The Philosophy of Italian Neorealism

Different areas of my life have been coming together and aligning themselves with a strangely pointed symmetry lately. I feel like three of the eight courses I’m taking this semester could mix together for an interesting exploration of reality. In my film history course, 1946 to present, we were assigned to read an article written by the pivotal Italian Neorealist filmmaker, Cesare Zavattini, whose work jump-started the transition from glamorous melodramas to gritty realism in film narratives and techniques. Of course, I had my Rhetorical Criticisms class on the brain while I read this article, so my mind was tuned in to the moving rhetorical choices Zavattini made. To top it all off, he spoke about an approach to filmmaking that mirrored the materialist approach I had just studied in my Language and Ideology course. But I’ll try to wrap this all up in a neat box for you.

Bottom line, here’s the inspiration for my rhetorical criticism topic. Zavattini advocated a form of filmmaking that draws narratives out of the woodwork of every day life, using a materialist approach to creating powerful messages: look at what’s there, find a way to creatively piece together all the naturally occurring elements, and see what ideals and overarching messages can be concluded from the story that develops. Such a process differs from the post-WWI staple of glossy, escapist films about wealthy people and fabulous lives that were artificially constructed to fit the desired message. This inductive method of story telling, Zavattini argues, shows the beauty of common things and common people. Furthermore, Italian Neorealism rebels against the big names and big budgets of the “white telephone” dramas that Mussolini cranked out–Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica shot on real locations, hired people that weren’t trained actors, used natural light, and favored static, simple camera movements so the emphasis remained on the people and events taking place in the world of the film. In the particular article that drew my interest to this film movement, Zavattini challenges filmmakers to put their work to good use and be conscious of the global impact film has on the ever-increasing audience of moviegoers. Social responsibility trumps entertainment value, he says, and all filmmakers should aim to show the flaws in the world around them and join the rhetorical conversation.

Now I come to the crux of the matter, or one potential crux to analyze. Zavattini believes that only Italian Neorealism films are capable of showing “real reality.” if you will, and that every other type of filmmaking is false. The statement brings to mind the fluid nature of language, as discussed in my L&E course, the idea that there is nothing intrinsic in the material nature of the world around us that ties objects to their given name. Example: we call rocks “rocks,” but that is simply the arrangement of sounds that people of one language have given to that physical object. Therefore, we’ve created a reality for ourselves that exists because we’ve come up with a series of verbal and written symbols to describe what our senses experience. Now just trying to explain this concept makes me feel like I’m in the matrix (Nothing is real! It’s all in our minds!), but stick with me!

Zavattini’s stance that Italian Neorealism shows the real world in all its gritty, truthful reality does not go in line with the idea that reality is created by the choices we make. De Sica chooses where to put the camera, what even to focus on, who to cast, how to direct extras, and in that he creates a reality that the film shows to audiences. It may not be as bright-white-picket-fence as Old Hollywood’s style, but it doesn’t show The Truth. Even documentaries, which lies even further down the Reality Spectrum than Neorealism, only show one construct of reality.

Zavattini had a bias, he was making films in the poor, persecuted reality of common life in post-WWII Italy and the Occupation; he and his contemporaries were trying to show the rest of the world how downtrodden the masses were in Italy. It would be interesting to explore the impact that Neorealist film had on the global stage, in politics, art, and entertainment, and what techniques the rhetors of the movement utilized.


One thought on “The Philosophy of Italian Neorealism

  1. Pingback: Cesare Zavattini’s Idealistic Approach to Filmmaking: Then and Now | Evyn Davis

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