Claretta Micheletti Tonetti

Senior Lecturer in Italian
Head of the Italian Language Program at Boston University

Neo-realism: Classroom Notes

It is said that editor Mario Serandrei after viewing Luchino Visconti's  Ossessione  (1942 ) wrote to the director that he could not find a term to describe this new kind of cinema beside NEO - REALISMO. Is this the birth of this style which the French critics called the Italian School? Probably not. History and aesthetic history is a flux of events interacting and slowly changing into a metamorphosis which brings to a final product barely similar to its genesis, but at the same time dependent by it.

In the years before 1942, the year of the controversial Ossessione, Italian cinema was characterized by two main currents: the historical film and the films of the white telephones ;both trends enjoyed the approval and the financial support of the Fascist regime, content to see on the screen  on one hand glorious episodes referring to Roman History and on the other hand, a polished contemporary Italian reality even if fascist theorists chastised this genre as un-educational and bourgeois cinema.

The cinema of the White Telephones is not as outdated as it may seem since its basic traits continued in the Hollywood films after the Second World War and have achieved a certain immortality, since its dynamics and significations are the basic staple of soap opera. These works are politically neutral; they often proffer comical situations based on characters equivocations and exchange and they extol petit bourgeois ideals of material well being and conventional mannerism. Generally frivolous protagonists go through the motions of their aseptic lives in up to date environments where a white telephone, symbol of wealthy homes elegance and modernity, was often in view. Hence the denomination of the genre.

The historical cinema mainly concerning Roman history and the  exaltation of Roman civilization reached its highest achievement with Scipione L’ Africano  ( 1937 ) after being popular and preponderant in the Twenties.  In other historic films in the Thirties however, an attentive observer can detect a few indications of the future neo realistic school. In 1934, director Alessandro Blasetti went to Sicily to make a film on Italian Risorgimento ; the work is called 1860, the year of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s expedition to the island, and realistically shows the unification of Italy from the side of the peasants, using local accents, dialects and true location.  In his war movies , La Nave Bianca (1941), Un Pilota Ritorna (1942) and l’ Uomo della Croce (1943) , Roberto Rossellini , soon to become a recognized leader of neo-realism,  experiments with “chorality” , a typical characteristic of the neo-realistic signifier :
“The realistic movie is , per se , choral. … La Nave Bianca is an example of a choral film: from the first scene, the one of the letters of the sailors to their godmothers, to the battle, to the wounded who assist to Mass or who play and sing. There was also in this film the pitiless cruelty of the machine in relation to man: the non heroic aspect of man who lives inside the war ship, who acts in obscurity in the middle of measures, of goniometry, of wheels,  of levers . Apparently this is not an heroic nor a lyrical aspect, but in reality it is scarily heroic.” (Rossellini . Gianni Rondolino. Il Castoro Cinema. La Nuova Italia).

It is precisely in the heroic non heroism of everyday that we can glimpse at another building block of the new realism along with the disavowal of the winner. It is now the time of the loser or of the common person, hardly in control of his  “destiny” , in a often tragic situation where dirty dishes and tired eyes have taken the place of white telephone as we can see in Visconti’s  Ossessione.

The neo realistic character is not a manipulator of reality; reality siphons him in and, as French philosopher Gilles Deleuze says in his writings on Neorealism , “he is consigned to a vision which he chases or from which he is chased”  (Deleuze . L’Immagine-Tempo, Ubilibri, Milano 1989 p.13). These words are arguably the best description of the desperate meandering of Antonio and Bruno searching for their elusive bicycle in De Sica’s Bicycle Thief. Stressing the metamorphosis of the classic cinematic hero from the personage acting on the situation to the personage who can only observe it , Deleuze speaks of an oneiric rapport between environment and action in which  “one could say that the action fluctuates into the situation, rather then making it or reinforcing it” ( p. 15 ) Always keeping in mind De Sica’s classic we could indeed say that Antonio and Bruno frantic Sunday is a nightmare which, like all oneiric experiences, cannot be controlled ; it  can just be seen  by the eye of the passive protagonist who is teased in his meandering by incontrollable images. Again Deleuze : “Situations do not prolong themselves  in action or reaction, according to the needs of the image-movement. They are pure optical and audio situations , in which the personage does not know how to respond, unused spaces in which he stops experimenting and acting, to escape wandering …… undecided on what to do. But he has gained in voyance what he has lost in action or reaction ; HE SEES therefore the problem of the spectator becomes:’ what is there to see in the image?’ (and not ‘what will we see in the next image ?’ ) (Deleuze L’ Immagine-Movimento , Ubulibri, Milano 1984  p. 301)

In neo-realism the plot is secondary, what is important is the truth and the search for it in every day’s reality. Therefore neo-realism becomes what several critics called the aesthetic of an ethic, a way of showing what is essential , always present and always shun because  considered not interesting enough and often boring. Cesare Zavattini, a man of cinema and the major theorist of neo-realism , considers the introduction of a story  to make reality “thrilling and spectacular” the symptom of  “moral and intellectual sloth”  “The most important characteristic of neo-realism” Zavattini writes “, for me, the discovery that this need to use a story was just an unconscious mean of masking human defeat in the face of reality; imagination, in its own manner of functioning, merely superimposes death schemes onto living events and situations” (A Reader on Neo-Realism. p. 67 ) 

Zavattini’s words are essentially philosophical: we must feel hunger for truth, we must look for it in every day’s life and “the  neo-realist movement  [ must recognize ] that the cinema should take as its subject the daily existence and condition of the Italian people, without introducing the coloration of the imagination, and thereby, force itself to analyze it for whatever human, historical, determining and definite factors it encompasses. I believe that the world continues to evolve towards evil” Zavattini says because “we do not know the truth: we remain unaware of reality.”  (p. 72)

In just about every statement about Neo-realism pronounced by a theorist or a director in the late Forties and in the early Fifties, we find an almost obsessive repetition of the word truth; there was indeed a need to show the suffering of the people, the destruction and death brought by the war, the difficulties of rebuilding, the problem of unemployment  and there was the freedom of being able to do it without fascist censorship . Italian cultural life was undergoing a period of convalescence after a long disease; the directors took pride in fulfilling their ethical role as artists and became witnesses of hardship, recorders of facts and messengers of human solidarity. “The director treats the camera with the same nonchalance with which the writer uses his notebook or the painter his sketchbook …everything can be material for a film, everything is extraordinarily simple; and everything is extraordinarily mysterious, difficult “ ( Cinema italiano del dopoguerra  Mario Gromo . Edizioni d’arte 1953 p. 54 )

The aesthetic of Neo –realism lets the facts speak relaying as much as possible on spontaneity and improvisation; editing was kept to the necessary minimum while depth of focus and long sequences were privileged. Visconti’s long panning on the town of Aci Trezza at dawn, the return of the men from the sea, the swarming of humanity haggling over the price of the catch, the arrogance of the middlemen and the anger of the fishermen, the protracted discussions in Sicilian dialect under the  punishing sun, are essential staple of the new aesthetic which searched for the essence of humanity in common occurrences and in apparently nugatory  facts.  Facts follow one another often at random and their logical link is, just like in “real” life, often feeble. Neo-realism in fact is the opposite of bluntness; it suggests and it often proffers ambiguity, it forces an attentive spectator to rewrite the text because it does not ambush the audience with shallow overemphasis.

The camera of Neo-realism sketches and takes notes; its work is humble. It is only through an act of humility that, according to Roberto Rossellini, art can do some good for humanity. “I believe that all the means of diffusion of culture have become sterile because we have completely abandoned the search for man as he really is. We have began to create stereotyped men and surrogates of feelings..We pose false problems and we forget real problems. Which are real problems? First of all it is necessary to know men as they are, it is necessary to begin with an act of profound humility and to approach men as they are with objectivity, without prejudices, without moral disputes…… I do not remember who said ‘We live in the century of the vertical barbarian invasions ‘ ; which means that there is an extreme search for notions in a certain direction and an extreme ignorance in all other directions.” (Il Castoro Cinema 1977 p. 22, 23)

Rossellini’s words certainly maintain their meaningful resonance vis à vis a certain kind of contemporary spectacular cinema with triumphant heroes. The humanism of neo-realism is, on the contrary, on the other side of the barricade, the side where we can find the exploited young women attending the rice fields in Northern Italy (Riso amaro) , the boys who survive by  shining shoes ( Sciuscià ) and the old gentleman who cannot pay rent and find shelter for himself and for his dog (Umberto D).

Cesare Zavattini expresses his distaste for heroes and exceptional people, since the create “inferiority complexes” in the audience who like other millions of people is excluded by their world. The real protagonist for Zavattini is each member of the audience: “The result would be a constant emphasis on the responsibility and dignity of every human being. This is exactly the ambition of neo-realism: to strengthen everyone, and to give everyone the proper awareness of a human being.”(Thesis on Neo-realism by Cesare Zavattini. Springtime in Italy. p. 67)

Hence the sense of the masses in many neo-realist films. Not spectacular agglomerates of people , but lines of workers in the fields, passengers lining up to catch a bus, groups of priests taking shelter from a sudden rain storm and  people attending mass. Like people we have a multitude of things, of humble everyday things: packs of sheets lined up to the ceiling in the pawn shop, bicycle pumps and bells, benches, piles of bricks, dilapidated wall and clothes drying on stretched lines.

Claretta Micheletti Tonetti
Boston University






Comments  |  May 2009