"I think Italian cinema is one of the most creative contributions modern Italy has made to 20th century culture..." Bondanella
Twenty years or so after its violent birth Fascism, the quasi totalitarian state which controlled all aspects of the Italian people, was coming to undignified and messy end. In 1943 General Badoglio signed on behalf of Italy an armistice with the Allied Forces transforming, de facto, the German army on Italian territory into an occupying force. With the support of the German generals and the allegiance of faithful fascists and some sectors of the Italian army, Benito Mussolini (Italy's prime minister 1922-1943) was able to survive and establish in the North of Italy, at Salò on the shores of lake Garda, the Repubblica di Salò. Two years later the slow but inexorable advance of the Allies forces from the South of Italy and the relentless actions of Resistance fighters (Partisans) brought to an end the Fascist adventure. Caught by the Partisans while trying to escape disguised as a woman, Mussolini was summarily executed and strung up in Milan. Within one year Italy had dismissed its King, become a Republic and given itself a most modern constitution. It also had an economy in tatters, a land and population ravaged by war, fratricide conflicts, a mild form of epuration and the second largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union.
Cinema under fascism
"Il cinematografo è l' arma più forte" B. Mussolini
Italian cinema, which after World War I had nearly collapsed because of competition from USA and Germany, was slowly reviving in the 1930s under *Fascism's restrictive control. For all its faults Fascism did recognise 'propaganda' as crucial to its success and the potential of the arts as a vehicle for it. Unlike earlier liberal governments, Fascism succeeded in forging a sense of 'nationhood'. It also allowed the coexistence of intellectual dissidence in the arts, as long as it was not overtly critical of the regime or challenging it. In the propaganda armoury, cinema (the 7th art) was seen as the strongest weapon and some film directors whose name will come to the fore at the end of WW2 were able to practice their trade under the regime although not committed to it, or even being critical of it.
* Fascism was a right wing quasi totalitarian regime but, ironically, it also had policies which could be aligned with socialism. It had a populist programme which was claimed to be: Republican, anti‑clerical and democratic. It demanded decentralization, female suffrage, proportional representation, the confiscation of excess war profits after WW1, workers’ participation in all industrial management and workers’ control of public services, the nationalization of the arms industry, a minimum wage, an eight‑hour day, the repudiation of imperialism. This was a very 'broad church' indeed uniting its supporters by their hatreds or things they were against rather than a considered ideology. In view of the coexistence of such singularly contradictory positions, particularly in the early years of Fascism, it is not surprising that Fascism was able to accommodate both the reactionary and the revolutionary.
Besides financial incentives and protectionist measures, the regime took several innovative initiatives. Among others it founded:
1926 ‑ 'Istituto LUCE' (L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa) A body for the production of state documentaries and news-reels
1932 - 'Venice Film Festival' with the prize Leone d'oro (a world's first)
1936 ‑ National film school 'Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia'
1937 ‑ 'Cinecittà', Europe's largest studios
Already between 1910 and 1920 some Italian films as well as some films made in France the USSR and elsewhere, show traces of what in Italy, was called 'verismo' (from the Italian word 'vero' truth) ‑ characterised by sharp detailed observations of the world around us and a desire for authenticity. In the great historical reconstructions, faithfulness of detail was considered an important element, all the more so in those mega-productions meant to lure the Italian people into believing that the grandeur of Imperial Rome was at hand with Mussolini as Dux (Leader). In intellectual circles, particularly literary ones, already in 1930 we find the term 'neorealism' along with 'realism' and 'verism'.
The 'realism' of such films as Blasetti's Sole (1928) or Camerini's Rotaie (1929) went beyond a purely 'physical' realism and they could be seen as precursors of neo-realism proper. These films propose images ‑ somewhat sanitised ‑ of ordinary men performing ordinary or extraordinary deeds. We have already location shooting, the use of non‑professional actors, the treatment of contemporary problems as experienced by the working class (Rotaie). Uomini sul fondo (1940), 11 years later, adopted a semi-documentary style (although the location was dictated by necessity rather than aesthetic considerations, as in the case of neorealist films).
The Fascist regime progressively severed its links with the world outside banning foreign, particularly American, literature and films, cocooning the Italians in a world of fiction and disinformation.
"In Moscow, there is such a close and spontaneous relationship between the nation and the film that these two merge into one". Pavolini, 1930.
Not only did the unity between nation and film, which the fascists were eager to attain, speak in favour of the Russian production, but also its aesthetic basis (Pudovkin was about to be translated and everybody had heard about Eisenstein's montage). Russian film was both politics and art, which was a combination representing the highest aspiration of the more knowledgeable fascist film critics" A. Aprà.
Was Neorealism a bolt out of the blue?
The term neorealism, as already mentioned, was applied in 1930 to a style of literature which would address the growing awareness of the irrelevance of the bourgeois arts (the vociferous Futurists had been particularly vitriolic), their failure to meet the needs and the realities of society: a distaste for the values of a bourgeois society, the need for an analytical vision of the human condition, the need for all the arts to reflect the dramatic social, political, economic changes which had swept over Italy as well as Europe: WWI and its aftermath, the Bolshevik revolution, technological changes, industrialisation. Already in 1933 we can find statements to the effect that filmmakers should jettison fixed screenplays, adopt an approach free of artifice, look at life, take 'real life' subjects and tell it the way it is 'warts and all'.
Theory and practice of the chameleon
But what is this Neorealism that flourished in Italy just for a few years at the end of World War II and produced a dozen or so of films? Definitions abound but it seems to be all things to all men, so much so that in Italy critics have argued about whether "it" can be called a 'school' a 'current' a 'movement' or just a 'phenomenon'. Without descending into the merits of it we can adopt, somewhat arbitrarily, the term 'movement'.
Neorealism then can be considered:
‘A movement in literature, art and the cinema whose roots can be located in the middle‑class realism and 'verismo' of the nineteenth century. It came about in Italy during the period following the Second World War, with the aim of portraying objectively, with no individualistic or aestheticizing intervention, the social reality of those years, a reality permeated by the consequences of war. Although it had begun during the 1930s as a literary theory and had been characterized in the narrative works which emanated from the experiences of war and of the Liberation struggle, its most important manifestations came in the field of the cinema with the works of a handful of directors [such as Rossellini, Zampa, Lattuada, De Sica, Castellani and to some extent Visconti], works which, if at times naïve, romantic and populist, were full of vigorous protest and of a desire for renewal. In borrowing from the field of literature its scrupulous adherence to reality and to bare events, the direct transcription of the spoken word, the photographic representation of fact, this cinema tried to portray an exact image of life laid bare, created from real life, using ordinary people to play the parts.
‘An artistic trend which arose in 1948 in the field of painting and which was based on a Marxist
aesthetic whereby a work of art must act as a means of communication, of persuasion and of social intervention’ D.E.G.
It is possible to identify in all these attempts at definitions some recurrent elements. Most statements about Neorealism have references to 'the stark realism of the technique adopted; location shooting; long takes and depth of field; dubbing of dialogue; the use of non-professional actors etc. However it is necessary to point out that these items are not 'all' and 'consistently' present in neorealist films. Indeed some of these elements were contingent to specific directors and to circumstances created by the war and the immediate post war years rather than the result of a programmatic manifesto. It is the case that some directors responded to lack of budget funds and studios, destroyed during the war, by shooting on location with non‑professional actors. It is clear that it was easier for 'cinema' to change drastically than for literature, with its centuries of tradition, cinema being a new art.
It would be difficult to argue convincingly that 'neorealist style' does not have an inherent political message. One suspects that the very strength of Neorealism came from the moral and political commitment of its practitioners. The choice of both subject matter itself and the characters of the stories in themselves constitute a political dimension or choice. Without falling into socialist realism ‑ not yet or not again ‑ a spotlight is thrown on ordinary people, with their faults and their potential, on their daily struggle, be it pathetic or heroic, in their own environment, town or village but always in its starkest reality. This is indeed achieved through the use 'real' people along with trained actors; the use of sound track and a dialogue which is non literary and the introduction of dialect (in a soften form to allow the wider public to understand); the use of location shooting and a minimal use of studio and, obviously, artificial lighting.
It would be tempting to explain Neorealism solely or primarily in the light of a strong reaction to the 'fascist mystification in politics and in cinema' and as a drive to bring to the people a truth, a reality that had been so effectively hidden from them by the Fascist regime. This is certainly the case with some directors, particularly with the more politically committed ones, but it is not true for all and not all of the time.
Perhaps one could find consensus on the statement that neorealist films show a common strong moral and social commitment. Overall this concern is expressed by presenting the viewer with stark facts in a stark landscape, a simple story line, occasionally a series of episodes, which demand of a reader an evaluation. A compassionate view point, possibly, but a refusal of facile, easy moral judgments. Earlier on, the subject-matter centered on and around wartime events, particularly movements of liberation, partisans, the aftermath of the war and, later, the slow road to recovery: contemporary stories which focused on believable characters taken most frequently from Italian daily life, especially lives which were damaged, hurt, and destroyed by the defeat and destruction of World War II. Stromboli clip 1, Stromboli clip 2, Stromboli clip 3 .
In literature Neo-realism found it highest expression in writers such as Moravia, Pavese, Pratolini, Vittorini, Calvino. In cinema directors such as L. Visconti (Ossessione, 1942) R. Rossellini (Roma città aperta, V. De Sica (Ladri di biciclette), and the writer Cesare Zavattini had a tremendous impact on Italian and international cinema.
One of the first films to be acclaimed as the manifestation of the 'new way' was Ossessione (1942), Visconti's adaptation of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Made in the last years of the Fascist period and in the middle of the war it was released only to small audiences. Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son is known to have walked out of the film saying "This is not Italy" and in 1943 the magazine Avvenire d'Italia, 15 July 1943 reported:
'The only conclusion to arrive at might be that the film is just imitating the French kind of realism that must not be transferred to Italy. The movie is a concoction of repulsive passions, humiliation and decay. It is an offence to the Italian people, the life of which it pretends to portray on a thoroughly imaginary and impossible level" (quoted in Liehm).
Ossessione, with its universal themes: man's work, his solitude, his struggle to live, his life in the midst of others, love, home, family ‑ and its 'new way' was influential on the emerging Italian filmmakers. As Katz puts it: "[It] did act as a catalyst on a group of filmmakers who in the years immediately following World War II gave the Italian cinema a new vitality and worldwide recognition." (Katz, 1979, p.605).
The script writer and critic Zavattini suggests that the war and particularly the Resistance made it impossible to continue making films on a 'realist vein' (of the passive resignation type). The Resistance, after all, was bearing witness to the fact that man can make his own destiny, that each man has a potential not only for change but for good. The method may have been the same ‑ an impartial detached observation of man's predicament, a resigned or heroic acceptance of it, but for the neutralists, this scientific impartiality could not hold, and the sense of need for social change, already present during the fascist regime, became now even more urgent and dramatically so as the Italian economy began to recover in the post war years. Among neorealist directors and authors, the most politically committed were now sailing very close to didactic productions.
Miccichè in 1974 stated that Neorealism was "...an ethics of an aesthetics." It was the answer of a generation of filmmakers to the question asked by Vittorini: 'Shall we ever have a culture capable of protecting people against suffering instead of just comforting them?"
But it could not last ...
'We are in rags? Let's show everyone our rags. We are defeated? Let's look at our disasters.
How much we are obliged to the Mafia? to hypocritical bigotry? to conformity, to irresponsibility, to bad breeding? Let's pay all our debts with ferocious love of honesty and the world will participate, moved by this great contest with truth" V. De Sica.
Neorealist films were successful in Italy because, finally, the truths that needed to be said were being said, they were also the expression of hope ‑things could not get worse and, along with experiences of despair, the war highlighted a capacity for great solidarity; ahead was reconstruction, a new Italy for a new era. But it was successful also because neorealism in cinema, as in photography, created its own dramatic forceful aesthetics (1) and (2). The accolade Neorealism received abroad by both critics and the viewing public was overwhelming; partly because the men and women who had served during the war (ex soldiers British and American in particular) could re‑live or share some of their experiences with their families, but it was mainly for its social message and aesthetics. This success lasted abroad longer than in Italy, perhaps because it proposed over and over again a 'romantic, sentimental and patronising' image of Italy that the foreign public wanted to see. But Italian people grew tired of the stream of images of squalor, degradation and came to resent this international humiliation. Political change in 1948 saw a set-back for those parties which were closely associated with the drive for change and renewal and keen to underline the dignity and the power of the proletariat. Neorealist films and their directors incurred the wrath of the then ruling party (Christian Democrats) and of the Catholic church. This displeasure manifested itself through censorship, difficulties in rising capitals or loans for new productions, a refusal of export licences which effectively curtailed foreign earnings. Public denunciation went rapidly from the caustic letters of Andreotti to legislation (Andreotti's law of 1949 ) (Andreotti was one of the most senior and powerful Christian Democrats politicians of the post war years who accused De Sica of rendering a "wretched service to his land (fatherland), which is also the land of... progressive social legislation".
An so, the days of 'We are in rags? Let's show everyone our rags. We are defeated? Let's look at our disasters. How much we are obliged to the Mafia? To hypocritical bigotry? To conformity, to irresponsibility, to bad breeding? Let's pay all our debts with ferocious love of honesty and the world will participate, moved by this great contest with truth" (Lattuada, quoted in. M. Marcus, Italian film in the light of neorealism.) were over. The uncomfortable image of Italy presented by the anti‑establishment was uncomfortable for the establishment as well as for many Italians but the legacy was there to stay. 'The entire post war production of Italian film industry has continued to acknowledge [ ... ] its lasting debt to neorealisin'. (M. Marcus)
As M. Liehm states, "Visconti, Rossellini, De Sica, De Santis brought to life a phenomenon with clearly defined technical and moral components that influenced almost all subsequent film trends in the West and in the East. Neorealist approach became a permanent part of the filmmakers' equipment. Its influence could be seen in French cinema (Clouzot, Godard, Truffaut), Japanese directors (Ichikawa, Oshima), Indian production of Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray), American directors (Kazan) and in East European film makers (Wajda)" (M. Liehm, pgg. 129‑130).
Names that matter:
Directors and films:
L. Visconti - Ossessione
R. Rossellini - Roma città aperta; Paisà; Germania, anno zero
De Sica - Sciuscià; Ladri di biciclette; Miracolo a Milano; Umberto D
De Santis - Riso amaro; Non c' è pace tra gli ulivi
A. Lattuada - Il bandito; Senza pietà; Il mulino del Po')
F. Fellini and A. Antonioni
Scriptwriters & Critics:
G. De Santis
F. Fellini and A. Antonioni
Soviet expressive realism - Eisenstein, Pudovkin
French poetic realism - Jean Renoir
Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Princeton University Press (UWA - PN1993.5.I8.M3)
Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present,University of California Press (UWA - PN1993.5.I8.L7)
A. Bazin, What is cinema?, University of California Press (UWA - PN1994.B3)