In the 1940s, as it became increasingly clear that fascist regimes were on the decline in both Europe and Asia – many artists turned to a new type of cinema. Italian Neorealism was born out of this cultural shift and sought to bring an honest depiction of life back to film.

This article will explore some key features that define Italian Neorealism as well as its influences and legacy.

 

ITALIAN NEOREALISM

What Is Italian Neorealism?

Italian Neorealism is a genre of Italian film that emerged in the 1940s.

This type of filmmaking style captures stories from working-class life in Italy. The movement has its roots in post-war Italy, where many citizens were living in poverty after the war had ended.

The films were characterized by their use of non-professional actors, location shooting, improvised dialogue, and lack of moral censorship.

 

 

Italian Neorealism – An Introduction

Rising from the ashes of World War II as an antidote to fascist ideology, Italian neorealism is a film movement that developed in the mid-1940s and was responsible for changing cinema forever.

The films focused on everyday life with stories about poverty and working-class struggles in post-war Italy.

We’ll explore what Italian neorealism means, its place in the wider cinematic canon while discussing some major figures such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti.

Characteristics Of Italian Neorealism

  • Non-professional actors
  • Location shooting,
  • improvising dialogue, and
  • Lack of moral censorship.

Italian Neorealism arose from the ashes of World War II as an antidote to fascist ideology, emerging in Italy as a response to the fascist ideology and cultural suppression during Mussolini’s regime.

The idea behind this movement was that art should reflect society at large without being censored but also show how much people had to struggle.

How Italian Neorealism Began

The idea behind the Italian movement was that art should reflect society at large without being censored but also show how much people had to struggle.

Post World War II Italy experienced a rise in poverty and unemployment as well as hunger, riots and social unrest.

Italians wanted their voices to be heard through film, so they often used non-professional actors, improvised dialogue, location shooting with little or no set design. All these elements were key components of Italian neorealist films.

Some major figures include Roberto Rossellini (Open City), Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine) Luchino Visconti (White Nights).

The Key Films Of Italian Neorealism

Let’s take a look at some of the central films of the Italian Neorealism movement.

Ossessione (1942)

Ossessione is based on the 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

Luchino Visconti’s first feature film, it’s considered by many to be the first Italian neorealist film, though there is some debate about whether such a categorization is accurate.

Set in the flatlands of the Po delta, traces the love affair between an itinerant laborer and the restless wife of a trattoria owner, which leads to the murder of the boorish husband.

Ossessione
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Juan de Landa (Actors)
  • Luchino Visconti (Director)
  • English, French, Spanish (Playback Language)
  • English, French, Spanish (Subtitles)

Rome, Open City (1945)

Roberto Rossellini’s film was one of the first films of this genre which focused on telling stories about how difficult life could be without being censored but also show how much people had to struggle under fascism and war.

Italians wanted their voices to be heard through cinema so they often used non-professional actors, improvised dialogue, location shooting with little or no set design

Open City (English Subtitled)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Aldo Fabrizi (Actors)
  • Roberto Rossellini (Director)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

The Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, the Academy Award-winning Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), defined an era in cinema.

In poverty-stricken postwar Rome, a man is on his first day of a new job that offers hope of salvation for his desperate family when his bicycle, which he needs for work, is stolen.

With his young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief.

Simple in construction and profoundly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodies the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social rectitude, and brutal honesty.

Heralded as the greatest film ever made on release, winning an Oscar in 1949 and topping the Sight & Sound film poll in 1952.

De Sica’s seminal work of Italian neorealism has had an impact on cinema worldwide from release to the present day, with filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and Ken Loach claiming the film as a direct influence on their own.

Bicycle Thieves tells the story of Antonio, a long unemployed man who finally finds employment putting up cinema posters for which he needs a bicycle.

His wife pawns all the family linen to redeem the already pawned bicycle and for Antonio salvation has come, until the bicycle is stolen.

Antonio and his son take to the streets in a desperate search to find the bicycle.

Bicycle Thieves is as much about the position of Italians in post-War, post-Fascist Italy as the relationship between father and son, told through the labyrinth of the cinematic city with De Sica’s arresting visual poetry.

Defining neorealism, a small period of filmmaking that focused on simple, humanist stories, Bicycle Thieves was one of the most captivating and moving. Now presented in a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative.

Bicycle Thieves (English Subtitled)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell (Actors)
  • Vittorio De Sica (Director) - Vittorio De Sica (Writer) - Giuseppe Amato (Producer)
  • (Playback Language)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

La terra trema (1948)

The movie is loosely adapted from Giovanni Verga’s novel The House by the Medlar Tree.

The picture features non-credited non-professional actors, Antonio Arcidiacono, Giuseppe Arcidiacono, and many others. It is a docufiction in the Sicilian language.

The story takes place in Aci Trezza (Jaci Trizza), a small fishing village on the east coast of Sicily, Italy.

It tells about the exploitation of working-class fishermen, specifically that of the eldest son of a very traditional village family, the Valastros.

Antonio convinces his family to mortgage their house in order to catch and sell fish themselves and make more money than they were already receiving from the wholesalers who had controlled the market with their low prices for a long time.

Everything goes well until a storm ruins the family’s boat, leaving them with nothing to keep the new business going.

Following this disaster, the family experiences several awful events such as having to leave the house, the death of the grandfather, and ‘Ntoni and his brothers being obliged to return to fish for the wholesalers.

La terra trema
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Antonio Arcidiacono, Giuseppe Arcidiacono (Actors)
  • Luchino Visconti (Director)
  • English, Italian, French (Playback Language)
  • English, Italian, French (Subtitles)

Germany, Year Zero (1948)

The concluding part of Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated War Trilogy, Germany Year Zero, is presented here in a new restoration.

Amidst the war-torn ruins of Berlin in the period immediately after the Second World War a twelve-year-old boy, Edmund, struggles to support his family his ailing father and un-registered brother unable to provide for them.

Left to his own devices, Edmund wanders around the devastated city, getting caught up in black market schemes and falling prey to the pernicious influence of a Nazi-sympathising former teacher with tragic consequences.

This heart-rending portrait of a decimated post-war European city is a damning indictment of war and fascism and remains one of the most affecting films in the history of cinema.

Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950)

The Flowers of St. Francis is a 1950 film directed by Roberto Rossellini and co-written by Federico Fellini.

The film is based on two books, the 14th-century novel Fioretti Di San Francesco Little Flowers of St. Francis and La Vita di Frate Ginepro (The Life of Brother Juniper)

Both of the books relate the life and work of St. Francis and the early Franciscans. I Fioretti is composed of 78 small chapters.

The novel as a whole is less biographical and is instead more focused on relating tales of the life of St. Francis and his followers.

The movie follows the same premise, though rather than relating all 78 chapters, it focuses instead on nine of them.

Each chapter is composed in the style of a parable, and, like parables, contains a moral theme.

The Flowers of St. Francis (The Criterion Collection)
  • Factory sealed DVD
  • Aldo Fabrizi, Gianfranco Bellini, Peparuolo (Actors)
  • Roberto Rossellini (Director) - Antonio Lisandrini (Writer) - Angelo Rizzoli (Producer)
  • English (Subtitle)
  • English (Publication Language)

I Vitelloni (1952)

Italian maestro Federico Fellini’s first international success is a nakedly autobiographical film that bears many of the formal and thematic concerns that recur throughout his work.

Set in the director’s hometown of Rimini, I Vitelloni follows the lives of five young vitelloni, or layabouts, who while away their listless days in their small seaside village.

Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the leader of the pack, marries his sweetheart but finds himself constantly distracted by other women.

Meanwhile, would-be playwright Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) continues work on his dreary plays, dreaming of staging them one day. Clownish Alberto (Alberto Sordi) still lives at home with his mother and sister, Olga (Claude Farell), while boasting of preserving the family honor by watching over her.

While the movie seems to pay little attention to Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) and Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the latter eventually emerges as its key character, plainly serving as Fellini’s alter ego.

Federico Fellini’s breakthrough film, 1953’s I Vitelloni, is one of the cinema’s seminal stories about slacker males, and a highly entertaining one at that.

Following the unfortunate failure of his comedy The White Sheik, Fellini prepared to shoot La Strada (he would release that early masterpiece in 1954) but decided at the last minute to make an autobiographical feature about mischievous, drifting, 30-ish losers in a small, seaside town.

I Vitelloni clicked with international audiences and remains an obvious influence on such later classics as Breaking Away and Diner.

But there’s nothing like Fellini’s almost self-mocking fusion of gritty neo-realism with the audacious, illusionary style he would later be entirely linked.

The ensemble comedy follows the ever-diminishing fortunes of five young men who can’t define, let alone jump-start, their dreams, particularly the caddish Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who thinks nothing of molesting the wife of his father-in-law’s best friend. –Tom Keogh

I Vitelloni (English Subtitled)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Franco Interlenghi, Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi (Actors)
  • Federico Fellini (Director) - Federico Fellini (Writer)
  • (Playback Language)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Umberto D. (1952)

Hailed by Martin Scorsese as “De Sica’s greatest achievement”, Umberto D surpasses even Bicycle Thieves in many critics’ opinions – rating as one of the greatest films of all time.

A heartfelt portrait of an impoverished retired civil servant who lives in a rented room in post-war Rome with only his beloved dog and a teenage housemaid as companions.

Faced with eviction when he can’t keep up with his rent, the old man struggles to make ends meet and maintain his dignity, but his growing despair leads him to contemplate suicide.

Written by De Sica’s long-standing collaborator Cesare Zavattini, Umberto D’s depiction of poverty, old age and­ loneliness – far from being a recipe for bleakness  -­ is bursting with life.

Despite international acclaim with ­Cannes and Oscar nominations, it was castigated by the Italian government for airing the country’s ‘dirty laundry’ in public.

Today, though, Umberto D is universally considered not only as the apex of Italian Neorealism but as one of cinema’s masterpieces with a profound influence on generations of filmmakers.

Umberto D. (English Subtitled)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari (Actors)
  • Vittorio De Sica (Director) - Vittorio De Sica (Writer) - Giuseppe Amato (Producer)
  • (Playback Language)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

La Strada (1954)

Regarded by some as Federico Fellini’s finest work, and the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, La Strada is a masterpiece of 20th Century filmmaking.

Sold by her impoverished mother to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a brutish fairground wrestler, waif-like Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) lives a life of drudgery as his assistant.

After taking to the road with a traveling circus, a budding relationship with Il Matto/The Fool (Richard Basehart), a gentle-natured, tightrope walking clown, offers a potential refuge from her master’s clutches.

Trapped by her own servile nature, Gelsomina waivers, and Zampano’s volcanic temper erupts with tragic consequences.

La Strada
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart (Actors)
  • Federico Fellini (Director) - Federico Fellini (Writer)
  • (Playback Language)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Journey To Italy (1954)

Among the most influential dramatic works of the postwar era, Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy charts the declining marriage of a couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) from England while on a trip in the countryside near Naples.

More than just an anatomy of a relationship, Rossellini’s masterpiece is a heartrending work of emotion and spirituality.

Considered a predecessor to the existentialist films of Michelangelo Antonioni and hailed as a groundbreaking modernist work by the legendary film journal Cahiers du cinéma.

The film has also been labeled by director Martin Scorsese as one of his favorite films. Journey to Italy is a breathtaking cinematic benchmark.

Journey to Italy
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban (Actors)
  • Roberto Rossellini (Director) - Roberto Rossellini (Writer)
  • English (Playback Language)
  • English (Subtitle)

Il tetto (1956)

Directly after his successful The Gold of Naples (1954), Italian filmmaker Vittorio DeSica served up something of a throwback to his neorealist days.

In The Roof (originally Il Tetto) a pair of young lovers wed in defiance of their families wishes. With the confidence of youth, they decide to set up housekeeping for themselves.

Alas, they soon learn that living on love is virtually impossibility-especially in a postwar economy.

The box-office failure of The Roof was a major setback for DeSica’s directorial career: he would not be able to finance another film until the 1960’s Two Women.

The Roof
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Giorgio Listuzzi, Gabriella Pallotta, Luciano Pigozzi (Actors)
  • Vittorio De Sica (Director) - Cesare Zavattini (Writer)
  • English (Playback Language)
  • English (Subtitle)

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Rocco and His Brothers is a 1960 Italian film directed by Luchino Visconti, inspired by an episode from the novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa by Giovanni Testori.

Set in Milan, it tells the story of a migrant family from the South and its disintegration in the society of the industrial North.

The title is a combination of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers and the name of Rocco Scotellaro, an Italian poet who described the feelings of the peasants of southern Italy.

The film stars Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, and Claudia Cardinale in one of her early roles before she became internationally known.

The score was composed by Nino Rota.

Rocco and His Brothers
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot (Actors)
  • Luchino Visconti (Director) - Suso Cecchi D'Amico (Writer) - Goffredo Lombardo (Producer)
  • English (Playback Language)
  • English (Subtitle)

Il posto (1961)

Coming from a provincial family, Domenico (Sandro Panseri) arrives in Milan in search of a job.

After undergoing a series of absurd physical and psychological tests, he is given the position of a lowly clerk in a corporate firm.

Also applying for a job is Antonietta (Loredana Detto), who becomes the object of shy Domenico’s infatuation.

However, he finds little time to pursue any possible future with her upon starting his new job. The pressures and working hours completely take over his private life.

Domenico, a newcomer in Milan, becomes lonely as a result of these changes and is filled with anxiety over his future.

Il Posto was Ermanno Olmi’s first major work and its achievement was immediately heralded by a prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Drawing influences from neorealism as well as a background making industrial short documentaries, Olmi created a heightened approach to depicting reality.

A miniaturist devoted to the small and seemingly innocuous moments of a man’s life, Olmi’s intimate vision would subsequently influence the works of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.

Il Posto
  • sandro panzeri, tullio kezich (Actors)
  • ermanno olmi (Director)
  • Italian (Subtitle)
  • Audience Rating: G (General Audience)

The Impact Of Italian Neorealism

The Italian Neorealist movement had a huge impact on films. They inspired the French New Wave and other types of film styles because they were so unique.

The stories that these directors told in their movies are still relevant in modern times and also changed how people viewed life without censorship or fascist regimes trying to make them think differently.

Italians wanted their voices heard through film, but it was difficult with fascism ruling over Italy at the time.

One thing they did was use non-professional actors, improvised dialogue, location shooting with little set design for an authentic look and feel which translated into authenticity on screen as well as influencing many different genres around the world afterward such as French New Wave.

We can also see Italian Neorealism in the cinema verite films of the 1950s and 1960s.

4 Famous Italian Neorealist Filmmakers

Luchino Visconti

He was famous for his use of location shooting with little set design which translated to authenticity on screen as well as influencing many different genres around the world afterward such as the French New Wave.

His movies were mainly about social classes during fascism in Italy or other topics related to life at this time period like “La Terra Trema” (1948).

Opposition force is seen through Renata who rebels against her father by going out more often than she should have been allowed according to fascist standards and also a character named Lila who has an affair with a

Roberto Rossellini

Rossellini studied law at the University of Rome but left to pursue a career as an actor with some success.

He then became interested in directing movies after seeing Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927).

The movie had such a strong impact that he decided to study filmmaking for three years under Mario Soldati before making his own debut in 1936 with “Paisà”.

His first commercial success came from the 1942 romantic comedy “L’Amore”, which starred Anna Magnani.

Over time, he became more interested in neorealism, a movement that was born after the German occupation of Rome and which advocated for social realism.

Rossellini’s first major neorealist film was “Rome Open City” (1945), followed by Paisà, an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s novel about life on an isolated rural estate that had been taken over by local fascists.

Paisà was an international success and paved the way for neorealist films to be seen as art rather than the works of second-rate filmmakers.

italian neorealism

Vittorio De Sica

De Sica was born in 1914 to a family of actors. His father, Federico Valeri, had been a member of the Commedia Dell’Arte, and his mother Teresa Parodi-De Sicasessa took on roles as well.

De Sica’s first theatrical experience was as a chorus boy in his parents’ company. His father’s gifts were not passed down to Vittorio, who had an unsettled youth and did poorly at school.

Troops of the Italian Social Republic occupied Rome until 1944; during this time De Sica joined the Italian resistance movement.

In 1946, De Sica became the first Italian film director to win an international award when his neorealistic picture The Bicycle Thief won the prestigious Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

De Sica’s career was not limited to cinema; he also directed theatre and television shows as well. He died in 1974 of a heart attack while on holiday with his family in Mexico City.

Cesare Zavattini

A talented writer, Cesare Zavattini was born in the town of Riesi, Sicily. He wrote for a number of journals including La Sicilia and L’Avvenire d’Italia before his father moved to Milan where he worked as an apprentice electrician at Edison’s factory while studying literature on his own.

In 1919, after serving with the first World War troops stationed in Rome, Zavattini returned to Milan and began writing screenplays for silent films together with Anton Giulio Bragaglia and Mario Bonnard under Domenico Paolella’s direction.

These collaborations led to their association with Angelo Morosoni who founded Cines company which financed production through what became known as the “Morosoni bank.”

Together, Zavattini and Bragaglia created a new style of film that would become known as neorealism.

Their films were less focused on the lavish lifestyle of high society than they were with the lives of those at the bottom – the working class, women, children, and peasants who were often ignored in the escapist dramas of Hollywood.

Zavattini and Bragaglia’s films focused on the human condition, which they saw as being in a continual state of flux, with no moments of rest or permanence.

As with most Italian neorealist films, their characters struggle against economic adversity amid political turmoil that is often brutal and unrelenting.

Which Future Filmmakers Did Italian Neorealism Influence

Neorealism led to filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who were inspired by Italian neorealism’s austere style.

The French New Wave film movement of the late 1950s onwards drew heavily on this cinema genre with directors following in De Sica’s footsteps filming stories about children coming into adulthood.

After World War II, many European countries have suffered poverty from their war efforts – France was no exception.

By taking a look at Italy after WWII we can see that they used an artistic form that allowed them to express what it meant to be living under these conditions and how people struggled due to societal forces like corruption or oppressive governments.

Filmmakers such as Ken Loach and John Sayles are often considered Italian Neorealists because they have made many politically charged films like “Kes” (1968) which explores how England’s public education system fails its youth.

And one of the great filmmakers of all time, Martin Scorsese, was hugely influenced by Italian neorealism.

Italian Neorealism – Wrapping Up

Italian neorealism was a revolutionary movement that changed film forever.

It emerged as an antidote to fascism after World War II and focused on the struggles of post-war Italy with stories about poverty and class struggle.

And aspects of Italian Neorealism are still in evidence today, especially when making political films or documentaries.

The Italian Neorealist style was a radical break from the Hollywood conventions of filmmaking.

As we’ve covered, the Italian Neorealist movement in cinema is one of the most influential art movements to come out of Italy.

Though it began as a reaction against both fascism and Hollywood’s classical style, the movement has had lasting impacts on filmmakers around the world, with many directors working today still citing its influence.

It used an anti-Hollywood approach and depicted everyday life in all its complexity.

This can be seen as a response to post-war Italy’s economic hardships, but it also reflects the filmmakers’ desire for social change through art.