Like most movements, Italian Neorealism was a response to what came before. Even before World War II ended, the Italians were seeking a new form of film. A form that would leave behind the unrealistic decadence of Hollywood and the ‘white telephone’ dramas of Italy. Their response was the stylistics movement which became known as Italian Neorealism.
Before 1943 and Mussolini’s fall critics and filmmakers were calling for a representation of real life. Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), still under the censorship of Mussolini, was a precursor to the movement along with a whole host of films and filmmakers who were trying to create a “hybrid of traditional and more experimental techniques“.
Films from great directors like Alessandro Blasetti and Jean Renoir started the undercurrent of style and techniques that Italian Neorealism would turn to for the later directors. Some of the greatest directors of this movement would also be influential in the future of the movement. Many later directors would state that Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) was an inspiration for them and their films.
Most believe Rossellinni’s Roma, citta apperta (1945) was the first Neorealist film with a riveting performance given by the great Italian actress Anna Magnani. It had many of the tenets of Neorealism although not all of them, which was normal for this movement. The loose collection of rules that tie these films and directors together were by no means consistent among every film. In this way, the movement never exceeded beyond a tendency that Italian films leaned towards. That by no means lessens the tenets these movies and filmmakers used in their films.
These tenets come from the need to establish a representation of the lives of the lower class, to distance itself from the decadence of the other films of the time, and to take advantage of the new freedom to discuss politics after the heavy censor under Mussolini’s rule.
Real-life was depicted through the use of documentary styles in Italian Neorealist films. Shots were elongated, so that viewers may see the full toil of life. In the film Ladridi Biciclette (1948) from Vittorio De Sica the viewers watch as characters walk from one side of a street to the other with no cutting of the scene, yet in the duration of the film two days are portrayed. Modern editing was used to control the feel of time so that those longer moments were accentuated for dramatic effect and jumps were used to get to the moments of true action. These directors found action within the inaction of real life. Ossessione where a woman walks into her kitchen, makes dinner, reads the paper and then goes to sleep, all in one shot, worked to portray the drama of real life and the real struggles people were going through. The toils of the average blue-collar worker were used in most if not all of this movement’s films. In this sense the films focused on the “spirit of democracy with an emphasis on the value of ordinary people”.
Often times, nonprofessional actors were used both create realism and turn the focus of the film from the actor to the content. Directors wanted to paint the masses with compassion and without judgment, because they had rarely seen themselves represented in film. Realism came not only from the characters though, the use of actual locations as opposed to studio sets created realism as if the streets and the characters seen were just going about their daily lives. This was how, on the streets of Italy, a documentary style found its way to these films.
Experiments with the type of film used also added realism. A grainy texture was added to Rossellini’s Paisan that portrayed a documentary style. These locations also allowed the focus on popular or familiar places that the Italian people would recognize. Most exterior locations were dubbed, though, to avoid any unwanted sounds that could distract from the drama or dialogue.
Dubbing also allowed for an improvisation of the lines and the use of lines that were far more colloquial and common. Some Neorealist films had scripts written by very prominent writers like Frederico Fellini (La Strada) and Cesare Zarattini (Bicycle Thieves). Others had far looser scripts that allowed a freshness and a realness to the films. Structure was also used to create an organic feel by avoiding neat plot points and favoring an episodic flow. Both of these options saw a move away from the standard script into a much more nebulous on-the-fly-storytelling experiment. Of course, the choice of improv over structure may become a disadvantage when using unseasoned actors, but often it created great moments within the films.
These films wanted to use the lives of the lower class to point out the glaring problems in Italian society. As such the topics of the films often took on political, economic, and social stances. After the censoring of the previous Fascist government, Italian Neorealist films said what they wanted about what they wanted. For a large majority of Neorealist film, they chose messages that were a blend of Christian and Marxist ideals. Regardless of the concepts expressed in the films, the meat of the communication within these films came from emotional responses over intellectual ones. Neorealism wanted viewers to feel for the financially struggling characters and their situations.
Films that forewent the studio system, as plenty did, often found themselves with small budgets and small audiences. With such small budgets the use of studio spaces could be costly even if that put the film at the mercy of the weather, natural lighting, and the need for continuity. These films adapted so that they did not need large budgets, but at the same time they often did not make a great profit. The people of the lower class often did not enjoy these films. They did not want to see their struggles on screen they wanted to escape to the movies. This lead to a reorganization of the movement near the start of the 1950’s called Pink Neorealism or Rosy Neorealism where a lot of the same style and idiosyncrasies remained, but the struggles were less stifling, and Hollywood happy endings were far more prominent. These films also acted more like comedies and began to move away from having economic, political, and social contexts.
Italian Neorealism did not go unnoticed though. Its influences reach across history. Even as the movement began it was inspiring and changing the ideas and theories of filmmaking. The French New Wave was heavily impacted by their European friends through the Neorealist emphasis on documentary style and real-life portrayals. This movement also lead to the start of many famous Italian filmmakers’ careers. Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luigi Comencini, and Pietro Germi all came out of the Neorealism bubble and went to either the second wave−Fellini and Antonioni- or Pink Neorealism− Germi and Comencini. Neorealism’s reach went international as it touched films from the Kitchen Sink School in the UK, the Cinema Novo in Brazil, a handful of American films between 1948 to 1965, and even India’s Saatyajit Ray and one of his most famous films Apur Sansar The World of Apu, 1959.
At the bookend of this movement stands the film Umberto D (1952) from De Sica. The small span of years between its start and end housed plenty of great films and great directors. Many of these directors would continue their works far into the future of film and create other great works, but their foray into this experiment of filmmaking would establish them firmly as the adventurous few who created a new revolutionary style based on the lives of the common man. These were true artist who found drama in the regular and struggle in the simplicity of life, and now they and their films will last far into the future as reminders of that era.