by Roderick Conway Morris

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Neorealism in Postwar Italy


By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 17 November 2001

 

Nothing did more, after the years of isolation brought about by Fascism and war, to reintroduce Italian culture to the wider world than the emergence of Italian neorealist cinema.

With the country in ruins, it was something of a miracle that any feature films at all were made in the immediate postwar period, but that a high proportion of them turned out to be classics is an even greater wonder.

Neorealist cinema remains the most internationally well-known product of this era, but the phenomenon was paralleled in art, literature and photography, the different fields influencing each other in various ways. Now as the 50th anniversary of the dawn of this epoch approaches, Rimini is offering a stimulating overview of these lively years, "Realisms: Figurative Arts, Literature and Cinema in Italy, 1943-1953," at Palazzo del Podesta until Jan. 6.

Although Italian neorealist film has come to be regarded as "auteur" cinema, it was in fact as highly collaborative as many of the best Hollywood productions of the times -- the final vision being the distillation of often quite diverse minds and political outlooks. Nor was the grainy, gritty, documentary quality of the earlier productions a matter of aesthetic choice so much as shoestring budgets, limited equipment and scarce, outdated film stock.

Preproduction of Roberto Rossellini's ground-breaking "Roma Citta Aperta" (Rome Open City), released in 1945, began even before the Nazis abandoned the city in 1943. Here, in what was to become the classic mode of operation, the makers went out in search of reality to create fiction, ending up with a kind of fictional documentary. The screenwriter Sergio Amidei and the journalist Alberto Consiglio provided the original outline, which was developed into a script by Rossellini, Amidei and Federico Fellini. But, as Rossellini later recorded, the final drama was as much the "spontaneous creation" of the actors Aldo Fabrizi, who played the saintly priest, and Anna Magnani, the earthy, good-hearted Roman woman of the people, heading a cast consisting largely of nonprofessionals.

"Roma Citta Aperta" set the tone of the successful neorealist films that followed, portraying social and political upheavals, poverty and strife in starkly human terms, and avoiding the doctrinaire and the temptation to preach. As it happened, Amidei was a communist and Rossellini a Catholic, but these contrasting viewpoints served only to broaden the film's sympathies.

According to Luchino Visconti, the first Italian film to be described as neorealist was his own 1942 "Ossessione" (Obsession), which was inspired by James Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," but with bleak settings and style of narration that assured it an enduring reputation as one of the keystones of the genre.

Indeed, the neorealism's capacity for combining social awareness with elements of sex and melodrama reached a kind of culmination in 1949 in Giuseppe De Santis's "Riso Amaro" (Bitter Rice), acted out among the exploited mondine (rice girls) of the Po Plains. As a film critic during the 1930s, De Santis had advocated a more realistic approach to cinema and collaborated with Visconti on the script of "Ossessione." But in "Riso Amaro," the artfully choreographed scenes of communal labor and authentic workaday dress of the women gave De Santis the opportunity to display the voluptuous charms of his heroine to particular advantage, a liberty condemned by more curmudgeonly commentators as a trivialization of the serious purpose of neorealism, although one critic found space in his analysis of the film's sociological significance to pay tribute to "the magnificent thighs of Silvana Mangano."

Many of cinematic neorealism's virtues derived from direct observation of society and its sympathetic depiction of ordinary people, but literature, both Italian and foreign, also played a major role in its inception.

Literary traditions of realism in Italy stretched back into the 19th century, notably in the works of the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga, who was revered by writers and filmmakers alike. But American authors, such as Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway also exercised an influence. One of the most extraordinary publishing events of the war was the issue in 1941 of Elio Vittorini's "Americana," a substantial anthology of American writing, with an enthusiastic and informed commentary.

The same year saw the publication of Vittorini's "Conversations in Sicily" and Cesare Pavese's "Paesi Tuoi" (The Harvesters), two landmarks in Italian neorealist literature. Other writers soon enriched the genre, including Carlo Levi, whose majestic "Christ Stopped at Eboli," relating his experiences in Italy's deep south when he was exiled there in the 1930s for opposing the Fascist regime, was finally printed in 1945, and the chronicler of working-class Florentine life, Vasco Pratolini. Many of Alberto Moravia's finest works belong to this period, among them "The Woman of Rome" (1947) and "The Conformist" (1951).

Levi was both a writer and painter, and his pictures feature both in the literary and art sections of the show. There are powerful works, by Levi and several other hands, of the tragedies and atrocities of war, including unforgettable eyewitness records of the horrors of the concentration camps by Corrado Cagli, a Jewish painter who fled persecution in Italy in the late 1930s, subsequently joined the U.S. forces and took part in the liberation of Buchenwald.

Many artists were of the left, yet initially, as in the case of cinema, their subject matter was not necessarily hidebound by ideological allegiances. Renato Guttuso, for example, a committed communist produced a "Crucifixion" in 1941, writing of it in his diary: "I want to paint this torture of Christ as a scene of today ... as a symbol of all those who suffer outrage, imprisonment and torture for their ideas." Remarkably, the canvas won an officially sponsored prize in 1942, scandalizing the right-wing establishment.

The crunch came in 1948, with the triumph of the rightist Christian Democrats at the polls and a series of diktats from Moscow aimed at imposing Socialist Realism on artists among the party faithful, a direction many declined to follow.

"Impressionism is painting what you see, Expressionism is painting what you feel and Socialist Realism is a painting what you hear," a dissenter once observed. And, as this show bears witness, it was finally in the plastic arts, rather than in cinema, writing or photography, that purely ideological considerations had the most impact on the otherwise generally freewheeling, spontaneous and multifarious flowering of neorealism in postwar Italy.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016