I write primarily about American films on this blog because my expertise is Hollywood, but oftentimes to understand the American film industry is to understand the film industry of other countries and how important they are to Hollywood’s own evolution. Take Italy’s gamechanging use of neorealism in the late 1940s for example.
Italy is an important country in the history of cinema and you will have a tough time finding people across the world as enthusiastic and passionate about movies as Italians (the Venice Film Festival which was founded in 1932 and awards the Golden Lion is the oldest film festival in the world) and early Italian sound films, much like in Hollywood, included comedies, musicals, romances and historical epics. In fact Italy was purposefully imitating Hollywood’s style for much of the early 20th century.
These genres were unfortunately balanced alongside a lot of propaganda in the 1930s and early 1940s. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini found value in film and aided the industry by founding the film studio Cinecittà and the film school Centro Sperimentale but the government restrictions were a hindrance for creativity, and just like Italy’s partners in the Axis, Germany and Japan, the Nazi-occupied country banned the importation of American films.
Not surprisingly, much of Italy’s films in the era of Mussolini were bland and self-censoring against themes like politics, sex and even economy as it was forbidden to portray characters who were poor or unemployed.
It was only after the overthrow of Mussolini and the expulsion of Nazis in the aftermath of World War II that Italian filmmakers began to unleash their creativity (and that American films would be allowed to inspire them as well).
While cinema was languishing under Mussolini, there was a group of passionate film critics for the Italian film magazine Cinema who knew film could be more than what they were seeing on screen. It wasn’t just the artless propaganda they hated but also the formulaic nature of Italian films in general. These film critics included people like Luchino Visconti, Cesare Zavattini, Giuseppe De Santos and Gianni Puccini who would go on to make films themselves to create the kind of art that they wanted to see, which was easier once the Nazis left Italy.
The style of these new kinds of films came to be known as neorealism, which rejected traditional film formulas such as romance, good vs. evil and spectacle in favor of realistic experiences that were more improvisational and authentic in their depictions of life.
Cinema film critic Luchino Visconti was also a theatre and opera director as well as a screenwriter who began as an assistant director to French director Jean Renoir on Toni (1935) and Partie de campagne (1936) before directing what some consider to be the father of the neorealism movement Obsession (1943), a drama loosely based on James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti made other neorealist films like The Earth Trembles (1948) and Bellissima (1951) but later broke away from neorealism to focus on romanticism with his color films in the 1950s.
While there were precursors to neorealism such as Alessandro Blasetti’s 1860 (1934) and Jean Renoir’s Toni, documentary propaganda filmmaker turned auteur Roberto Rossellini had turned an important corner when he made the film Open City (1945), a grand prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival which popularized the neorealism style across the globe.
In Italy’s post-war period, while there was artistic freedom, it was still difficult to make films because film stock, actors and money were scarce. As a result, Italy had none of the polish and glamour of Hollywood, but Rossellini turned this into a blessing while filming Open City by embracing the realistic nature of being on the streets of Rome. While the Nazis in the film were shot in a stilted, dark and artificial manner as an artistic contrast, the outdoor scenes were shot like a documentary.
Rossellini films like this and his next feature film Paisan (1946) captured the beauty of Italy, a beauty as unspoiled by plot and character as possible. And the documentary-like Paisan even went so far as to make no definitive statements about Italians nor about the invading liberators who occupied Italy, focusing solely on the experience of being with them and allowing the audience watching the film to make up their own minds.
This was a common trait in the Italian films of the post-war period. No exaggeration, no fantasy, no romance, and no professional actors in the majority of the roles. After laws had forced Italian filmmakers to hide reality for so long, they finally felt liberated to portray reality as it was, a reality that was critical of those in power but also untethered by strict narratives.
Other neorealist films directed by Rossellini include Germany, Year Zero (1948), Stromboli (1950), Europe ’51 (1952) and Journey to Italy (1954).
Vittorio De Sica was the more popular neorealist in America due to his combined use of politics, sentimentality and traditional narratives. A popular stage and film actor in the 1930s and a director of escapist fluff in the 1940s, De Sica directed poignant and realistic dramas which were studies on the pain and degradation of Italian life, such as Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), which was his most famous film in America where it was known as The Bicycle Thief.
Bicycle Thieves was not just a movie about a man who tries to find a stolen bike. It’s a movie about a man who tries to save his job in order to keep his family from starving and the depths he will fall to in order to accomplish that goal. It was a very human drama that shines a light on the flaws of being human and it is often seen by Americans as the definitive neorealist film of Italy.
Other neorealist films directed by De Sica include The Children Are Watching Us (1944), Miracle in Milan (1951) and Umberto D. (1952).
Cinema journalist Giuseppe De Santis became a proponent of the neorealist style and later a screenwriter who collaborated with Luchino Visconti on his screenplay for Obsession before directing his own films. De Santis was an idealistic storyteller who called attention to the poor living conditions of working class Italians and other human fallacies. He directed the neorealist films Bitter Rice (1949) and Rome 11:00 (1952). Bitter Rice, his Oscar-nominated film about a woman who must choose between two suitors of completely different social backgrounds, was an early neorealism milestone (and a star-making vehicle for actress Silvana Mangano).
By 1950, as a result of the positive effects of the Italian economic miracle period, the themes of Italian neorealism started to become irrelevant and it shifted away from themes of sociological struggle to themes of psychological struggle and films started featuring more professional actors, more conventional narratives and more polished scripts, although they still maintained many of the lessons of traditional neorealism.
Filmmakers like Federico Fellini had less interest in the slums of reality than the fantastic and the romantic, reflected in the characters in his films and how they search for meaning rather than economic security. Fellini’s films, which included La Strada (1954), Il Bidone (1955), Nights of Cabiria (1956), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963) and Amarcord (1973), often contained a combination of dreams, fantasy and extravagance. Individual concerns like love and desire took the place of social concerns like livelihood and money.
Other Italian filmmakers who expanded on the ideas popularized by neorealism include the bleak existentialist Michelangelo Antonioni whose notable films include L’Aventurra (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blowup (1966) and The Passenger (1975), the satirical comedy director Pietro Germi who shifted away from social dramas like In the Name of the Law (1948) in favor of humorous films like Divorce – Italian Style (1961) and The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (1966), and award-winning filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci whose notable films include Before the Revolution (1964), The Conformist (1970) and the controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972).
Italian neorealism had a huge impact on the shooting style of modern films as well as the content of cinema going forward, with more films directed at the social and political issues of countries around the world including Czechoslovakia and all over Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. These are themes that would eventually become the norm for film everywhere. Today it is totally normal to watch a film that criticizes government and exposes cracks in the construction of our social lives. The hunger for art that said something important about the world was what made Italy such a powerful beacon in the cinematic world.