Italian neorealism developed as a particular form of cinematic expression during the period when Italy was ruled by the Fascists. Italian neorealism developed under onerous circumstances and became a form by which Italian filmmakers could express themselves in a new way. Essentially, the early neorealist filmmakers were doing what they could with the tools at hand and doing it under the watchful eyes of an antagonistic ruling class, From the tensions this arrangement produced, they created something distinctive, allowing them to develop ideas and to do so in a new cinematic style. At the time, Italy was ruled by fascists, who viewed art as valuable only to the degree it was useful. Yet, these films were not made in service of fascist ideas but as a counter to them. The forces that helped shape these films, the style that was produced by these tensions, and some important examples demonstrate the vitality achieved by Italian directors as World War II ended.
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One of the best-known of what would be called the neo-realist approach to film was Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945), and many of the characteristics of the movement were evident in this film. These films had an anti-establishment, revolutionary attitude. They had an extemporaneous, documentary quality enhanced in the early era by the materials from which they were made--war-time film stock, cobbled-together equipment, non-professional actors, and location shooting. Open City is a good example of this early period in neorealism, while Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) is an expression of the fully developed tradition from the period after the expulsion of the fascists and after the end of World War II.
These two films display a challenge to the establishment of the time and a social consciousness that delves into the reality rather than the image of the nation. For this reason, neorealism encountered hostility from the established forces because these films portrayed Italy in a realistic and critical way that was not the sort of image the establishment wanted for the country, particularly to be presented to the outside world.
Bondanella sees the development of neorealism as a high point in the history of the film and one that would be highly influential to later works and movements. Bondanella cites critic Andre Bazin, who called neorealism "a cinema of 'fact' and 'reconstituted reportage'" which offered a message of fundamental human solidarity fostered by the anti-fascist Resistance. Bazin says that these works often embodied a rejection of both traditional dramatic and cinematic conventions. The filmmakers most often employed on-location shooting rather than studio sets and used nonprofessional actors and documentary effects. Leprohon emphasizes that this cannot be considered a coherent movement in the sense that it created rules or even theories followed by the filmmakers. Rather, the filmmakers were merely trying to express themselves individually in a way that was "in the air:"
Essentially, neo-realism was a product of political and social circumstances. And it is in this revolutionary aspect of neo-realism that I should like to discuss first of all. Before it existed in its own right, with definite aims and sectarian interests, neo-realism--which was still nameless--was opposed to a state of affairs which increasingly stifled and oppressed the expression of truth--a state of affairs that existed . . . long before the Fascist era.
Leprohon notes that the neorealistic style had as its underlying aim making "the cinema an extension of the literary realism that had developed at the end of the 19th century." Leprohon looks back at this literary history and finds a precedent for the new form of cinematic expression: "Neo-realism was thus a revival of the Risorgimento, the 'unfinished revolution' which the young polemicists intended to complete, while at home and abroad the regime was giving increasingly clear signs of its imminent collapse." Neorealism was itself a revolution.
Liehm sees many of the young filmmakers of the time as conscious revolutionaries seeking artistic truth in cinema because the literary scene was too disorganized and scattered to be an effective vehicle:
The struggle had to originate where the 'strongest weapon' was, carried out by film artists whose work was centered in the major cities, mainly in Rome. After twenty-seven years of fascism, no other medium had the stamina to create a social context for a new artistic movement.
Visconti brought the setting of Italy to life, and setting would be an important component in neorealistic films. He made changes from the original Cain story that are significant in showing the intent of the filmmaker. Cain's story is naturalistic, with characters encountering the accidental and failing in the face of arbitrary but not divine justice. For Visconti, this is not the way the universe operates; instead, he sees a tragic outcome deriving from the necessary logic of the situation into which the characters are thrown:
Turning Cain's parable of arbitrariness into a demonstration of necessity required, however, more than a simple alteration of plot mechanics. It meant creating a new structured framework in which to define the actions of the characters, and consequently making the characters themselves different.
Though the Fascists had accepted the story, they did not accept the finished product, and the censor refused to pass it. The young filmmakers objected and approached Mussolini, who saw nothing objectionable and passed it. However, when the last Mussolini government took refuge in the North, its members took the film with them in a cut version and destroyed the negative. The prints in existence today are from a duplicate possessed by Visconti. Ironically, the film was long unavailable in the West for quite a different reason--copyright problems because of Cain's novel.
This element of the social statement was an important component in the leading neo-realist films, and indeed this element was feared by the fascists, who did not want their society depicted in any but the best light. With the end of Italian fascist rule, a different set of critical rulers was put in place. Roberto Rossellini's Open City is a film about Rome during the period of the German occupation, and the conditions under which the film was shot mirror the situation in the film itself.
The film was also important for what it said to the world of film:
It so completely reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of this historical moment that it altered both the public and the critics to a new direction in Italian film. The conditions of its production (relatively little shooting in the studio, film stock bought on the black market and developed without the normal viewing of daily rushes, postsynchronization of sound to avoid laboratory expenses, limited financial backing) did much to create many of the myths concerning neorealism.
Rome at the time was a just-opened city, in that the Germans had just left, and the effects of the Nazi occupation were clearly still felt and contributed to the metaphoric meanings attached to the film. Much of the sense of the title is ironic, in that Rome was not yet an open city at all in the time frame of the film, though that was the condition wished by the people and newly experienced by the filmmakers, who had themselves prayed for that release from the enclosure of the Nazi occupation.
The period of the occupation is evoked as a time of great difficulty and trouble, and the term "open city" then had a different meaning, in that the police wore armbands proclaiming Rome an open city, meaning it was not to be a military target based on the international rules of war. Although the police proclaimed the city open, it was actually a city tightly enclosed by martial law under the Germans. The penalty for nearly every infraction was death, giving the city the aura of an enclosed grave much of the time. "Openness" thus sometimes has a literal meaning, sometimes a metaphoric meaning, and sometimes an ironic meaning, in that the actuality belies any openness at all.
The contrary nature of the title is evident in the American release version of the film, which begins with an explanation of the problems facing the filmmakers when they made the film, including having to shoot without proper equipment, behind locked doors, and out of sight of the remaining Nazis until the Germans were finally gone from the city. Certainly, this description does not imply openness at all, but it does imply an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to create an openness through their art.
In the opening scene, as the Italian partisan, Giorgio, flees his home when the Nazi soldiers arrive, Rossellini contrasts the interior and the exterior, the intrusion of the Germans and the escape of Giorgio, in a way that challenges different ideas about openness. Giorgio has been enclosed in his home, though viewers first see him emerging into the openness of the exterior. He peers down through a crack in the roof to see the Germans as if they were in a small box. In truth, they are standing before his door. The interior of the apartment seems dwarfed by their presence, and they are therefore all the more enclosed by the walls and doorways that seem too small to hold them as they search the apartment. Ironically, the man hunted, a man clearly not free, is out in the open air, while the hunters, who presumably are free, are enclosed within the confines of his apartment.
Immediately after this sequence, the explanation of the term "open city" is given as the commander of the German occupation uses a map to explain that the open city is divided into 14 zones, making controlling the populace with a minimum of force easier. The map itself encloses the "open" city, and the way the Nazis live in the city also belies its openness as far as they are concerned. Major Bergmann is asked how he met Giorgio, and he says in the usual way--he met him when he was across the desk from him in the same room, for Bergmann takes pride in being able to bring anyone to his office that he wishes and in himself never leaving that office. He indeed states that he takes a stroll through the city every afternoon without leaving his desk. He is enclosed in his warped task and keeps himself as widely separated from the city and the people as possible.
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The Nazis in general treat the city as something they pass through, not something of which they are a part. They clearly do not belong, just as they seem out of place in Giorgio's apartment, squeezed by the walls as if the walls want them out. The office of Bergmann is no more hospitable, although it is much larger, and he and the Police Commissioner stand and talk together awkwardly, stiffly, with the map of Rome between them, the map divided up by the boundaries of the 14 zones. The Nazis have closed themselves off from the city they occupy, maintaining quarters distant from the people of Rome, avoiding contact, and indeed living separately because that is a mandate imposed on them by their leadership, fearful of fraternization and collaboration on any scale.
Scene after scene creates an ironic contrast between the idea of Rome as an open city and the reality of different kinds of closure. The people mass in the streets before shops trying to buy food, yet those shops are closed, with nothing to sell. The streets are open, but the buildings are truly closed, with no provisions and little hope of a changed situation in the near future.
The film presents a certain tension, however, between the realism of its city streets and the underlying attitude taken by the director toward the material:
The tone of the work is thus far more indebted to Rossellini's message of Christian humanism than it is to any programmatic attempt at cinematic realism. The good characters are set sharply apart from the corrupt ones by their belief in what Francesco calls an impending "springtime" in Italy and a better tomorrow: Marina is corrupted by Ingrid not because of political convictions but because she lacks faith in herself and is therefore incapable of loving others.
Cesare Zavattini, who co-wrote "The Bicycle Thief" with De Sica, is noted as the theoretical founder of Neo-Realism. As early as 1942 he called for a new kind of Italian film that would abolish contrived plots, take to the streets for its material, and do away with professional actors. According to Zavattini, plot was inauthentic because it imposed an artificial structure on everyday life. The unemployed family man in "The Bicycle Thief" and his son are the lead characters and both are non-actors who were coached by De Sica.
Vittorio De Sica directed The Bicycle Thief in 1948, and, although this was after the war and after the expulsion of the Fascists, the film is infused with De Sica's bitterness that few things had changed in society:
While Rossellini was searching for subjective freedom of facts, De Sica tried to find their human face. He discovered it not in the exceptional sorrow of the war but in the misery of daily life where the war was just one aspect of the human lot.
De Sica had trouble interesting any producers in a story about so trifling a subject as the theft of a bicycle, and he had to raise the funding himself by traveling all over Europe.
Though the film is clearly critical of the social conditions of the time and challenged the authorities as a consequence, it is much more than a social document or tract. De Sica sees the problem in the psychology of the people as much as in the structure of their society. He shows bureaucrats, police officials, and church people who have no understanding of the main character's dilemma in having lost his bicycle, and he also shows that members of the man's own class are no more sympathetic towards him.
Bondanella states that De Sica sees a world in which economic solutions are ultimately ineffective in curing what is a meaningless, absurd, human predicament: "De Sica's carefully contrived visual effects underline the hopelessness of Ricci's struggle, not merely the economic or political aspects of Italian society which have supposedly produced his dilemma."
This is a double indictment of society, including as it does the people themselves as well as the establishment, and such a bleak view had to have an effect on the viewer. Certainly, this was not the picture of Italy that the authorities wanted to have presented to the world. In truth, De Sica's view was not that the authorities themselves were to blame:
Social reform may transform the immediate situation De Sica described in 1948. Economic development will indeed change a society in which a stolen bicycle may signify hunger and deprivation. But no amount of social engineering or even revolution, De Sica seems to imply, will alter the basic facts of life--solitude, loneliness, and alienation of the individual within the amorphous and unsympathetic body of humanity.
Alfred Bazin was one critic who did not agree with De Sica on this point and who saw The Bicycle Thief as an indictment of the authorities. Bazin called the film "the only valid Communist film of the whole past decade." Bazin also said the film represented a new form of pure cinema, a cinema with no actors, no sets, and no storyline in the traditional sense. Open City before had made use of real locations but had included actors and a more traditional storyline. The Bicycle Thief is thus the film that most represents what the world would come to see as the essence of neo-realism. It was also the beginning of a tradition that would be followed by others.
The post-war government did not try to exercise the kind of control the fascists had wielded, and the establishment must have felt some ambivalence about a film that, on the one hand, criticized the establishment and all of Italian society in a stark and effective fashion and, on the other hand, brought acclaim and attention to the Italian film industry when it was praised and rewarded around the world. Italian neorealistic directors expressed their antipathy to either the structure of their society or the ways in which that society was controlled and directed in a variety of ways. Rossellini in Open City and De Sica in The Bicycle Thief each created a new form of cinematic expression, related in their underlying intentions and in certain stylistic elements that link them even as other stylistic and thematic elements make them very different from one another. All challenged the prevailing establishment, however, and involved images and themes that many in authority believed did not reflect well on Italian society.
These two films taken together contributed to the mythic view taken of the neorealist period. Open City was shot in a way that was new and different and that inspired a generation of filmmakers, including De Sica, who carried aspects of neorealism to a logical end.
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