How influential was neo-realism?
Italian neo-realism is described by Napolitano as “The transformation and the reflection of an ordinary experience into a feeling and then into an idea and image” (2007, p.114). This resulted in cinema becoming an outlet for certain attitudes towards the environment that creators were in and the political landscape of the time. Neorealism is therefore a concept which is extremely accessible to filmmakers and audiences as it is adapted from country to country, with the main themes and aspects of the film staying true to its origins in neorealism.
One important aspect of film in the era of neorealism in Italy, and the subsequent genres which have developed from it, is the use of amateur actors and actresses to cement the feeling in the audience that what they are watching is real. Sacrificing talent was a key feature in terms of getting a point across to the audience. Dramatising the roles would result in creating film that was very reminiscent of Hollywood and would support the “increasing commodification of western culture in which the star plays such an integral role” (Landy, 2000, p.283). With the simple aim of neorealism being to raise social and political issues, commodifying the films would undermine their message as it would show their lack of awareness and sensibility.
A particular scene in Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) indicates the importance of the unknown actor in neorealism where it shows the character Antonio report his bike missing to the police. All he is offered in response when other officers enquire about the crime is: “no, nothing, just a bicycle”. All we know of the character and actor is that them and their family rely on that bicycle to earn money. This throwaway comment is a larger statement on how those who have more power don’t care for the working class and don’t understand their struggles. With such a significant percentage of the population at this time being working class and still recovering rom the war, this gave the audience a moment they can relate heavily to. Marcus puts this best as he states; “Such deceptive simplicity … makes the film, like Antonio’s bicycle, the bearer of far heavier and more sophisticated cargo than its fragile exterior would immediately suggest.” (1986, p.56).
Neorealism has had a particularly strong impact on the shift in British cinema from documentary into British Social Realism. Ken Loach is a spearhead of this genre and his film Sorry We Missed You (2019) which is premiering at the Cannes film festival later this month is a clear example of how aspects of neorealism have been carried through to the modern day. The use of amateur actors is the first clear signal of this.
Similarly, to Bicycle Thieves, Loach has a focus on the working class and the injustices they experience in daily life. Hill states that there is a focus on the representation of the working classes during times of social and economic crisis (2000, 255) which is a subject which clearly traces its roots back to Italian neorealism.
This is apparent around the world, not only in British cinema which shows how incredibly influential Italian neorealism was in shaping the social commentaries in films even today.
De Sica, V. (1948). Bicycle Thieves [Motion Picture]. Italy: Produzioni De Sica.
Hill, J. (2000). From New Wave to Brit Grit: Continuity and difference in working class realism, in J. Ashby and A. Higson (eds.), British Cinema Past and Present (pp. 249–260). London: Routledge.
Landy, M. (2000). Italian Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marcus, M. (1986). Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Chichester: Princeton University Press.
Napolitano, A. (2007). Neorealism in Anglo-Saxon Cinema. In L. Roberto, & K. Wilson (Eds.), Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema (pp. 111 – 127). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.