The New Moral Poetry of Italian Neo-Realism

In 1943, Italy was in ruins. Nazi forces were ripping through Rome, destroying not only the architecture, but the way of life for countless Italians.  It would be another two years before Allied forces completely ran the Germans out, but by then, in spite of the violence, a group of filmmakers conspired to use Rome’s streets to showcase their own version of the truth – a wink to the old verismo.

Up until and during the WWII years, under the guise of being a friend to the silver screen, Mussolini engineered Italy’s film industry to be dominated by the bianco telefono (“white telephone”) movies.  These light-hearted comedies and costume dramas celebrated Hollywood pictures and depicted bourgeois middle-class life with a whimsical regard for everyday existence.  They also served to distract the populous from the realities of social inequity that Fascist economies often create.

Out of the chaos and destruction and corpses came a nuova poesia morale (new moral poetry).  Later it would be called Italian Neo-realism and it would have a lasting effect upon cinema as a global consciousness, and provide a breath of fresh air to the Italian poor and unemployed.  Less of an organised clique with rules and guidelines and more a group of men with loosely compatible ideals, finally a sense of national cinema would be born; one that would begin to represent the experiences  of those not lucky enough to be able to buy their way out of strife.

Sometime in 1944, Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Amato began drafting a screenplay designed to utilise Italy’s current volatile climate.  Although many agree that Visconti’s 1942 Obsessione was an important precursor to the cultural shift about to occur a few years later, it is Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 masterpiece Rome, Open City, which is regarded as the film which pioneered the Italian Neo-Realism movement and assimilated into the national psyche the effects of poverty and WWII on real people.

The film follows Giorgio Manfred who, with the help of a priest and a friend, scales the Roman rooftops and broken buildings, evading capture from the Gestapo.  Eventually he is caught, tortured and executed when he refuses to bow to Nazi will.  The New York Times’s, Bosley Crowther wrote that “the total effect of the picture is a sense of real experience, achieved as much by the performance as by the writing and direction.”

The outstanding performance is that of Aldo Fabrizi as the priest, who embraces with dignity and humanity a most demanding part.”  The “sense of real experience” is in part down to the advancement in the technology. New, lightweight cameras could easily be taken out into the streets, allowing filmakers to throw off the shackles of studio-based production. And that is what happened.  The loose documentary style spoke directly to the ravaged minds of the Italian people , and framed their own lives on celluloid for the first time.

The lines of reality blur further when it is considered that some of the filming took place while Nazi infantry still occupied parts of the town, and many of the actors were untrained or picked directly off of the streets by the film crews.  This would also become a significant trait of Neo-Realism: the use of non-professionals, for which Rossellini explained: “I select my performers on the basis of their physical appearance…. I watch a man in his day-to-day life and get him embedded in my memory. Facing the camera, he will no longer be himself…. He forgets who he is, thinking that he was chosen for the role because he has become an exceptional human being. I have to bring him back to his real nature, to reconstruct him, to teach him his usual gestures again.”

After the global, critical success of Rome, Open City, the world began to turn on to what the Italians were doing. And though Rossellini gave birth to the movement, others would help raise and nurture it.  One of the best known and biggest milestones of Italian Neorealism came three years after Rome, Open City, from screenwriter and theorist Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica: Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). 

Bicycle Thieves (sometimes called The Bicycle Thief) is the touching story of a Father and Son’s odyssey through the streets of Rome as they search for the Padre’s stolen bicycle.  Antonio Ricci, unemployed for several years, is given a job pasting posters on billboards (incidentally, a Rita Hayworth picture). It is the simplicity of the lives of the protagonists that wails upon the heartstrings and gives the film the tender power of a post-war Italy where something as simple as a bicycle could make the difference between employment and poverty, stale bread and fresh, happiness and loneliness.  Immediately hailed as a masterpiece of cinema, Bicycle Thieves subsequently hit the top of critics’ lists and is still often spoken in the same breath as the likes of Well’s Citizen Kane, Fellini’s 8 ½ and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Incidentally, it would be another Zavattini/De Sica flick which signaled the death for the short lived but much loved Italian Neo-realismUmberto D was released in 1952, only this time the energetic reviews had changed and no one was feeling the love.  The lead character, Umberto, is a retired war veteran trying to survive on a meagre pension in a small boarding house with his friend and dog, Flike.  Faced with eviction, and too proud to beg, he pawns his books and watch to raise the cash to secure a home for himself and his only other friend, the young and pregnant house-servant, Maria.  After he finds himself evicted anyway, Umberto decides the only available action within his control is suicide.  So with an unwilling Flike in his arms he heads down to the train tracks.  At the last moment he changes his mind and spends the last moments of the film playing with his friend beside the tracks.

What had happened in the six or seven years between Rome, Open City and Umberto D that would shift from adoration to public outrage?  The answer is Ricostruzione.  Whist the warm Italian sun shone over the smoking ruins and remnants of Man’s folly, it was easy for the citizens of a once great city to connect with the sense of ordinary helplessness and despair that drifted upward from the ashes through the broken streets and onto the screen; they were all in the merda together.  But with the economy slowly improving and life returning to a more familiar state, few people wanted such reminders of how bad things had gotten, nor did they need the progressive visual musings of a “New Moral Poetry”.

Despite the short life of the Italian Neo-realism movement, the power of its imagery and tenderness of its storytelling would initiate the creation of National Cinema, inspire Fellini’s later and best works, and provide a ‘how-to’ manual for the likes of the French and British New Wave movements.  But for the New Moral Poetry, six years was all it would get, then was it done …fine.

Trailer for the De Sica Masterpiece, Ladri di Biciclette

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About craig shaw
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