Our fascination with movies comes from our need to escape, even for a couple of hours, the world we live in and immerse ourselves in a fictitious universe, be part of a completely new story, see the world through somebody else’s eyes. In this episode I’d like to take you back to a time when film-makers decided escapism was not what was needed, people had to confront the reality surrounding them, and that reality was not pretty at all.
Born in the aftermath of World War II, Italian Neorealism offered viewers stark black-and-white portraits of a country destroyed by war and drowning in poverty. It was not a good time for easy comedies and light-hearted romance. Like the rest of the country, film-makers were facing a dire situation - most of the studios had been leveled in allied bombardments, there were no money available for the arts and there weren’t even enough artists, as many had been compromised after starring in fascist productions.
Neorealism found a solution to all these problems - films were shot on location - in squalid neighborhoods or in poor villages. As for actors, ordinary people were put in front of the camera and told to act out their lives, since the movies were about their real life stories. Directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica or Luchino Visconti, to name just a few, made some of their greatest movies during the neorealistic period, which ended in the early 1960s.
Luchino Visconti's "La Terra Trema" (1948) was shot with Sicilian farmers using their local dialect
Neorealism should be understood as a brutal response to the farce that was the Italian cinema during the fascist regime. Benito Mussolini holds the dubious merit of being the first dictator to grasp the benefits of using films as a propaganda tools. As early as 1924, Mussolini founded Il Luce, a movie institute meant to promote fascist values and influence the people’s way of thinking. Most of the institute’s productions were newsreels with heavy patriotic overtones and movies glorifying the exploits of the conquering Italian army, especially in Northern Africa. Not too subtle and not very successful. A change of strategy was needed, so Italians were instead entertained with lots of comedies that portrayed a happy carefree country, in stark contrast with the realities of a country at war. Imitating American comedies of the era, the movies were known as ‘telefoni bianchi’ - white phones movies, as they presented impressive decors, featuring white telephones, a status symbol unavailable to the masses of moviegoers.
Neorealist directors did away with the phoney sets and focused on the real conditions of the post-war Italy.
One of the most important Italian neorealist movies was shot as early as 1945, at a time when Mussolini was still clinging to power. ‘Roma, Citta Aperta’ (Rome, Open City), directed by Roberto Rossellini, is set in 1944, when the Italian capital was under Nazi occupation. The plot revolves around several Resistance fighters the Germans are trying to arrest and was inspired by real people. It’s a gritty movies, full of violence and suffering, which could not be presented on screen before. One of the iconic scenes of the movie is the killing of a visibly pregnant woman, played by famous Italian actress Anna Magnani, shot by the Nazi as she was running after the truck taking away her fiancee, arrested by the Nazi. The character was inspired by a real Roman woman shot by the Nazi, as was the priest who holds her as she is dying.
Film critic William Wolf especially praised the scene where Pina is shot, stating that "few scenes in cinema have the force of that in which Magnani, arms outstretched, races towards the camera to her death."
The movie was released in September 1945, barely a few months after the end of the war and the execution of Benito Mussolini. The following year it received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It was followed by two other movies, ’Paisan’ and ’Germany Year Zero’, which completed what is known as Rossellini’s ‘Neorealist Trilogy.’
Italian neorealist movies do not concern themselves with individual stories, but with stories representative for an entire class - the Resistance fighters, the poor women fighting to feed their families, the unemployed struggling to find something to work.
’Ladri Biciclette’ (‘Bicycle Theives’, 1948) is considered a masterpiece of Italian Neorealism and one of the best movies ever. Director Vittorio De Sica chose Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker with no film experience to play the lead role, that of a man who desperately needs a bicycle to get to the job he had such a hard-time finding. His wife pawns her dowry to get him the bicycle, only for it to be stolen on the first day at work. After unsuccessfully trying to get it back, the man tries to steal another bicycle, but he gets caught and it is only the owner’s compassion that saves him from going to jail. The man’s son is played by a boy De Sica had noticed helping his father sell flowers in the vicinity of the set. Ironically, Lamberto Maggiorani lost his job at the factory because he was considered a movie-star. The following years, he took a variety of odd jobs and tried to get other parts in movies, with very little luck.
Vittorio De Sica also directed another Neorealist masterpiece ’Umberto D.’ (1952), which follows the story of a poor old man desperate to keep his rented room, but ends up in the street with his dog. It is only his worry for the dog’s future that keeps him from committing suicide, at a time when all his human friends have turned their backs on him. Given De Sica’s preference for non-professional actors, the part of Umberto was played by an elderly man, Carlo Battisti, former linguistics professor, who never made another movie.
’Bellissima’ (1951) is Luchino Visconti’s only movie with comedic overtones, although the film is anything but happy. Anna Magnani stars as a movie-obsessed mother trying to get a part in a film for her young daughter, a deep-cutting satire of the cinema industry and of people’s obsession with stardom.
’Roma, Ore 11’ (‘Rome, 11 o’clock’, 1952) made by Giuseppe De Santis, leading figure of the Neorealism movement, is based on the true story of an accident when a staircase collapsed under the weight of 200 women waiting for a job interview.
The insistence with which Neorealist film-makers focused on poverty, unemployment and suffering is the main reason the movement went of style. Not only the people were a bit tired of too much reality and wanted escapism, but the political class was also tired of so many movies that highlighted the negative aspects in Italian society. Times were moving on and people needed movies to make them optimist for the future was the reasoning of the new political elite, dutifully used by obedient film critics to kill off Neorealism.
As one young politician put it at the time ‘You don’t air your dirty laundry in public’. The man was Giulio Andreotti, a rising star in the Italian Christian-Democratic Party, future prime minister, a controversial figure who ruled over Italy for some four decades. In light of his future career, getting rid of Neorealism was quite convenient.
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