by Megan Ratner
Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946)
Before the indies and even before the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism staked out new cinematic territory. One of those blanket terms that mean all things to all people, neo-realism has few absolutes, though there are elements that set the Italian version distinctly apart. Screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini wrote an actual manifesto to guide these films, but their creation was just as much a result of timing, chance and fluke. Unquestionably, their greatest single influence was the anti-Fascism that marked World War II's immediate postwar period. Key elements are an emphasis on real lives (close to but not quite documentary style), an entirely or largely non-professional cast, and a focus on collectivity rather than the individual. Solidarity is important, along with an implicit criticism of the status quo. Plot and story come about organically from these episodes and often turn on quite tiny moments. Cinematically, neo-realism pushed filmmakers out of the studio and on to the streets, the camera freed-up and more vernacular, the emphasis away from fantasy and towards reality. Despite the rather short run - 1943 to 1952 - the heavyweight films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and continue to shape contemporary global filmmaking.
A little history goes a long way toward understanding Italian neo-realism. By the outbreak of World War II, the country had been under Benito Mussolini's hefty thumb since 1924. In the regime's 1930s heydays, swank productions set in big hotels, tony nightclubs and ocean liners made up the "white telephone" movies, the shorthand term for their decadent Deco interiors. The protagonists always found a resolution to their insipid dilemmas, the prevailing Italian style as unchallenging as blowing bubbles. There were also plenty of American imports, equally unreflective of Italian realities. Describing this time, Federico Fellini said, "For my generation, born in the 20s, movies were essentially American. American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed a paradise on earth, a paradise in a country they called America."
Whether they were being shown the glories of their Roman past, their fascist future or of l'America, a country unreal outside the movie-house, what Italians rarely saw were images that reflected their lives. As early as 1935, anti-Fascist journalist Leo Longanesi urged directors to "go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born."
Aside from the political realities, it's worth remembering that Italy was still in the first stages of a huge transition from agriculture to manufacturing. People struggled; the economic miracle was still more than a decade away. Yet few films showed this, the exceptions being Treno popolare (1933) by Rafaello Matarazzo and, paradoxically, in documentaries produced by LUCE institute, under complete control of the regime.
For many Italians, neo-realist films put images to the ideas of the Resistance. In the film journals Cinema and Bianco e Nero, writers called for a cinema that resembled the verismo (realism) of literature. This had begun as a 19th century literary movement which was expanded by Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Pier Paolo Pasolini, most of whom wrote for - or about - the movies as well. Although philosophical ideas informed Italian neo-realism, it is very much a cinematic creation. As Calvino pointed out, "neo-realists knew too well that what counted was the music and not the libretto." The aim was not to record the social problems but to express them in an entirely new way.
Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) and Alessandro Blassetti's 1860 (1934) influenced neo-realism, but the movement was to a great extent a matter of 1940s practicalities: with Cinécittà (Rome's studio complex) relegated to refugees, films had to be shot outside. Surrounded by the shambolic ruins of World War II, human and structural, filmmakers had ready-made drama even in their backdrop, the atmosphere anxiety-charged and utterly uncertain. After twenty-one years under Mussolini, all bets were off as to what direction Italy would take. In the war's aftermath, members of the Resistance (including several of the neo-realist directors) had to come to terms those who collaborated. Though unstated, this almost civil war-like tension fuels neo-realist cinema.
So what is neo-realism? André Bazin called it a cinema of "fact" and "reconstituted reportage," its antecedents in the anti-Fascist movement with which these directors identified. Although they owed a debt to Renoir (with whom both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni had worked), the neo-realists "respected" the entirety of the reality they filmed. This meant occasionally showing scenes in real-time and always resisting the temptation to manipulate by editing. Scenes are shot on location, with no professional extras and often a largely unprofessional cast. Set in rural areas or working-class neighborhoods, the stories focus on everyday people, often children, with an emphasis on the unexceptional routines of ordinary life.
Cesare Zavattini, who functions as a kind of godfather of the movement, stated: "This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist." The aim, method and philosophy was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice. Breezy fare this is not, but it did significantly alter European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world. Neo-realism reflected a new freedom in Italy and the willingness to pose provocative questions about what movies could do. As director Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo's brother) noted: "The cinema was born with neo-realism."
Unexpected American Influences
It's no accident that Michael Tolkin chose neo-realism's classic Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to rock his studio exec's world in The Player. Though it's in some ways anti-Hollywood, neo-realism drew a great deal from American noir writing and films. Luchino Visconti based Ossessione (Obsession, 1942) on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti used long takes and complex shots to convey the dismal and ridiculous world of the three protagonists, the lovers (played by Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) and the husband they bump off (played by Juan De Landa). Visconti's neo-realism heightens the interplay between characters and surroundings, the bleak, unforgiving interiors and street shots reflective of the lousy hand these no-hopers have been dealt.
Ossessione (Obsession, 1942)
Visconti described his own style as "anthropomorphic cinema," declaring, "I could make a film in front of a wall if I knew how to find the data of man's true humanity and how to express it." Although Mussolini himself approved of the film, his son Vittorio (who ran the film journal Cinema) had a fit about its bleak Italian landscapes, the natural light, and all the shooting on location in the Po Valley.
Roberto Rossellini's Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946) shows most clearly neo-realism's link with the Resistance movement. Set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, it mines the tensions of the foreign presence and the divisions among those who abetted and those who opposed. Made under duress (black market film stock, little studio shooting, rushes unexamined, sound synchronized in post-production, and, no surprise, a tiny budget), Open City has an eyewitness immediacy tempered with operatic emotion. Pragmatic realities drove the film as much as the script, co-written by Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini. The hybrid of melodrama and actual footage was the result of Rossellini's populist, episodic approach, the story told in bursts, intense and unsparing details of ordinary lives undone by the trauma of occupation. Veracity rather than comfort informed the narrative. As the Gestapo search for and find a key member of the Resistance, Rossellini keeps his primary focus on Pina (Anna Magnani), engaged to marry an unassuming but Partisan typesetter by whom she is already pregnant. Open City may be most cited for two unforgettable scenes - a torture scene, to which Reservoir Dogs's lopped-ear scene bears a marked resemblance; and a sudden and dramatic death scene, a final posture evocative of painterly renditions of Christian martyrs. It also emphasizes the futility of war, its senselessness, a theme Rossellini struck throughout his war trilogy.
In Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Rossellini directly engaged the effects of the American presence in Italy, complicated by the Yankee shift from enemy to ally. In each of the six episodes, he examines the expectations and disappointments inherent in the crossing of two such different cultures and the inevitable - sometimes fatal - misapprehensions. Newsreel footage separates the vignettes and, throughout, Rossellini plays with the stereotypical images held by each side, his overall theme being that war is an equal-opportunity brutalizer.
Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947) has a more personal feeling, influenced, no doubt, by the death of Rossellini's eldest son in 1946. Set in the rubble of Berlin, the film has a young protagonist (rare for Rossellini), a 15-year-old who lives with his father and sister, who falls under the spell of a pedophile, eeking cash from the sale of this scammer's Third Reich memorabilia. Potent and unbearable images make the desperation of the city clear; early on, for example, a horse lies dead in the street, hit perhaps by a tram, as people matter-of-factly carve-and-carry its meat away. Corrupted on all sides, the boy eventually resorts to the most desperate of measures.
As in Obsession, the cityscape is here used to reflect the anomie and disconnection. Open City ends horribly but with a glimmer of hope as young chidren witness an execution yet, together, return to the city; in Germany Year Zero, life is as stony as the razed city. It completes Rossellini's World War II trilogy, strikingly ending his work from the German perspective, the devastations occasioned by Third Reich policies no easier on its own people.
Read on and catch our recommendations in Part Two...