Rhetorical Criticisms – the Italian Neorealism Film Movement

As a film student, I’m asked this question by almost all of my professors: Is filmmaking an art or a business? In other words, who has (or should have) the power, producers or directors; money-makers or visionaries?
Throughout history, decision-making power has shifted from directors to producers in cycles of about twenty years. Right now, we’re at the tail end (hopefully) of a Producers’ Era. One of the most socially conscious and inspiring movements of Directorial Power, in my opinion, is the Italian Neorealist film movement.
So, to try and explore this producer-director, art-entertainment struggle, I want to question the breadth of effectiveness of the Italian Neorealism film movement, why it was so short-lived, and how its influences are still predominant in film culture today.

The methods and principles upon which Italian Neorealism is based aren’t often adhered to in hallmark Italian Neorealist films. Throughout my research of the film movement, I realized that film historians base their conclusions off the highly idealistic principles of a very small group of theorists, only one of whom belongs to Italian Neorealism, whose work was formalized after the movement’s inception.

I found that the ACTS and AGENTS within the films were more important to the core of neorealism than were the ways by which the films were made (the AGENCY). This separated Italian Neorealist films into two major categories:

1)    those who connected audiences with the characters, and
2)    those who connected audiences with the events

The cinematic techniques advocated by neorealism’s main man, Cesare Zavattini, were more like guidelines than actual rules. In fact, I think the movement’s downfall owes credit to the very narrative technique that Zavattini was most adamant about: inducing stories from the material world, rather than contriving dramatic plots. This technique of “hitting the streets” to find real stories was the approach most adapted by international filmmakers, influencing Satyajit Ray of India, Elia Kazan of Hollywood fame, and Samira Mahkmalbaf of Iran, to name a few.
But Zavattini didn’t stop there; drawing stories from real life demands a parallel story telling form of editing. He says about neorealism:

“Today, when we have thought out a scene, we feel the need to ‘remain’ in it,because the single scene itself can contain so many echoes and reverberations, can even contain all the situations we may need. Today, in fact, we can quietly say: give us whatever ‘fact’ you like, and we will disembowel it, make it something worth watching.”

Zavattini’s visually deconstructionist approach to narrative structure shows strongly in all of the films he wrote and co-wrote, which were often directed by Vittorio De Sica. Together, their films fall into the first category of Italian Neorealism: AGENT-heavy drama. In their films (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, and Umberto D. to name the most popular), the character is the most important element.

Cinematic techniques inherent to neorealism are used mainly to keep focus on the story and the people. When you leave a static (stationary) camera on a character for long periods of time, you’re relying on them to carry to story. If you distract audiences with fancy special effects, flashy editing, and bold camera movements, the strength of character becomes less relevant.

All three of the films mentioned above focus on two characters—two young brothers, a father and son, an old man and his dog—who represent the large population of people in similar situations and, therefore, represent universal stories and archetypes. All three films’ main characters struggle to survive in a world of neglect, selfishness, and crime; all three films lay out the problems of post-war Italy for audiences without providing a solution. All three stories imply that only the love of family can provide any sense of hope in a hopeless, uncaring world.

These themes are evident in the similar story structures, which try to avoid elliptical editing as much as possible (cutting out or compressing events to save time, much like montage editing). They start out by identifying the main characters as one of many;

  • the brothers as two boys among the hundreds of seemingly parentless children involved in crime – Shoeshine
  • a group of unemployed Italian men waiting outside the job office – Bicycle Thieves
  • protesting pensioners – Umberto D.

The story unfolds in a series of unfortunate events that roll the characters deeper and deeper downhill,

  • an older brother trick the kids into assisting him with a robbery, they get caught, cruel prison life and wily guards trick the boys into turning on each other
  • the father’s only means for work, his bike, gets stolen and the entire story follows he and his son trying desperately to get the bike back
  • Umberto is unemployed and living off welfare, but it’s not enough to pay the rent; he gets kicked out of his apartment and tries to find a loving home for his dog, with no success

And it ends, generally, in disappointment (SPOILER ALERT):

  • the youngest brother dies; shot down in the street by policemen as his brother runs to help
  • father and son walk off into the sunset with no bike and no hope of being able to support their family
  • Umberto finally thought he’d pawned off his dog and was going to jump in front of a train to end it all, but his dog ran back just in time; he’s now resigned to having to live in poverty and probably become a homeless, old beggar

Shoeshine, produced in 1946, opened American’s eyes to the horrible conditions in post-war Italy and inspired many volunteer groups to turn their rehabilitation efforts towards Italy, as well as north-eastern Europe (Germany, Poland, etc.).

Bicycle Thieves (1948) found beautiful visual aesthetics in every day activities and inspired filmmakers, like Satyajit Ray, to make down-to-earth film narratives and film them in a realistic, but still lyrical, manner.

Umberto D. (1952), while being a poignant representation of the troubles plaguing the elder population of post-war Italy, marked the end of the Italian Neorealist era. Audiences found it difficult to connect with and empathize with a film that dealt with the troubles of an older generation. After Umberto D., Italian filmmakers turned inward for inspiration and kicked off the Italian Art Cinema movement, which generally dealt with metaphysical questions in a highly stylized way.

The most influential and well-known Italian Neorealist film falls into the second category, that which emphasizes ACT: Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

Rome’s narrative follows the more dramatic Hollywood structure, which emphasizes classic character stereotypes (not universal archetypes) and rollercoaster-esque stories with grandiose action. So it most definitely does not follow the guidelines set down by Zavattini, and yet it is the most celebrated of the movement.

The narrative weaves a complex story involving several main characters

  • a widow, her son, her resistance member fiancé
  • the resistance leader
  • the priest, who’s a resistance ally
  • the girlfriend of the resistance leader who tips the score
  • the conniving female Nazi officer
  • the effeminate, cruel, Nazi leader
  • the I-know-it’s-wrong-but-it’s-orders Nazi officer

and several supporting characters that help solidify the narrative. Together, the interweaving stories of these characters work to answer the main dramatic question: will the resistance leader, Giorgio Manfredi, escape the clutches of the oppressive German forces?

Like many neorealist films, the dramatic question is answered (SPOILER ALERT)  negatively. He doesn’t escape. Both Manfredi and the priest Don Pietro sacrifice their lives rather than give up information about the resistance. The widow dies, in front of her son and fiancé in a heartrending scene, and the Germans continue their occupation of Italy.

However, Rome ends on a small note of hope. Even though the three most compelling characters died, the children are alive. The children are witnesses to the horrible events under Nazi occupation and they will continue working to save their country. Or so the film insinuates.

Why? Probably because, like most Rossellini-Amidei films, Rome “provides a constructive model for Italians to embrace in order to rehabilitate post-war Italy.” (Prof. A. Erish) It joined the debate about social conduct in the post-war world and provided a solution, or at least some advice, ending on a note of hope. Not only did it make political, spiritual, and social commentary, but it inspired filmmakers and audience members alike. That’s why French New Wave great, Jean-Luc Godard said that “All roads lead to Rome, Open City” and that’s why it was the most effective form of rhetoric in Italian Neorealism.

Rome elevates the ACT of rebelling against oppression at all costs the most important element in the film. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it—the common Italian man, a gang of children, a beloved local priest, the resistance leader—as long as they’re actively trying to make their world a better place.

This approach achieves the PURPOSE of Italian Neorealism much more effectively. By telling the stories of those who are socially attentive and acting to fix the problems they see, audiences are called to action. Just showing life when it’s crap for people makes for depressing entertainment and doesn’t give anyone a solution to aim for.

So why did the filmmaking world turn so quickly from the neorealist style of socially attentive films rooted in reality to art cinema and new wave metaphysics? I think it’s because the SCENE changed. These films were motivated by the SCENE of post-war Italy, not by the artistically idealistic theories of Zavattini and French theorists Andre Bazin or Francois Truffaut.

The cinematic techniques supposedly inherent in Italian Neorealism were only used to allow for the ACTS and AGENTS of the SCENE to carry through more powerfully. We remember Italian Neorealism more by its technical characteristics because they pushed international film in a new direction.

Akira Kurosawa took his cameras to real locations to tell his philosophical, multi-pronged story Rashomon, which swept through international film festivals like wildfire. French New Wave artists made their trendy, overtly stylized films on the streets of Paris, just like Satyajit Ray told his stories in the countryside of Calcutta. Elia Kazan hit the streets and made On the Waterfront on the actual waterfront.

Ever since Italian Neorealism, shooting on location and using unknown actors and “real people” in their films has been “a thing.” New technology made that even easier, once portable sound recording devices and lighter film equipment came out in the 1950s. But Italian Neorealism, as a socially and politically conscious film movement, fell out of favor once the world recovered from World War II, relatively. And maybe audiences didn’t want to face the horrible, material realities of the post-war world. They would rather turn to the immaterial and psychological to deal with the horror of genocide and war.

In conclusion, Italian Neorealism was effective: it brought awareness to conditions in Italy and inspired international volunteers to divert some of their rehabilitation attentions to the country. It’s influence can still be seen in films today, since it’s devotion to “life as it is” introduced a whole new level of film realism.

As to the question of art-entertainment, I’ve decided that the answer is not A or B, but C. Art is a form of entertainment, what we judge when we ask that question is the connotation behind the terms: art is worthy of praise and pure entertainment is for dumb people. But we can’t deny that the movie making industry lives for money and exposure, therefore there will always be an element of money-making that has inherent power in the dynamic.

What’s more important, as Italian Neorealism proves, is the SCENE in which the film is produced. Post-war Earth was ready for films with heavier content and less entertaining cinematic styling. That kind of scene didn’t last very long; therefore, the movement died out in favor of more visually artistic, internally probing works.

Is it time for the directors to wrest back creative power from the producers? Can the world handle, and appreciate, neo-neorealist works? Are we, as moviegoers, ready to look at the world around us once again in a critical, socially conscious manner? I hope so.

I have ten bucks that says we’ll be ready for it in twelve years. Who wants ta bet me?

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