A Particular Way of Looking

J. Hoberman

  • NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy 1932-60 edited by Enrica Viganò
    Prestel, 349 pp, £49.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 3 7913 5769 0

Futurism, the first organised avant-garde art movement of the 20th century, appeared in Italy in the years before the First World War. Fascism, the original self-identified totalitarian political ideology, no less brashly expressive of modern times, emerged in Italy in the years immediately following the war. Neorealism, a spontaneous development without leaders and with few manifestos, which took shape in the last days of the Second World War, was in some sense a negation of both Fascism and Futurism. It was born in opposition to Fascist propaganda, both aesthetic and political; it embodied a resistance akin to that of Italy’s anti-Fascist partisans, advancing a liberated national consciousness and such artistic truth as might be constructed on the wreckage of Mussolini’s regime.

‘Freedom of expression and the need to rebuild a new Italian identity fuelled the fever for documentation, the testimony of real life, and investigation in a nationwide context,’ the curator and photography critic Enrica Viganò writes in her introduction to NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy 1932-60.[*] The political ideology of Neorealism may have been diffuse, in some ways Catholic and in others communist, but its mission was focused. The aim was to give a presence to those who had been invisible and a voice to the voiceless: the poor, the dispossessed, the unemployed, peasants, children and ordinary people subjugated by circumstances, political or social, they could not control.

Neorealism was further distinguished in being a 20th-century-ism in which the cinema took a leading role. The Surrealists were great, if eccentric, cinephiles, but the leading Neorealists – Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica – were professional filmmakers. The novelist Cesare Pavese went so far as to compare De Sica, perhaps ironically, with Thomas Mann, as the author of a national narrative. Had movies superseded literature? The Futurists thought so, proposing in one 1916 manifesto a cinema that would ‘co-operate in the general renewal, taking the place of the literary review (always pedantic) and the drama (always predictable), and killing the book (always tedious and oppressive)’.

In elevating movies, the Neorealists weren’t so much modernists as they were modern. Conveying the reality of a contemporary situation was implicit in their mission. One of Neorealism’s first apostles, the French film critic André Bazin, wrote that the new Italian films were ‘first and foremost reconstituted reportage’. A number of second-wave filmmakers associated with Neorealism had originally been journalists, among them Cesare Zavattini, Alberto Lattuada, Federico Fellini and Giuseppe De Santis. There was also a Neorealist tendency in Italian letters, whose chief subject was Fascism and the war. ‘The literary explosion of those years in Italy was not so much an artistic phenomenon, more a physical, existential, collective need,’ Italo Calvino wrote, revisiting his Neorealist novel The Path to the Spider’s Nests (1947), a child’s-eye view of the partisans. Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), Carlo Levi’s essayistic memoir of his political exile in an impoverished village in Basilicata, a remote province at the instep of the Italian boot, was the first and remains the best-known of the various forms of documentary fiction that appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

There was also a photographic analogue, abetted by the proliferation after 1945 of new illustrated journals such as Il politecnico, and various ethnographic expeditions, mainly to the south of the country. In 1948, the same year the US pledged $200 million (approximately 40 per cent of the Marshall Plan budget for Italy) to head off communism and implement land reform in the south, the photojournalist Tino Petrelli travelled to Calabria, where he documented conditions with a purposeful rawness – unvarnished images, for instance, of a dirt-floored classroom with barefoot children.

While a few painters, some of them inspired by Picasso’s example, produced work depicting wartime atrocities (and later showing fishermen and other working people), there doesn’t seem to have been a significant Neorealist strand in Italian art. The closest may be the early sculptures made by Aldo Tambellini, a child in Tuscany during the Second World War, who lived on New York’s bulldozed Lower East Side in the late 1950s and took the detritus harvested from demolished buildings as his material.

Produced under Fascism in 1943, Visconti’s Ossessione (an unauthorised version of James M. Cain’s hardboiled novel The Postman Always Rings Twice) is generally considered the first Neorealist film, but it was Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), the first movie made after the war to represent the recent Italian past, that planted the flag. It was planned during the Nazi occupation and based on actual events, including the execution of a priest. Shooting, sometimes using the locations where these events had actually occurred, began in January 1945, six months after the liberation of Rome; the movie wrapped in June, just as the war in Europe was ending. The production was hand to mouth. Because Cinecittà, the enormous studio complex built by Mussolini, had been damaged by Allied bombing, Rossellini made a makeshift studio out of a building that had once housed a dog track; the rest of Open City was shot on the streets of Rome using piecemeal 35mm film stock, some of it bought from street photographers. The mismatched shots and varied quality of the footage gave the movie an urgent documentary quality. Many thought it was a clandestine newsreel begun during the German occupation. The film opened in September 1945 at two large theatres in Rome, and despite a lukewarm critical reception, was the largest-grossing Italian movie of the year – praised by left and right alike.

In late 1945, an American GI returned home from Italy with a print of Rome, Open City he had purchased for a promised $25,000. It opened in February 1946 at a small moviehouse west of Times Square and played there for twenty months. ‘Recently,’ the film critic James Agee wrote in the Nation, ‘I saw a moving picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it.’ (Agee himself had recently collaborated with two American photographers on projects that can be seen as analogous to Neorealism: Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, a text on sharecropper life accompanied by Walker Evans’s images, and In the Street, a spare, poetic documentary about Spanish Harlem, filmed by Helen Levitt.) Life magazine ran a seven-page spread on the movie’s ‘earthy verisimilitude’. Audiences accustomed to Hollywood coyness were amazed to see Anna Magnani’s skirt ride up, revealing her garter straps, when she is shot by a German soldier in the street. The image was used in advertisements that proclaimed the movie ‘sexier than Hollywood ever dared to be’. That spring, the movie caused a sensation at the first Cannes Film Festival; it was seen there by Bazin, who was impressed by its powerful lack of finish, its passionate intensity and its immediacy. The communist critic Georges Sadoul said it was ‘more important to cinema history than the last two hundred films made in Hollywood’.

Anna Magnani in ‘Rome, Open City’
Anna Magnani in ‘Rome, Open City’.

Rossellini followed Rome, Open City with the even more excitingly raw and spontaneous Paisan (1946), a six-part movie about the war shot in six different regions of Italy, and then by a film set in the ruins of Berlin, Germany Year Zero (1948). By then, other Italian filmmakers had taken up his example. In Visconti’s epic La terra trema (1948), inspired by Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia (1881), the inhabitants of a Sicilian fishing village essentially play themselves. De Sica shot a succession of films in Rome: Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948) – the Neorealist blockbuster that in 1952 would top Sight and Sound’s first critics’ poll as the greatest movie ever made – and Umberto D (1952). All three were partly written by the leading theorist of Neorealism, Zavattini, who once proposed a two-hour feature dramatising the purchase of a pair of shoes. These films, and other features made by De Santis, Lattuada, Fellini and Pietro Germi, were distinguished by location shooting, long takes and natural lighting – a pragmatic aesthetics which, conveniently, wasn’t hampered by a lack of money. (Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica largely financed their first films themselves.) Further hallmarks of the style included unobtrusive editing, an avoidance of close-ups, vernacular dialogue, a willingness to improvise scripts, working-class or peasant protagonists, non-actors (children especially), contemporary settings, open or downbeat endings and implied or overt social criticism.

Michelangelo Antonioni, who would become Italian cinema’s greatest modernist, began what might be considered a Neorealist documentary, People of the Po Valley, in early 1943. (Visconti was filming Ossessione on the banks of the Po at the time, just a few miles away.) ‘Nobody had talked about humble, poor people in documentaries. Fascism totally prohibited it,’ Antonioni recalled. Rather than glorify work, as Fascist documentaries required, he emphasised privation, shooting ‘straw huts that flooded with every storm,’ land that ‘became a mud bog’, and children lifted onto tables to keep them from drowning. Antonioni was unable to finish People of the Po Valley, but the movie established his reputation when the surviving footage was first screened in 1947.

Purists consider Umberto D to be the last true Neorealist production: the movement lasted for less than ten years. After the 1948 election, the first after the war, the future prime minister Giulio Andreotti, then undersecretary in charge of the performing arts, campaigned against downbeat representations of poverty and deprivation. The so-called Andreotti Law of December 1949 legalised the censorship of documentary films and was intended to target Neorealist filmmakers, who were increasingly seen as scandal-mongering left-wing intellectuals.

*

To leaf through NeoRealismo feels a bit like being inside a Neorealist movie. Images of narrow, laundry-festooned alleyways dissolve to pictures of bleak villages with graffiti-emblazoned walls. A wrinkled sign plastered above the entrance to what appears to be a stable serving as a primary school reads ‘Che Vota Comunismo Vota Contro Dio’ (‘A Communist Vote Is a Vote against God’). Portraits made by the leftist photojournalists Franco Pinna, Ando Gilardi and Arturo Zavattini (Cesare’s son) on ethnographic expeditions to Basilicata – Town Witch, Ritual Keener, Dying Healer – illuminate Christ Stopped at Eboli. So does the sequence of photographs entitled A Woman Possessed, and the images of families sharing their dwellings with livestock. Other photographs appear to critique Neorealist movies. Enrico Pasquali’s images of the bare-legged female mondine (rice workers) of the Po Valley having their lunch in the fields demystify the glamorous icon established by Silvana Mangano in De Santis’s hit Bitter Rice (1949).

The fortnightly publication Cinema Nuovo was established in opposition to the Andreotti Law, in part to support communist journalists unable to find work in more mainstream periodicals. It also published work by the left-wing American photographers Paul Strand and William Klein, and ran photographic features intended to inspire subsequent movies, for example Carlo Cisventi’s ‘Chronicles from the Lower Po Valley’ and studies of Bussana Vecchia (a ghost-town near Genoa), Chiara Samugheo’s series of ‘Possessed Women’ (as confrontational as a tabloid front page), or Marisa Rastellini’s back alley travelogue ‘Forbidden Rome.’

As well as such neorealism after Neorealism, Viganò surveys its precursors, in particular the Fascist realism of the 1930s. The heroic workers, mass rallies and modern factories can also be found in Soviet photography of the time, and there is even an echo of the Soviet taste for slashing diagonals. Further away from socialist realism, however, are the photographs of religious pilgrimages and idealised family groupings. There are exceptions: the street scenes of Lattuada (a photographer before becoming a filmmaker) and Cesare Barzacchi look forward to the more drastic post-liberation images of ruined cities and urban outskirts, with ragged children amid the rubble.

Many of the photographs are as ennobling in their way as their Fascist antecedents. ‘Its realism,’ Bazin wrote, ‘is not so much concerned with the choice of subject as with a particular way of looking at things’ – that’s to say the meaning extracted from the documentation of a particular person, event or location. To take the best-known examples, Bicycle Thieves made an unemployed worker a figure of classical tragedy, and Visconti’s La terra trema gave the struggle of Sicilian fishermen a mythic dimension. (Fosco Maraini’s group portrait from 1951, Sicilian fishermen, the raging sea makes it impossible to set out, might be an on-set photograph.)

Thus, Neorealist photography promoted or invented new archetypes. Fulvio Roiter’s celebrated photograph from 1953 of a naked Sicilian sulphur miner, shot from the rear as he strains to push a transport bin through the darkness, is like a classical statue of an exploited worker. (It may also be a corrective to Germi’s Neorealist film from 1950, The Path of Hope, an over-sentimental tribute to Sicilians forced to leave the sulphur mines.) The young mother in Chiara Samugheo’s series The Children of Naples (1955), clutching a toddler to her chest, her mouth twisted as she glares at the camera, could be one of the Eumenides. Franco Pinna’s portrait from 1953 of a radiant Calabrian peasant woman, heavily pregnant and smiling at the camera as she kneads dough, shows a secular fertility goddess. Tranquillo Casiraghi’s image of a village bocci player in motion suggests a discus thrower. Watched by half a dozen passengers in a rowing-boat, a demurely smiling young woman in a modest bathing suit is an everyday Venus rising from the foam. Faces streaked with grime, the stony-faced subjects of Federico Patellani’s Miners at Carbonia are chthonic spirits.

In the 1950s, Neorealism spread across the world. With its theatre of cruelty depiction of the poor, Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) stood Neorealism on its head. The Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s first feature, Pather Panchali (1955), is a masterpiece of non-Italian Italian Neorealism. So is John Cassavetes’s first movie, Shadows (1959), populated by underemployed jazz musicians and shot in and around Times Square. Neorealism was the inspiration for British ‘free cinema’ and kitchen-sink realism. Jean Rouch’s ethnographic features made in West Africa, like Moi, un noir (1958), took off from Neorealism, as did the nouvelle vague. It made an impact in Hollywood as well – mainly in the films of leftist directors such as Jules Dassin, Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray – yet back in Italy, Hollywood blocked the Neorealist path. Italy opened once more to American movies soon after the end of the war and by 1949, the US had some 80 per cent of the Italian market.

Producing its own international movie stars was one way for Italy to compete. The statuesque Mangano, the female lead in Bitter Rice, was a home-grown star, several years before Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. Other stars were imported. Rossellini made a series of movies with his wife, Ingrid Bergman; Visconti’s Senso (1954) paired Alida Valli (returned to Italy from Hollywood) with Farley Granger; De Sica’s Stazione Termini (1953) starred Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. De Sica had originally planned to make Bicycle Thieves with Hollywood funding. David O. Selznick, the prospective producer, wanted Cary Grant for the lead role; De Sica suggested Henry Fonda. Umberto D was first conceived as a British film, starring Barry Fitzgerald. Zavattini, who had experimented with non-actors, encouraging them to dramatise their own particular situations, made an anthology film, We the Women (1953), in which four divas – Valli, Bergman, Magnani and Isa Miranda – appear as themselves in fictional situations.

There was a corresponding shift in photography. Samugheo, one of the few women in the field, left Rome’s back alleys for the world of glamour and celebrity. Tazio Secchiaroli, who as a teenage photographer had documented slum streets, gypsy children and political demonstrations, graduated to stalking celebrities. (Some aspects of the Neorealist attitude remained. Secchiaroli’s famous photographs of the 18-year-old exotic dancer Aïché Nana’s impromptu striptease to the beat of a drum in a crowded nightclub in Rome have been compared, not altogether facetiously, to ethnographic sequences showing possessed peasant women.) In the course of a single night in August 1958, Secchiaroli had a confrontation with Egypt’s deposed king turned playboy Farouk I, caught Ava Gardner having a fight with a co-star on the street, and provoked Anita Ekberg’s husband to violence. His exploits inspired Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), a panorama of Roman decadence seen through the eyes of a gossip columnist played by Marcello Mastroianni. Secchiaroli was the model for Mastroianni’s accomplice, the photographer Paparazzo (hence the term ‘paparazzi’). Neorealist photographers were involved in the production: Pinna was Fellini’s set photographer; Arturo Zavattini was a member of the crew. Among other things, the movie includes an impromptu striptease at a jaded party.

La Dolce Vita won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and reignited Italian cinema as Rome, Open City had done 15 years earlier. Fellini’s central character was a journalist too, but his subjects weren’t the poor, dispossessed and voiceless, they were aristocrats and celebrities. In one early scene, Ekberg, appearing as a voluptuous blonde Swedish-American movie star much like herself, arrives in Rome and is immediately besieged by a horde of photographers and newspaper men who pepper her with questions at a spontaneous press conference. ‘Do you think Italian Neorealism is dead or alive?’ one asks. The query requires no response, and doesn’t get one.

[*] The book was published to coincide with an exhibition with the same title at NYU’s Grey Gallery in late 2018.