Post-war Italian Realist Cinema

Between 1922 and 1943 Italy was ruled by a fascist dictatorship which used mainstream cinema as a means of disseminating officially sanctioned conceptions of national identity. A national regulatory body, the Direzione Generale della Cinematografica, was established in 1934 in order to review and ammend film scripts, and to promote pro-fascist films such as Vecchia Guardia (The Old Guard, Alessandro Blasetti, 1933): a film which commemorated the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s ascendency to power. The Centro Cattolico Cinematografico was also established in 1934, with the task of policing the moral and religious content of Italian cinema, and, in 1935, the foundation of the Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche enabled the State to exercise more or less complete control of the film industry.1

Nevertheless, and despite this degree of state intervention, the majority of films produced within the Italian cinema of the fascist period were conventional, commercial vehicles, rather than platforms for explicitly pro-fascist propaganda. The films which emerged from this context of generic, commercial production included ornamental and overheated ‘filmed operas’, extravagant Roman epics such as Alessandro Blasetti’s La Corona di ferro (The Iron Crown, 1941), and glossy ‘white telephone’ comedies of manners, such as Max Neufeld’s Mille lire al mese (A Thousand Lire a Month, 1933). During the war years the Italian Government introduced protectionist legislation, and this led to an increase in the production of such films, until, by 1942, output had reached a peak of 119. However, the majority of these films were, according to one critic, characterised by ‘artistic mediocrity and … startling separation from reality’.2

It was in response to this that a group of Italian directors known as the ‘calligraphers’ appeared during the 1940s. The films of Renato Castellani, Mario Soldati and Alberto Lattuada were produced under the constraints imposed by a watchful regime, and were, as a consequence, restricted in their ability to express oppositional ideas. This led Soldati and others to withdraw from the representation of contemporary subject matter, and to direct films such as Piccolo mondo antico (Little Old Fashioned World, 1940), which were set in the past, and preoccupied with questions of style. Nevertheless, and despite this degree of withdrawal from an uncomfortable political context, the use of location shooting in films such as Piccolo mondo antico and La Donna della montagna (Woman of the Mountains, Renato Castellani, 1944) provided a foundation on which the cinema of neorealism would later build.

If one of the sources of Italian neorealism can be located in a desire to transcend the artificiality of the cinema of the fascist period, another can be found in the development of a critical film culture in Italy from the mid 1930s onwards. In 1935 the Italian central film school, the Centro Sperimentale della cinematografia, was founded under the direction of the anti-fascist Luigi Chiarini. In 1937 the Centro Sperimentale established its own journal, Bianco e nero, and this was quickly followed by the founding of the influential journal Cinema, in 1938. Between 1937 and 1943 these two journals published articles by film theorists such as Rudolf Arnheim and Béla Balázs, and, together with the Centro Sperimentale, laid the foundation for the development of a more critical and progressive Italian film culture. Future neorealist directors, such as Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis, Pietro Germi and Michelangelo Antonioni, attended the Centro Sperimentale, and also contributed to Bianco e nero; whilst Luchino Visconti was closely associated with the Cinema group.3

The French poetic realist cinema of Carné and Renoir also played an important role in the development of neorealism. Luchino Visconti, whose Ossessione (Obssession, 1942) is considered to have inaugurated neorealism, worked with Renoir on  Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) in 1936, and the abandoned La Tosca in 1940; whilst Antonioni worked alongside Carné on Les Visiteurs du soir (The Visitors of the Evening, 1942). The influence of poetic realism on neorealism was also reinforced by the impact of American literary naturalism. During the 1930s, the novels of Hemmingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, James M. Cain and others were translated into Italian by novelists such as Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini, and this provided a model for Italian film-makers seeking an alternative to the standard commercial fare. Nevertheless, Ossessione, which was loosely based on Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, was the only neorealist film to be directly derived from an American novel of the 1930s.

In addition to poetic realism and American literary naturalism, neorealism was also shaped by a school of realist literature which emerged in Italy during the 1930s, which included prominent writers such as Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese and Vasco Pratolini. These writers rejected the ‘positive’ portrayals of cultural life required by fascist ideology, and focused, instead, on the experiences of the poor and socially marginal. Realist novels such as Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia (1941) had a particularly strong influence on directors such as Visconti and De Santis, becoming a ‘bible to the neorealists’.4

One final important influence on neo-realism was that of the nineteenth-century Sicilian verist novelist, Giovanni Verga. Verga’s ideas shaped the approach to cinematic realism adopted by the journal Cinema, and Visconti’s La Terra trema (The Earth Trembles 1947) was also based on Verga’s best-known novel: The House By the Medlar Tree. Visconti, De Santis and others were particularly impressed by the way in which Verga combined a poetic, humanist sensibility with the detailed, concrete depiction of Sicilian landscape and society, and De Santis argued that, besides being a ‘great poet’, Verga had also created an oeuvre which:

seems to offer the strongest and most human, the most marvellously virgin and authentic ambience that can inspire the imagination of a cinema seeking things and facts in a time and space dominated by reality so as to detach itself from facile suggestions and decadent bourgeois taste.5

The emphasis which De Santis places on ‘things’, ‘facts’ and ‘reality’ here also echoes one of the first formulations of the neorealist aesthetic, as elaborated by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930, where Bocelli argues that neorealism was ‘sunk as deeply as possible into things, adhering to the object’.6 This emphasis on the concrete, when combined with opposition to both fascist ideology, and a literary culture grounded in ‘autobiographical lyricism’ and ‘elegiac introversion’, was to have a profound influence on later neorealist filmmaking. 7 However, Verga’s affirmative humanism was also to prove as influential as his penchant for detailed observation. For example, Vittorio De Sica’s claim that Verga’s work amounted to ‘a revolutionary art inspired by, and acting, in turn, as inspiration to a humanity which hopes and suffers’, reflects the affirmative humanism found within many neorealist films.8

De Santis’ designation of Verga’s work as ‘humanist’ also indicates an important distinction which must be drawn between French nineteenth-century naturalism and its Italian counterpart: verismo. During the nineteenth century, Italian critics such as Francesco De Sanctis, Luigi Capuana and Verga criticised French naturalism for its pessimism, scientism, and emphasis on the genetically flawed, Darwinian bête humaine. Whilst adopting the factual, observational style of French naturalism, these critics insisted on the infusion of a more hopeful dimension into the naturalist vision, and Verga’s insistence that, in addition to showing things as they are, verismo should also indicate how they could, ideally, be, was later to influence the engaged, humanist orientation adopted by neorealism.9

These various influences led neorealist cinema to focus on the relationship between individual and environment, and on the suffering of ‘the poor, the underprivileged, the ordinary’.10 Consequently, films such as La Terra trema and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, De Sica, 1948) situate working-class characters within social and cultural environments marked by poverty, social hardship and injustice, and also depict the relationship between character and environment in considerable empirical detail, furnishing that ‘concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist’, which the critic and scenarist Cesare Zavattini called for in his influential ‘A Thesis on Neo-Realism’.11

In addition to this concern with the concrete and the ordinary, neorealist films such as Ladri di biciclette, Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, Rossellini, 1947) and Umberto D (De Sica, 1951) also emphasise the ambivalent character of everyday experience. This concern to depict the ambiguous nature of existence was partly influenced by the unresolved finales of French films such as La Bête humaine, Quai des brumes and Pépé le Moko. However, it was also influenced by a rejection of the tendency towards superficial, and often highly normative, narrative resolution which typified the cinema of the fascist period. It was in reaction to what Luigi Chiarini called the ‘web of censorship’ which surrounded the fascist cinema that the neorealist films which appeared after the liberation deliberately attempted to depict post-war Italian society in all its unsettling complexities.12 Consequently, even though neorealists such as Chiarini emerged from the liberation committed to a form of film-making which would make a positive contribution towards social reform, they also insisted on the right to depict the Italian social formation as, in Chiarini’s words, ‘ a world in ruins’.13

Prior to the liberation, the most influential neorealist film to appear in Italy was Visconti’s Ossessione, which was conceived as something of a manifesto for the Cinema group, and whose noirish, fatalistic tone was developed in deliberate repost to the obligatory optimism of the fascist cinema.14 The neorealist films which were made directly after the liberation deal with the war and its immediate aftermath, and include Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, Rossellini, 1945), Paisà (Rossellini, 1946), Sciuscià (Shoeshine, De Sica, 1946), Il Sole sorge ancora (The Sun Rises Again, Aldo Vergano, 1946), Vivere in pace (To Live in Peace, Luigi Zampa, 1946) and Germania anno zero. In these films the humanist orientation of neorealism is reinforced by a context of the rise to power in Italy of a post-war popular front government uniting liberal, centrist and left-wing political parties, and films such as Paisà and Roma città aperta endorse the programme of the anti-fascist popular front, rather than any explicitly Marxist position.15

Neorealist film-makers regarded themselves as active participants in the process of post-war social reconstruction, and, consequently, after 1947, neorealism turned to the exploration of issues such as economic reconstruction and social reform. Ladri di biciclette, La Terra trema, Il Mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po, Alberto Lattuada, 1948) and Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, Giuseppe De Santis, 1948), all fall into this category of socially purposive filmmaking. This activist predisposition was partly influenced by the affirmative realist humanism of the nineteenth-century verist tradition, and partly by the extent to which the success of the resistance (many neorealists had been active members) led filmmakers to believe they could continue to play an effective role in shaping the course of events.

Neorealism reflected a commitment to the broad-based, crossparty political consensus which typified post-war Italian political discourse, and which was embodied within the policies of the popular front. However, after 1948, neorealist film-makers came under criticism, as Italian politics moved further to both left and right. Following election victories by the conservative Christian Democratic party in 1948, neorealist films were increasingly criticised for their ‘negative’ depiction of Italian society, and neorealism also received a further blow in 1949, when the so-called ‘Andreotti law’ came into force. The Andreotti Law established a series of quotas and subsidies designed to raise the level of home film production. However, subsidies and export licenses could also be denied to films which, in the government’s view, ‘slandered Italy’.16 As it transpired, many of the exclusion orders made under the Law tended to target neorealist films, and Andreotti even intervened directly to condemn De Sica’s Umberto D as a ‘wretched service to his fatherland, which is also the fatherland of … progressive social legislation’.17 Such criticism mirrors the assault made on Ossessione by Vittorio Mussolini in 1942, when he asserted that ‘this [Ossessione] is not Italy’,18 and also reflects the fact that, from 1942, until at least the early 1950s, neorealism retained its oppositional character in relation to the government of the day.

In addition to criticism from the centre-right, neorealism also came under censure from the communist left during the late 1940s. In 1948 the Soviet Union’s attempt to incorporate the western sectors of Berlin into the Eastern Block led to a marked intensification of the Cold War. The official Soviet policy of the Popular Front had been abandoned in 1946–7 and replaced by one which revisited the ‘class against class’ politics of the early 1930s.19 This also coincided with the reaffirmation of Zhadanovist Soviet socialist realism as the official aesthetic doctrine of the Communist Party. However, neorealism had evolved within the ideological configurations of popular frontism, and the humanist, social-democratic tendencies which characterised many neorealist films could not be squared with the new political context.

In 1948, De Santis’s Riso amaro was castigated by the communist daily L’Unita for its lack of ‘positive heroes’ and ‘decadent’ displays of female flesh; whilst Visconti received the ultimate rebuke of having his films compared to what, in Stalinist eyes, represented one of the worst excesses of ‘decadent’, European bourgeois cinema: the réalisme poétique of Renoir, Carné and others. Just as Renoir’s La Bête humaine had been condemned by the French Communist Party during the 1930s, Ossessione was also accused of taking up the ‘worst and most condemnable aspects’ of the pre-war French cinema, including ‘the erotic ambience of Renoir’s films’.20 Over the period from 1948 to the mid 1950s virtually every neorealist film-maker came under critical assault from the communist left. This criticism reinforced that emerging from the Christian Democratic right, and, yet further censure arrived from the Catholic Church, which classified neorealism in general, and Riso amaro in particular, as ‘forbidden for believers’.21

As neorealism declined as an identifiably coherent aesthetic position during the early 1950s, the films of the major neorealist directors also evolved stylistically. Lucino Visconti drew on Marxist theory in making films such as Ossessione and La Terra trema, both of which, and particularly La Terra trema, were made within the neorealist style. However, with Senso (1954), Visconti departed radically from the documentary style of La Terra trema (which he had made in close association with the Italian Communist Party). Senso adopts an ‘operatic’, melodramatic format in order to portray the final months of the 1883 Austrian occupation of the Venetian provinces. Senso also marks Visconti’s shift from a neorealist practice grounded in naturalism, to a more Lukácsian form of cinematic realism, as Visconti himself made clear when he argued that his aim in making Senso was ‘to use history as a backdrop for the personal story of Countess Serpieri, who was ultimately no more interesting than the representative of a certain social class’.22

MV5BNDViNGI4YjEtZjc3OC00ZjNjLWJiZTYtMzYzNTJjNzkxNGI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQxMTIxMTk@._V1_QL50_Senso focuses on the love affair between the Venetian countess Livia Serpieri and Franz Mahler, an Austrian army officer. However, neither of these two characters are rendered as ‘positive’ in any sense. Serpieri is unable to contain her own emotional turmoil, whilst her relationship with a representative of the occupying forces constitutes a symbolic betrayal of the Venetian resistance. Similarly, Mahler is a corrupt coward, who is eventually executed for desertion. This negative characterisation is not, however, used as an end in itself, or, as in poetic realism, in order to foreground individual existentialist angst, but as a means of illuminating the larger context of fin de siècle decadence and instability which Senso identifies with the final stages of the defeated Austrian occupation.

However, although Senso can be described as an example of Lukácsian cinematic realism, Visconti’s film also departs significantly from the type of plot-based critical realism which Lukács acclaims in a novel such as Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. In addition to using plot and dialogue in order to construct an ‘intensive totality’, Visconti also employs both melodramatic and operatic forms, and an expressive use of colour and music in Senso, in order to create what Visconti referred to as ‘a romantic film, filled with the essence of Italian opera’.23 The end result is a film with a complex, and often confusing plot structure, which focuses on the fatal emotional entanglement of two individuals, but which provides only schematic details of the surrounding social and political context, as it attempts to express the inner spirit of the period.

Senso was acclaimed by the communist left in Italy because of the extent to which it abandoned the ‘negative naturalism’ of neorealism, and because it appeared to adopt a model of realism more in accord with the dictates of Soviet socialist realism. For example, whilst criticising both Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage To Italy, 1953) and Fellini’s La Strada (The Street, 1954) as ‘regressive’, and as failing to advance a progressive political message, Guido Aristarco, the editor in chief of Cinema Nuovo, described Senso as ‘a great historical film, a revolutionary film which brought our cinematic history to a new peak’.24 Aristarco’s admiration for Senso reflected his support for Visconti’s attempt to transcend the kind of neorealist aesthetic which had been roundly condemned by the communist left from 1948 onwards, but may also have led him to ignore the extent to which Senso departed from the orthodox social realist model advocated elsewhere in the pages of Cinema Nuovo.

After Senso, Visconti switched between neorealism and more Lukácsian forms of realism. The metaphorical realism of Senso was continued in Le Notti bianche (The White Nights, 1957). However, this was then followed by the more neorealist Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and his Brothers, 1960). Visconti’s most Lukácsian film is undoubtedly Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963). Set during the period 1860–62, Il Gattopardo chronicles the unfolding tensions which develop between the revolutionary movement, led by Garibaldi, and the growing power of the Italian bourgeoisie. However, the critical realism of Il Gattopardo is undermined by its reliance on big-budget pretensions, an overcomplex and confusing narrative structure, and miscast international stars such as Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. Il Gattopardi also fails because it departs from Visconti’s characteristic approach to the linking of the personal and the political. In later films, such as Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (Sandra, 1965) and La Caduto degli dei (The Damned, 1969), Visconti returned to the more intimate focus adopted in Senso, and made romantic and family relationships the basis for films which also explored alienating historical and political contexts. La Caduto degli dei, in particular, with its portrayal of power and corruption within an upper-class Nazi family, can, like Senso, be regarded as an example of Visconti’s overwrought, melodramatic adaption of the Lukácsian intensive totality.

In contrast to Visconti, the films made by Fellini and Antonioni during the 1950s and 1960s display a concern for cinematic realism more readily associated with the theories of Bazin and Kracauer, than Lukács. Writing about La Strada, for example, Fellini referred to Bazin’s mentor, Emmanuel Mounier, when arguing that La Strada did not depict ‘socio-political life’, but ‘captured an experience [of] the communication between two human beings’.25 Fellini’s La Strada, Il Bidone (The Swindler, 1955) and Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1956) distance themselves from Visconti’s apocalyptic ‘sociopolitical’ considerations, and focus on the everyday world of human interaction. This leads Fellini to define ‘realism’, in a film such as La Strada, in terms of the portrayal of two people who ‘reach out and find one another’, and, thereby, rescue a relationship which, otherwise, would become ‘indifferent, isolated and impenetrable’:

If a film creates a microscopic image of this evolution of feelings (in art, historical dimensions do not count) and captures the contrast between a monologue and a dialogue, then it fulfils a contemporary need, clears up and penetrates some of its aspects: this is what I call realism.26

As the quotation above suggests, the means of capturing such realism is not through the portrayal of Lukácsian/Viscontian ‘historical dimensions’, but through the ‘microscopic image’ of the historical which exists within the ‘evolution of feelings’. Fellini reinforces this point further when, again referring to La Strada, he argues that ‘Sometimes a film that captures the contradictions of contemporary feelings through an elementary dialectics is more realistic than a film that depicts the evolution of a precise sociopolitical reality’.27 It is, therefore, the contradictions which are expressed within this evolution of feeling, an evolution which occurs within a dialectic of monologue (isolation) and dialogue (reaching out and finding), which Fellini seeks to establish within La Strada, and which he characterises as ‘realism’.

Like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, La Strada was also criticised by the communist left for its apparent lack of engagement with the political. However, although not a film à thèse in Aristarco’s sense of the term, La Strada does take a stand on issues such as poverty and exploitation, and also conforms to Bazin’s dictum that neorealism necessarily presupposes a particular ‘attitude of mind’ on the part of the director: one which combines reason, intuition and emotion. Neorealism is a synthetic, rather than analytic aesthetic, and, in Bazin’s terms, ‘a description of reality conceived as a whole by a consciousness disposed to see things as a whole … a presentation which is at once elliptic and synthetic’.28

Nevertheless, Fellini’s films also invariably combine this holistic and elliptical form of film-making with social critique. So, for example, La Dolce vita (1960) debunks the cosmetic superficiality of Italian high society, whilst Amarcord (1974) makes indirect reference to the fascist regime of the 1930s. Later films, such as Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred, 1986), also caricature the modern Italian media industry. This ambivalent, metaphorical synthesis of the individual and the social, the intuitive and the critical, places Fellini’s work as a whole, and a film like La Strada, in particular, squarely within the framework of Bazinian, phenomenological cinematic realism.

MV5BNjE1NThjNzAtMTg4ZC00MmNlLWJkMGEtOTQ3Y2NlOThhOTFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQ3Njg3MQ@@._V1_QL50_SY1000_CR0,0,721,1000_AL_Much the same is true of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952), Le Amiche (Girlfriends, 1955) and Il Grido (The Cry, 1959) are made within the neorealist style, and explore the alienation of the individual within a shifting, valueless milieu. At the centre of the most important of these three films, Il Grido, there is, as in La Strada, a focus on the existential problem of experiencing meaningful contact with others. However, although Antonioni’s thematic concerns in this respect appear close to those of Fellini there are no ‘ways forward’ suggested in Antonioni’s films, as there are in Fellini’s, and, in Il Grido, the itinerant hero, Aldo, moves restlessly from partner to partner, situation to situation, until, in despair, he throws himself to his death.

Although Il Grido portrays a culture and society marked by rootlessness, instability and transience, it is not entirely clear whether the existential isolation experienced by a character such as Aldo is caused by an external, determining social context, or by individual psychological make-up. This ambivalence between the psychological and the social also arises in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962) and Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964). Although these films move away from the neorealist emphasis on the socially marginal found in Il Grido, to focus on the Italian haute bourgeoisie, the same concern with lack of emotional connection pervades all of them. In L’Avventura, for example, a group of friends journey to an island, where one of them, Anna, disappears. Although her friends try to find her, two of them: Sandro, Anna’s lover, and Claudia, her closest friend, form a brittle, compromised relationship of their own, and abandon the search for Anna.

It has been argued that Antonioni’s principal concern in L’Avventura was to depict the vacuity and self-centredness of the Italian upper classes.29 However, in many respects, L’Avventura appears more concerned with the reality of individual isolation, than with social class per se. In making L’Avventura, Antonioni was influenced by Husserlian phenomenology, the French nouveau roman and Sartrean existentialism, and these influences led him to adopt a neutral, observational style in L’Avventura. Thus, L’Avventura eschews dramatic development, overt symbolism, or emotive dialogue, and charts an unfolding story dispassionately. What emerges from this is the evocation of a human condition characterised by superficiality, alienation and ‘erosion from within’.30

MV5BZTdkZmUyMmUtODRkYy00OGQ5LWI2N2EtYzNjNjBiOTBkMDc1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjgyNjk3MzE@._V1_QL50_SY1000_CR0,0,1277,1000_AL_L’Avventura expresses this sense of alienation through its juxtaposition of characters against landscapes which dwarf and overwhelm them. At the same time, Antonioni’s scrupulously composed camerawork also creates a degree of Brechtian distanciation, which further increases the sense of detached unease which the film exudes. All of this serves to make L’Avventura, like Il Grido (which portrays alienation amongst the working class, rather than, as in L’Avventura, the bourgeoisie), a film about individual, rather than class disaffection. However, the sense of estrangement which Antonioni’s characters suffer is also portrayed as forming an integral part of the human condition within modern society, and, therefore, as also social in essence. It is this which makes L’Avventura, like Il Grido, a film about both individual nihilism, and an existentially oppressive external reality.

L’Avventura, La notte, Eclisse and Deserto rosso can all be related to Bazinian and Kracaurian conceptions of cinematic realism. Talking about the most important of these films, L’Avventura, Antonioni describes how he set about ‘breaking up the action’ by inserting into the film ‘a good many sequences that could seem banal or of a documentary nature’.31 This corresponds closely to Kracauer’s belief that films should cut from character and event to show ‘images of the environment’.32 Similarly, the use of long-take deep-focus photography, elliptical narrative structure, real-time sequences and unresolved finale in L’Avventura accords closely with Bazinian models of cinematic realism.

Antonioni’s use of film as a means of uncovering layers of meaning is also close to Bazin’s theory of realist signification and spectatorship, where meaning is gradually revealed under the force of the ‘long, hard gaze’:

We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see.33

One of the clearest demonstrations of this process of peeling away the external layers of reality in order to find a submerged, though ultimately inaccessible inner truth, can be found in Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), in a sequence in which a photographer, through enlarging a series of photographs, discovers that one of them contains the hidden evidence that a murder has been committed. However, although this ‘true image of reality’ is finally revealed to the central character, it proves ultimately meaningless to both him, and the superficial, disaffected milieux which surrounds him. In this sense, and as in both Il Grido and L’Avventura, reality, or truth, remains existentially inacessible.

Pier Paolo Pasolini defined himself as a ‘mythic realist’ rather than a neorealist, and his films are centrally concerned with the opposition between archaic forms of consciousness and the destructive impact of modernity.34 In films such as Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) and Medea (1969), for example, Pasolini explores oppositions between a magical, mythical consciousness, and more instrumental, rationalist attitudes to reality. Pasolini’s first feature film, Accattone (1961), retains a neorealist preoccupation with the imagery and thematic subject matter of naturalism, and can be compared to Antonioni’s Il Grido in its uncompromising depiction of poverty and underdevelopment, and in its disavowal of the affirmative humanism common to earlier neorealist films. However, Pasolini’s bleak depiction of the borgate, or shanty towns goes beyond the depiction of poverty attempted in Il Grido, and the central character of the film, the pimp Vittorio, possesses few, if any, of the redeeming features displayed by Aldo in Il Grido.35

The naturalism of Accattone is set within a narrative which has clear mythological dimensions, encompassing issues of transgression, exploitation and retribution, and Pasolini takes this form of mythological naturalism further in his Il Vangelo secundo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1964). Like Accattone, Il Vangelo secundo Matteo uses non-professional actors and long-take, deep-focus, moving-camera cinematography in the Bazinian style, and also embodies Pasolini’s concept of ‘technical sacracity’, or the ‘sacred shot’, where the integrity of the slow, panoramic shot is foregrounded, and prioritised over montage editing. Pasolini’s assertion that ‘montage processes the film image in the way that death processes life’ also appears to be derived from Bazin’s views on montage and deep-focus cinematography.36

Il Vangelo secundo Matteo also illustrates how Pasolini’s concept of ‘technical sacracity’ evolved into his later theory of ‘semiotic realism’. Pasolini departed from both nineteenth-century realism, and Lukácsian critical realism, in developing a theory of ‘semiotic realism’ in which the film image was conceived of as a sign which combined both an image of the world, and ‘the world of memory and dream’.37 Pasolini’s theory of semiotic realism combined realistic representation with subjective representation, and a post-structuralist and Brechtian insistence on fracturing diegetic continuity. This symbolic and reflexive conception of realism can be found in Il Vangelo secundo Matteo, in passages within which realistic images function to evoke mythological archetypes. In later films, such as Uccellacci e uccellini (Crows and Sparrows, 1966), Edipo Re, Teorema (Theorem, 1968), Medea and Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, 1975) this reflexive, allegorical aproach is emphasised even more, and, despite his claims to have developed a form of ‘mythic realism’, Pasolini’s films after Accattone and Il Vangelo secundo Matteo place him within the antirealist, or political modernist, rather than realist camp.

Bernardo Bertolucci was influenced by Pasolini, and worked with the latter on Accattone. However, Pasolini’s influence is hardly evident in Bertolucci’s first major feature, Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964), which, in addition to revealing the influence of the nouvelle vague, also exhibits lyrical, elegiac qualities later to prove more typical of his later work. In La Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Strategem, 1970), Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1971) and Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) these qualities become more pronounced, as Bertolucci moves away from the Godardian inspired stylistics of Prima della rivoluzione, and towards a more realistic style, characterised by the use of melodramatic and ‘operatic’ overtones.38 Both La Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista employ a realistic visual style, in conjunction with more flamboyant fantasy sequences, and multi-layered narratives based on the operation of dreams and the unconscious. La Strategia del ragno also marks the transition from Bertolucci’s notion of ‘cinema as poetry’ to that of ‘cinema as spectacle’, in incorporating both subjective camera movement, and melodramatic, rhetorical forms.

La Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista apply Freudian psychoanalytic concepts to political analysis through linking the issue of political corruption within Italy to the psychological experience of power, manipulation and abuse. Bertolucci was influenced here by Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (1951), both of which explore the psychological roots of authoritarianism; and, in La Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista, Bertolucci accounts for the roots of Italian fascism in terms of displaced, psychological neuroses, which are then fostered by an oppressive and authoritarian regime. In Il Conformista, such displacement is expressed through the metaphor of homosexuality. It is anxiety over personal inadequacy, or deviation from the required standard, which leads the vulnerable individual to desire a compensatory, authoritarian State, and, in Il Conformista, Bertolucci uses the repressed, and self-denied homosexuality of his central character, Marcello, to suggest how fascism came to be ingrained within one particular sector of Italian society.39 Il Conformista relies upon Freudian, rather than Marxist ideas, in delivering its account of the emergence of fascism within the Italian middle classes, but also attempts to draw the psychological and the political together, in order to create a form of Freudian, social realist cinema.

Although Ultimo tango a Parigi was a substantial commercial success, in a way that La Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista were not, the concern with themes of repressed sexuality and individual neurosis evident in Ultimo tango a Parigi place it firmly within the thematic parameters which configure the two earlier films. However, Ultimo tango a Parigi takes the themes of alienation and entrapment explored in La Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista much further, and the final result is a film characterised by an ‘almost metaphysical despair’ over the prospects for human freedom.40 There are also echoes of Antonioni’s L’Avventura in Ultimo tango a Parigi, most notably in scenes in which Bertolucci frames his characters against vast, impersonal backdrops. Pronounced use of subjective camerawork, repeated flashbacks, and indeterminate narrative structures also bear the stylistic cultivated in Il Conformista and La Strategia delle ragno to full fruition in Ultimo tango a Parigi. Again, as in the two earlier films, realism remains the dominant organising strategy, and there are grounds for relating both Il Conformista and Ultimo tango a Parigi, in particular, to Bazinian and Kracaurian conceptions of cinematic realism.

In Novecento (1900, 1976), Bertolucci moved away from both the intimate exploration of individual dysfunctionalism explored in Ultimo tango a Parigi, and the synthesis of individual and political neurosis investigated in Il Conformista, towards a more Lukácsian inspired style of film-making. Influenced by Visconti’s Il Gattopardo, Novecento was the most expensive film ever produced in Italy, and has been described as a ‘monumental melodramatic saga staged as a political epic’.41 Like Il Gattopardo, Novecento juxtaposes national and family history, and does so through linking the key events of contemporary Italian history with the intertwined destinies of two families. The central characters are Alfredo, the grandson of a wealthy landowner, and Olmo, the grandson of a peasant. Both are born on the first day of the year 1900, and Bertolucci’s film follows their evolving relationship against the backdrop of the rise and fall of Italian fascism.

However, although Novecento can be described as a Lukácsian intensive totality in terms of its scope and range, it is not a work of impartial critical realism in the Lukácsian sense. Part Two of Novecento, in particular, is given from an overtly Marxist perspective, and embodies Bertolucci’s conviction that the Italian ruling class will eventually be forced to cede power to an alliance of peasantry and proletariat. Novecento offers an over-idealised vision of Italian history, seen from the perspective of inevitable proletarian triumph, and relies on a conspicuous deployment of parodic, stylised and melodramatic formats to validate its case. As in Bertolucci’s earlier films, the influence of Freud is also present in Novecento, and appears in the conflicts which occur between fathers, sons and grandsons, and in the association between fascism, repressed homosexuality, and violent sexuality. However, the aspirations towards social and historical critique in Novecento are, to some extent, undermined by these Freudian concerns, which constantly refocus the film’s attention on depictions of individual abberation and obssession.42 Although such depictions are meant to act as metaphors for social and political dysfunctionality, the metaphorical links between the personal and the political in Novecento remain equivocal, and only vaguely drawn.

MV5BZjExNzUxM2UtZjM5OC00MDk5LWFlMmEtZDcxMDJiNzEzZmY0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTg2NTc4MzA@._V1_QL50_SY1000_CR0,0,773,1000_AL_Novecento also lacks the more intimate focus on entrapped, vulnerable, and doomed subjectivity which characterises Il Conformista and Ultimo tango a Parigi. Beyond this, Novecento also points to more general problems inherent in adapting Lukácsian realism for the cinema. The Lukácsian model of the intensive totality entails the use of narrative and plot structures which traverse extensive historical, social and political configurations. The inevitable result is a work such as Novecento, which, like Il Gattopardo, is designed on a grand, and probably overambitious scale. However, although Il Gattopardo suffers from an overly complex narrative, and poorly drawn characterisation, it does, at least, achieve a level of critical reflection on the Italian Risorgimento which Novecento fails to deliver in relation to the decline and fall of Italian fascism.

An engagement with political history and social realism can also be found in the cinema of Francesco Rosi. Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962), uses factual, documentary evidence to reconstruct the motives behind the killing of the Sicilian bandit Giuliano, in 1950, and portrays Giuliano as a hapless pawn, used to further the interests of Sicilian separatists, anti-communists, the mafia and the State. Salvatore Giuliano begins with the death of its central protagonist, and the remainder of the film consists of a series of flashbacks which explore the circumstances which led up to the killing. This form of investigative and ‘documented’ narrative structure allows Rosi to use the figure of the bandit as a catalyst, through which the political power configuration of the Italian south during the 1940s and 1950s can be sketched out.

Salvatore Giuliano is grounded in a naturalist approach which uses non-professional actors, extensive location shooting, forms of documentary evidence, and a loose, often confusing plot structure which is made more perplexing through the repeated use of flashbacks and spatial/temporal discontinuities. The end result is a work which, although difficult to engage with, also achieves moments of emotional, poetic intensity, as Rosi situates his tale of rebellion and betrayal within the harsh, unforgiving Sicilian landscape. Rosi continued his ‘documented drama’ approach to film-making in Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972) and Lucky Luciano (1973). The model developed in Salvatore Giuliano also influenced Gillo Pontecorvo’s well-known La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965). However, La Battaglia di Algeri, although widely acclaimed when it appeared, lacks the indeterminate ambiguity, and poetic, naturalist sense of environment and nature which characterises the superior Salvatore Giuliano.

Rosi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979) departs from the semi-Brechtian, documented drama approach of Salvatore Giuliano, and is characterised by a lyrical realist style influenced both by Carlo Levi’s neorealist novel, from which the film is derived, and by Visconti’s La Terra trema. Shot almost entirely in a remote, southern Italian village, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli charts the stay of exile of a dissident leftist intellectual (Levi), in the village of Gagliano, during the period of fascist rule. Like La Terra trema, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli has a large cast of non-professional actors, and contains a considerable number of scenes – many of which contain no dialogue – in which the texture, customs and habitat of peasant life is observed in plentiful detail. however, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, is, in many respects, even more Bazinian than La Terra trema in the manner in which Rosi’s film uses long-take, moving-camera cinematography, to linger reflectively over the people and environment of Cagliano.

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is pervaded by the same anti-fascist humanist sentiment typical of many early neorealist films, and a central distinction between the peasantry, who are depicted as a source of authentic moral and cultural value, and the fascist representatives, who exploit and oppress them, is apparent. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is at its best when delineating the austere texture of peasant life, much as De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette had explored the trappings of a destitute urban, sub-proletarian existence in 1948. However, Rosi’s film is weakened by its final framing scenes, which show Levi in his studio in Turin, first, discussing his stay in Cagliano with his sister and their friends, and then, as an elderly, possibly dying man, re-viewing the work which he painted in Gagliano. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli was commissioned for television, and this may have led Rosi to adopt what, in relation to the relatively unstructured narrative which makes up the bulk of the film, is a rather conventional, stock framing device. The framing story also effects a degree of closure on the film which the rest of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli studiously avoids.

Rosi’s Tre fratelli (Three Brothers, 1989) is, arguably, more Lukácsian than Cristo si è fermato a Eboli in its attempt to relate the personal experience, motives and ambitions of three middleclass brothers to a backdrop of political tension and violence in contemporary Italy. Tre fratelli also provides more information about social and historical context than Cristo si è fermato a Eboli does, and, in doing so, represents a shift from the neorealist style which pervades the earlier film. However, the underlying ideological trope of Tre fratelli remains the same as that of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli: that political institutions, and bourgeois society in general, exploit the rural peasantry. As in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, a nostalgia for the values of peasant life permeates Tre fratelli, and a return to the values of peasant society is put forward as a means of transcending the self-serving power play of politics, and the exploitative tendencies of the developed world.

A similar attitude to the oppressive nature of bureaucracy, and the intrinsic worth of peasant culture, can be found in the films of Ermanno Olmi. Olmi’s L’Albero dei zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978) is a close, naturalistic study of life in a Lombard farmstead towards the end of the nineteenth century. Using location shooting, non-professional actors, a loosely composed narrative and improvised dialogue, L’Albero dei zoccoli comes close to Bazin’s ideal conception of cinematic realism, and Olmi’s application of a poeticised, often symbolic realism, also provides the poetic, revelatory moments which Bazin called for. Like Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, L’Albero dei zoccoli is a quiet, unpretentious homage to peasant culture, and, when it appeared, in 1978, was regarded as a riposte to the melodramatic excesses of Bertolucci’s Novecento, which had been premiered two years earlier.

In contrast to the films of Rosi and Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Tavianis’ Padre padrone (Father-Boss, 1977), Il Prato (The Meadow, 1979) and La Notte di San Lorenzo (The Night of San Lorenzo, 1982) combine elements of the neorealist tradition with a more metaphoric, symbolic, sometimes Brechtian approach. Padre Padrone is uncompromisingly naturalist, in its portrayal of the relationship between an underdeveloped, abusive and impoverished rural culture, and a harsh hill landscape of rocks and moorland. However, La Notte di San Lorenzo is a far more reflexive film. Like Cristo si è fermato a Eboli and L’Albero dei zoccoli before it, La Notte di San Lorenzo portrays conflict between the peasantry and oppressive, this time alien military forces. Like these two earlier films La Notte di San Lorenzo is also firmly situated within a regional milieux, but differs from both, as well as from Padre Padrone, in the extent to which it both draws attention to its use of artifice to convey its account of Nazi atrocity and rural resistance, and in the manner in which it deliberately parodies the neorealist model.43

Notes 1. Liehm, Mira, Passion and Defiance: Film In Italy From 1942 to the Present (Berkeley, CA and London: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 7–8.
2. Armes, Roy, Patterns of Realism (London: Tantivy Press, 1971), p. 32.
3. Liehm, op cit., p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 37.
5. Armes, op cit., p. 52.
6. Marcus, Millicent, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 18.
7. Ibid.
8. Deveny, Thomas, G., Cain on Screen: Contemporary Spanish Cinema (London: Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. 135.
9. Marcus, op cit., p. 14.
10. Armes, op cit., p. 185.
11. Deveney, op cit., p. 69.
12. Ibid., p. 149.
13. Ibid.
14. Liehm, op cit., p. 55.
15. Marcus, op cit., p. 26.
16. Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kristin, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), p. 417.
17. Ibid., p. 418.
18. Liehm, op cit., p. 57.
19. Nettl, J. P., The Soviet Achievement (London: Thames & Hudson, 1976), p. 154.
20. Liehm, op cit., p. 93.
21. Ibid., p. 94.
22. Leprohon, Pierre, The Italian Cinema (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 148.
23. Liehm, op cit., p. 150.
24. Ibid., p. 148.
25. Ibid., p. 159. 26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Bazin, André, ‘In Defence of Rossellini’, in Bazin, What Is Cinema? Vol. II (Berkeley, CA and London: University of California Press, 1972), p. 97.
29. Leprohon, op cit., p. 168.
30. Marcus, p. 190.
31. Liehm, op cit., p. 180.
32. Aitken, Ian, ‘Distraction and Redemption: Kracauer, Surrealism and Phenomenology’, Screen, vol. 39, no.2 (Summer, 1998), p. 135.
33. Marcus, op cit., p. 191.
34. Ibid., p. 245.
35. Liehm, op cit., p. 239.
36. Ibid., p. 243.
37. Marcus, op cit., p. 247.
38. Liehm, op cit., p. 275.
39. Marcus, op cit., p. 307.
40. Liehm, op cit., p. 277.
41. Ibid., p. 278.
42. Bondanella, Peter, Italian Cinema From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Ungar, 1983), p. 314. 43. Marcus, op cit., p. 390.


Source: Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory And Cinema A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2001. Print.


Categories: Film Theory, Theatre Studies

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