With the fall of Mussolini and the end of the war, international audiences were suddenly introduced to Italian films through a few great works by Rossellini, De Sica, and Luchino Visconti that appeared in less than a decade after 1945, such as Rossellini's Roma, città aperta ( Rome, Open City , 1945) and Paisa Sica's Sciuscià ( Paisan , 1946); Dè ( Shoeshine , 1946), Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948), and Umberto D. (1952); and Visconti's La Terra trema ( The Earth Trembles , 1948). Italian neorealist films stressed social themes (the war, the resistance, poverty, unemployment); they seemed to reject traditional Hollywood dramatic and cinematic conventions; they often privileged on-location shooting rather than studio work, as well as the documentary photographic style favored by many directors under the former regime; and they frequently (but not always) employed nonprofessional actors in original ways. Film historians have unfortunately tended to speak of neorealism as if it were an authentic movement with universally agreed-upon stylistic or thematic principles. While the controlling fiction of the best neorealist works was that they dealt with universal human problems, contemporary stories, and believable characters from everyday life, the best neorealist films never completely denied cinematic conventions, nor did they always totally reject Hollywood codes. The basis for the fundamental change in cinematic history marked by Italian neorealism was less an agreement on a single, unified cinematic style than a common aspiration to view Italy without preconceptions and to employ a more honest, ethical, but no less poetic, cinematic language in the process.

These masterpieces by Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti are indisputably major works of art that capture the spirit of postwar Italian culture and remain original contributions to film language. But with the exception of Rome, Open City , they were relatively unpopular within Italy and achieved success primarily among intellectuals and foreign critics. In particular, De Sica was criticized for "washing Italy's dirty laundry in public" by Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democratic politician who was later to become one of Italy's most powerful prime ministers. One of the paradoxes of the neorealist era in Italian film history, an epoch that lasted no more than a decade, is that the ordinary people such films set out to portray were relatively uninterested in their self-image. In fact, of the approximately eight hundred films produced between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s in Italy, only a relatively small number (about 10 percent) could be classified as neorealist, and most of these few works were box-office failures. After years of fascist dictatorship and the deprivations of war, Italians were more interested in being entertained than in being reminded of their poverty.

A number of less important but very interesting neorealist films were able to achieve greater popular success by incorporating traditional Hollywood genres within their narratives, thereby expanding the boundaries of traditional film realism. This group of commercially successful works include Vivere in pace ( To Live in Peace , 1947) by Luigi Zampa (1905–1991), a comical view of Germans, Italians, and Allied soldiers at war that cannot help but bring to mind the World War II TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes ; Senza pietà ( Without Pity , 1948) by Alberto Lattuada (1913–2005), a daring film noir about the black market, prostitution, and American racism in postwar Livorno; Riso amaro ( Bitter Rice , 1949) by Giuseppe De Santis, a vaguely Marxist film about proletarian class solidarity that gave birth to the phenomenon in Italy of the "sweater girl" known as the maggiorata , making Silvana Mangano (1930–1989) an overnight sensation; and Il Cammino della speranza ( Path of Hope , 1950) by Pietro Germi (1914–1974), a film about poor Sicilian miners migrating to France in search of work. These four films reflect a shift from the war themes of Rossellini to the interest in postwar reconstruction typical of De Sica's best efforts, but they are even more important as an indication of how the Italian cinema moved gradually closer toward conventional American themes and film genres.

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