After the Second World War, a new direction in film emerged in devastated Italy. In addition to French and German Expressionism, Italian neorealism was born in post-war Europe.
Italian neorealism tried to showcase both the physical and spiritual stumbling of the Italians and their effort to get out of it. For greater authenticity, film directors used the still destroyed locations of cities across the country and amateur actors and shot their fictional stories in the most realistic, almost documentary way. These films certainly became a testament to an epoch.
The most important representatives of this direction in the film were Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rosellini, Federico Fellini (whose early works were done near the end of neorealism, as there was a shift of focus from society to the individual), Cesare Zavattini and Luchino Visconti, who presented the social and economic problems of the time when societies were often faced with the issue of ethics.
Without a doubt, Vittorio de Sica’s film Sciuscia/Ragazzi (1946) is one of the most representative examples of neorealism in film for two reasons.
The first reason is certainly the fact that this film presented the very core of neorealism in the Italian film industry. The film takes place in Rome, with still present American soldiers, and it follows the lives of two boys, Giuseppe and Pasquale, who earn their living by cleaning shoes on the street. Although they are aware of how much they have to earn and why they are working (Giuseppe is younger and has a mother to take care of, while Pascal’s parents are not alive), like all children, they also have their dreams. They dream of buying a beautiful white horse from its existing owner when they save enough money, and both of them would take turns in riding it. But one job is not enough to make enough money to buy the horse. Giuseppe’s older brother gives them a business proposal, which they accepted and after they made enough money, unaware at the time that they made it illegally, they were arrested and taken to prison with a bunch of other children, who ended up there for petty theft and who were also hoping to help their own families to get back on their feet financially and ultimately survive. In prison, their main enemy will be neither a guard nor someone from the cell, but the notion of ethics. This film encompasses all the motives represented in neorealism.
The most important representatives of neorealism film were Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rosellini, Federico Fellini, Cesare Zavattini and Luchino Visconti, who presented the social and economic problems of the time.
The second reason is the fact that this film was the first to win the Oscar for the best film in 1947 outside the English-speaking area, and thus was the initiator of this special award.
Another Vittorio Da Sica’s film – Ladri di biciclette (1948) – also won an Oscar in 1949 and is considered one of the best Italian films of all time.
Although the true beginning of neorealism has been widely contested by theorists and filmmakers, the first neorealist film is generally thought to be Visconti’s Ossessione, released in 1943, during the occupation. Neorealism became famous globally in 1946 with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, when it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as the first major film produced in Italy after the war.
Italian neorealism rapidly declined in the early 1950s. Liberal and socialist parties were having difficulties presenting their message. The vision of the existing poverty and despair, presented by neorealist cinema, was demoralizing a nation anxious for prosperity and change. Additionally, the first positive effects of the Italian economic miracle period—such as gradual rises in income levels—caused the themes of neorealism to lose their relevance. As a consequence, most Italians favoured the optimism shown in many American movies of the time. The views of the post-war Italian government of the time were also far from positive, and the remark of Giulio Andreotti, who was then a vice-minister in the De Gasperi cabinet, characterized the official view of the movement – neorealism is “dirty laundry that shouldn’t be washed and hung to dry in the open”.
Italy’s move from individual concern with neorealism to the tragic frailty of the human condition can be seen through Federico Fellini’s films. His early works La Strada (1954) and Il bidone (1955) are transitional movies. The larger social concerns of humanity, treated by neorealists, gave way to the exploration of individuals. Their needs, their alienation from society and their tragic failure to communicate became the main focal point in the Italian films to follow in the 1960s. Similarly, Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Blow-up (1966) take the neorealist trappings and internalise them in the suffering and search for knowledge brought out by Italy’s post-war economic and political climate.
In the early 1950s, the neorealist torch was picked up by artists like Sicily’s Bruno Caruso, whose work focused on the warehouses, shipyards and psychiatric wards of his native Palermo.
The Neorealist period is often simply referred to as “The Golden Age” of Italian cinema by critics, filmmakers and scholars.