How Italian Neorealism Brought the Grit of the Streets to the Big Screen [No Film School]


Much like The French New Wave, a new movement was developing in Italian cinema in the aftermath of World War II, but instead of being liberated from a foreign dictator, Italy was also being liberated from its own. Benito Mussolini founded Italian Fascism in the mid-20s and it lasted up until 1943 when his government fell. Filmmakers were looking for an opportunity to smash the old guard and tell a different kind of story that showed the Italian experience from a new angle and here was their chance. This is Italian Neorealism…

In the 1930s, Mussolini saw the significance of film as a cultural institution instead of simply a tool for propaganda and, because of this, “he founded the Venice Film Festival in 1932; a film school… in 1935; and then… Cinecittá Studios in Rome in 1937” (Martin 28). Even though Italian Neorealism got its start almost twenty years before The French New Wave, their origins were very similar and the pioneers of the Neorealist movement went on to inspire the major instigators of The French New Wave. For example, many of the filmmakers of the Neorealist movement got their start as film critics. Several Neorealist directors wrote for a magazine called Cinema that was actually run by Mussolini’s son Vittorio (Wiki). The presence of Vittorio (who was also a film producer) made the subject of politics off-limits for the writers, so instead they criticized what were called Telefoni Bianchi films. These films were pretty much all the Italian film industry was making at the time. Telefoni Bianchi roughly translates to “white telephones,” and refers to Italy’s clones of American comedies during the 1930s that all seemed to feature “white telephones” and “Art Deco sets” that reflected a “status symbol of bourgeois wealth [which was] generally unavailable to the movie-going public” (Wiki). As the Wiki puts it, the “films tended to be socially conservative, promoting family values, respect for authority, a rigid class hierarchy, and country life, all stances perfectly in line with the ideology of the fascist regime” (Wiki).

The Italian Neorealist films would take the opposite approach. Widely considered the first Neorealist film, Obsession by Luchino Visconti in 1943, captures the bleakness of working class Italy. The film is a loose adaptation of the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and centers around an affair and a murder plot. Visconti shot the film at a distance, opting to shoot almost exclusively in medium and wide shots rather than close-ups (Martin 28). This distance removed all the romanticism of Italy and “outraged both the Church and the Fascists” who saw the film as filthy and went as far as “[sprinkling] holy water in the auditorium after a screening” and having the negative destroyed (Martin 28). Luckily Visconti had made a copy, which is why we are able to view the film today.

With the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist Dictatorship and the end of the German occupation in 1945—this period was called the “Italian Spring”—the critic-turned-filmmakers were finally able to tell their stories without interference. They took to the streets to make their films, in part because the Cinecittà film studios sustained extensive damage during the war, but also because shooting on the street gave their films an authenticity that hadn’t yet been seen in the Italian film industry (Wiki). These films would show Italian life as it was in the wake of World War II. The streets were rundown, there was damage, and communities were in disarray. The realities of poverty and social injustice would finally gain attention and the setting of these films would be filled with real locals.

One of the most important films depicting World War II and a classic of the Neorealist movement was Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, which was shot during the final days of the war. This was an extremely difficult film to make because of the conditions surrounding the end of the war—Rossellini actually had to buy his film stock on the black market and he wasn’t able to view any of his footage until filming was complete (Martin 29). Neorealist films often featured children as a symbol of optimism, but perhaps none more so than the child-resistance-group in the film. With all the pain and anguish the Nazis and Fascists caused, the children walking the country road at the end of the film suggests that they are the ones who will carry on the spirit of the fallen and a brighter future is just on the horizon.

But perhaps the most famous Italian Neorealist film is Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief) by Vittorio De Sica. The film follows a lower-class man trying to find the bicycle that was stolen from him. If he doesn’t find his bike, he will lose his job and be unable to provide for his family. De Sica only used non-professional actors and some of the performers had very similar lives to the characters in which they played, which made their portrayals even more convincing. Survival in poverty was an important theme of the movement, but in Bicycle Thieves, it seemed to carry even more poignancy than it’s counterparts.

Italian Neorealism petered out in the early 1950s—Italy was ready for growth and change. The economy started getting better and people were beginning to thrive. The bleakness and pessimism of the Neorealist stories that gave a voice to the common people was becoming less and less relevant and the Italian people were turning to Hollywood’s optimism for their entertainment (Martin 32). Because of the Italian Neorealist movement, we not only have some of the greatest stories committed to film, but we are also given a real sense of what life was like at such an important period of world history that can never be captured again.