La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948)
Labor Intensive La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) took Luchino Visconti to Aci Trezza on Sicily. Far more documentary in style than the other neo-realist films, The Earth Trembles relies on a completely nonprofessional cast. Visconti explained the day's shooting to the villagers and used ambient sound, allowing the people to speak their dialect (necessitating subtitles even for the rest of Italy). The film is loosely based on Giovanni Verga's novel, I Malavoglia (The House of the Medlar Tree). When an island family risks their savings to buy a boat and fish for themselves, they struggle to pay it off, fishing in bad weather until a storm destroys their boat. Classically organized - Visconti was a veteran of opera - the film allowed him to linger on a cyclical life on the verge of disappearance (Orson Welles once noted that Visconti photographed fishermen as if they were Vogue models.) He used deep focus shots, lighting only the nighttime fishing scenes, showing their lives as an organic whole, with each aspect accorded value. The extremely spare soundtrack comprises few words, several silences, sometimes only the peal of bells and little music. And yet there's a timeless and deeply mythic quality to the film, its emphasis on the honor and dignity that had been attached to a life earned from the unpredictable sea.
Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946)
Vittorio De Sica's Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) begins outside Rome, in a kind of idyll of the countryside. Two shoeshine boys set aside what they've earned to buy a horse. Back in the narrow and unforgiving streets of Rome, they're roped into a blackmarket deal that goes sour. Nabbed by the authorities, they're sent to a juvenile prison, their friendship strained nearly to breaking. After an escape, one of them accidentally dies, his death blamed on his friend. De Sica kept his exposition short, detailing the boys' existences through carefully composed scenes such as their neighboring prison cells, each one headed for a different fate. Opening and closing with the horse, De Sica shows the freedom that's denied these two boys. His use of nonprofessionals allowed him to draw natural, seemingly improvised performances from his actors and remain, in his term, "faithful to the character."
This is especially true of his next feature, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), the leading roles of father and son occupied by two nonprofessionals. (David O. Selznick was willing to back the film, but only with Cary Grant as lead, an offer De Sica fortunately had the confidence to refuse.) When the bicycle he needs to do his job is stolen, the young father and son scour Rome to find it; the father is finally driven to steal a ride of his own.
De Sica orchestrated the film carefully, shooting some scenes with multiple cameras and drawing attention to its existence as fiction, not a documentary. Bazin termed it the "only valid Communist film of the whole past decade" and the film was often seen as simply a criticism of working conditions in Italy at the time, when unemployment stood at 25 percent. But unlike the clearcut moralizing of Rossellini's films, De Sica's works focus on a humanist sense of individual and mass. Bicycle Thieves has a mythic feel, the father ultimately forced into thievery, each moral quandary no sooner solved than De Sica poses yet another, the father sympathetic but flawed.
Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)
Italian audiences hardly embraced these new films. To be shown their country in such stark terms made the majority very unhappy. It even became part of the law: the Andreotti Law (1949), named for its author Giullio Andreotti, offered subsidies for those who followed the neo-realist style in a manner "suitable... to the best interests of Italy," but with the proviso that they avoid the blemishes on Italian life.
Legislation had little immediate effect on what was made, though the stories began to reflect the scramble for work and stability that defined this period. Visconti's terrific Bellissima (1951) centers on a daughter and fanatic stage-mamma, the inimitable Magnani, eager to get her modestly talented daughter a spot in a movie. To her husband's dismay, she squeezes every extra penny into lessons and cosmetic improvements for the little girl. Ultimately, the mother all but puts herself on the market to get the recognition she's convinced will make life worth living. Set in a working-class Roman neighborhood, Bellissima gives rare insight into how provincial big-city life could be, each neighborhood a virtual small town, the neighbors sometimes helpful, often petty and jealous of any advantage. Though not traditionally considered a neo-realist film, Bellissima did focus on people's lives in the wake of war, the sense of wanting to better oneself and the struggle to find a way out of the grind of poverty. It becomes yet more poignant in this context.
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