The rise of Italian neorealism is considered by many to be the Golden Age of cinema in the country. A seminal shift in artistic sensibilities, the movement’s primary concern was documenting the plight of the marginalised and the oppressed in a world that was left fractured by the Second World War. Italian neorealism proved to be an indispensable part of the evolution of cinema and ended up influencing generations of filmmakers, ranging from the French New Wave to Indian Parallel Cinema.
One of the pioneers of the movement, Roberto Rossellini once said: “Neorealism was born, unconsciously, as vernacular cinema; it later became fully self-aware of the human and social problems in the war and post-war periods…I have always pushed myself to say that, for me, Neorealism was just a moral position. The moral position consisted in looking at things objectively and putting together their compounding elements, without any judgment.”
He added, “The living subject of a realist film is the world, not the story or its chronicle. There are no pre-existing theses because they come out spontaneously. Realist cinema doesn’t love the superfluous and the spectacular but, on the contrary, it rejects them, it goes straight to the point. It doesn’t stop to the surface but it searches through the soul. It refuses lures and formula formats, and it looks for the reasons each one of us have. In short, it’s a kind of film that raises problems and meditates on them.”
As a part of our weekly feature on world cinema, we take a look at 10 essential films from the Italian neorealism movement to examine the artistic sensibilities behind one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the Italian neorealism movement:
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica – 1948)
Probably the most famous entry on this list, Vittorio De Sica’s powerful masterpiece perfectly captures the suffering of many in post-World War II Italy. It does so by telling the simple story of a poor man searching for his stolen bicycle in order to keep his job safe.
Bicycle Thieves is regarded as one of the most influential films in the history of cinema and rightly so. It inspired the likes of Satyajit Ray and Ken Loach who incorporated elements from the film into their own cinematic investigations.
The Earth Trembles (Luchino Visconti – 1948)
A loose adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s novel, The Earth Trembles is a memorable docufiction which chronicles the tragedy of the human condition. Using non-professional actors, it follows a family living in a small fishing village as they try to escape their poverty.
It received a nomination for the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for its artistic achievements and won the International Prize. Although Visconti broke free from the stylistic confines of neorealism, The Earth Trembles remains one of the finest works ever produced by the movement.
Germany, Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini – 1948)
The final addition to Rossellini’s war trilogy, Germany, Year Zero is the filmmaker’s attempt to translate the horrors of war-ravaged Germany to the cinematic medium. The film serves as a reminder of the human capacity for destruction and its consequences on the lives of ordinary people.
Rossellini explained, “Realism it’s a greater curiosity about individuals, a need, typical of the contemporary man, to portrait facts as they really are, to become aware of reality unpityingly and concretely, according to today’s peculiar interests in scientific and statistical results.
“It’s also a sincere need to describe men in a humble way, without having to invent the extraordinary. It’s the awareness of getting the extraordinary using research. Finally, it’s a desire to make ourselves clear, and not to ignore reality, whatever it is.”
Bitter Rice (Giuseppe de Santis – 1949)
Bitter Rice features a criminal couple on the run from the authorities who get separated from each other. Francesca (played by Doris Dowling) takes refuge from the law with a group of peasants where she learns the merits of a simple life that is fuelled by hard work and camaraderie.
The Venice Film Festival chose Bitter Rice as one of the masterpieces that “changed the collective memory of the country between 1942 and 1978.” It even received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Story category.
Path of Hope (Pietro Germi – 1950)
Co-written by Federico Fellini, Path of Hope is an adaptation of a novel by Nino Di Maria. The film depicts the condition of a group of poor miners from Sicily who hope to end all their hardships and suffering by travelling to France.
Path of Hope was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes and ended up winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Germi eventually turned to comedy but Path of Hope is certainly one of the defining films from the Italian neorealism period.
La Strada (Federico Fellini – 1954)
Throughout his career, Fellini tried his best to move away from the traditions of Italian neorealism and construct his own oneiric brand of cinema. However, La Strada is a significant film for the history of the movement because it is one of the earliest examples of Fellini’s ability to create a new kind of realism out of the orthodox framework.
Fellini recalled, “At the beginning I had only a confused feeling, a kind of tone that lurked, which made me melancholy and gave me a diffused sense of guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why. But once this feeling crystallised, the story came easily, as if it had been there waiting to be found.”
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni – 1957)
Il Grido is Antonioni’s cinematic exploration of alienation, told through the story of a man who desperately seeks subjectivity after leaving his home and the woman he loves. It is regarded by many scholars as the “missing link” between the traditions of neorealism and his own vision in his later projects.
The filmmaker said, “When I am shooting a film I never think of how I want to shoot something; I simply shoot it. My technique, which differs from film to film, is wholly instinctive and never based on a priori considerations. But I suppose you are right in saying that La signora seems more orthodox than the earlier Cronaca because when I was shooting the first film, I made very long takes, following the actors with my camera even after their scene was finished. But, you know, Cronaca isn’t more innovative than what comes after. Later I break the rules much more often.”
Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi – 1961)
One of Olmi’s finest works, Il Posto is a coming-of-age drama about a young man who has to discontinue his education because his family does not have the money. Instead, he enters the dizzying corporate world where dreams die and individuals are dehumanised.
Il Posto was well-received and picked up several coveted awards, including the David di Donatello Award for Best Director as well as Sutherland Trophy at the British Film Institute Awards. Olmi’s masterpiece still resonates with today’s youth who cannot escape the clutches of modernity.
Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1961)
Most of Piero Paolo Pasolini’s work is too transgressive and different from neorealist films. However, Accattone is probably the closest to neorealist ideals and is a part of the second generation of the movement. It follows a pimp who falls on hard times after his female companion is sent to jail, leaving him to fend for himself on his own.
Pasolini commented, “I always have a rather clear idea of the shot I want, a kind of shot that is almost natural to me. But with The Gospel I wanted to break away from this technique because of a very complicated problem. In two words it’s this: I had a very precise style or technique with which I had experimented in Accattone, in Mamma Roma and in the preceding films, a style which is, as I said before, fundamentally religious and epic by its very nature.”
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo – 1966)
A co-production between Italy and Algeria, Pontecorvo’s classic depicts events from the Algerian War and features the bravery of the rebels who fought for decolonisation. The film was banned in France for a number of years but thankfully, it has endured the test of time as one of the greatest documents of the colonial struggle in Algeria.
“The Italian producer to whom I brought this subject told me that he would make any film I wanted, but that this project was impossible. It meant ‘making a film without any meaning, in black and white, without actors and without a story.’ He said that ‘the Italian people don’t care about black people,'” Pontecorvo recalled.