Italian cinema has always enjoyed great respect in the film community due to its innovative and influential nature and the Neo-Realism movement might just be the most widely revered period of its storied history. “Neo-Realism” refers to Italian films made from the ’40s through ’60s that we might nowadays call “slice of life” movies — pictures that are unflinchingly honest to real life. This style was made even more unique because it was produced in an era where most narratives were still anchored in unrealistic fiction and overdramatized acting.
Italian Neo-Realism also chronicled fascinating insights into the state of Italy post-WWII, where cities were in physical and economic shambles and the people were in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. Yet, as groundbreaking as these titles were, they stand on a curious historical irony:
As Italy got better, its movies got worse.
The story of Italian Neo-Realism, the style of movies that emerged from the rubble of WWII, and the story of Italy’s film industry in general are as heartbreaking as any of the plots from that period.
Director Luchino Visconti adapted The Postman Always Rings Twice for Ossessione, a murder mystery released in 1943 while Italy was still under fascist rule. Roberto Rossellini released Rome, Open City in 1945 — just months after the war’s end — to dramatize the end of German occupation of Rome in 1944. Italians are both victims and collaborators here, just as they were in real life. Both films established the tenants of Neo-Realism:
- Casting regular people rather than professional actors in most roles
- Shooting on location, rather than on set
- Focusing on the struggles of the common people
- Gritty, yet deliberate cinematography
This was high art that everyone could relate to.
Soon thereafter, upcoming director Vittorio de Sica scored two major successes to further the movement, starting with Shoeshine in 1946. In this movie features two young friends who are just trying to get by post-WWII, then face unjust imprisonment. This turns them into enemies and they soon come to ruin at the hands of cruel outside forces. And none of those details are spoilers — all the major movies of the ’40s and ’50s end in tragedy.
Vittorio de Sica’s following picture was called The Bicycle Thief (1948) and it was a staggering achievement. Not only is it de Sica’s best film, it is arguably the crowning achievement of the entire Neo-Realism movement. The story follows a father and son as their family comes to ruin among throngs of desperate people in postwar Rome. This crushing tragedy not only boasts the artistic achievement of one of the most haunting final shots in film, but also contains images that make the best visual case for the Marshall Plan. The Bicycle Thief contains iconic shots of endless repositories holding pawned possessions and endure as the image of the plight of bombed-out Europe, a continent of people still buckling even after the bullets had stopped.
Bicycle Thief also embodies the bleak themes of the the early Neo-Realism movement, namely, the failure of downtrodden people to work together and a vile world of adults corrupting children.
Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) also highlighted the lack of cooperation amongst Italians by focusing on Sicilian fishermen — who spoke Sicilian, not Italian — hewing a life for themselves out of the sea’s capricious bounty. A working-class family tries freeing itself of the price-fixing of the local big shots, only to end up poorer than before thanks to an uneven playing field. Soon, the joys of small-town life get buried to oppressive entrapment and the protagonist realizes that no amount of self-preservation would save him from poverty- it would require unity with others who are struggling.
Rossellini explored these ideas even further in Germany, Year 0 (1948), which was set not in Rome or Sicily, but Berlin. The cast was composed of regular people living among Berlin’s rubble and offered the world a glimpse into the state of the city, still in ruins two and a half years after the war. In this tragic tale, Edmund, a well-meaning little boy, has an ailing father, and his schoolteacher, seeking to keep the Nazi ideology alive, convinces Edmund that poisoning his weak father would be the charitable thing to do. Things only get worse from there.
Films like Germany, Year 0 weren’t made just to tell sad, honest stories, they were made with the intent to inform audiences of real issues and inspire change. And that’s the point of Italian Neo-Realism: the backdrop in this case is German, but the story could take place anywhere. The themes of regular people fighting the brutal world around them make for universal stories that can reach the hearts of any audience in any time period.
Another major figure in this movement was Federico Fellini. Fellini took the cinematic world by storm with his work with Giulietta Masina in titles like La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). These films were a notable departure from the dark nature of Neo-Realism since he took serious topics and mixed in some comedy. Fellini follows Masina’s characters, a naïve street performer and a prostitute looking for love, respectively, through a world of arrogant men who repeatedly thwart or manipulate her goals for a better life. These films were also unique because they explored the cultural roots that led to fascism, specifically the destructive masculine impulses. By shining a light on the inhumanity of sexism, Fellini showed viewers that rebuilding Italy would mean more than just repairing its broken structures… it would have to amend its social structure too.
As Italy entered the ’60s with confidence, its movies reflected this new attitude to reach new heights of international popularity. Fellini reached a new high point with his known best known work: La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963). Both of these titles feature Marcello Mastroianni, who portrays a womanizing journalist and a womanizing director, respectively, probably representing Fellini himself. These are very unique narratives. Many characters enter and exit at odd times, entire plot points pick up and end without warning, and Mastroianni fails to arrive at any sort of settled relationship with the women in his life. Neither movie, however, ends in tragedy, but in ambiguity.
La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ were praised by international audiences, with directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen taking lots of inspiration from these them, but this was a clear turning point in the Neo-Realism movement. After all, crowds did not gravitate towards these titles for their innovation, but for their decadence. This the shift from tragedy to ambiguity brought in an era of lighter films and showed how the grit of postwar Italy was eroding into glamour. There was, of course, a good reason for that, though, since Italy was experiencing the full benefits of aid from the Marshall Plan, a successful democratic institution, and economic integration, ushering in a new era of prosperity.
The early ’60s also brought on the first major comedies associated with this movement, all of which starred Marcello Mastroianni: Divorce Italian Style (1961); Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1963); and Marriage Italian Style (1964). The latter two had de Sica at the helm and Sophia Loren anchoring as the female lead. Each of these films ridiculed Italy’s sexist laws and attitudes, while also emulating the absurdism and feminism from the French New Wave. These movies have characters do crazy things to match the crazy laws. For example, when Mastroianni tries to get his wife to cheat on him (since divorce would be illegal), Loren insists she’s constantly pregnant to exempt herself from getting arrested.
Further, Vittoria de Sica’s Two Women (1960), inaugurated the “pink neorealism” phase of the movement. Essentially, he and others filmed movies with Sophia Loren and other actresses that looked at social issues in a comic light. Two Women bridged this gap in tone by featuring a mother and daughter persevering through the horrors of WWII in a film marked by heaviness like that in Neo-Realism’s early films; after this, Loren’s movies got a lot brighter.
While these lighter films were certainly popular, the prolific Luchino Visconti believed that the movement was heading in the wrong direction, deciding that the only path that would usher in sobering authenticity was to go backwards. His 1963 masterpiece, The Leopard, told the tale of Italy’s unification a century earlier through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, a Sicilian noble. Fabrizio embodies the titular animal. He is a regal beast who fears a united Italy, as it would mean losing his powers as a noble, so he scorns the rising bourgeois class, whose members he sees as scavengers. Fabrizio’s nephew shocks him by selling out his family name for prime position in the new nation of Italy — a nation that rigs elections and executes dissenters — leaving the disheartened Don Fabrizio to take a step back and merely watch the world change around him. Everything changes and nothing changes, he reasons.
With Italy’s worst days now behind it, the key Neo-Realism titles of the ’70s took stock of the past and what Italy had lost in its postwar recovery and modernization. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971) is set in Medieval Italy and features the Neapolitan dialect, rather than common Italian. Pasolini bemoaned the loss of regional dialects which an improved school system, news media, and even films, ironically, were sweeping away. A modernizing Italy, in other words, was losing something in the process.
Sadly, the ‘70s saw the passing of first generation Neo-Realists de Sica, Rossellini, and Visconti (plus Pasolini) and the decline of Federico Fellini. Italian cinema was languishing. More and more American movies were coming in as well and displacing European movies. As Italy made social progress, it seemed to eliminate the very struggle that drove its filmmakers in the first place. In a final act of the genre, Giuseppe Tornatore came onto the scene with his masterwork, Cinema Paradiso (1988). This movie, along with Malena (2000), are not set in contemporary Italy like most of the films of his forebears. Instead, they look back to the ’40s and ’50s when Neo-Realism was at its height.
Malena takes on the familiar themes of fascism and sexual repression, and Cinema Paradiso tells the story of a boy who learns to become a projectionist for his small town theatre. These coming-of-age stories each follow a boy we can assume has some of the director in him. As the boy wants to not only project great movies but make his own, his father-figure tells him he must leave town and never return if he wants to realize his dreams. And where are both films set? In Sicily, of course! As Don Fabrizio argues in The Leopard, Sicily crushes its youth — if they don’t leave the ancient island by the time they’re twenty, they have no chance of ever rising above the weight of tradition. That is precisely what Tornatore’s hero does to become a director, yet there’s something incomplete about this narrative.
A young Tornatore may have yearned for greater things than Sicily, but it is precisely this regional entrapment that compels filmmakers to return to it. Sicily and the southern half of Italy, which magnify every Italian characteristic, are the setting of almost every key Neo-Realism film. And Tornatore returns to his native Sicily with a romantic outlook that he probably lacked as he grew up in a town too small for his dreams. Realism, after all, would not succeed as art without romanticism.
All the Neo-Realists wanted to show the extraordinary in the common, to document humanity in what others have passed over. No story better exemplifies this dynamic than Tornatore’s own paradoxical story: Like Italy, his rising tide of fortunes slowly eroded his drive for art, but in turn, he grew and became better for it.