Where to Start with Italian Neorealism

One of the most often discussed topics in film academia and criticism is: what is Italian Neorealism? It is one of the most famous movements in the history of cinema, yet its definition remains somewhat elusive.

Unlike our genre-first approach to film categorisation – that being the sorting of films based on textual elements they hold in common with other films – film movements are often more fluid and group films together based on contextual elements. Italian Neorealism derived from a very specific historical and political context. It was seen as a political response to Italy’s years under dictator Benito Mussolini and, consequently, the control and censorship that Mussolini’s party imparted on the arts. Neorealist films often comment on the widespread poverty and injustice of post-war Italy, establishing a thematic specificity, but they each offer textual specificity in their visual language, too.

French film critic André Bazin said that Italian Neorealism was “an aesthetic of reality.” At its core, that is probably the best way to describe the textual approach of any film movement that focuses so heavily on portraying real life and real people, but it is applied so specifically here because of Italian Neorealism’s dedication to portraying the everyday lives of the working class in post-war Italy. Neorealism is now known for its unique visual style: its use of non-professional actors, on-location shooting, and a documentary-adjacent visual presentation largely made up of un-obtrusive shots and a camera that tends to linger on its subjects rather than cut away immediately after the scene is finished.
To this day, Italian Neorealism remains a unique cultural movement because of the way it was created and the historical context in which it arose. Scholars may argue over and over on what exactly makes a film neorealist – does it have to be made in post-war Italy? Does it have to use non-professional actors? – but in the end, the only thing that matters is the power of the movement itself. Ultimately, the best way to understand what Italian Neorealism represents is by watching one of the many beloved pieces of cinema that have now become associated with the term.

Approaching its quite broad canon of films may seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. In this Guide, we at The Film Magazine suggest Where to Start with Italian Neorealism.

1. Rome, Open City (1945)

While it is not the first Neorealism film per se, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is probably one of the most famous titles associated with the movement. This was also recognised by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, which included the film in a list of 100 Italian films to be saved on account of their cultural impact in the way they shaped the collective memory of the country in the post-war period.

Rossellini’s now famous work depicts what life looked like in Rome during the Nazi occupation, portraying the time through the different perspectives of multiple characters, mainly fighters involved in the Resistance: Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) and Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), as well as the anti-fascist Catholic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), who does everything in his power to help them as they attempt to escape SS troops.

The movie also illustrates the everyday life of the children of Rome, who are portrayed as being heavily involved in the fight against Nazism and come to represent the rebirth of Italy after the Fascist period. While the film may otherwise seem disheartening, the children represent a beacon of hope for a brighter future.

Other than depicting such a specific historical moment with heartbreaking authenticity, Rome, Open City also touches upon themes of religion, resistance, and forgiveness. In a country whose history has always been heavily tied to the Church, and the presence of the Vatican in Rome, the relationship between state and religion was always a key part of the country’s politics, but especially during Mussolini’s rule and WWII. As a film that reflects on the political scenario of occupied Rome in 1944, its inclusion of religion in the figure of Don Pietro Pellegrini is very important to show a thorough portrayal of such an important moment in Italian history. Thematically, Rossellini’s film also represents the Christian teaching of forgiveness as the preferred way forward in post-war Italy.

2. Bicycle Thieves (1946)

One of the most famous and widely known Italian Neorealism films is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a profound tale of class struggle and limitations in post-war Italy.

The film is set in Rome, where a poor father, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is desperate to find a job to provide for his family, made up of his wife Maria (Lianella Carelli), his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and his small baby. He is finally offered work, but the job requires a bicycle. In order to be able to afford one, Maria pawns her dowry, but someone steals the bicycle from Antonio on his first day of work. For the majority of the film, he embarks on a journey across the city with his son to find his bicycle, without which he will lose his job.

Although it is not De Sica’s first Neorealist offering, Bicycle Thieves is one of the best-known works of Italian Neorealism, if not the most famous one. From a technical point of view, the film ticks all the boxes of Italian Neorealism. For example, the cast is exclusively made up of untrained actors: Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays the main character, was a factory worker when he was cast in the film. Bicycle Thieves was also entirely shot on location rather than on studio sets.

The film is a testament to the way Neorealism represents the reality of its time with a documentary-like aesthetic and devastating authenticity. Much like the aforementioned Rome, Open City, Bicycle Thieves features a strong focus on children through the character of Bruno. As is typical of children in Neorealism, he is the symbol of hope and optimism for the future generation that might find a better world than the one their parents are living in.

3. Bitter Rice (1949)

Directed and co-written by Giuseppe De Santis, Bitter Rice is a less typical Neorealist film. Its melodramatic moments, use of professional actors, and some Hollywood-like sequences, make it diverge from the classic formula of Neorealist movies. This is particularly evident visually, as Bitter Rice features a much more intrusive camera than most Neorealist films, with frequent close-ups and camera movements that seem to be more indebted to the Golden Age of Hollywood rather than the documentary-adjacent style of typical Italian Neorealism. Elaborate long shots often feature large groups of women singing and moving together naturally, and these scenes call to Hollywood musicals like Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933.

Even so, its focus on the rice paddies in Piedmont and the rice workers’ lives earns the movie its place in the canon of Italian Neorealism. Thematically, this sits very well with the Neorealist tradition of focusing on working-class people and the systematic oppression under which they live. The rice-workers are just as poignant of an example of working-class injustices as the protagonist of Bicycle Thieves. The film’s focus on a number of small-time thieves highlights the system of oppression in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Bitter Rice begins in 1948, when two thieves, Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Walter (Vittorio Gassman), hide amongst a crowd of female workers as they head to the rice fields in the province of Vercelli, in Northern Italy, to escape the police. The two soon part ways, and Francesca runs into Silvana (Silvana Mangano) who helps Francesca integrate with the rice workers and find a job in the rice fields, despite some initial resistance due to her lack of proper documentation. As the working season is about to come to an end and Francesca seems to be settling into this simpler way of life, Walter resurfaces with a plan to steal large quantities of rice and return to criminal life.

In Bitter Rice, Giuseppe De Santis shares his negative outlook towards American capitalism through the main character. This goes back to the political roots of Neorealism, as many films commented on Fascism and WWII, but this time it is fully immersed in a post-war context instead. While it is true that many Neorealist films comment on the political scenario of post-war Italy, they often denounce the Fascist government and its consequences in the aftermath of the war. In this sense, Bitter Rice is unique in its criticism of American capitalism, which seems to have a broader outlook on global politics rather than focusing solely on Italy.

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Italian Neorealism is the movement that gave birth to some of the best and most touching movies in Italy, as well as a host of great moving pictures from beyond its national borders. Bong Joon-ho, the Oscar-winning and Palme d’Or-winning director of Parasite, once said, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Italian Neorealism is just one of the many excellent examples of European film movements that were able to greatly influence cinema across the globe, representing its nation to the world in the process. It is also a movement that is worth exploring for its unique aesthetic, its noble focus on the working class, and its honest reflection on a historical moment that is still very relevant today.

Clotilde Chinnici
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