Neorealism

   The most celebrated movement in the history of Italian cinema, neorealism was in fact always more of a common socially committed approach to filmmaking embraced by a number of directors in the immediate postwar period than a structured artistic movement. Nevertheless, while its formal status as a movement has long been questioned and its precise nature, extent, and defining characteristics have continued to be debated, there has never been any doubt about neorealism's crucial role in the revival of the Italian cinema in the immediate postwar period.
   Since what came to be regarded as neorealist films were created more from a spontaneous desire to use cinema to engage with social reality rather than to follow the dictates of a manifesto or a set of rules, the precise features of neorealist cinema have always proven difficult to define. However, at least some of the elements that characterized this new cinema, which in its turn to reality implicitly sought to reverse two decades of Fascist mystification and evasion, were: a stronger sense of realism, a focus on the everyday life of ordinary people, an attitude of social commitment and human solidarity, the use of quasi-documentary techniques and nonprofessional actors, on-location shooting, natural lighting, long takes, and unobtrusive editing.
   The three directors most closely associated with the movement and widely regarded as its founding fathers were Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti. Rossellini, in particular, having already directed three relatively realistic films during the Fascist period, is considered to have founded neorealism proper with Roma citta aperta (Rome Open City, 1945, also known as Open City), subsequently consolidating this new approach to filmmaking with the two other films of his so-called war trilogy, Paisa (Paisan, 1946) and Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947). De Sica, whose earlier I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943) would often be hailed as a forerunner to the full-fledged neorealism of the postwar period, created, in partnership with screen-writer Cesare Zavattini, what are considered to be three of the movement's key films: Sciuscia (Shoe-Shine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), and Umberto D (1952). Luchino Visconti, whose first film, Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), is canonically cited as the movement's most immediate precursor, offered what was perhaps the purest possible version of neorealism in La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a loose adaptation of Giovanni Verga's 19th-century novel filmed entirely on location in a small Sicilian fishing village, employing only the local people as actors and all speaking in their own dialect. Unfortunately, even if now regarded as one of the movement's most exemplary films, La terra trema was also the least successful at the box office. Among the other directors most closely associated with the movement in the immediate postwar period were Giuseppe De Santis, Luigi Zampa, Aldo Vergano, Pietro Germi, and Renato Castellani. However, even such celebrated neorealist films as De Santis's Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) and Germi's In nome della legge (In the Name of the Law, 1948) have often been seen by historians of the movement as already moving away from the social concerns of "pure" neorealism toward a more entertaining cinema of genre and spectacle, inaugurating what would later come to be known pejoratively as "pink" or "rosy" neorealism. Other historians suggest, however, that it might be more accurate to talk of "neorealisms" in the plural and to see these directors and others, at least in their films of the immediate postwar period, as all creating their own valid versions of a cinema engaging with reality rather than striving to evade it.
   It is instructive to note, however, that while Italian neorealism was universally honored as an artistic movement and internationally acclaimed, in Italy itself neorealist films only ever formed a very small part of national production and exhibition. Furthermore, although they were critically praised at home, neorealist films were not particularly popular either with the Italian authorities, who objected to the poor image of Italy generally presented, or with Italian audiences, who showed a distinct preference for the entertaining melodramas and action-adventures being turned out by the more commercially oriented film industry. Consequently, while the ethical approach and the technical innovations that neorealism had introduced in its short flowering would continue to influence filmmakers for many years to come, it is generally agreed that by the early 1950s the movement itself had already passed into history.

Historical dictionary of Italian cinema. . 2010.

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