This long anticipated series, a month-long “must,” surveys one of the most important movements in postwar international cinema: Italian neorealism. A rich mix of classics and rarities, most of them imported from Italy for this presentation, the series features such giants of Italian cinema as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and serves as the ideal sidebar to the concurrent series and exhibition dedicated to Federico Fellini.
Things are there. Why manipulate them? —Roberto Rossellini
Few terms are as contentious as neorealism, which ranks with film noir as one of the most disputed in film history. Disagreements over the precursors of neorealism—Jean Renoir’s Toni
, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione
, Manoel de Oliveira’s Aniki-Bóbó
have all been proposed—and over its nature and purpose began almost as soon as the movement was defined, which occurred only after most of its major works had been made. Traditional film history tells us that Italian neorealism emerged at the end of the Second World War, in reaction to the artifice of Mussolini-era historical spectacles and bourgeois “white telephone” movies, and that it emphasized quotidian truth, the revealing of contemporary social conditions. “The cinema . . .should accept, unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today,” declared Cesare Zavattini, the screenwriter and theorist who collaborated with De Sica on such key neorealist films as Bicycle Thieves
and Umberto D
. The tenets of neorealism have been variously construed and repudiated over the decades, but suffice it to say that they usually include location shooting and refusal of the studio; the use, when possible, of available or natural light rather than Hollywood’s three-point lighting; non-professional actors representing ordinary, often lower-class characters like themselves; unobtrusive camerawork and editing, with a preference for the long take over montage; and a rejection of traditional narrative in favour of a documentary-
like recording of pre-existing reality.
Aside from the fact that no definition of neorealism is satisfactorily precise or encompassing, most of its significant works fail to adhere to these essential tenets. Impurities abound: Alberto Lattuada and Giuseppe De Santis mixed neorealism with Hollywood-style noir, De Sica with romantic comedy and fantasy, Visconti with the operatic. Just as Pasolini, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni variously abandoned or remade neorealism for their own purposes, Rossellini chafed in his assigned role as father of the movement and hastily vacated it, his films increasingly “contaminating” realism with melodrama, expressionism, poetry, abstraction, didacticism, spirituality and artifice. When Rossellini described his hyper-stylized version of a Honegger oratorio, Giovanna d’Arco al rogo
(Joan of Arc at the Stake
), as “neorealism, in the sense that I’ve always intended,” the term unmoored from whatever meaning it ever had.
Rarely doctrinaire, Rossellini said with typically disarming directness, “to me realism is simply the artistic form of truth,” and variously termed neorealism a “moral attitude” or “fiction that becomes more real than reality.” Things were indeed there, as Rossellini contended, shooting Rome, Open City
in still-dangerous streets immediately after the war, but the director manipulated them greatly. (“The actors came from the streets of Rome!” brayed a 1961 film magazine, neglecting to mention that the city had many chic vias.) The myth of Rome, Open City
’s neorealist credentials has been so often and so thoroughly dismantled that it hardly bears rehearsal here: the use of sets and props, famous performers (Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani), traditional modes of narration and character development, editing that relies on parallel montage, cross-cutting and soft wipes. Furthermore, the Cineteca Nazionale’s lustrous restoration of Rome, Open City
all but annuls the long-held notion of the film’s newsreel-like look—perhaps the final step in the razing of the film’s reputation for rough-hewn, unmediated reality, which had once taken on the aura of “true cross” dogma. The point is not to
single out the eternally great Rome, Open City
for its many “transgressions”; almost every film included in this series, even the comparatively “pure” Bandits of Orgosolo
, commits several breaches of neorealist principles. Admirable as those precepts are, no artist would be confined by them.
That the nature of neorealism is still passionately debated indicates the movement’s enduring legacy, its immense importance, reach and influence. More aware than previous generations of the naive assumptions of neorealism, each recent director takes something different from its lessons—an observational camera style, the use of non-professional actors and actual settings, a materialist approach to capturing everyday reality, an unassuming or austere visual style—but the original anti-escapist impulse of neorealism and its adherence to the stories of the outsider and the oppressed remain pre-eminent. The last two decades have seen successive resurgences of neorealism in Iranian cinema, countless films from Asia and Latin America, and in such recent independent American works as Wendy and Lucy
and Goodbye Solo
. Its days of glory continue.
—James QuandtWe are grateful to the following individuals and institutions for making this retrospective possible: Roberto Cicutto, Paola Ruggiero, and Rosaria Folcarelli, Cinecittà Luce, Rome; Adriana Frisenna, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Toronto; Laura Argento, Cineteca Nazionale, Rome; Susan Oxtoby, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; Anne Morra and Mary Keene, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Marie-Pierre Lessard, Cinémathèque québécoise, Montreal. The retrospective originated at the New York Film Festival.