Realism in painting and literature passed on many aesthetic preoccupations to what Siegfried Kracauer called cinema's "realist tendency." First, realist films often define themselves in opposition to dominant commercial cinema. "The American position is the antithesis of our own," wrote Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989) in 1953. "While we are interested in the reality around us … reality in American films is unnaturally filtered." This means that films that inscribe themselves within the realist tendency often challenge the rules of verisimilitude that dominate Hollywood realism. In this sense, realism is often situated somewhere between the codes of classical cinema and the innovation of the avant-garde. Though these kinds of realist films do not entirely do away with plot and plausibility, they often bend the rules of continuity, motivation, and genre that characterize commercial filmmaking. In particular, realist films often include moments of narrative ambiguity that would never be allowed in the classical Hollywood narrative. The scene in Vittorio De Sica's (1902–1974) Umberto D (1952) in which Maria Pia Casilio grinds coffee in the boarding house kitchen does not establish the setting, develop her character, or further the plot; rather, it trades plausibility, motivation, and narrative continuity for what André Bazin called "visible poetry," the lyricism of everyday life.

Wary of Hollywood's "filters," filmmakers in the realist tendency are also suspicious of Hollywood's budgets. One would be hard-pressed to say which comes first, the realist aesthetic or the low budget, but the results are

Jean Renoir's La Grande illusion ( The Grand Illusion , 1937) employs stylistic techniques associated with realism.
the same. In 1995, the Danish filmmakers of Dogma swore to what they called, in all seriousness, their "vow of chastity," a vow to reject what they considered the technical screens that cinema has imposed between the spectator and "truth." This "vow" serves well to characterize the realist tendency's desire to do more with less. In a sense, the films and manifestos of the realist tendency hark back to the famous imperative of Henry David Thoreau to "Simplify, simplify."

Realism brings to the screen individuals and situations often marginalized by mainstream cinema and society. This is what Raymond Williams has called the "social extension" of realism, its intention to represent not just people of rank but also the spectators' "equals"(p. 63). Realism makes visible unseen groups, and makes audible unheard voices. In this sense, realism has been considered a fundamentally political art form. If cinema participates in the construction of what a society knows and says about itself, realist films make visible individuals and situations previously left unseen. Like the avantgarde, realism invents new configurations of the visible and new forms of representing the real. It is for this reason that a proponent of cinematic realism such as Bazin could tie realism to techniques such as the long take, depth of focus, and panchromatic film. These techniques provide viewers with new ways of seeing the world. So too with the use of non-professional actors. Showing actors, faces, people who had rarely or never been shown on the screen, or who had only been seen through stereotypes, was part of cinematic realism's way of reconfiguring the world. Realism situates its characters socially and economically, and economic hardship is often one of the motivating forces of the realist films' plot, from F. W. Murnau's Tabu (1931) to De Sica's Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948) to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (1999).

Finally, while realist films are not documentaries, they claim a privileged relation to a reality outside of the movie theater. This reality can be defined in a Marxist sense as the economic structures of society or ontologically as the presence of a physical and visible world, but in all cases realism bases its claims on the camera's ability to reveal to the spectator something outside of the screen. Hence, realism's concern with the present. Realism foregoes historical dramas and period pieces in order to focus on the actions of the contemporary world.

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