italian neorealism

est. 1943 – 1954

In the aftermath of World War II, Italy was a country in ruins, both physically and economically. Amidst the rubble and despair, a group of visionary filmmakers emerged to breathe new life into cinema. They created a film movement that would forever change the course of cinema’s history – Italian Neorealism.

Origins of Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism was a reaction to the lavish and escapist films produced under Mussolini’s fascist regime, which aimed to provide an idealized image of Italy filled with propaganda.

 

The Neorealist style was developed by a circle of film critics that revolved around the magazine “Cinema”. Largely prevented from writing about politics, they criticized the Telefoni Bianchi (white telephone – also called deco films, were made by the Italian film industry in the 1930s and the 1940s imitating American comedies) films that dominated the industry at the time. These films, characterized by their glamorous settings and superficial themes, stood in stark contrast to the harsh realities faced by ordinary Italians.

 

After the fall of Mussolini’s government and the end of World War II, Italy was grappling with dire socio-economic conditions, political turmoil, economic devastation, and a desire for national self-reflection. Filmmakers of this movement sought to free themself from the confines of studio-bound productions and, being influenced by the realities of the time as well as the Poetic Realism movement, they wanted to create films that reflected the harshness of everyday life, fostering a sense of empathy and social consciousness. This was a period of immense creativity and experimentation, where filmmakers were willing to take risks and challenge the status quo.

Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica
Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica
Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti
Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti

Characteristics of Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealist cinema is characterized by its commitment to portraying real-life situations and characters. These films frequently showcased non-professional actors – ordinary people, laborers, and peasants as central figures, presenting a stark departure from the glamorous personas of mainstream cinema at the time. Many Neorealist films used improvised dialogue, giving a natural and unscripted quality to the performances. Locations of filming were selected from the streets and neighborhoods scarred by the war, further contributing to the movement’s authentic and gritty aesthetic.

 

The minimalist approach of the movement, both in terms of budget and narrative structure, allowed the stories and characters to take center stage. The emphasis was on raw and unfiltered storytelling, focusing on the mundane yet profound aspects of everyday life. This approach was not just a stylistic choice but a necessity, as the post-war economy left filmmakers with limited resources, prompting them to find innovative ways to tell their stories.

 

A core element of Italian Neorealism is its sharp social critique, as films explore issues such as poverty, class struggle, and the human cost of war, shedding light on post-war Italian society. Often lacking traditional narrative structures, they focus on episodic storytelling that mirrors the unpredictability of real life. The absence of clear-cut resolutions or happy endings in these films reflects the uncertainty and complexity of the real world.

Rome, Open City (1945) by Roberto Rossellini
Rome, Open City (1945) by Roberto Rossellini

Important Filmmakers and works

While theorists and filmmakers have debated the exact origin of Neorealism, Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione,” released in 1943 during the occupation, is commonly considered the first Neorealist film. Banned and ostracized by the Fascist regime during its initial release, the Italian Ministry of Culture has since placed “Ossessione” on its list of “100 Italian films to be saved”.

 

One of the most prominent figures of the movement is Roberto Rossellini, known for his works such as “Rome, Open City” (1945), which depicted the struggles of ordinary people living in Nazi-occupied Rome. Rossellini is regarded as the father of Neorealism. His films captured the struggles and resilience of ordinary people during wartime and post-war Italy.

 

Next is the actor/director of timeless classics such as “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) and “Umberto D.” (1952). Vittorio De Sica’s films are characterized by their poignant and unflinching portrayal of human suffering faced by the working class.

Legacy and Influence of Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism remains an essential chapter in the history of cinema, challenging traditional storytelling conventions, and providing a platform for the voices of ordinary people. Through its commitment to realism, social commentary, and authentic portrayal of life’s struggles, Italian Neorealism not only reflected the post-war Italian society but also resonated with audiences worldwide. 

 

It inspired filmmakers across the globe to explore new approaches of storytelling, emphasizing the human experience and social issues. It paved the way for subsequent film movements like the French New Wave, Parallel Cinema of India and the Romanian New Wave, with many more. Works of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and later Federico Fellini, continue to be celebrated for their timeless exploration of the human condition and their enduring impact on the art of filmmaking, making Italian Neorealism a cornerstone of cinematic history.

Refer to the Listed Films for the recommended works associated with the movement. Also, check out the rest of the Film Movements on our website.