Italian Neo-Realism: De Sica, De Santis and the Complexities of Classification
Introducing Italy, 1945…
Italian neo-realism as a movement within film inspired and provoked intense controversy between viewers and critics globally despite its fleeting, short-lived and, arguably, bitter-sweet pilgrimage into the dark, scarred heart of a nation critically wounded both emotionally and physically with the after-effects of World War One. Italy as a nation was crippled with social and economic cutbacks which included poverty, mass, widespread unemployment, hunger, lack of opportunity, the physical invasion of Nazi forces on Italy itself and the abuse and torment that many citizens suffered at the hands of the regime during the war. Italy was also home to many vigilante, rebel Partisan forces who suffered greatly when attempting to force the Fascist troops away from the country, and many were captured, imprisoned or murdered.
Despite the cruelty Italy endured under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, ally to Germany’s Adolf Hitler during the war, some film-makers chose to limp out of the war without shame; proudly displaying their amputations in perhaps the most beautiful display of artistic ‘wound-licking’ there has ever been: and so neo-realism was born, a movement associated with honest, raw and realistic displays of life and its trials and tribulations, with the everyday person and his or her troubles unfolding on the screen before us.
De Sica and his ‘l’uomo qualsiasi’
Since its conception, several critics and students of film have attempted to categorise and compartmentalise the features and connotations associated with neo-realism as a genre, and often with great difficulty. Whilst the films generally celebrated as forerunners of neo-realism do share similar characteristics, it is far too simple and misguided to try to pigeon-hole such an innovative and revolutionary style of film-making. For instance, in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Italy (1948) a film hailed by some as the crowning glory of the neo-realist era, there are significant and consistent efforts made to achieve a certain style and format that expresses and emphasises the issues facing the ordinary Italian man or ‘l’uomo qualsiasi’ of the time: De Sica used non-professional actors that were chosen because of the way they looked and moved, the film is shot on location in several scenes, the sound recording is direct and synchronous, the editing is slow-paced, the lighting is naturalistic and overall there is a clear motive of blending documentary and fiction film to produce what Martin Scorsese recalls in his documentary My Voyage to Italy, films that are simply ‘slices of life’ (see Andre Bazin’s, What is Cinema? Volume 2, 1967). This approach enabled De Sica to show on-screen what he really wanted to get across to the people of Italy and beyond; whilst you may be poor, poverty-stricken, desperate, starving, downtrodden and abused, the love and loyalty of friends and family is beyond any measurement of worth, as seen in Bicycle Thieves when the protagonist Antonio Ricci and his son Bruno melt into the crowd as they hold hands, the bicycle that could have saved them lost in the mess and bustle that is Rome.
Not a ‘genre’ but a ‘style’
Whilst De Sica’s films are seen to embody all that is neo-realist, Giuseppe De Santis is another director who manipulated these values to create a rather different film. Bitter Rice, Italy (1949) stars Silvana Mangano, an Italian starlet who won the title of Miss Rome before her appearance in a Mario Costa film. This is instantly interesting as Mangano may be seen as the embodiment of all of the Americanized, Westernised, consumerist tendencies that neo-realism was attempting to destroy. In fact, some publications even nicknamed her ‘the Italian Rita Hayworth’, the very same glamourpuss whose poster Ricci is pasting up in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves when the dreaded robbery takes place. However, her character is eventually brutally abused and De Santis clearly expresses the way that American ideals and idolisation can lead to disaster, disillusionment and, in Mangano’s character’s case, death. Considering this, can we accept that De Santis and De Sica each made similarly significant contributions to the neo-realist movement? Or is De Sica’s casting of a gorgeous beauty queen, his use of specialised editing, huge embellished sets and non-diegetic music as a key device veering too far away from what a neo-realist film apparently ‘should be’?
If both films, despite their production difference, express the same eventual values, are they not considered champions of the same movement? De Santis’ film even begins by showing the pain and hardship of the Italian women aboard the train to the rice-fields, most of them scrabbling for pieces of bread, working simply because they are living hand-to-mouth existences, a scene echoing De Sica’s exploration of poverty wherein Antonio’s wife sells her prized dowry bedsheets in order to fund the purchase of a bicycle that could better the entire families’ future. Again, this emphasises De Sica’s and De Santis’ combined motive, despite their contrasting approaches.
The values, ideals and themes of these films are paramount to their appeal with audiences today, who still find themselves sympathising with each character’s plight; from Bruno and Antonio all the way to Silvana, one of the most arrogant, manipulative and vicious screen temptresses in existence. It seems, perhaps, that the constrictions placed upon this venture in film-making may be too binding: perhaps neo-realism, literally translated, ‘new realism’, was never really a ‘genre’ as such, but a ‘style’ of film-making that sought to show the world that Italy was still standing after World War 1, regardless of category.
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