With the fall of Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1943 and the end of World War II, international audiences were suddenly introduced to Italian films through a few note-worthy works by Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), Vittorio De Sica (1902–1974), and Luchino Visconti (1906–1976). Italian directors, newly freed from Fascist censorship, were able to merge a desire for cinematic realism (a tendency already present during the Fascist period) with social, political, and economic themes that would never have been tolerated by the regime. Neorealist films often took a highly critical view of Italian society and focused attention upon glaring social problems, such as the effects of the Resistance and the war, postwar poverty, and chronic unemployment. Continuing a trend toward realism that had already been initiated during the Fascist period by prewar directors such as Alessandro Blasetti (1900–1987), Augusto Genina (1892–1957), and Francesco De Robertis (1902–1959), these new postwar faces—dubbed neorealists by critics who praised the "new" realism they believed such directors sought to create—rejected, in some instances, traditional dramatic and cinematic conventions associated with commercial cinema in both Rome and Hollywood. Some (though very few) even wanted to abandon literary screenplays altogether to focus on improvisation, while most preferred to chronicle the average, undramatic daily events in the lives of common people with the assistance of a literate script. But almost all neorealists agreed that the "happy ending" they associated with Hollywood was to be avoided at all costs.
Neorealism preferred location shooting rather than studio work, as well as the grainy kind of photography associated with documentary newsreels. While it is true that, for a while, the film studios were unavailable after the war, neorealist directors shunned them primarily because they wanted to show what was going on in the streets and piazzas of Italy immediately after the war. Contrary to the belief that explains on-location shooting by its supposed lower cost, such filming often cost much more than work in the more easily controlled studios; in the streets, it was never possible to predict lighting, weather, and the unforeseen occurrence of money-wasting disturbances. Economic factors do, however, explain another characteristic of neorealist cinema—its almost universal practice of dubbing the sound track in post-production, rather than recording sounds on the supposedly "authentic" locations. Perhaps the most original characteristic of the new Italian realism in film was the brilliant use of nonprofessional actors by Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti, though many of the films accepted as neorealist depended upon excellent performances by seasoned professional actors.
Some film historians have tended to portray neorealism as an authentic movement with universally agreed-upon stylistic or thematic principles. In fact, Italian neorealist cinema represents a hybrid of traditional and more experimental techniques. Moreover, political expediency often motivated interpretations of postwar neorealism that overlooked the important elements of continuity between realist films made during the Fascist era and realist films made by the neorealists. After 1945, no one in the film industry wanted to be associated with Mussolini and his discredited dictatorship, and most Italian film critics were Marxists; neorealism's ancestry was thus largely ignored.
The most influential critical appraisals of Italian neorealism today emphasize the fact that Italian neorealist cinema rested upon artifice as much as realism and established, in effect, its own particular realist conventions. All too many early assessments of Italian neorealism focused lazily upon the formulaic statement that Italian neorealism meant no scripts, no actors, no studios, and no happy endings. In the 1964 edition of his first resistance novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno ( The Path to the Nest of Spiders , 1947), Italo Calvino (1923–1985) reminded his readers that Italian neorealism was never a school with widely shared theoretical principles. Rather, it arose from a number of closely associated discoveries of an Italian popular culture that had traditionally been ignored by "high" Italian culture. Neorealist film and literature replaced an official cinema and literature characterized by pompous rhetoric and a lack of interest in the quotidian and the commonplace.
Critics unanimously regard a small group of films as the best examples of this brief moment in Italian film history: Rossellini's Roma, città apperta ( Rome, Open City , 1945) and Paisà ( Paisan , 1946), both of which were scripted by Federico Fellini (1920–1993); De Sica's Sciuscà ( Shoeshine , 1946), Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948), Miracolo a Milano ( Miracle in Milan , 1951), and Umberto D (1952), all scripted by Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989); and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione ( Obsession , 1943) and La terra trema: Episodio del mare ( The Earth Trembles , 1948), respectively, loose adaptations of James Cain's 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and Giovanni Verga's I Malavoglia ( The House by the Medlar Tree , 1881).
In retrospect, the appearance of Visconti's Obsession made it clear that something original was brewing within Italian cinema. Assisted by a number of young Italian intellectuals associated with the review Cinema , Visconti took Cain's "hard-boiled" novel (without paying for the rights) and turned the crisp, first-person narrative voice of the American work into a more omniscient, objective camera style, as obsessed with highly formal compositions as Visconti's protagonists are by their violent passions. Visconti reveals an Italy that includes not only the picturesque and the beautiful but also the tawdry, the ordinary, and the insignificant. Simple gestures, glances, and the absence of any dramatic action characterize the most famous sequence in the film: world-weary Giovanna (Clara Calamai) enters her squalid kitchen, takes a bowl of pasta, and begins to eat, reading the newspaper, but falls asleep from exhaustion. Postwar critics praised neorealist cinema for respecting the duration of real time in such scenes. Equally original in the film is Visconti's deflation of the "new" man that Italian Fascism had promised to produce. Even though the film's protagonist, Gino, is played by Fascist Italy's matinee idol, Massimo Girotti (1918–2003), his role in the film is resolutely nonheroic, and he has implicit homosexual leanings as well. Even Visconti's patron and friend Vittorio Mussolini rejected such a portrayal of Italian life. Interestingly enough, Vittorio's father, Benito Mussolini, had screened the film and did not find it objectionable.
Though Obsession announced a new era in Italian filmmaking, at the time very few people saw the film, and few realized that the aristocratic young director would have such a stellar career. It was the international success of Rossellini's Rome, Open City , which so accurately reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of the immediate postwar period, that alerted the world to the advent of Italian neorealism. With a daring combination of styles and moods, Rossellini captured the tension and the tragedy of Italian life under German occupation and the partisan struggle out of which the new Italian republic was subsequently born. Rome, Open City , however, is far from a programmatic attempt at cinematic realism. Rossellini relied on dramatic actors rather than nonprofessionals. He constructed a number of studio sets (particularly the Gestapo headquarters where the most dramatic scenes in the film take place) and thus did not slavishly follow the neorealist trend of shooting films in the streets of Rome. Moreover, his plot was a melodrama in which good and evil were so clear-cut that few viewers today would identify it as realism. Even its lighting in key sequences (such as the famous torture scene) follows expressionist or American film noir conventions. Rossellini aims to provoke an emotional rather than an intellectual response, with a melodramatic account of Italian resistance to Nazi oppression. In particular, the children present at the end of the film to witness the execution of partisan priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) point to renewed hope for what Rossellini's protagonists call a new springtime of democracy and freedom in Italy.
Paisan reflects to a far greater extent the conventions of the newsreel documentary, tracing in six separate episodes the Allied invasion of Italy and its slow process through the peninsula. Far more than Rome, Open City , Paisan seemed to offer an entirely novel approach to film realism; in fact, when future young directors would cite Rossellini as their inspiration, they would almost always refer to Paisan . Its grainy film, the awkward acting of its nonprofessional protagonists, its authoritative voice-over narration, and the immediacy of its subject matter—all features associated with newsreels—do not completely describe the aesthetic quality of the work. Rossellini aims not at a merely realistic documentary of the Allied invasion and Italian suffering. His subject is a deeper philosophical theme, employing a bare minimum of aesthetic resources to follow the encounter of two cultures, resulting in initial misunderstanding but eventual brotherhood.
The third part of Rossellini's war trilogy, Germania anno zero ( Germany Year Zero , 1948), shifts the director's attention from war-torn Italy to the disastrous effects of the war on Germany. It was shot among the debris of the ruins of Hitler's Berlin before reconstruction. The director's analysis of the aftereffects of Hitler's indoctrination of a young German boy, who eventually commits suicide, reflects Rossellini's ability to empathize with human suffering, even among ex-Nazis.
Italian journalist and writer of screenplays for Italian neorealist cinema, Cesare Zavattini is known especially for his collaborations with director Vittorio De Sica. After completing a law degree at the University of Parma, Zavattini wrote two successful novels— Parliamo tanto di me (Let's Talk A Lot About Me, 1931) and Il poveri sono matti (The Poor Are Crazy, 1937)—before writing the script for Mario Camerini's classic social satire, Darò un milione ( I'll Give a Million , 1935), starring Vittorio De Sica. In his lifetime, Zavattini completed 126 screenplays, 26 of which were for De Sica as director or actor.
He also provided screenplays for such figures as Alessandro Blasetti, Giuseppe De Santis, Luchino Visconti, and Alberto Lattuada, but his work with De Sica established Zavattini as the leading exponent of Italian neorealism in the decade immediately following the end of World War II. But it was the four neorealist classics created by the two friends that made film history: Sciuscà ( Shoeshine , 1946), an account of the American occupation that earned the first award for foreign films bestowed by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948), a tale of postwar unemployment that received an Oscar ® for Best Foreign Film; Miracolo a Milano ( Miracle in Milan , 1951), a fantastic parable about the class struggle in a fairy-tale Milan; and Umberto D (1952), a heart-rending tragedy about a lonely pensioner and his dog.
Zavattini became the outstanding spokesman for neorealism, advocating the use of nonprofessional actors, a documentary style, authentic locations as opposed to studio shooting, and a rejection of Hollywood studio conventions, including the use of dramatic or intrusive editing. He wrote contemporary, simple stories about common people. In particular, he felt that everyday events provided as much drama as any Hollywood script could produce by rhetorical means or that any special effects and dramatic editing might create. Nevertheless, after neorealist cinema evolved in the late 1950s, Zavattini wrote screenplays for De Sica that enjoyed great commercial success: Ieri, oggi, domani ( Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow . 1963), a social satire that garnered an Oscar ® for Best Foreign Film and featured a legendary striptease for Marcello Mastroianni by Sophia Loren; La ciociara ( Two Women , 1960), an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel about the horrible effects of war, which won Loren an Oscar ® for Best Actress; and Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini ( The Garden of the Finzi-Continis , 1970), the narration of the destruction of the Jewish community in Ferrara before World War II, which won De Sica his fourth Oscar ® for Best Foreign Film.
Sciuscà ( Shoeshine , 1946), Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948), Miracolo a Milano ( Miracle in Milan , 1951), Umberto D (1952), La ciociara ( Two Women , 1960), Ieri, oggi, domani ( Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow , 1963), Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini ( The Garden of the Finzi-Continis , 1970)
Zavattini, Cesare. Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life . Translated by William Weaver. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Compared to the daring experimentalism and use of nonprofessionals in Paisan , De Sica's neorealist works
seem more traditional and closer to Hollywood narratives. Yet, De Sica uses nonprofessionals—particularly children—in both Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thieves even more brilliantly than Rossellini. In contrast to Rossellini's dramatic editing techniques, which owe something to the lessons Rossellini learned from making documentaries and studying the Russian masters during the Fascist period, De Sica's camera style favored the kind of deep-focus photography normally associated with Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. Shoeshine offers an ironic commentary on the hopeful ending of Rome, Open City , for its children (unlike Rossellini's) dramatize the tragedy of childish innocence corrupted by the world of adults, the continuation of a theme De Sica began in one of his best films produced before the end of the war, I bambini ci guardano ( The Children Are Watching Us , 1943). The moving performances De Sica obtains from his nonprofessional child actors in Shoeshine arise from what the director called being "faithful to the character": De Sica believed that ordinary people could do a better job of portraying ordinary people than actors could ever do.
De Sica's faith in nonprofessional actors was more than justified in his masterpiece, The Bicycle Thieves , which also employs location shooting and the social themes of unemployment and the effects of the war on the postwar economy. The performances of Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio Ricci, the unemployed father who needs a bicycle in order to make a living hanging posters on city walls, and Enzo Staiola as Bruno, his faithful son, rest upon a plot with a mythic structure—a quest. Their search for a stolen bicycle—its brand is ironically Fides ("Faith")—suggests the film is not merely a political film denouncing a particular socioeconomic system. Social reform may change a world in which the loss of a mere bicycle spells economic disaster, but no amount of social engineering or even revolution will alter solitude, loneliness, and individual alienation. De Sica derived an equally eloquent performance from a nonprofessional in Umberto D , a heart-breaking dissection of the terrible effects of poverty and old age in Italy during the Christian Democratic postwar period, when pensions were destroyed by inflation. Even though De Sica was never a leftist (his concern for the poor and his desire for social change were motivated more by charity than by ideological fervor), such works as these two neorealist masterpieces were viewed very negatively by conservative politicians, such as future premier Giulio Andreotti, who remarked famously that dirty laundry is not washed in public.
De Sica's Miracle in Milan abandons many of the conventions of neorealist "realism." Not only does the film rely upon veterans of the legitimate theater for its cast, but De Sica also employs many special effects not generally associated with neorealism's pseudodocumentary style: superimposed images for magical effects, process shots, reverse action, surrealistic sets, the abandonment of normal notions of chronological time, and the rejection of the usual cause-and-effect relationships typical of the "real" world. In spite of the fact that Zavattini, De Sica's scriptwriter, once made a famous pronouncement that "the true function of the cinema is not to tell fables" (a view that became associated with Italian neorealism and that tended to obscure the very real fables that this cinema invented), Miracle in Milan is, in fact, a fable that begins with the traditional opening line, "Once upon a time …" and revolves around a comic parable about the rich and the poor. The result is a parody of Marxist concepts of class struggle. De Sica and Zavattini show us poor people who are just as selfish, egotistical, and uncaring as some wealthy members of society once the poor gain power, money, and influence. At the conclusion of the film, the poor mount their broomsticks and fly off over the Cathedral of Milan in search of a place where justice prevails and common humanity is a way of life. Miracle in Milan stretches the notion of what constitutes a neorealist film to the very limits.
Visconti's The Earth Trembles reflects both the literary theories of naturalism in Verga's fiction and the Marxist views of Antonio Gramsci. Praised by Marxist critics in Italy for its progressive stance, Visconti's adaptation of the well-known novel by Giovanni Verga conforms to the traditional definition of Italian neorealism better than other equally famous works of the period. No studio sets or sound stages were used, and the cast was selected from the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, the novel's setting. Visconti preferred the more realistic effects of the Sicilian dialect and synchronized sound to the traditional Italian practice of postsynchronization of the sound track. While the film's theme underscores the need for revolution among Italy's poor, the visuals of this unusual masterpiece stress the cyclical, timeless quality of life in Aci Trezza—a Homeric view of the world rather than a Marxist one. There is a formalism in Visconti's camera style: slow panning shots with a stationary camera and long, static shots of motionless objects and actors bestow dignity and beauty on humble, ordinary people.