Cesare Zavattini’s Idealistic Approach to Filmmaking: Then and Now

Some Ideas on the Cinema” was first published as an edited interview in La revista del cinema italiano 2, a film journal, in December of 1952. In thirteen parts and almost as many pages, Cesare Zavattini airs the neorealist theories for which he had become a major advocate after World War II. He, among a few other major directors and screenwriters, was a voice that pushed film in a new direction by emphasizing Christian humanism and realism over entertainment. This article was published at the end of the movement’s dominance in filmmaking culture, after improving post-war conditions led to a lessening interest in socially conscious films. Prior to this article, writer Luchino Visconti and director Roberto Rossellini brought the Italian neorealist style to the national and international stage, respectively, with their films, Ossessione (1943) and Rome, Open City (1945). Zavattini, therefore, may have been riding on the tail end of the neorealist wave, perhaps even fighting against the movement’s decline, with this passionate interview.

The film journal article begins with background of Zavattini, setting up his credibility and making an immediate appeal to ethos. We see that he is a “central theoretician” whose opinions are validated by the agreeing ideologies of renowned French film critic, André Bazin, and a lifelong collaborative friendship with famous Italian director Vittorio De Sica. Zavattini’s first words are as brilliant as can be expected from an experienced writer; he immediately jabs at the “moral and intellectual laziness” which he argues that most of society suffers from, and links it with an avenue for solution: cinema; more specifically, neorealism.

His second passage elevates the Italian neorealist style above America’s Hollywood approach of “unnaturally filtered, ‘purified’” narratives that stem from a lack of subjects. He elaborates on story choices and describes the contemplative nature of neorealist films; the way he, as a writer, would linger on a scene until all the minute components are considered. Just when you start to think that he unjustly disapproves of American filmmaking, he backpedals and clarifies that “we [Italians] are still a long way from a true analysis of human situations,” but that their approach is superior “in comparison with the dull synthesis of most current production.”

He goes on to analyze the relationship between invented stories and the truth of everyday life, using famous post-war films as examples–a logical appeal. His metaphor equating filmmakers with soldiers that “have to win the battle” for “’social attention’” in film no doubt struck a nerve within readers still recuperating from the aftershock of war.

The fifth and sixth sections deal with a hypothetical example of how to nurture a film from one simple daily event, one that every viewer is familiar with and can relate to. Through that familiarity, filmmakers can more effectively draw audiences into the story and impart their message. By advocating the reality of everyday life, Zavattini justifies the narrative that explores the relationship between wealth and poverty in society. The way he lays out the method for inductive story creation makes clear the depth of focus that filmmakers must have in order to draw a story from the well of daily life.

At this point in the interview, we feel Zavattini’s voice and passion even more. Just like neorealist films, he begins asking questions of the reader; asking them to “fathom the real correspondences between facts and their process of birth, to discover what lies beneath them.” Question after question ramps up the urgency of the argument and appeals to Christian values of civic duty and responsibility. He references his own process and work as a screenwriter and how he fits into the machine of the filmmaking method, again validating the authority he has to speak on the nature of filmmaking. Here enters the auteur theory that French New Wave filmmakers so enthusiastically propounded. Emphasis should lie on the individual creator—even actors should concede power to the story.  These creators should seek actors that are real, they should “go, in body and mind, out to meet other people, to see and understand them.” This method of hitting the streets to find stories brings in readers of the middle and lower classes, whose stories unfold on the streets of Italian cities.

He ends the interview by recognizing the “wonderful films” of other renowned directors (Charlie Chaplin) and nations, so as not to alienate or attack readers of non-Italian ethnicity. The last sentence, however, calls Italian filmmakers to continue in the neorealist direction in order the achieve longevity and momentum.

Although Zavattini’s words paint a skewed picture of the Italian Neorealism movement for current readers who haven’t just lived through the war and its aftermath, its strength has not lessened over the years. When I first read the piece, I was moved to think about how I can affect social change and force audiences to think about their responsibility to better society; Zavattini threw a new and appealing light on the industry I’m being groomed to enter.

The further I looked into his advocation of strict adherence to techniques, however, the more the ideology seemed less plausible in actuality than in theory. The idea of showing real life via the camera lens is tempting, but there is no real way to accomplish an absolutely truthful film. Just by choosing what to show, where to place the camera, who to cast, how to edit, and what soundtrack to attach to the film, the creator shapes truthful life into a ‘story,’ a contrivance of the variety that Zavattini argues against.

If he were to say that true neorealist films get closer to portraying real life than any other film style, I would have no problem, but when he implies that they are the only way to show reality in all its glory, I begin to question the theory’s practicality. Regardless, the argument works as a piece of rhetoric, at least for this reader today. As a theoretician, of course, his ideologies can’t be applied without dilution in an industry that necessitates a working relationship between art and profit.

Zavattini knew that his audience would be primarily filmmakers–those who subscribe to the Italian Film Journal in which the interview was published. His comparison between Hollywood and Italian filmmaking techniques, appeal to moral codes of social responsibility, and reference to poverty and war would have hit home with readers who just recuperated from World War II and German occupation.

Although his words may have inspired fellow filmmakers to continue examining films from a standpoint of social commentary, since the interview was distributed during the last year of Italian Neorealism’s dominance in the film industry it didn’t do enough to keep the movement alive. However, Zavattini could very well have encouraged film writers and directors to continue exploring truth in the human condition, they simple turned the eye inward to psychoanalysis rather than outward to physical conditions.

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