Article

Italian Neorealism By Harvey-Davitt, James

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM320-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 22 September 2019, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/italian-neorealism

Article

Abstract

Italian Neorealism is a filmmaking movement associated with a select group of Italian filmmakers in the latter years of, and the years immediately following, World War II, the most popularly regarded being directors Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, and Sica’s regular collaborator, the writer Cesare Zavattini. The films they made during this period share an interest in the state of Italian society in the wake of war, and a concern with what shape the reconstruction of that society should take. Benchmark titles of this kind include Ossessione [Obsession] (Luchino Visconti, 1943), Rossellini’s Rome, Open City [Roma, città aperta] (1945) and Paisan (1946), and de Sica’s Bicycle Theives [Ladri di biciclette] (1948). While its proponents often refuted its status as a generic or aesthetic style, the films of Neorealism were pioneering in their use of nonprofessional actors in key roles, their preference for contingency and neglect of classical narrative structure, and for shooting scenes on location in the city streets and country landscapes of war-torn Italy. Besides making some of most significant Italian neorealist films, Zavattini and Rossellini were also two of its most articulate commentators. Both regularly reiterated a desire to contemplate humanity in order to rediscover morality, a reaction to Fascism’s recent manipulation of both. While the great aims of these filmmakers were not matched by their audience reception (as illustrated by their box office returns), their poetic and aesthetic innovations made a lasting impression on the subsequent history of cinema.

Italian Neorealism is a filmmaking movement associated with a select group of Italian filmmakers in the latter years of, and the years immediately following, World War II, the most popularly regarded being directors Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, and Sica’s regular collaborator, the writer Cesare Zavattini. The films they made during this period share an interest in the state of Italian society in the wake of war, and a concern with what shape the reconstruction of that society should take. Benchmark titles of this kind include Ossessione [Obsession] (Luchino Visconti, 1943), Rossellini’s Rome, Open City [Roma, città aperta] (1945) and Paisan (1946), and de Sica’s Bicycle Theives [Ladri di biciclette] (1948). While its proponents often refuted its status as a generic or aesthetic style, the films of neorealism were pioneering in their use of nonprofessional actors in key roles, their preference for contingency and neglect of classical narrative structure, and for shooting scenes on location in the city streets and country landscapes of war-torn Italy. Besides making some of most significant Italian neorealist films, Zavattini and Rossellini were also two of its most articulate commentators. Both regularly reiterated a desire to contemplate humanity in order to rediscover morality, a reaction to Fascism’s recent manipulation of both. While the great aims of these filmmakers were not matched by their audience reception (as illustrated by their box office returns), their poetic and aesthetic innovations made a lasting impression on the subsequent history of cinema.

The term Neorealism implies a sense of novelty with regard to stylistic realism in its classical sense. While Peter Bondanella (1995) recognizes the rarity of its proponents referring to traditional Realism, Millicent Marcus (1986) relates the cinematic Neorealism to Italian literature prior to the war. These writers, Marcus notes, provided the narrative prototype for what was to become “an alternative to the clichés and falsehoods of the fascist film industry ... the authenticity so lacking in contemporary cultural models” (Marcus 1986: 19). Torunn Haaland (2012) goes further, considering the theoretical basis of Neorealism by referring to 20th-century writing on Realism in order to clarify the logic of this label. Combining Roman Jakobson’s “maximum verisimilitude” (Jakobson 1971: 38) with Erich Auerbach’s historization of the random individual’s everyday life (Auerbach 1953: 489), Haaland suggests that through Neorealism’s concern with extending the moral and social components of traditional realism, its borders are extended further, generating a new form of Realism (Haaland 2012: 34). In short, Italian Neorealism continues 19th-century literary themes of social and environmental constraints upon individuals, but contains something novel in its reinforcement of the social morality element, and its specific relation to the historical events that it immediately responded to. It is this latter point that caused philosopher Gilles Deleuze to celebrate its singular response to an era that “greatly increased situations we no longer know how to respond to” (Deleuze 1988: xiii).

Mark Shiel (2006: 8–9) has dated the initial coinage of the term ‘neorealist cinema’ back to 1943, by two different authors. The first was Mario Serandrei, who used the term to refer to the “striking immediacy” of Visconti’s Ossessione [Obsession] (1943). The second was Umberto Barbaro, who used the term to refer to the films of René Clair, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné; all of whom were French filmmakers making films ten years before Visconti. The influence of the French cinema of the 1930s is further elaborated upon by Pasquale Iannone (2013), who claims that “any discussion of the roots of Neorealism cannot fail to take in the 1930s films of Jean Renoir” (ibid.: 59). Iannone discusses a number of films from internationally disparate production centres, ranging from the Soviet montage films of Vsevold Pudovkin and the Weimar films of Robert Siodmak, to Robert Flaherty’s anthropological reconstructions and the subtle social commentary of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. In these films, Iannone stresses the development of narrative themes and aesthetic techniques, which come together in a unique way in the films of the Italian neorealists.

Visconti’s Obsession (an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice [1934]) is generally regarded as marking a turning point in Italian cinema—away from the farcical comedies of the state-run Cinecittà studios, whose concern was escapism in wartime, toward the soberness of poverty and destruction as a way of critically dissecting contemporary society. Besides Obsession, other benchmark examples of neorealist film include Rossellini’s historical trilogy, Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany, Year Zero [Germania, anno zero] (1948), Visconti’s La Terra Trema [The Earth Trembles] (1948), and Giuseppe de Santis’s Bitter Rice [Riso amaro] (1949), de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine (1946), and Umberto D. (1952), the last of which is thought by many to be the last truly neorealist film.

Despite the insistence of many of its directors that Neorealism is a matter of social outlook and not a stylistic tendency, many commentators have asserted particular formal and thematic trends within the films. Nowell-Smith et al. (1996) summarize its core characteristics as a method of location shooting and nonprofessional actors, a desire to get closer to everyday reality, a focus on the masses after the war, and an ideological concern with the hopeful era of Fascism’s immediate aftermath, and subsequent disillusionment when the social climate failed to improve (ibid.: 87). A major contributor to Italian Neorealism’s stylistic debate was the enormously influential French critic, André Bazin. In his essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (2005), Bazin asserts Neorealism’s reinstatement of ambiguity to reality through its common rejection of montage. He refers to The Earth Trembles as “a film composed almost entirely of one-shot sequences” (2005: 38).

Through a combination of ultimately unattainable pedagogical principles, poor box office returns, changing interests of spectators as time passed, changing concerns of some of its key filmmakers, and the rising star of new Italian cinema, Italian Neorealism ceased as a movement in its original form in the early-1950s. The reintroduction of Hollywood cinema (after Mussolini’s ban was lifted) and the attempt to compete through a more industrial form of Italian production effaced the chances of Neorealism continuing to exist—except in the compromised popular form of “Neorealismo rosa,” a watered-down, comedic overturning of the original’s intentions. Its legacy is probably most noticeable in the gritty, urgent efforts of Third Cinema, the Iranian New Wave, and other subsequent national cinemas arising from areas of conflict and impoverishment.

Selected Filmography

  • Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)

  • Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

  • Shoeshine (Vittorio de Sica, 1945)

  • Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)

  • Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)

  • Germany, Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

  • The Earth Trembles (Luchino Visconti, 1948)

  • Bitter Rice (Giussepe de Santis, 1949)

  • Umberto D. (Vittorio de Sica, 1952)

Further Reading

  • Bazin, André, and Gray , Hugh (1967) What Is Cinema? Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Bazin, André, Andrew , Dudley, Gray , Hugh, and Truffaut François (2005) What Is Cinema? Vol. 2. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Bondanella, Peter E. (1983) Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Ungar Publishing Co.

  • Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2: The Time Image. London: Athlone.

  • Haaland, Torunn (2012) Italian Neorealist Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Iannone, Pasquale (2013) “The Roots of Neorealism.” Sight and Sound Vol. 23(5): 56–63.

  • Marcus, Millicent J. (1986) Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Nowell Smith, Geoffrey and James Hay (1996) Companion to Italian Cinema: The British Film Institute. London: Cassel.

  • Shiel, Mark (2006) Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower Press.

  • Wagstaff, Christopher (2007) Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

content unlocked

Published

09/05/2016

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM320-1

Print

Related Searches



Related Items

Citing this article:

Harvey-Davitt, James. "Italian Neorealism." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 22 Sep. 2019 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/italian-neorealism. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM320-1

Copyright © 2016-2019 Routledge.