Santosh Sandhu discusses Italian neo-realism…
In Italy, the fascist movement came to power in 1922. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini took advantage of the Italian peoples’ disillusionment with the liberal government and its inability to bring prosperity in the aftermath of the First World War which saw mass poverty, inflation and unemployment. Having created a totalitarian state by 1939, Mussolini was now controlling all the political, economic and social activities of the Italian people without question.
Having taken over national cinema in 1935, this government was now subjecting Italy’s strong cinemagoing culture to formulaic costume dramas, farcical entertainments and propaganda films which promoted the cause of the fascists. The government had also introduced protectionist measures such as import restrictions and quotas to limit the number of imported Hollywood films and to promote the growth of the now centralized national cinema. Under this regime films and other media were also heavily prone to censorship and control by the state.
By the early 1940s and Italy’s entry into the Second World War, many people had become disillusioned with this government. Mussolini’s promises of prosperity had not materialized and the standard of living had depleted further for the common people. The Italian army had suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the allies with the Italian people and the Italian economy ill prepared for the war. Whilst support for the fascist regime was declining, a new wave of experienced filmmakers began making movies which honestly depicted the difficult times they were living in unlike the manufactured or idealized world the fascist propaganda movies had depicted.
An early example towards the post war trend for neo-realism was Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession, 1943) based on American author James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. American fiction had been popular with Italian writers at the time for its gritty realism and melodrama and would be an influence on neo-realist writers and directors.
Ossessione was about a drifter who has an affair with a married woman and together they murder the woman’s husband. The story was reset in Italy with much of the melodrama removed and the characters changed to suit the environment. This film subjected Italian audiences to a new kind of national cinema. It was rebellious and allowed a form of protestation which was forbidden under the fascist regime. Its characters were natural, passionate, flawed and individualistic. Whilst not a neo-realist film in the conventional sense, Ossessione was certainly a major influence.
The first truly neo-realist film and box office success would be Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, citta aperta (Rome, Open City,1945). Many of the distinguishing characteristics of neo-realism would be employed here. These included a leaning towards realism by employing a documentary style approach and social and political commentary as the film took place during Nazi occupation and focused on the true story of a catholic priest and a communist partisan working for the resistance.
The film also featured a preference for location shooting as most of the film was shot outdoors utilizing natural light. Non professional actors were employed in many of the roles, with children often giving good naturalistic performances. The film was also shot without sound, with the dialogue recorded later in a studio. Though some of these techniques may have been employed by Rossellini due to material constraints. These included the unavailability of studio facilities (they had been bombed by the allies) and low production costs limiting the number of trained actors.
Rossellini would follow Rome, Open City with another neo-realist film Paisa (Paisan, 1946). Paisa featured a series of short stories about life during and after the Second World War. Shot in Italian and English (the film was partly funded by the Americans), it featured real documentary footage of Allied troops landing in Sicily before entering the first of six invented stories. The first story introduced the film’s recurring motif of misunderstanding between the Italian people and their liberators in which a local girl is mistakenly blamed for the death of a GI by a group of soldiers.
The second story featured a sympathetic black GI whose boots are stolen by a young boy he has befriended. When he catches up with the boy, he realizes the boy’s actions were only those of survival as he lives in a cave with other destitute people. Liberation has not improved the lives of these people just like victory will not improve the life of the black GI when he returns to a segregated and oppressive America. This was a truly groundbreaking depiction of a black soldier as Hollywood films at this time rarely acknowledged their existence.
The third story in Paisa would continue this theme of how liberation and the post war world were not living up to expectation. Six months after liberating Rome, an American soldier was now disillusioned whilst the innocent girl he had met at the time was now working as a prostitute. The fourth story was about a nurse desperately searching for her former lover who was a partisan leader. When she reaches her destination she receives news that he is dead rendering her journey meaningless. The fifth story was surprisingly comedic in its execution as it concerned a group of monks fasting to save the souls of two visiting chaplains, a protestant and a Jew. The final story was again dramatic. It concerned a group of partisans and allied soldiers captured by the Germans who are then all executed. As with Rome, Open City, Paisa made many social and political comments but also managed to punctuate the drama with comedy and uplifting moments.
One of the best known of the neo-realist films would be Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) about a working class man who having been unemployed for a long time accepts a job as a bill sticker. In order to do this job he must be in possession of a bicycle. Having pawned his bed sheets in exchange for his bicycle, he sets out on his new job only to have it stolen. He then sets off on a fruitless quest with his young son to find it. Driven to the point of desperation he tries to steal one himself only to be captured and then released by the sympathetic owner.
This film told a simple story very well. The social commentary was very profound as to examining a society in which the theft of a simple bicycle can have such damaging repercussions. Although the protagonist was a sympathetic character, the effect this incident would have on his impressionable son had a greater resonance. As with many of the neo-realist films, Bicycle Thieves did not present any easy answers with the father and son disappearing into a crowd at the end.
Italian films of this period had often ignored the fact that they were once Germany’s allies (Mussolini had declared war on Britain and France in 1940) and suggested that many were against fascism and working with the resistance against the Nazi occupation. In 1943 Mussolini had lost power and Italy had joined the allies which would eventually bring the fascist regime to an end. Mussolini would be captured and executed in 1945 by anti- fascist freedom fighters.
At the end of the war and looking towards a democratic future, Italy was obviously attempting to wash its hands of its fascist past and did not want to present itself in this way to its own people and to the rest of the world. Acknowledging such facts in cinema would also undoubtedly have limited the commercial prospects of Italian films at home and abroad. By the early 1950s Italian cinema began concentrating on a more positive image of Italian culture eschewing neo-realism which was by now being considered as derogatory.
During the war years, Hollywood had been unable to distribute its films across Nazi occupied Europe. By the end of the war, Hollywood had a backlog of films waiting to be released including all time greats Gone with the Wind (1939), and Citizen Kane (1941). With the post war Italian economy in recovery, the Italian people demanded and received Hollywood films signaling an end to its once protectionism. It appeared that the need for spectacle, melodrama, and slick Hollywood entertainment had returned. Domestic Italian cinema was now being swamped by the popularity of Hollywood films with Italian filmmakers having to change tact to compete. Whilst neo-realist films were winning audience approval abroad and were being praised by critics such as Andre Bazin they were no longer appreciated in their domestic market as a commercial force. The directors who had made neo-realism famous were by now also embracing different styles. The early 1950s would also signal the beginnings of a trend for international co-productions. Italy would be making films with other European countries and also with Hollywood well into this decade. Whilst neorealism was no longer commercially viable its influence would undoubtedly continue even to this day.
Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.