Neo-Realism as a Pericope of Cinematic Political Influence

Paul Fischer
260400220
Thain and Furuhata
FLM 279
28th March 2012


Neo-Realism as a Pericope of Cinematic Political Influence


The fusion of the documentary style supported and developed by fascist leaders before World War Two, with narrative and montage styles from America and Russia, led to the creation of the cinematic form neo-realism in post-war Italy.  In around a dozen or so films, which depict everyday life as the subject and use cinematography to influence and grip the audience, neo-realist directors found themselves in a unique place and point in history. Because Europe had been bombed flat by allied campaigns, the poverty and destitution provided stunning sets for films shot on site usually detailing the life of poor Europeans. The impact was immediate and massive, though short-lived as economic recovery sent customers to more upbeat American films in the fifties. This paper will look at the political message and success of neo-realism, and attempt to arrive at some conclusion of how the “altered reality” was able to make change in a very modern world.

The language of politics and neo-realism is complex, and it is necessary to draw some definitions before proceeding. Fundamentally, there is little that is truly unique to neo-realism; it does not rely on trick shots, comedy or cinema of attractions. From its beginning, neo-realism was a “reaction to the autobiographical lyricism and elegiac introversion of contemporary Italian letters” (Marcus 18) which was heavily repressed and censored in Italy. Instead neo-realism offered a “strenuously analytic, crude, dramatic representation of a human condition tormented between will and inclination by the anguish of the senses, the conventions of bourgeois life, the emptiness and boredom of existence; and a language founded no longer on the how but on the what, sunk as deeply as possible into ‘things,’ adhering to the ‘object’” that was also largely unique to cinema in form (Bocelli 366-7).
Political influence can be anti-establishment or reactionary in nature. Neo-realism, despite its dark nature, actually exerted an optimistic pressure on politics. This optimism is manifested in the attempt to shape political reality according to a moral idea. While this was not successful, the film were censored by the late forties, the filmmakers never lost their dignity, and managed to make a widespread impact on public opinion (Marcus 28).   The Italian political scene allowed for another type of dissident: neo-realists without strong affinity for communism, the occupying powers, or the former fascists. Once categorized, the magnitude and scale of the influence can be gauged as well, both for the time and later. In this case, a unique form of cinema, neo-realism, came about with a very specific set of conditions in post-war Italy. The original subjects of neo-realism are war and Fascism, but later resurgence of the genius in the sixties, shows that the art form is intrinsically tied to achieving political goals.
To understand how the neo-realists were able to create and produce a startlingly small number of extremely influential films, it is necessary to first look at what characterizes neo-realism. There are the developmental stages that evolved and fused before these films as well as Mussolini era “white telephone” films that provided an aesthetic and artistic wasteland that post-war directors were excited to fill. Neo-realism, as a moment in Italian cinema, occurred to fill a creative void after decades of boring documentaries and censorship left the film industry in tatters.
In the films’ content, there is depression and poverty as before the Italian Reconstruction the country was horribly depressed economically. The audience sees real devastation on-site, often filmed with non-professional actors also assembled on location. The pain is often evident in these films not only through the plot or storyline, but also in the cinematography and sound. The subject is nearly always post-war poverty and struggle, yet can vary greatly in degree, sometimes showing homicide and death or otherwise focusing on something as seemingly insignificant as a bicycle in The Bicycle Thief (1948). Even in a story that follows the search of an unemployed man for his stolen bicycle, gripping social statements and panoramas are imparted to the viewer. In Germany: Year Zero (1947) sweeping panoramic shots of the devastation and profiles of ruined blocks blend with cramped living spaces, three families struggling to fit in an old apartment, poverty and hardship to give the audience true sentiment and empathy for the subjects.
From a political standpoint, the Nazi ex-school teacher’s typecasting as a pedophile or the depictions of severe poverty or looting from potato trains show how ferociously dissident neo-realism was. At the end of one of the most destructive wars in history, many europeans were left asking questions and neo-realism offered Italians a vehicle or mechanism for these questions.  The ideological use of cinema with mixed or unclear messages is characteristic of the era. From the older brother who fought in the streets until the last day to the sister who goes out dancing at night with Americans to get a couple cigarettes to buy potatoes to finally the younger son, the monster, who poisons his father, each character is blamed by the film. Yet by the end of the film, the viewer feels more empathy and sadness. The last sequence in particular, in which the boy sort of walks around, a Frankenstein monster of sorts, searching for friends but finding none instead commits suicide, the viewer is enfolded into an understanding of the child.
This connected viewers in a new way to their world and themselves, instead of to another exotic land or uncivilized people as was the fashion with earlier pieces of cinema of attractions or documentaries. Instead of taxidermy, or preserving the moment, these new political narratives provided a compelling impetus for change. While still in narrative pattern, these films show distinct differences from the talking pictures that evolved from cinema of attraction as well. By combining and improving on older cinema the directors provide a nuanced view of the subject that is at the same time striking and incontestable. In comparison with “white telephone” films that dominated Italian cinema before neo-realism, the new films provided an infusion of creativity and political insight.
While the political impetus for this explosion was the removal of fascist censorship laws, the films were made technically feasible by advances in sound, plastic, and lighting technology that occurred. Cheap film and handheld cameras made onsite recording and filming possible. The destruction in the wake of World War Two left cheap or free elaborate sets throughout Axis Europe. As directors and filmmakers spiraled out across Europe, however, their opposition to occupying post-war forces and uneasy relations with communism made neo-realism a financially risky endeavor. The ultimate decline of neo-realism was blamed on this inability to conform to commercial and political norms (Marcus 27). Under the Andreotti Law of 1949, censors became able to cut and edit films. Toothless neo-realism soon became antiquidated  as Italy went through economic recovery, and the scenes of post-war devastation and incredible poverty started to disappear from the country.
For many, Italian neo-realism was a moment in film history that is not approachable by modern standards. Modern attempts to revisit the era are wasted because the extensive suffering and repression that occurred in Italy has not happened since then to a leading cultural nation of Italy’s caliber since World War Two. The shock value combined with intense emotional connection to the subjects cannot be recovered now, or in the near future. That the Italian cinema felt compelled to fight censorship and authority in order to realize a moral ideal in politics has given an imperative to those enjoying freedom of speech and ample resources to pay some respect to this “moment” in Italian cinema.
The legacy of the political message of neo-realists exists today, and recurs at points in cinema and political history. The success was not found in only the box-office or from immediate impact on occupying forces, but instead from the inspiration that was evident as many Italians felt compelled to finally speak out after years of hushed-up Fascism. Influence cannot directly be traced, but the genius and emotional power of these films are directly evident to a viewer even today.
Without neo-realism it would be impossible to capture the moment in post-war Italy. In this sense it is a form of taxidermy, yet it goes far beyond mere preservation of the scenes; this was not documentary, similar, but with a twist. As a fusion of multiple different forms, there is no canon or universally accepted definition, but instead only a few cinematography notes and considerable violence to plastics or lighting. Neo-realism has a direct emotional connection to the viewer that other styles of cinema simply cannot rival, but can perhaps take something from.
Bibliography: Neo-Realism as a Pericope of Cinematic Political Influence
Arnaldo Bocelli, Letteratura del ‘900. Palermo: Salvatore Sciascia, 1975. Print.
Bicycle Thief. Arthur Mayer & Jos. Burstyn, 1949.
Germany in Year Zero Germania Anno Zero. Dir. Roberto Rossellini. A Film by Roberto  Rossellini, 1947.
Marcus, Millicent Joy. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP,  1986. Print.
Thain, Alanna, and Yuriko Furuhata. Introduction to Film History: Courspack. Montreal: McGill,  2012. Print.

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