The most well-known period in the history of Italian cinema remains the era of “Italian Neorealism,” the legendarily socially conscious movement comprised of documentary-style films made during the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. But I think the best way to understand Italian cinema is to look at how the conventions of Neorealism gradually morphed into something quite different (and arguably even polar opposite) by the end of the 1960s – mostly at the hands of the very same filmmakers (Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, et al) who had been responsible for setting the world on fire by helping to create that earlier revolutionary movement. Antonioni purportedly once claimed that “the bicycle is no longer enough,” referring to the fact that a film character’s psychological problems should no longer be seen as stemming only from external factors. There is no more succinct description of the transition that occurred between the socially-rooted dilemmas of the characters in Neorealism and the more extravagant psychological flights of fancy found in Fellini or in the existential angst of the characters in Antonioni. It is also significant that the characters of Neorealism tended to be working class while the characters of the Psychological Realism of the ’60s tended to be affluent. Between these two seemingly opposite poles of Italian cinema can be found nothing less than the whole wide world.
The list is presented in chronological order and will be split across two posts. The first part below encompasses the years 1943 – 1959:
Ossessione (Visconti, 1943)
Luchino Visocnti’s unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is often cited as the birth of Italian Neorealism due to its working class milieu and use of documentary-style location shooting. However, Visconti’s employment of Cain’s Hollywood-style plot (a woman who runs an inn seduces an unemployed drifter into murdering her much older and less attractive husband) and the use of glamorous stars in the lead roles (Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti) better positions this as an early forerunner of the movement.
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)
Roberto Rossellini is, in my opinion, the greatest of all Italian directors and this low-budget but courageous dramatization of the Nazi occupation of Italy in the waning months of WWII, heroically made immediately after the period had ended, was where he first found himself. The climactic scenes depicting the torture of Resistance members by the forces of Fascism remind us of what true courage is, much more so than what has ever been achieved by the feel-goodism of Hollywood-style recreations. Anna Magnani’s performance is one of the miracles of cinema.
Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)
The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.
Bitter Rice (De Santis, 1949)
A fascinating melodrama/film noir/Neorealist hybrid set among female rice workers in the Po valley. The voluptuous Silvana Mangano became an international star overnight for her portrayal of Silvana, a working girl tempted by the bounty of a thief on the run. A huge commercial success upon its release due to its unbridled depiction of earthy sexuality, Bitter Rice still packs a memorable erotic punch today.
Stromboli (Rossellini, 1950)
After helping to define Neorealism only a few years earlier, Roberto Rossellini abruptly turned his back on the movement with this astonishing Ingrid Bergman-starring melodrama, the first in a profitable cycle of such films. An Eastern European woman (Bergman) agrees to marry an Italian fisherman in order to escape a prison camp in the aftermath of WWII. But life in the fishing of village of Stromboli isn’t all that she hoped it would be, which leads to a startling existential crisis. A film of both incredible documentary value (the tuna fishing sequence!) and visceral erotic symbolism.
The Gold of Naples (De Sica, 1954)
Following the box office flop of the bleak Neorealist Umberto D in 1952, director Vittorio de Sica returned to directing the light comedy that characterized his early work. He also returned to his native Napoli for this delightful anthology of comic vignettes: a gangster forges an unlikely relationship with a clown, a down-on-his luck aristocrat gambles with a child, a prostitute gets married, an unfaithful woman searches for her missing wedding ring. The incredible use of Neapolitan locations and the high-powered cast of glamorous actors (Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, de Sica himeself) make this arguably the most Italian film on this list.
Senso (Visconti, 1954)
Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.
Journey to Italy (AKA Journey to Italy) (Rossellini, 1954)
My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.
Il Grido (Antonioni, 1957)
Il Grido is unusual for Michelangelo Antonioni in that it focuses on a working class character (the first and last time he would do so) but is typical of the director in almost every other respect: a near plotless series of events, the theme of the alienating effects of modernity, a generally bleak tone and a fine compositional eye for landscapes and architecture. The American actor Steve Cochran is very good as the mechanic who breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, then takes her daughter on the road where he drifts through a series of casual affairs. Fascinating in its own right but even more so seeing how it prefigures an epic stretch of greatness that would begin with Antonioni’s very next film, 1960’s Lavventura.
Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
This is in my opinion the best of Fellini’s pre-Dolce Vita films, a relatively fleet and stylistically subdued valentine to the genius acting talent of his wife Giulietta Masina. Here she plays the title character, an eternally optimistic prostitute who works the streets of Rome while conscientiously saving money and dreaming of a better life. The picaresque narrative takes her through a series of adventures both humorous and heartbreaking, climaxing in an extraordinary final shot, a tribute to an indomitable spirit that will permanently burn itself into your brain.
To be continued . . .