Realism Trumps Escapism in Post-War Italy*

         Italian neo-realism grew out of the harsh realities faced by film makers in a post World War II Italy. Using actors with little-to-no training and shooting in the streets the films offered the Italian moviegoer a mirror that, for the first time in decades, reflected what it was like to be a modern Italian. Although the movement had no overarching political message, it did help draw attention to the harsh realities of everyday Italian life after the fall of Mussolini and the end of World War II.

         During Mussolini’s reign Italian cinema was closely censored by the fascist regime leading to what became known as “telefono blano” (or white telephone) films, known for their art-deco style and American style storytelling. These films followed a traditional style of film making but were considered to be of poor quality by critics. As Mussolini fell out of power, Italy began to knit itself back together. The main soundstages in Italy, located in Rome, became refugee camps and halted the production of more traditional films. This led to film makers moving outside the studio and into the streets of Rome; using any willing participants they could find to complete their films. The movement had a relatively short lifespan, although it lasted from 1945 into the early 1950’s. As conditions improved in Italy, there was less of a draw to the style of film; and the neorealist film makers themselves moved on to different thematic film styles (Shanahan).

         The use of actors without training was thought to lend a certain amount of realism to the drama onscreen. This is shown in the archetypical neo-realist films Rome: Open City and The Bicycle Thief, as only a few actors in each film could be considered “professional.” The use of actual locations during filming, such as the street outside an area in The Bicycle Thief or a train station in Umberto D, and of documentary style camera angles also helped the audience relate to the day-in-the-life plots. The films focused on the story the film is telling and not on big name stars or fancy camera tricks. Everything that could detract from the understanding of the film was removed.

         Although it had a very short lifespan, the neorealist movement proved that amateur actors, with the right coaching, can be beneficial to a story and that commercial films can be used to show the gritty, dirty plight of everyday life. The effects of Italian neo-realism can be seen from French New Wave in the 1960’s to the L.A. School style in the 1970’s and 80’s to the current “Dogme95” manifesto (Ratner).

         Neo-realism helped an entire country cope with the bloody aftermath of a war fought at home. While the stories were not particularly uplifting, the movement helped people get on with their lives by not showing the glitz and glamour of Hollywood but people whom they could relate to, who lived in their world and suffered through their problems. Neo-realism could be considered a precursor to reality television, with an added dose of reality thrown in.

Works Cited

Ratner, Megan. GreenCine| Italian Neo-Realism 2005. 5 Mar. 2008 (http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/neorealism1.jsp).

Shanahan, Antonia. Federico Fellini1 July 2002. 3 Mar. 2008 (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/fellini.html).

Michael Belcher

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