“Film analysis has become an art without a future. . . . There are no longer, or should no longer be, any analyses of films. There are just gestures.”—Raymond Bellour, 2006.
This year being the 70th anniversary of the debut of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City, the film that launched Italian cinematic neorealism, it seemed appropriate to mark the date by revisiting the political, historical, and esthetic convergences that went into its birth. At the same time, there has been emerging in the United States a significant body of “small” films appealing to the neorealist tradition, which, since 2009, has been labeled neoneorealism. It is not my intention to examine this new movement but to provide a mirror reflecting the circumstance of the original neorealism, its roots dug deep in a rich and tragic experience of social and political upheavals, utopian longings, and aesthetic reach.—LB
One summer a small incident occurred on a visit to my village home that now comes to mind as I write of “neorealism.” After lunch in the courtyard, a man in his sixties appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, decorously clad in a black, over-sized suit and white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. Wordlessly he bowed, smiled, and proceeded to pick off or deadhead the red flowers from the potted geraniums, scattered around the courtyard. “Who is he?’ I asked one of my aunts. “We don’t know,” she said. “He’s been here since the end of the war. He’s harmless. He picks only red flowers.” Nothing more could be got out of her beyond an apologetic shrug.
Something the war left behind, in black and white, with an obsession for the color red—a nomadic, traumatized, gestural body; a sign for what, in the end, was neorealism but a portent that interrupted habits and raised questions?
Like a new Prometheus, neorealism seemed to steal a spark from something inspiring Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto about self-awareness from crisis: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”
Neorealism did not start as a collective, a school, or a manifesto. It started as a new body, gradually becoming organic and acquiring consistency. After the war, cinema, like social and political life in Italy, grasped for new ways of seeing reality, hitherto distorted by the spectacular deception of fascism. The immediate trauma from war and resistance, which forced neorealism’s initial walkabout, also caused it to react against the prescribed pathology of fascist art and life. Out of this trauma, social life and art emerged as a “body without organs,” in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept in a Thousand Plateaus. This hollow body, typically born before or after mere existing, began as a silhouette, a stick-sketch of a body-in-the-making, without formulaic constraints on the freedom to express subjectivity. In the updated preface to his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path of the Spider’s Nests), Italo Calvino captured the expressive impulse behind neorealist film and literature:
You never saw formalists so fierce as those contenutisti (content practitioners) that we were; never lyric poets so effusive as the objectivists we pretended to be. . . . Perhaps the real name for that season of “neo-realism’” should be “neo-expressionism.”
Neorealism meant, thus, a vital impulse to express. “My realism,” said Pier Paolo Pasolini, “is an act of love.” The variations in the act of loving—of expressing love—accounts for the diversity in neorealist film-acts. The case of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City shows that neorealism was born—so to speak–in a manger, with the meanest of comforts, the maximum of lack, in a time of desolation: outside of a studio (the Germans had stripped the equipment from Cinecitta’ for transfer to Germany); with only a few meters of film bought daily on Rome’s street from journalists and photographers; with a natural setting that was the unnatural product of war; with a script written on the run from the enemy’s capture and seizure. This humblest of births transformed and influenced the language of cinema across continents for seven decades—in France, Britain, India, Japan, Iran, Latin America, most recently in China with its “sixth generation” of film directors. Life under fascism had been a paradox of self-expression: one had to be signifier and signified, interpreter and interpreted or be deemed a deviant, an outcast, ultimately confined.
In A Special Day (Una giornata particolare, 1977), director Ettore Scola illustrated the paradox of the excluded pressed to perform a normative role. As all of fascist Rome attends the spectacle of Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini, a housewife (Sophia Loren) and a homosexual (Marcello Mastroianni) spend the day together in the eerie silence of the usually tumultuous, petit bourgeois quarter. Struck by the freedom and ease of their friendship, the housewife reaches out for physical comfort, which he has to refuse. At the end, she watches from her kitchen window as the police take the man into custody.
As Scola’s film suggests, hidden from the fascist panopticon and even from the fascist subject’s consciousness lay an obscure area of desire, of lack, and of need—a mysterious well of potential that could not find expression until the disciplinary regime and the self-discipline that it imposed were overthrown. This desire, liberated in the crucible of war, incarnated itself in art as life. That, in a very big nutshell, was the long and the short of neorealism.
If there is a neorealist film that shows the fascist body de-gutted and the human organically dismembered, that film is Roberto Rossellini’s Germania: Anno Zero (Germany: Year Zero, 1948). In the fourth shot, over a camera pan of Berlin’s phantasmagoric landscape of ruins, an inscription reads:
When ideologies depart from the eternal laws of morality and of Christian compassion, which are at the root of men’s lives, they become criminal folly. Even the prudence of childhood is contaminated and proceeds from one horrible crime to another one, no less grave, through which liberation from guilt is sought.
The didactic comment refers to the tragedy of young Edmund, the boy who, tainted by Nazi ideology, kills his father and then himself, leaping into the void from atop a semi-destroyed church steeple. The boy’s last vision below is that of his father’s coffin taken for burial, while the notes of Handel’s “Largo” mourn or mock a world in gaping ruins, too obscene to imagine living in. In fact, Edmund covers his eyes, as though afraid of the world that seems to bode no alternative to ending humanity’s crimes than its “final solution.” This nihilism–as Hemingway would say, this “nada”—is both departure point and arrival of an ideology of death, which crouches at the core of the fascist structure of feeling. Neorealism, however, had a voracious need for truth (“In the post war,” writes Michelangelo Antonioni, “there was a great desire for truth”), for seeing, and showing—for wrenching the hands off the spectator’s eyes, forcing her to look beyond the dark, skeletal warscape of towering ruins into the dim light of the future, filtering through shattered windows and open roofs. With Germany: Year Zero, Rossellini seemed to underscore not only the agony of a people so psychically and emotionally damaged that they appeared incapable of living again but also the tragedy of a people who had been unable to resist the theft of their humanity.
The phrase, “year zero,” was current in Germany after defeat, confronted with the evidence of the regime‘s crimes. By 1950, however, it became clear to German intellectuals of the young generation that the past would not add up to a zero from which they could easily move forward. They felt sensorial amputation. “Besides, I feel nothing. Apart from my eyes, nothing tells me I’m in my school,” related the protagonist of Heinrich Boll’s short story, “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans.” In another story:
I lay on the operating table and saw myself quite distinctly, but very small, dwarfed, up there in the clear glass of the light bulb, tiny and white, a narrow, gauze-colored little bundle looking like an unusually diminutive embryo: so that was me up there.
Shame and horror at the unbearable truth dwarfed Germany’s prospects, while in Italy truth appeared the only way forward. The irrational, obscurantist, totalizing effect of fascist disciplinary spectacle had been “the type of environment [that] ‘deceives’ the senses”—in Guy Debord’s words in Society of the Spectacle. Italian neorealists set the goal of undeceiving them.
Not that neorealist directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, editors, musicians, and cinema technicians had an entirely miraculous birth. The fascist regime itself provided the womb with the founding in 1935 of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a school of national cinema in Rome, the second oldest cinema school after the Pan-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), founded in Moscow in 1919. The Centro’s director, Luigi Chiarini, emphasized in 1937 that “film is an art; cinema is an industry,” in the pages of Bianco e Nero, the influential cinema journal he co-founded in the same year. In 1935, Chiarini invited to teach at the Centro the German-Jewish film theorist, Rudolph Arnheim, author of Film as Art, with a keen interest in the psychology of visual intelligence, a focus that almost certainly influenced Centro student Michelangelo Antonioni. Umberto Barbaro, Centro co-founder, later a great champion of neorealism, added to the esthetic focus of Chiarini and Arnheim, a decidedly Marxist-Soviet perspective—the opposite of what the fascist regime had intended. As translator of Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Bela Balasz (as well as in literature, Mikhael Bulgakov), Barbaro made available to future directors the theories of dynamic montage. Unbeknownst to their sponsors, Barbaro and his students picked apart, frame-by-frame, Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin and Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia—temporal constriction and temporal expansion via montage; use of space as an integral component of the whole rather than as setting and décor—organic space rather than functional backdrop.
Giuseppe de Santis, Pasqualino de Santis, Gianni di Venanzo, Pietro Germi, Dino de Laurentis, Pietro Ingrao, Francesco Pasinetti, Alida Valli, Clara Calamai, and Michelangelo Antonioni were some of the students enrolled between 1935 and 1945. They became actors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and directors of neorealist cinema. Well might the fascist regime bitterly reflect, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth/It is to have a thankless child,” because these students went on not only to reject the cinema of regime, among them the fatuous escapism of the genre known as telefoni bianchi (‘white telephones”), the fantasy of a glamorous modernity in a reality of miserable underdevelopment, but also to reshape cinema as an unforgiving accusation against the regime.
This was indeed the place, the time, and the movement, as Gilles Deleuze’s argued in two volumes, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989), when the idea matured of replacing “movement-image cinema” with “time-image cinema.” Movement-image cinema “photographed” the traditional genres and patterns of literary fiction, relegating the image to a subservient role–a mere causal link in the story–without visual autonomy, powerless to be itself. This bastardized medium—a mess of pottage of filmed literary theatre—had the propagandist virtue of conditioning the fascist-era spectator into a sort of Pavlovian dog. The image functioned as a sensory signal to “eat up” the characters in a fantasy-feast of identification, served with tight dramatic unity, in which time shrank to the minimum required by the action. Deleuze argued that the war provided the break between the two uses of the image, neorealism acting as the agent of change. In this sense, neorealism acquired its own language, the image constituting the unit of speech. In time-image cinema causality ceased to be the manager of time; instead, the image moved time. The spectator became a participating “visionary” in the director’s act of seeing. In Andre Bazin’s famous phrase, neorealism introduced “the democratization of seeing.” Thus, the first organ of the old fascist-constructed body that had to be lost was the eye—an organ Michelangelo Antonioni, in particular, sought to infuse with sight.
Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945) inaugurated the season of neorealism. Anna Magnani’s explosive vitality as Pina, the Roman popolana (woman of the people), who defies the Nazi soldiers to rush the truck deporting her husband to slave labor in Germany, symbolized the break with the submissiveness to fascism. Her shouting out the name of her husband as she ran heedless of danger—which cost her her life—had the effect of proclaiming the triumph of feelings and human relationships over the regime’s death machine. Too, Pina’s epochal cry, both individual and social, marked the debut of an enraged femininity, long suppressed by the fascist myth of militarist masculinity on triumphalist parade for two decades.
That is how neorealism began. The three films, which still shine in the neorealist firmament, debuted between 1945 and 1949: Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945), Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1949). All three shared the neorealist esthetic; all three understood the necessary relationship between form and content; all three were born in the “interregnum,” that time of history when “the old cannot die, and the new cannot yet be born” (Gramsci). All three were immersed in the immediacy of a particular aspect of reality, selected from but encompassing the totality of the whole. Thus, from the beginning, canonical neorealist films were stamped by the author’s subjectivity. To demand “purity” from neorealism as did, for example, the critics of Cinema Nuovo, the influential journal edited by Guido Aristarco, in the wake of “deviant” films directed by Rossellini, Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni after 1949 (when the Italian reality turned from a revolutionary potential for social justice to the reinsertion of a reactionary bourgeois regime) amounted to an irrational demand for embalming reality at the 1945-49 stage.
The films produced by this world-influential movement shared a label but not a formula, so that it would be more fitting to speak of neorealists. All of them, however, considered cinematography to be the first essential function of the cinema. According to Roberto Rossellini, the first neorealist films constituted a period of incubation for a cinema that would develop beyond its initial premises:
Neorealism is important precisely because of the research in technique [that it required]. When I made Open City and Paisa,’ it was considered folly to think that anyone could make a film outside a studio. Instead, as was seen, it could be absolutely done. It required research in a number of things of a technical nature, even minimal, tiny, artisanal, to resolve the problem [of cinematography], which is fundamental. Later . . . it became language; it became potential. Without this technical research, neorealism, with its closeness to reality, would not have happened.
The second common denominator among neorealist artists and intellectuals was the pursuit of an art seeking a new relationship with reality. In a television interview on cinema and reality in 1966, novelist Alberto Moravia, characterized neorealism as a moral initiative, built on a new esthetic:
Neorealism was not only an artistic and aesthetic experience but also a moral one. As always happens in revolutions of taste, it was liberation from the patterns, the habits—the bad habits–that were both aesthetic and moral. It represented a liberation that in revolutions in art are always formal . . . they express and use formal facts, but they have moral implications. In neorealism, there was a moral liberation from what had been the lies, the rhetoric, even the conventionality of fascism.
In the same series of televised interviews, writer and film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, identified the moral with the political, locating the force of the regeneration in the wartime Resistance (1943-45). For Pasolini, neorealism represented” . . . Italy’s first act of critical consciousness from a political and ideological point of view. Up to that point, Italy had no unitary history. . . . Moreover, the twenty years before had been a history of fascism, that is to say, the history of an aberrant unity. Italian history began only with the Resistance. . . . Thus, neorealism . . . was the first hard look Italy took at itself, without rhetorical veils, without falsities, with the pleasure of discovering its vices and defects. The other characteristic neorealists shared was a Marxist prospect. Almost all neorealist works were founded on the idea that the future would be better and that a revolution would be accomplished, though no one knew what that might be.”
The Resistance in Italy made the difference between the Italian and German experience with fascism. This difference, a virtual act of popular redemption, generated the anti-fascist themes of Italian cinematic neorealism but, and more importantly, also instigated a critique of the capitalist malaise—alienation, reification, false consciousness, and “transcendental homelessness” in search of utopian origins. György Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, literary historian, and critic, coined the phrase “transcendental homelessness,” in his Theory of the Novel (1920) defining it as a “”longing of all souls for the place in which they once belonged, and the nostalgia . . . for utopian perfection, a nostalgia that feels itself and its desires to be the only true reality.” This romantic anti-capitalism, responding to a feeling of displacement from a human and natural environment, accounted for the obsessive peripateia of neorealist characters, from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves through Rossellini’s Paisa,’ to Federico Fellini La strada, Antonioni’s Il grido (1957) and The Passenger. Too, as in Homer’s Odyssey, updated to industrial-era geography, protagonists quested for nostos, the return, after a cataclysmic war, to a peaceful home and life—a return fraught with the psychological scars of war and the anxiety of an uncertain political and economic futures.
The vagabond themes resulted from the effects of the hybrid character of the Resistance, which had included monarchists, liberals, socialists, and communist, making post-war Italy a contested political domain. The two biggest losers in the stakes of governing the country in the post war were the monarchists, grouped mostly in underdeveloped Southern Italy, and the communists in the industrial north and center. In the immediate post war, Italians opted for the republic in a referendum vote that gave the monarchy a close second place. At the same time, American occupation officials at first demanded that the communist party be outlawed, but, as was objected, the communists, having been the mainstay of the Resistance, could not be criminalized, as that would result in a civil war. Washington then settled for a compromise. In exchange for the Marshall Plan for reconstruction, an agreement between the two countries stipulated that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) would not have access to the executive ever. Thus, post-war Italy by 1949 became a republic of limited sovereignty, in which one third of the population was excluded from effective representation. The Resistance, in fact, had fought three wars together: the patriotic war of liberation following the invasion and occupation by the German army on 8 September 1943; the civil war against the fascist dictatorship; and the class war for social emancipation. The first two succeeded; the last failed.
Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema suggested that Italy’s regional industrial development was yet too uneven to pull together a national social revolution. The great popular masses existed in large pockets of cultural and linguistic particularism, which obstructed the emergence of a national spirit of proletarian class-consciousness. These problems were particularly acute in the mezzogiorno (the Italian South). They had been central to Antonio Gramsci’s development of the theory of cultural hegemony, and La terra trema can be justifiably attributed to an exemplification of the great political philosopher’s thought. Visconti was unique among the original neorealist directors to focus early on the matter of Sicily as a challenge to the left’s project of national emancipation. Sicily was one of the most underdeveloped regions of Italy, feudal in character, ruled by a landed aristocracy, whose power had not been dented by even the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century. Mass poverty, illiteracy, and emigration were endemic. The Resistance had not radicalized it, since Sicily had been invaded and occupied by the Allies in July 1943 before it organized itself in the North, following the German invasion and occupation on 8 September 1943. Rossellini opened Paisa’ (1946) with the episode of Sicily, portrayed as a primordial, inhospitable, dark and alien place where disoriented German and American “armies clash by night,” literally.
Luchino Visconti was the scion of an ancient aristocratic Northern family, particularly consequential politically, Europe-wide, during the Renaissance. He had been radicalized in France during the period in the 1930s of the Popular Front, while assisting Jean Renoir and learning cinema craft from the great realist director. He became active in the Resistance and was imprisoned and tortured. He remained tied to the PCI until his death. What engaged him in La terra trema was the thought of the leap Sicily must make to pass from feudalism to modernity. Organization, Lenin had observed, was the only weapon of the disempowered and a theory of revolution its essential glue. Lenin’s genius, according to Christopher Hill’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution, rested in his ability to adapt the theories of Marx and Engels to the specific conditions of industrially developing Russia, 80% of which still consisted of the peasantry. Lenin, therefore, placed great importance on the organization of the peasantry, with its long and embattled tradition of communal self-rule, rooted in opposition to the landed aristocracy.
In 1949, Italy had an organized party with a general theory of revolution, but the problem in the South, on top of those already noted, was exacerbated by the hegemonic alliance between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. The liberal government in the 1890s had skillfully constructed this alignment of class forces. In Gramsci’s view, no social evolution could take place in the South until the peasantry broke with the bourgeoisie and joined an alliance with the working class. But this progressive re-alignment of class forces, as La terra trema illustrates (part of a projected Trilogy of the Land, which Visconti never realized), was too formidable a task to be approached by a party relying on top-down homogeneous strategies, such as strikes and rallies, that had worked in the industrial North, with its history of class-conscious, anti-fascist agitation and struggle. The fishermen’s rebellion against the big merchants, which the film dramatizes, ends in their defeat because of an insufficient experience in organized class struggle and, above all, class-consciousness.
The genesis of the film is generally attributed to a traumatic event, which occurred on the island on the first of May of 1947–the harbinger of decades of rightist covert war to subvert popular democracy in Italy. Visconti was then on location in Sicily for a documentary funded by the PCI. At Portella della Ginestra, near Messina, not far from the fishing village of Aci Trezza, where Visconti will film La terra trema, a massacre occurred during a rally organized by the PCI. Seventeen unarmed civilians were killed, including children, by shooters in an ambush said to be led by Salvatore Giuliano, a mafia henchman, but immediately suspected to have been planned by the Ministry of the Interior and the CIA, after the PCI had won municipal elections (in 1960, director Francesco Rosi dramatized the event in Salvatore Giuliano, challenging the official version).
One of the most prominent features of La terra trema (which caused it to be ignominiously booed at the Venice Film Festival) was the Sicilian language. Un-subtitled, it sounded utterly foreign and highlighted the linguistic chasm that separated Sicilian from hegemonic bourgeois standard Italian. Yet, Visconti had been obsessed by linguistic authenticity. For example, he read the scripted dialogue in Italian to his Sicilian non-actors; he had them translate it in contemporary Sicilian; then, into more archaic Sicilian by the village elders. This laborious operation lasted six months, but Visconti wanted to un-submerge the plurilinguism of Italy from where fascism had sunk it by privileging correct Italian and marginalizing “dialects”–a task Visconti initially had in common with Pasolini’s later insistence on “realism” as speaking in the language of the marginal, the excluded and silenced. With Gramsci, he also intended to reveal the class-nature, inherent in the imposition of the “mother tongue”: “The Italian language is not in Sicily the language of the poor,” the caption read after the film’s credits.
Like his previous Ossessione (1942), based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, often cited as a pre-neorealist film, La terra trema is an extremely loose adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s late 19th-century verismo novel I Malavoglia. Like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, I Malavoglia is the story of the disintegration of a Sicilian family by the economic mechanism of exploitation. It also shares with Thomas Hardy the typical fatalism of the late 19th century about the inevitable defeat of the class resisting industrial “progress.” Visconti’s film, however, ends with the implicit call for an organized, cohesive, and united collectivity—a Marxist conclusion—one, moreover, which calls for taking into account, with the seriousness and respect demanded by Gramsci, the people’s “folkloristic” cultural and linguistic specificity.
Michelangelo Antonioni is not generally considered a neorealist founder, but that is a grave omission. He was born in Ferrara, in the north. Here the Po River splits into five branches and fourteen mouths to form the great delta that joins its waters with the Adriatic Sea. Here earth, water, sky blend in a vast flat space bathed in limitless, changing tonalities of light. Here, Rossellini’s last episode in Paisa’ concludes the film’s dolorous nomadism south-north of a peninsula in war: from the primordial night of archaic Sicily where Americans and Germans move like disoriented shadows, to American-occupied Naples, living in caves, to liberated Rome, prostituting to eat, to still occupied Florence, where Italians partisans fight the Germans through the Uffizi and in the streets, while the English generals observe through binoculars from the safety of the hills and wait, and finally to the Po Valley, where the Resistance will break the retreating German army’s stand against the advancing allied armies. Here, in this “Episode of the Po,” Rossellini opens with a body floating in the eddying waters, the cause of his death identified by a sign, partigiano.
But here, too, Antonioni started something extraordinary in 1942, four years before Rossellini’s Paisa,’ and while, nearby, Luchino Visconti was directing the pre-neorealist film, Ossessione. Antonioni’s short documentary, Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley), is ten-minutes long, finished in 1946, much footage lost in the chaos of the war. Watching the documentary today, it is impossible to believe that such a reality of primitive poverty could coexist with the fantasy of the regime cinema of men in white linen suits, women in glittering silver gowns, flirting on the telephone, symbol of progress. The film flows like the river’s life, now slowly in panning long-takes now frenetically, agitated, like the work being done on the boats, by rapid montage a-la Eisenstein. Syncopated and punctuated by an alternating rhythm of close-ups and long takes, montage and panning, this time-image film feels like visual music, in Jean Luc Godard’s opinion, the true ambition of cinema, along with telling the truth “twenty-four times per second.”
Antonioni was not modest about this film. In Il primo Antonioni, 1973, a book that collects the scripts of Antonioni’s films before L’avventura, the director is quoted as saying:
My sole presumption [is] to have taken alone the road to neorealism. . . . beginning to understand the world through the image; I understood the image. Its strength, its mystery. . . . Everything I did afterwards, good or bad, speaks from there [the landscape of Gente del Po].
His relationship with the camera was both corporeal and mystical. Once behind the vision machine, he forgot script and dialogue (“A screenplay is not a film,” he maintained), rapt in the immanent mystery of reality. Reality had been his religion; the image its manifestation. “If you Christians cared about god as much as I, atheist, do, you would all be saints,” he retorted to the Vatican clerical reactionaries, who went out for blood against neorealism in the 50s. His signature was the tempi morti (“dead times”) of the duration take—one single, uninterrupted scene in deep focus, adopted by neorealists in general from Orson Welles’ groundbreaking use in Citizen Kane (1941).
The most spectacular of his duration sequences comes late in his career, in the decade of the 1970s. It is the 360-degree angle, seven-minute sequence at the end of Professione Reporter (The Passenger, 1974), in which the camera, leaving the scene of the impending murder, refuses to bear witness. On tracks in the ceiling, the camera, guiltily, as if on tippy-toes, or like a blind bat seeking flight into the open sky, leaves the reporter vulnerably stretched out on the bed of the Hotel de la Gloria, where he will be shot. It begins to move toward the window, passes miraculously through its iron bars, is hooked invisibly onto a crane outside and begins its 360-degree revolution around the perimeter of the square where it records the random plenitude of life in the world, indifferent to the presence of death.
Paradoxically, the spectacle of this virtuoso technical artifice appears to violate all the neorealist preconceptions: the camera doesn’t work in tandem with reality but evades it—just as the reporter’s professional camera had missed it, assembling the news from fragments and rumors, understanding little. Now the great event of his life—his death—is recorded with similar disattention or detachment. It is a kind of poetic justice. The “impartial’ camera observes merely the fringes of the event: a dog barking, a bit of discontinuous dialogue, a stretch of sky, three cars parking, but it never captures the heart of the crime in the room of the Hotel de la Gloria, just as the reporter never grasped (until too late) the West’s crime of squelching independence struggles in Africa. Thus, what appears to be a turn to anti-realism in repudiation of neorealism, Professione Reporter, reminds instead that though the premises of neorealism had been betrayed—the search for truth was now a paid, ill-informed, and shabby profession—this didn’t mean that its premises were wrong. Even Antonioni’s Il grido (1957), reputed to be his final farewell to neorealism, was in its a sorrowful revisiting of the landscape that gave it birth, the Po Valley of Visconti’s Ossessione and Antonioni’s Gente del Po, an acknowledgment that not cinema but social reality had been betrayed.
In terms of the aesthetics of neorealism, de Sica’s Bicycle Thief made the greatest immediate impression on theorists of cinema. Andre Bazin, the legendary French critic and theorist, co-founder of Cahiers du cinema, the cradle of the French New Wave to whom Francois Truffaut dedicated his debut film, The 400 Blows, wrote ecstatically:
Bicycle Thieves is one of the first examples of pure cinema. No more actors, no more story, no more mise-en-scene; at last, in the perfect esthetic illusion of reality, no more cinema.
This audacious judgment presupposed that the fulfillment of true cinema—the expression of its unique “nature”—rested on a dogged pursuit of the hermeneutics of reality, while erasing the technological traces of this pursuit to the point of the medium’s invisibility. In Bazin’s esthetics, to be a neorealist was to have the courage to kill the thing one loved—to be a saint or a devil for a sacrificial cinema that put the mystery of “life” before the mastery of art. First you see, then you reflect was the idea in Maurice Merleau Ponty’s 1945 influential study, The Phenomenology of Perception. This principle, at least as interpreted by the French cinephiles at Cahiers du cinema and eventual auteurs, suggested that the primacy of perception would trump ideological preconceptions and yield an unmediated picture of the quality of reality.
Though it is unfair to charge the French take on neorealism as a de-politicizing maneuver (Godard’s cinematic and theoretical career testifies to the opposite), it launched a critical debate, beyond the scope of this article to explore, which lasted decades. Detractors of Bazin’s view of Bicycle Thief as a canonical example of the spirit of neorealism retorted by proposing its profound conservatism. Luigi Zampa, neorealist director and screenwriter, for example said that he refused to collaborate on a script that was based on a non-existent problem. If the protagonist had gone to the local communist center and declared that his bicycle, a necessity for employment, had been stolen, they would have found him another one.
This tart observation is not without merit. The search for the bicycle ends in failure. In a reversal of roles, the son reaches out protectively to the father. It is a story of initiation in which the collectivity’s lack of solidarity and mean victimization leave the child with the insight that he will find within the emotional space of the family his only refuge, obligation, and responsibility. This is a consolatory message, deeply embedded in Italian petit bourgeois, patriarchal, and Catholic structures of feelings. One could dare to suggest that the film confesses a considerable residue of fascist ideology.
Thus, neorealism was many things—a flowering of hopes, a groping in the dark for an exit from a nightmare, a proposal for action, an analysis for social progress, a confident turn to the future hampered by the baggage of the past—but one thing was for sure: it was visual. To conclude with Gilles Deleuze evocative words, neorealism gave us “seers”:
In Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations, which we no longer know how to react to in spaces, which we no longer know how to describe. These “any-spaces-whatever,” deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction. And in these any-spaces-whatever, a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers. (From Cinema 2: The Time-Image)
Luciana Bohne is an Intrepid Report Associate Editor. She is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and taught at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at email@example.com.