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Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Timeless Influence of Neorealism

Silvana Mangano in "Riso amaro"
On this April 25th, when Italy celebrates Independence Day, we take a look at a few iconic post-war directors that documented the immense hardship Italians endured.

It's been called one of the most crucial and influential film movements of all time.  Literally produced among the ashes and rubble following WWII, neorealism films are among the most raw and simple films ever made, and at the same time, they are among the most beautiful because they possess a simplicity and honesty rarely found in anything non-fiction or big-budget. The art of neorealism lies within the ability to work with minimal resources while achieving maximum effect. Shot on location using mostly God's light and non-professional actors, these films broke new ground with their real-life depictions of the working class and Italian society. Neorealism filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini were not merely interested in making fictional movies. Instead, they made powerful social statements about the suffering that was going on in their own backyards. They wanted to change things. They wanted to stand up for the people and be the voice of a nation. In doing so, they had a powerful impact on the people of Italy and the way the rest of the world viewed their country. 

Anna Magnani and Ettore Garofolo in "Mamma Roma"
There are about 40 films that illustrate this era of filmmaking, with economic devastation being the thread that connects them all. Of those films, there are a few that really stand out for me as being the strongest portraits of a country struggling to stay alive. They include Vittorio De Sica's "Ladri di biciclette" (Bicycle Thieves), Giuseppe De Santis' "Riso amaro" (Bitter Rice) and Roberto Rossellini's  "Roma città aperta" (Rome Open City). Although the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini isn’t defined as neorealism.. the raw, tough reality of his films followed its style, especially "Accattone" and "Mamma Roma", which were both made in the 1960's. With the exception of "Riso amaro" which was shot in the Po Valley, Rome shines as the infinite set of these films. As difficult as things were, the people of Rome wandered around their Eternal City drinking from its fountains, praying for relief at its churches, contemplating their next move on the steps of monuments that withstood the destruction of centuries and taking a stroll by the Tiber River. In any given scene, you will see carafes of wine on the tables, rows of Roman pines that line the streets and countryside and you will hear the Roman folk songs being sung in dialect by people who refused to give up. All of these beautiful elements, for example, can be found in Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Accatone". But the tragedy of the characters' lives and situations is front and center. Just like Anna Magnani's character in Pasolini's "Mamma Roma"- Vittorio in "Accatone" also makes an effort to give honest work a try, but it seems that no matter what he does, the odds are stacked against him.

Giuseppe De Santis' "Riso amaro" and Roberto Rossellini's  "Roma città aperta" star two of Italy's most beloved actresses; Anna Magnani and Silvia Mangano. Yet despite the immense stardom of the two, both films succeeded in communicating the challenges that Italians faced during those turbulent years. One takes place in a rice field located in Northern Italy while the other takes place on the violent streets of Nazi-occupied Rome; two totally different worlds, yet the same grief and hardship.

Based on my research, I've come to the conclusion that neorealism is truly in the eyes of the beholder. Everyone I talked with has their own favorite film, their own passionate opinion.  If I had to choose one film that defined neorealism for me, it would have to be Vittorio De Sica's "Ladri di biciclette" (Bicycle Thieves). Although one of the film's screenwriters confessed that the film really has no plot, "Ladri di biciclette" is about a man whose only means of work is through a precious bicycle that ends up stolen.

Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in "Ladri di biciclette"
Most of the story documents his exhausting efforts to find that bicycle, and his partner is none other than his son, a little firecracker who is dead set on finding the robber so that his father can get back to work. Both lead characters; father and son, were non-professional actors. You would never know it, and that certainly says something about the skills of Vittorio De Sica as a director. The deep desperation of the characters in this film is overwhelmingly apparent in their eyes and body language. The characters are so tired. They just want a meal, a clean shave and a job that will provide for their families. All of the extras in the film were simply Italian citizens. Some were even homeless. They were not actors, just people hoping to get a meal from the production company after their scene was filmed. If you know that going in, this film will move you to tears. The neorealism movement represented the pain of a country in turmoil. But thankfully, that turmoil did end. I spoke with Richard Peña, the former director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, about the influence these films had on ending the devastation. I asked him if the neorealism film movement contributed to improving the conditions of post-war Italy. “I think the films focused attention on many social problems, and awareness is often the first step towards social action. The filmmakers, after all, had no power themselves. I also think the films challenged Italians to confront themselves and their own recent history, while trying to imagine what a future Italy might be like.”

Peña went on to explain the importance of neorealism films to Italian history. “The importance of neorealism for Italian history was that it focused the world's attention once again on Italy and Italian culture. No Italian movement, except perhaps for design or fashion, has had the worldwide impact that neorealism has had. I also think it returned the arts to a place of importance in the national dialog about the future of the country.”

Carlo Bruni in "Il miracolo"
The filmmakers of the neorealism movement live on in the work of directors today.  Many young Italian directors have taken their cameras out of the studios and back to the streets. You can see this in the films of Edoardo Winspeare, a Pugliese director who shoots mostly on location using regional music and many non-professional actors.  Alessandro Piva did the same with his sleeper hit “La Capagira”, which made unknown theater actor, Dino Abbrescia an overnight success. I also spoke with New York University Film Professor, Antonio Monda, about neorealism's influence on today's filmmakers. He feels that in Italy, neorealism influences can be seen vividly in the work of Gianni Amelio, especially in his 1994 film, "Lamerica", which is about Albanian immigration in Italy. Monda also feels that neorealism has reached beyond Italian borders and has had an impact on world cinema, especially in Iran with the films of Abbas Rostani.

Since neorealism films are so cherished and highly regarded, many of them are still available today. You can find them easily one sites such as Amazon and Netflix.

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