When the Second World War ended, the world faced a grim and devastating reality. Cinema wanted to capture the emotions of those communities desolated by war. They wanted to create films that would ease the pain of the world. Italy, along with Japan and Germany, was part of the Axis powers. Italian citizens, who were subjected to the horrors of a dictatorship, wanted to portray the reality they were living. Instead of sharing their experiences through documentary films, they created narratives that would appeal to viewers, but in an honest, organic way, avoiding overdramatic interpretations and false anecdotes. That’s when Italian Neorealism was born.
This is one of the most important and influential movements in film history. It’s impressive how out of devastation and tragedy a new form of cinematographic artcould emerge. The main representatives of this movement were Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, Giuseppe De Santis, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Films belonging to this movement depicted national reality as its core themes. Neorealism showed that cinema can be more than just a source of entertainment: it became the best weapon for social commentary in postwar Italy.
Together with Neorealism, two similar film currents appeared as opposition to cinematic propaganda. The first was created by a group called “the calligraphers,” which adapted ancient literary works into films. Their main representative was director Alberto Lattuada (Giacomo the Idealist, 1943). The second current stood out for their documentary-like vision and its criticism to the official "objectivity" represented in war heroes.
Now, to fully understand Neorealism, it's important to analyze certain fundamental elements that are crucial to their aesthetics:
To understand the content of Neorealist films, first we have to take a look at Italian cinematography from 1930 to 1943, which was marked by fascist ideas and censorship. Filmmakers of the time were unable to go beyond the rigid censorship of the government. For instance, movies couldn’t portray poverty or crime, and satire as well as parodies were forbidden. It was all about portraying an "impeccable and perfect" nation. Therefore, films had to be stories without a social background; they were propagandistic instruments the regime used to distract and deceive its viewers.
Neorealism wanted to do exactly the opposite: they wanted to create stories that would open the eyes of spectators and show the reality they were living. The social criticism was one of the most important elements of this movement that wanted to show the world the horrors of the fascist regime.
Compared to films before 1945, Neorealism sacrificed big film studios –the regime's clumsy imitation of Hollywood–, entertainment, and stardom on behalf of an effective approach to reality. However, Neorealist filmmakers introduced audiovisual innovations like:
Emotions over images. Following Charles Chaplin's movies, Neorealism prioritized emotions over visual compositions, without completely ignoring them. Scripts were the main source of expression, so dialogues were fundamental to these films. Sometimes they used Italian dialects as an authentic way of representing language, which follows the idea of making an honest portrayal of reality.
The death of the actor. This has to do with the idea of depicting reality without tricks. One of the main slogans of this type of cinema was "Down with the stars!". Films, as Friedrich Murnau had proved, don't need actors, but only men and women narrating their lives. They don't act, but only show themselves as they are. Neorealism dictates that actors shouldn't exist, since each of us should be our own performers. For them, having someone reciting what others had written was a distortion of reality.
This insistence on rejecting actors had to do with the fact that postwar Italy was suffering extreme poverty due to the treaties that forced the Axis powers to pay for the damages. For that same reason, productions were really simple and modest.
Two new types: the woman and the child. Neorealism cinema uses archetypes instead of actors. Moreover, it introduced two types that were not very popular in films. During the last years of the war, Italian cinema barely had female performers. Eventually, children would also be featured in these productions.
Improvisation. It was an essential source of this cinematographic style. Filmmakers thought that the best way to describe reality was by understanding its dynamic nature. Therefore, stiffness was out of the question. Everything had to be flexible and changeable. One great example of this was the movie Paisá (Rossellini, 1946), in which the director only mentioned to his crew the venue of the film. After that, he recruited unprofessional performers, and through surveys, everyone decided the course of the plot.
Moral stand. It's what best defines this movement. All these films express the need to be completely honest in the description of reality. Their main purpose was to create didactic movies with moral lessons. Many neorealist directors were close to the Italian Communist Party, which gained popularity in the following decades. Neorealist cinema has a series of moral principles that follow Christian Humanist ideals.
A form of protest. The filmmmaker's main goal was to boost cinema as a mode of commentary. They wanted it to become a political instrument instead of a form of entertainment. Neorealism was intended for self-reflection, as well as for breaking the wall between the desolated Italy and prosperous modernity.
The cinematographic world is so wide that for decades it has explored many themes through diverse genres and styles. If you want to become an expert on international cinema here are 10 Foreign Films That Will Widen Your Horizons.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards