Italian Neorealism: The Art of Life
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What is Italian Neorealism?
Consider Italy immediately after the end of World War II. Fascism and its harsh censorship on the media was dead along with Mussolini. Bombs no longer fell on the grand cities of Italy, but the post-war peace was only technical.
Entire towns and cities were in ruins, thousands upon thousands were dead, the economy was in shambles. During the years directly after the war, people were still starving and living in crumbling homes. The masses preferred to ignore this, however. They were fixed on the Telefoni Bianchi films that had persisted since the 1930s. They were lavish, light-hearted comedies surrounding the aristocracy that promoted traditional values.
Many were not prepared for the new film movement that was to come, one that brought previously unseen grit, desperation, and poverty to the screen: Italian Neorealism.
What Is Italian Neorealism?
The primary neorealist directors were numerous and included names like Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, and Fellini. While the subject matter of their movies were similar, each had their own style and focus they wanted to capture in their films.
These films were raw and truthful, often using non-professional actors plucked from the streets. The films were shot on location rather than in movie studios like those of Cinecittà–the Italian movie-making giant–that had been destroyed in the war.
They were not, however, propaganda. These films didn’t force the audience to sympathize with the poor, luckless characters, nor did they point fingers and shout, “You are responsible for this poverty, this suffering.”
These films are quiet. They show everyday life in a particular period of Italy’s history. They are sad because the conditions were sad.
They didn’t have happy endings because sometimes life was not full of hope and smiles like other films had lead the public to believe. Roberto Rossellini often focused on war-time stories, especially during the Nazi occupation of Italy, and immediately post-war settings. Rome, Open City is perhaps one of his best-known neorealist works involving the lives of Italians struggling against the occupying Nazis.
The Details of Italian Neorealism
The story does not shy away from the subject matter, not even as one of the main characters–a pregnant woman–is shot dead by enemy soldiers in front of her son as she attempts to keep her fiancé from being taken away by the Nazis.
Director Luchino Visconti was known for his refined way of making films. He did not focus so much on war-time stories as the stories of normal people in everyday life. Bellissima, also starring Anna Magnani, shows the dilemmas of a poor mother attempting to thrust her young daughter into the film industry in order to make some extra money.
However, the mother recognizes the huge amount of stress that the process takes on her daughter and decides that the well-being of her child is more important than money, leaving the family nearly destitute. Some other neorealist films by this director include La Terra Trema and Ossessione, but Visconti’s elegant style can truly be seen in the 1963 historical drama, The Leopard.
The neorealism movement did not last very long, starting roughly around the mid 1940s and ending in the early 1950s. Some films of this type were made later on, but many consider Umberto D. by Vittorio De Sica to be the end of the neorealist era due to the film’s poor reception.
The Bicycle Thief
The height of the era is easily marked by De Sica’s 1948 film The Bicycle Thief. It is perhaps the ideal introduction to neorealism: it throws you into the struggles of a poor couple with a young son who must sell their bed sheets–one of their last possessions of value–in order for the husband, Antonio, to buy a bicycle which he needs for his new job.
His bike is then stolen and without it he will lose his job, unlikely to simply find another one during the economic depression of the time.
This causes him to scourer the city with his son in search of his bike only to never find it or the thief. In desperation, Antonio attempts to steal a bike himself but is caught, almost arrested. But then, he is released when the owner of the bike sees Antonio’s worried son and takes pity, but even so, Antonio is left without his dignity and his bicycle.
The era of neorealism has long since ended, but some of the aspects it addressed still exist today: poverty, the human struggle to survive in a cold and destructive world, and disconnection between people.
Another thing has not changed: audiences still prefer happy endings to those that remind them of all the world’s troubles.