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Film Appreciation: Film History: Italian Neorealism

1st Semester 2018 batch, 17.10.18

Faculty: Deb Kamal Ganguly

1. Some Ideas about the Cinema – Cesare Zavattini
2. Andre Bazin and Italian Neorealism – Collection of essays by Andre Bazin, Ed. Bert Cardullo
3. An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation – From 'What is
Cinema 2', by Andre Bazin
4. Interviews with Roberto Rossellini – From Cahiers du Cinema, 1950s
5. Italian Neorealism: The Postwar renaissance in Italian Cinema – Peter Bondanella, from 'Traditions
in World Cinema'
6. Neorealism as Ideology: Bazin, Deleuze, and the Avoidance of Fascism – Lorenzo Fabbri
7. Relevant segments from Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 on Neorealism or Neorealist directors – Gilles
8. Frame, Space, Narratives... Mobile Framings in the films of Luchino Visconti – Ivo Blom
9. Roberto Rossellini – Peter Brunette, Univeisity of California Press
10. Vittorio De Sica: Contemporary Perspectives – Edited by Stephen Snyder, Howard Curle
11. Violence, War, Revolution: Marinetti’s Concept of a Futurist Cleanser for the World -- Günter Berghaus, available at
12. Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism – Simon Levis Sullam

The Grounding before Approacing Neorealism

To contextualize the film historical movement called Neorealism, generally ascribed to a very brief
period (1943 – 48) in post-war Italy, one needs to ponder briefly over:
Realism in literature and painting
Futurism as a modernist, quasi-anarchic, quasi-reactionary movement
The Politics and Aesthetics of Fascism and Futurist support to Fascism
Neorealism in literature as precursor to Neorealism in cinema
Neorealism was an 'other' to all the three above in different kinds and degrees of qualitative distinctness

Realism in literature and painting

Realism in literature is primarily related to the advent of the form of 'novel'.

Mid 19th to late 19th century, mostly flourished in France and Russia by writes like Stendhal, Balzac,
Pushkin (transition from romanticism to realism) etc.

From 'The Rise of the Novel' by Ian Watt

'...the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience'
Modern realism "begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through
the senses"

The philosophical premise of realism in art is based on the idea of general attempt to depict subjects as
they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation,
stylization or following any artistic convention.
The approach inherently implies a belief that such reality is ontologically independent of man's
conceptual schemes, linguistic practices and beliefs, and thus can be known (or knowable) to the artist,
who can in turn represent this 'reality' faithfully.

Depiction of everyday, 'banal' activities, without any over-arching presence of higher ideals
The later offshoot of realism was 'Naturalism', where the reality of human experience was extended to
some extent as an environmental and evolutionary construct, e.g. Emile Zola

Realism in painting also developed almost parallel to literary realism from 1850s.

Realism revolted against the exotic subject matter and the exaggerated emotionalism and drama of the
Romantic movement. Instead, it sought to portray real and typical contemporary people and situations
with truth and accuracy, and not avoiding unpleasant or sordid aspects of life. Realist works depicted
people of all classes in situations that arise in ordinary life, and often reflected the changes brought by
the Industrial and Commercial Revolutions.

In terms of representation, it did not always prioritize Renaissance Perspective as an instrumental


Important realist artists – Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Jean-François Millet etc

Futurism as a modernist, avant-garde, quasi-anarchic, quasi-reactionary movement

First of historical avant-garde movement founded in Milan in 1909 by the Italian poet Filippo
Tommaso Marinetti, soon joined by the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino
Severini etc

Marinetti‘s political ideas were heavily indebted to Anarchism and that the Futurist concept of guerra
sola igiene del mondo (War, the Sole Cleanser of the World) had its roots in a political culture that had
shaped the genesis of Futurism in the years 1898 to 1909

Publication of Futurist Manifesto, 1909, by Marinetti:

“Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt
aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”
"The world's splendor has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed... A roaring
automobile...that seems to run on shrapnel, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." (2nd
century BC Hellenistic sculpture)

The Futurists were fascinated by the problems of representing modern experience, with emphasis on
speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city

Violence was their preferred mode of interacting with reality, and the key to unlocking a new sense of
Aesthetics, as well as the path to creating of the New Man.

Their enthusiasm for modernity and the machine ultimately led them to celebrate the arrival of the First
World War. British painter CRW Nevinson got inspired by Marinetti to produce some paintings on the
theme of WWI, like 'Study for Returning To The Trenches'. Nevinson writes:
"I have tried to express the emotion produced by the apparent ugliness and dullness of modern warfare.
Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of
the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe."
By its end the group was largely spent as an important avant-garde, though it continued through the
1920s, and, during that time several of its members went on to embrace Fascism, making Futurism the
only 20th century avant-garde to have embraced far right politics.

In 1920s Marinetti expected a collective collaboration of leftists, fascists and futurists, which did not

The Politics and Aesthetics of Fascism and Futurist support to Fascism

'Aestheticization of Politics', commented by Walter Benjamin about Fascism

The 'poltical' and the 'aesthetic', both domains are to be spearheaded by a new metaphysical idea of
'state', which more 'moral' in nature than 'geographical', more 'temporal' in nature than 'spatial'

The 'modern state' should be an assemblage of all the 'glorius' phases of historical imagination.

Fascism denounces the immediate past to pronounce its moral authority, but selectively chooses phases
of history to build the image of the modern state. For Italy, it was to bring back the combined glory of
ancient Roman civilization, excellence achieved during Italian Renaissance coupled with architecture
of political statehood proposed by Niccolò Machiavelli's (1469-1527) realpolitik, Giuseppe Mazzini's
(1805-1872) state ideals, and Giuseppe Garibaldi's (1807-1882) militarism.

Denouncing both capitalism and socialism, a middle path assumed; instead of class exploitation or
class struggle, class collaboration was proposed.

Voting rights in very limited speheres, mainly the idea of the despotic rule

Statements by Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian Fascist Party, known as Il Duce ('The Leader')
“For my part I prefer fifty thousand rifles to fifty thousand votes.”

“War is to man what maternity is to a woman. From a philosophical and doctrinal viewpoint, I do not
believe in perpetual peace.”

“War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension, and sets a seal of nobility on the people
who have the virtue to face it.”

To think: what might be the common areas of between Futurism and Fascism

Neorealism in literature as precursor to Neorealism in cinema

Neorealism in literature was rooted in the 1920s and, though suppressed for nearly two decades by
Fascist control, emerged in great strength after the Fascist regime fell at the end of World War II.
Neorealismo is similar in general aims to the earlier Italian movement verismo (Realism), from which it
originated, but differs in that its upsurge was brought about by the intense feelings, experiences, and
convictions that Fascist repression, the Resistance, and the war had instilled in its many gifted writers.

Among the outstanding Neorealist writers are:

Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo
Fiction writers
Alberto Moravia (The Time of Indifference, 1929, tr. 1932, 1953)
Ignazio Silone (Fontamara, 1930, tr. 1934)
Elio Vittorini (Conversation in Sicily, 1941, tr. 1948)
Vasco Pratolini (A Tale of Poor Lovers, 1947, tr. 1949)
Italo Calvino (The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1947)

Ways to Approach Neorealism

Generalized history of Neorealism
War ravaged Italy
Collapse of big studio productions
In the absence of studio control, cinema with star actors declined
Working in real locations, available lights
Working with amateurs or non-actors
Thematically close to the turmoil of common people, working class
Children often made the central vantage points, witnesses of the troubling narratives
Themes of resistance also taken up

Key Figures of Neorealism

Luchino Visconti (Ossessione 1943, La Terra Trema 1948)
Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City 1945, Paisan 1946, Germany Year Zero 1948)
Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves 1948, Umberto D 1952)
Cesare Zavattini (theorist of neorealism; script writer and collaborator with various important neorealist
films, specially with De Sica)

La Terra Trema – 02:23

Rome Open City – 13:25
Paisan – CD 2 14:41
Bicycle Thieves – 39:00; 01:19:35
Umberto D – 32:05; 51:16
Germany Year Zero
Miracle in Milan
Journey to Italy – Spirit of Neorealism – 46.17 – 50.07

Neorealism was much more than a cinematic response to a historical time, it opened up new
possibilities for cinema to be found in the rich fabric of reality.

Quotes from 'Some Ideas on the Cinema' by Cesare Zavattini

“No doubt one's first and most superficial reaction to everyday reality is that it is tedious. Until we are
able to overcome some moral and intellectual laziness, in fact, this reality will continue to appear
uninteresting. One shouldn't be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable
necessity to insert a 'story' in the reality to make it exciting and 'spectacular.' All the same, it is clear
that such a method evades a direct approach to everyday reality, and suggests that it cannot be
portrayed without the intervention of fantasy or artifice.”

"The cinema's overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete
homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world. And, incidentally,
it is what distinguishes 'neorealism' from the American cinema.

"In fact, the American position is the antithesis of our own: while we are interested in the reality around
us and want to know it directly, reality in American films is unnaturally filtered, 'purified,' and comes
out at one or two removes. In America, lack of subjects for films causes a crisis, but with us such a
crisis is impossible. One cannot be short of themes while there is still plenty of reality. Any hour of the
day, any place, any person, is a subject for narrative if the narrator is capable of observing and
illuminating all these collective elements by exploring their interior value."

"We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to
an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality,
to give it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it
had. It requires, too, a true and real interest in what is happening, a search for the most deeply hidden
human values, which is why we feel that the cinema must recruit not only intelligent people, but, above
all, 'living' souls, the morally richest people."
It is important to note the Zavattni is not talking about realism and representation but reality itself. The
great difference between 'real-like' and 'reality' itself.

Andre Bazin and Neorealism

Andre Bazin questions the phenomenon of sudden flourish of neorealism in Italian cinema.

From 'An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism' in 'What is Cinema – 2' by Bazin:

"Confronted with the originality of the Italian output, and in the enthusiasm engendered by the surprise
that this has caused, we have perhaps neglected to go deeply into the origins of this renaissance,
preferring to see it rather as somethin g sp onta neou sl y gener ated , issuing like a swarm of bees from
the d ecayin g corpses of fascism and the war. There is no question that the Liberation and the social,
moral, and economic forms that it assumed in Italy have played a decisive role in film production."

"The realist trend, the domestic, satirical, and social descriptions of everyday life, the sensitive and
poetic verism, were, before the war, minor qualities, modest violets flowering at the feet of the giants
equoias of production. It appears that from the beginning of the war, a light began to be shed on the
papier-mache forests... Nevertheless it is the Liberation that set these aesthetic trends so completely
free as to alow them to develop under new conditions that were destined to have their share in inducing
a noticeable change in direction and meaning."

In the films concerning liberation also in Italy, it was more about day to day events, rather than great
heroics, and emphasis on actualities rather than mobilizing narrative structures.

"...even when the central scene of the script is not concerned with an actual occurrence, Italian films
are first and foremost reconstituted reportage. The action could not unfold in just any social context,
historically neutral, partly abstract like the setting of a tragedy, as so frequently happens to varying
degrees with the American, French, or English cinema.
As a result, the Italian films have an exceptionally documentary quality that could not be removed from
the script without thereby eliminating the whole social setting into which its roots are so deeply sunk.
This perfect and natural adherence to actuality is explained and justified from within by a spiritual
attachment to the period. As a result, the Italian films have an exceptionally documentary quality that
could not be removed from the script without thereby eliminating the whole social setting into which its
roots are so de eply sunk. This perfect and natural adherence to actuality is explained and justified from
within by a spiritual attachment to the period."

"Reduced to their [Italian Neorealist films] plots, they are often just moralizing melodramas, but on the
screen everybody in the film is overwhelmingly real. Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or
a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their

"It is important to avoid casting the professional in the role for which he is known. The public should
not be burdened with any preconceptions. It is significant that the peasant in Espoir was a theater
comedian, Ana Magnani a singer of popular songs, and Fabrizzi a music hall clown. That someone is
an ac to r does not mean he must not be used. Quite the opposite. But his professionalism should be
called into service only insofar as it alows him to be more flexible in his response to the requirements
of the mise en scene, and to have a better grasp of the character. The nonprofessionals are naturally
chosen for their suitability for the part, either because they fit it physically or because there is some
parallel between the role and their lives. When the amalgamation comes off -- but experience shows
that it will not unless some "moral" requirements are met in the script -- the result is precisely that
extraordinary feeling of truth that one gets from the current Italian films."
Bazin's defence of the spirit of neorealism even after the historical thematic of neorealism got expired,
specially through the discussion of 'Journey to Italy' (1954) by Rossellini

Impact of Neorealism in World Cinema

Through neorealism the 'Third World' found an authentic mode of self-representation

Impact on post-neorealist modernist films in Italy like in the works of Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini

Infuence on French New Wave as legitimate auteur filmmakers

Gilles Deleuze on Neorealism

Neorealism as a transition from primarily Hollywood centric, but not limited to, 'movement images' to
'time images' by showing tendencies of loosening of sensory-motor coupling – example from 'Umberto
D' (scene in kitchen)

From 'Cinema 2' by Gilles Deleuze:

"The role of the child in neo-realism has been pointed out, notably in De Sica (and later in France with
Truffaut); this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but
one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing. Similarly, if everyday banality is so
important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and pre-
established, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and
response (as in the scene with the little maid in Umberto D), suddenly to free itself from the laws of
this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it
unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare. There is, therefore, a necessary passage from
the crisis of image-action to the pure optical-sound image."

According to Deleuze the characteristics of Neorealism for Bazin are:

"it was a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in
blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or
reproduced but 'aimed at'. Instead of representing an already deciphered real, neo-realism aimed at an
always ambiguous, to be deciphered, real;"

Deleuze highlights the ambiguous excess reality, often as an encounter to destabilize the sensory-motor
"When Zavattini defines neo-realism as an art of encounter – fragmentary, ephemeral, piecemeal,
missed encounters – what does he mean? It is true of encounters in Rossellini's Paisa, or De Sica's
Bicycle Thief. And in Umbrto D, De Sica constructs the famous sequence quoted as an example by
Bazin: the young maid going into the kitchen in the morning, making a series of mechanical, weary
gestures, cleaning a bit, driving the ants away from a water fountain, picking up the coffee grinder,
stretching out her foot to close the door with her toe. And her eyes meet her pregnant woman's belly,
and it is as though all the misery in the world were going to be born. This is how, in an ordinary or
everyday situation, in the course of a series of gestures, which are insignificant but all the more
obedient to simple sensory-motor schemata, what has suddenly been brought about is a pure optical
situation to which the little maid has no response or reaction. The eyes, the belly, that is what an
encounter is..."

Case Study: Roberto Rossellini

Rossellini's initail works were made in fascist era, at times approved by the Duce himself

The transitions even within neo-realist phase

Rossellini's idea of significant image:

"All knowledge begins with the eyes, although the freshness of our earliest perceptions is soon clouded.
Language and ideas are always preceded by our perceptual structuring of existence. My primary aim is
to recapture the tremendous innocence of the original glance, the very first image that appeared to our
eyes. I am always searching for what I call the "essential image." Such an image may be considered to
be a truly materialist one, for it places itself beyond the reach of conceptual or verbal expectations.
With the exception of Godard and a few others, this materialist type of cinema is an unexplored
territory. Most films are made up of what I call "illustrations." The "essential image" is totally opposed
to the "illustration," which is an image that is determined by various conscious and unconscious
preconceptions. Even at 66, I am still excited by the mystery of the "essential image."
Roberto Rossellini at a lecture delivered in New York University, 1973

Series of films with the star actor Ingrid Bergman (married to her and getting divorced)

Rossellini's work in India (India Mathribhoomi)

Rossellini's later historical works

To locate how the neorealist creative self is getting multi-dimensional

Did Neorealism Actually Occur?

Whether the concept of ideal cinema according to Bazin and Deleuze were forced upon few postwar
films in Italy?

Whether an artistic alibi of innocence and a fresh start (the idea of Year Zero) was projected and made
believable through the film-historical project of Neorealism?