urban buildings authentically portrayed the suffering and oppression endured by the Italian people.

The Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) showcases rows and rows of bicycle part peddlers, exemplifying the massive scale of the event. Without the pre-existing presence of these peddlers, it would have been almost impossible to achieve such a grand realization. This demonstrates that the scenes in the Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) are unparalleled and truly a masterpiece in terms of on-location mise-en-scene. However, it is important to acknowledge that the reality of shooting on location presented its fair share of difficulties. The advantages were matched by significant disadvantages.

The neorealist movement faced numerous challenges during filmmaking on the Italian streets. The presence of non-diegetic sound from aircraft or cars could disrupt a shot, the constantly changing lighting posed difficulties, and the unpredictable European weather added to the uncertainty. As a result, many neorealist films had to be dubbed (Berg, 2010). This can be seen in the practice of dubbing the soundtrack during post-production and the reduced emphasis on elements such as script, dialogue, and literary sources, which are more important in other cinemas like Hollywood.

According to Mark Shiel (2006 p. 11), neorealist films were often shot without sound due to the mandatory dubbing requirements during the fascist regime. As a result, all dialogue would be added to the image track after filming. Some may argue that this excessive dubbing would compromise the authenticity of the film and hinder the final product. However, Shiel states that Italian filmmakers, such as in the case of Rome Open City (Rossellini, 1945), had become skilled in this technique by the 1940s. He suggests that any loss of realism caused by dubbing was offset by the mobility and expanded field of view provided by lightweight silent film cameras (Shiel, 2006 p. 12).

Hence, one could contend that the expertise and foresight of the cinematographers, along with the employment of new, lighter cameras and equipment, negated any detrimental impact that dubbing may have had on the final production of the films. Additionally, one could argue that the notion suggesting that the neo-realists were compelled to shoot on location due to studios being utilized as refugee camps was merely an intricate decoy.

Neo-realists likely avoided shooting in studios to accurately depict the realities of the deteriorating Italian towns. Additionally, it is possible that they lacked the financial resources to construct the elaborate sets needed for their cinematic masterpieces. Without this approach, these films may not have achieved the recognition and acclaim they have received, persisting today with critical acclaim within the industry.

Many colleges and universities also use the ten years of the neorealist movement as a module for teaching. This module offers insight not only into the Italian neorealist movement but also into the history of cinema verite, which ultimately led to the documentary and social realist genres of today. Directors like Ken Loach, for instance, draw on the themes and styles used by the neo-realists. His work, such as Kes (Loach, 1969), portrays the struggles of the working classes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Loach, similar to the proponents of the neorealist movement, highlights social issues affecting the populace. Additionally, he employs on-location shooting to depict the bleak and dilapidated council estates of that time. Furthermore, he frequently features non-actors who portray ordinary individuals living on the fringes of society, facing deprivation and detachment. Like the neorealists, Loach also sheds light on the absence of solidarity and the hardships endured by ordinary individuals as they strive to survive in an impoverished society.

To conclude, it could be argued that the neo-realists had a deliberate intention when they utilized on location shooting. Their aim was to capture the tension and degradation present in Italian society. In order to achieve this, they needed to immerse themselves among the people who were depicted in their films. The neorealist movement originated out of necessity as they sought to portray the genuine essence of Italy by filming in real locations. Furthermore, one could assert that the neorealist movement lasted longer than its officially recognized duration of ten years, and continues to be relevant even in the present day of 2011, just as vibrant as it was in the 1940s.

One common theme that connects all the films in the neorealist movement is the concept of editing, or the absence thereof. The films utilize real-time editing and a deliberately slow narrative pace, which creates a documentary-like atmosphere. This theme is present throughout all the films, featuring long and extended shots. For instance, in Visconti’s “Obsession” (1943), there is a scene where Giovanna (played by Clara Calamai) sits in a rundown kitchen and begins to eat while simultaneously reading a newspaper. Demonstrating her weariness and exhaustion, Giovanna eventually falls asleep.

This real time editing can be observed in all texts within the neorealist movement. A prime example is seen in Rome open City (Rossellini, 1945), where we witness Pina’s viewpoint from a truck until a shot is fired. This sequence brilliantly showcases Rossellini’s unconventional approach and builds up to a horrifying climax. The movement typically employed minimal editing techniques, aside from occasional transitions like pan and wipe in Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948). Such techniques enabled the films to maintain a flowing and realistic feel.

Visconti’s approach to filmmaking sets him apart from the white telephone films and American imports. Instead of focusing on glamorous or extraordinary subjects, in Obsession (Visconti, 1943), he delves into the lives of ordinary individuals. He fearlessly explores their most intense passions, their tortured existence, and even touches on controversial topics like lust, adultery, and hints of homosexuality, which were highly uncommon at the time. Obsession (Visconti, 1943) reaches its climax with the murder of Giovanna’s older and overweight husband Bragana. Despite marrying him for financial security, Giovanna finds herself falling in love with a handsome drifter who appears at her doorstep. Together, they decide to eliminate Bragana from their lives.

Visconti captures the lives of the desperate people living in war-torn Italy by focusing on their ordinary and mundane daily lives, as well as the degradation and squalor they endure. Watching these films in the present day, one can feel the slow, drawn-out narrative and the depressing nature of the films, making them difficult to comprehend and follow.

The time of war, dictatorship, and extreme poverty in Italy made watching the films of the neorealist movement a particularly traumatic experience for the people. This harsh reality may have contributed to the movement’s downfall, as it generated only twenty-one films over a span of ten years. Despite its didactic and aesthetic ambitions, the neorealist movement failed both commercially and in achieving its desired impact (Marcus, 1986 p. 263). By the end of this decade, even the neo-realists themselves had grown tired and disillusioned with the style and themes of their own films.

The constant self-imposed barriers they had established began to impede their progress. Italian society was evolving, becoming more prosperous, and the concerns that the neorealist movement had focused on were becoming less significant. The prominent figures of the movement had advanced in their filmmaking and directing careers and soon grew disillusioned with adhering to the regulations that characterized and guided the neorealist movement. This could be seen as a major factor in the decline of the movement.

The movement’s decline can be attributed to the fact that the original issues it addressed were no longer relevant. This obstacle proved insurmountable and contributed to its downfall. The aftermath of the war saw a change in government and an increase in the prosperity of the people. The Italian government held neorealist films responsible for exposing private matters and tarnishing Italy’s reputation abroad (Ruberto and Wilson, 2007 p. 6).

The neorealist movement’s downfall occurred due to the public’s dissatisfaction with the depressing films they produced. Instead, people began to turn towards the optimistic American imports that were saturating the market. Interestingly, many of these imports were similar to the white telephone films that the neo realist movement had replaced. According to Ruberto and Wilson (2007), Italo Calvino (1923-1985) emphasized that Italian neorealism was never a school characterized by a consensus on theoretical principles in his work “The Path to the Nest of Spiders” (1947).

The emergence of neorealism stemmed from the discovery of various aspects of Italian popular culture that had previously been disregarded by the “high” Italian culture. Neorealist film and literature replaced a pompous and indifferent official cinema and literature, focusing instead on everyday life. According to Jesse Wolf (2011), neorealism only lasted for ten years and aimed to portray life as it truly was, in stark contrast to the fascist propaganda films it replaced.

The neorealist movement aimed to portray the harsh realities of life under Mussolini’s fascist government, including the poverty and deprivation experienced by the people. By incorporating real-time editing, on-location shooting, controversial themes, non-actors, strategic mise-en-scene, and new camera equipment, the neo-realists effectively conveyed their message to the audience.

In Italy, the neo-realist movement was compared to a fierce fire that would eventually extinguish itself as society became more prosperous and both the people and the advocates of the movement grew tired of the themes represented by the neo-realists. When the war ended, the Italian market was saturated with inexpensive optimistic American imports, further contributing to the demise of the movement.

Through diligent reading and research, one could infer that the neorealist movement had a duration of only ten years due to various factors discussed earlier. Alternatively, one could contend that neorealism has never truly ceased to exist. Instead, it has transitioned from the hands of the original Italian directors to the larger film community and is now known as social realism. Today’s social realism genres bear numerous resemblances to neorealism, leading to the argument that although Italian neorealism declined in the 1950s, its legacy lives on in present-day realism genres.

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Italian Neo-Realism. (2019, May 01). Retrieved from

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