Italian Neorealist Films (1943 - 1954)

Europe '51 (Credit: Criterion)

Europe '51 (Credit: Criterion)

Once Mussolini's fascist regime had fallen, the Italian film industry cooperated with U.S. companies in order to secure an American dominance of the market. This caused Italian production companies to drastically scale down. Previously, throughout WWII, the likes of Guiseppe De Santis and Mario Alicata considered the possibility of a movement "following the slow and tired step of the worker who returns home". After the war, this sentiment aligned with the public's interests, as a coalition government was formed and the country aimed to restart with a liberal ideology.

Prior to this, the Italian industry had been synonymous with elaborate studio settings, most notably thanks to Cinécitta studios, which had been left heavily damaged. With fewer resources and a liberal agenda to provide the public with films that would empathetically put contemporary issues in theaters, the nation's cinematic tendencies were also ready to be renewed. Ranging from partisan heroics to post-war suffering, neorealist filmmakers sought to tell stories of everyday people as the nation coped with the devastation of WWII. Below you'll find the films that formed the movement.

Ossessione (1943) by director Luchino Visconti

Ossessione (1943)  credit: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane

Ossessione (1943) credit: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane

A drifter starts an affair with the local owner of an inn. Together, they plan to get rid of her husband.

Ossessione, which marks Visconti's directorial debut, is based on James M Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, the film deviates from the novel's story and includes an additional central character. 

Rome, Open City (1945) Roma città aperta by director Roberto Rossellini

Set in 1944, Nazi have occupied Rome. Giorgio Manfredi leads the Resistance and is currently seeking refuge as the Nazis start a manhunt.

Hollywood director Martin Scorsese once described the film as "the most precious moment in film history".

Outcry (1946) Il sole sorfe ancora by director Aldo Vergano

Outcry is a war-drama considered to be a cornerstone in neorealism. Director Aldo Vergano wrote many Telefoni Bianchi films throughout the thirties.

In 1946, the Italian institutional referendum was held, putting liberal parties in power of Italy. From this point on, Italy would be a republic. 

To Live in Peace (1946) Vivere in pace by director Luigi Zampa

Blending war-drama with comedy, Vivere in pace shows how an idyllic village changes when two soldiers seek refuge during WWII.

The Bandit (1946) Il Bandito by director Alberto Lattuada

When a group of Italian prisoners of war travel home from Germany, a man discovers that his mother is dead and his sister is missing. He fails to get an honest job, and continues to look for his sibling.

Shoeshine (1946) Sciuscià by director Vittorio De Sica

A pair of shoeshine boys living in Rome have been saving up to buy a horse, but their exploits lands them in juvenile prison. The abrupt change in their lives has a devastating impact on their friendship.

Paisan (1946) Paisà by director Roberto Rossellini

Paisan (Credit: Criterion)

Paisan (Credit: Criterion)

Six stories during WWII show how language barriers can have tragic consequences. Paisan is the second instalment of Rossellini's War Trilogy, which also includes Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero.

The film was given international acclaim, including an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and a BAFTA Award for Best Film.

Germany, Year Zero (1947) Germania anno zero by director Roberto Rossellini

Set in post-war Berlin, Germany, Year Zero follows the turmoils of a young German boy. The film completes Rossellini's War Trilogy.

Tragic Hunt (1947) Caccia tragica by director Guiseppe De Santis

After WWII, a cooperative is formed by working class Italians. When a group of thieves seize the cooperative's funds, a tragic manhunt begins.

The script was written by  Michelangelo Antonioni and Carlo Lizzani, both of whom would go on to become internationally successful filmmakers in their own right.

Senza pietà (1947) by director Luigi Zampa

An African-American soldier stationed in Italy refuses to collude with local gangsters. However, he runs out of options when his true love is forced into prostitution. The script was written by Frederico Fellini, who would become one of Italy's most popular filmmakers of all time.

Bicycle Thieves (1948) Ladri di biciclette by director Vittorio De Sica

When a poor man's bicycle goes missing in post-war Italy, he and his son roam the city to find it. The script is based on a novel of the same name by Luigi Bartolini. It is perhaps the best known Italian Neorealist film of all time, and is a key example of the movement's filmmaking principles.

In the same year, the moderate Christian Democratic party won the Italian general election.

The Earth Trembles (1948) La terra trema by director Luchino Visconti

Sicilian fishermen live at the mercy of immoral wholesalers who have been consumed by greed, forcing a family to try and work independently.

Amore (1948) L'amore by director Roberto Rossellini

Loosely based on Giovanni Verga's novel Malavoglia, the film centers on a a small fishing village on the coast of Sicily. It explores the lives of the working class inhabitants, including a love-torn woman talking to her ex-lover on the phone, and a pregnant woman who believes she is carrying Saint Joseph's child.

L'amore is, as you might expect, in the Sicilian language, and is a key example of how neorealist productions used non-professional actors to great effect. The film was awarded the International Prize at the 9th Venice International Film Festival.

Bitter Rice (1948) Riso amaro by director Guiseppe De Santis

Bitter Rice (Credit: Lux Film)

Bitter Rice (Credit: Lux Film)

A pair of criminals running from the law end up working in a rice field. They decide to invite their fellow workers in on their next crime. The Italian title, Riso amaro, is a play on words; In Italian, riso is 'rice' as well as 'laughter'. Therefore, riso amaro can mean 'bitter rice' as well as 'bitter laughter'.

Il Mulino del Po (1948) by director Alberto Lattuada

Two working class families celebrating an engagement are interrupted by financiers. They have come to assess whether or not one of the families is guilty of tax evasion.

The Machine to Kill Bad People (1948) La Macchina ammazzacattivi by director Roberto Rossellini

A village photographer is given a magical camera by a stranger, who claims to be Sant Andrea. When used, the camera can destroy the wicked, but can the man claiming to be Sant Andrea be trusted?

In 1949, State Undersecretary Guilio Andreotti would establish import limits and screen quotas for the Italian film industry. His new laws, which included loans to Italian production companies, intended to prevent an American dominance throughout Italy's domestic market. With this came a demand for more star power within Italian films, and screenplays would be vetted before production in order to ensure that they were likely to be successful at the box office - thereby enforcing some degree of censorship. As their was less interest in neorealist films compared to lighter (or rauchier) comedies and historical dramas from the general public, commercials films within Italy would become synonymous with voluptuous women throughout the 1950s. Or, as State Undersecretary Guilio Andreotti would put it, these films would have "less rags, more legs".

Stromboli (1950) Stromboli, terra di Dio by director Roberto Rossellini

In an attempt to escape a prisoner's camp, a young woman from the Baltic countries marries a fisherman. However, her new life in the village of Stromboli is tough, as they live under constant threat of a volcanic eruption.

Stromboli marks the first collaboration between Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, with whom he would eventually have a scandalous affair. She also stars in Europa '51Viaggio in ItaliaGiovanna d'Arco al rogo and La Paura.

The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (1950) Francesco, giullare di Dio by director Roberto Rossellini

In 9 chapters, the film explores the life of Saint Francis. The story is based on 14th-century novel Fioretti Di San Francesco, as well as La Vita di Frate Ginepro. The adaptation was co-written by Frederico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.

Story of a Love Affair (1950) Cronaca di un amore by director Michaelangelo Antonioni

Marking the first full-length feature film from soon-to-be acclaimed Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni, Story of a Love Affair centers on a beautiful woman who is married to a successful entrepreneur. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she is reunited with an old lover, with whom she shares a tragic past.

Antonioni's film deviates from many of the neorealist movement's principles, in that it focuses on the upper class and uses professional actors - with the exception of fashion designer Ferdinando Sarmi.

Variety Lights (1950) Luci del varietà by directors Alberto Lattuado & Frederico Fellini

A woman joins a group of vaudevillians, but her place within the troupe ultimately results in jealousy from her peers.

Bellissima (1951) by director Luchino Visconti

A working class woman will stop at nothing in order to get her daughter into the film industry. Bellissima is uncharacteristically satirical for a Visconti picture, in which he addresses issues within the industry. The film also features director Alessandro Blasetti, who plays himself.

Miracle in Milan (1951) Miracolo a Milano by director Vittorio De Sica

After the death of his adopted mother, an exceptionally kind boy struggles through life in Milan's poverty stricken areas. Micacolo a Milano used both professional and non-professional actors.

Rome 11:00 (1952) Roma ore 11 by director Giuseppe De Santis

When more than 200 women respond to a job vacancy, their overwhelming need for work leads to a sever accident within the company's building. The film explores the impact this event has on the lives of five women.

Roma ore 11 is based on a real accident that occurred in 1951. In reality, more than eighty women were injured or killed by a collapsing staircase. 

Europe '51 (1952) by director Roberto Rossellini

Europe '51 (Credit: Criterion)

Europe '51 (Credit: Criterion)

An ambassador's wife feels painfully guilty about the death of her son, knowing that she had neglected him when he was alive. With this in mind, she decides to help those in need. She offers shelter to a man on the run, leading to her own arrest. In an attempt to keep his reputation in tact, her husband decides to have her declared insane.

Also known as The Greatest Love, Rossellini's Europe '51 is another notable collaboration between Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

The White Sheik (1952) Lo sceicco bianco by director Frederico Fellini

While on their honeymoon vacation, two newlyweds must endure the city's lust-fuelled culture.

In 1957, Giulietta Masina would reprise her role as Cabiria in Fellini's Nights of CabiriaLo sceicco biano was co-written by Fellini and Michaelangelo Antonioni. Although he previously co-directed Variety Lights, the film marks Fellini's first as a solo director.

The Vanquished (1952) I vinti by director Michaelangelo Antonioni

In three separated stories, I vinti explores the lives a Parisian student, an Italian smuggler and an English poet; all of whom commit murder.

Umberto D. (1952) by director Vittorio De Sica

Umberto D. (Credit: Janus Films)

Umberto D. (Credit: Janus Films)

A lonely pensioner living with his devoted dog struggles to make ends meet.

Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. was criticized by the Italian government due to the film's opening scene, which showed police officers attempting to silence pensioners who have taken to the streets in protest. In a public letter to De Sica, State Undersecretary Guilio Andreotti accused the director of delivering a "wretched service to his fatherland."

Love in the City (1953) by directors Cesare Zavattini, Frederico Fellini, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Alberto Lattuada, Carlo Lizzani & Dino Risi

Told in six parts, Love in the City is a collaborative effort from neorealist directors. Stories include Paid Love, Attempted Suicide, Paradise for Three Hours, Marriage Agency, Story of Caterina and Italians Stare. Each story is aesthetically tired together by the cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo.

In 1953, a conference was held in Parma to discuss the neorealist movement. 

I Vitelloni (1953) by director Frederico Fellini

Launching the career of comedian Alberto Sordi, I Vitelloni follows the lives of young men as they face significant changes in their provincial lives. The film has autobiographical elements from Fellini's life, and shows a development in what would become the director's distinctive style.

Terminal Station (1953) Stazione Termini by director Vittorio De Sica

Based on Stazione Termini by Cesare Zavattini, Terminal Station explores an American woman's affair with an Italian man. Just before leaving for Paris, the married man tries to break things off.

Terminal Station was famously created in partnership with Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick. His wife, Jennifer Jones, appears in the lead role. The film had a notoriously troubled history, with De Sica and David O. Selznick failing to agree on the film's artistic direction. The original release, under De Sica's direction, explored a ruined romance and ran for 89 minutes, but the persistent Hollywood producer would later have the film cut down to 64 minutes, depicting a more simplistic love story, and re-release it as Indiscretion of an American Wife.

The Lady Without the Camelias (1953) La signora senza camelie by director Michaelangelo Antonioni

A new star is born when a young woman's talents for screen acting are discovered. But when a producer notices how the audience responds to her shapely figure, he looks to capitalize on her striking appearance for their next movie. The provocative nature of her latest film causes trouble at home, as her husband becomes to get jealous.

A Husband for Anna (1953) Un marito per Anna Zaccheo by director Giuseppe De Santis

A beautiful Neapolitan woman  grows concerned when she struggles to find a husband. She eventually agrees to marry a sailor and the next phase of her life is seemingly back on course, but her life takes a horrifying turn when she is raped by her boss.

Bread, Love and Dreams (1953) Pane, amore e fantasia by director Luigi Comencini

A veteran marshal moves to a small town and falls for two women at the same time. Pane, amore e fantasia stars neorealist filmmaker, Vittorio De Sica in the leading role. 

Senso (1954) by director Luchino Visconti

Based on Camillo Boito's Italian novella of the same name, Senso focuses on a neurotic Countess who begins a love affair with an Austrian Lieutenant, betraying her country.

Visconti originally envisioned Hollywood favorites Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando in the film's leading roles. However, Rossellini reportedly would not allow Bergman to collaborate with other directors at the time.

Journey to Italy (1954) Viaggio in Italia by director Roberto Rossellini

journey to italy (Credit: Titanus Distribuzione)

journey to italy (Credit: Titanus Distribuzione)

With a half-improvised storyline, Viaggio in Italia explores the complexities of marriage, centering on a disillusioned English couple seeking a new direction or their unhappy lives.

Also known as Voyage to Italy, Rossellini's film stars his then-wife Ingrid Bergman. It has been suggested that their films together have autobiographical elements from their own relationship. The film made a considerable impact on the Cahier du cinéma writers, who would go on to form the nouvelle vague. Therefore, the film's release was considered to be a monumental moment for the French New Wave's early beginnings.

La Strada (1954) La strada by director Federico Fellini

A seemingly care-free girl's life is turned upside down when she is sold to a mean-spirited traveler. Working as an entertainer, she tries to make the most out of the dire situation, but physical and emotional pain endures.

Giulietta Masina reteams with Frederico Fellini for the film, having previously worked together on The White Sheik. They would collaborate again for Nights of Cabiria in 1957.

The Gold of Naples (1954) L'oro di Napoli by director Vittorio De Sica

A collection of 6 stories pay tribute to the city of Naples, including a clown exploited by gangsters, a woman who loses her husbands ring, a child's funeral, the misfortune of a gambler, a prostitute's wedding and the exploits of a 'wisdom seller'.

Andreotti's law and the rise of 'rosy neorealism': A dead end for the movement

When the first neorealist film, Ossessione, was released in 1942, Vittorio Mussolini (who was the head of the film industry at the time) famously left the theater and screamed "this is not Italy!". While Italy had adopted a comparatively liberal political system after WWII, the government's ideologies would not become pleased with the neorealist movement's portrayals of social issues. In 1947, Andreotti's law had decidedly changed Italian cinema thanks to preproduction censorship. Films would even be denied the right to be exported internationally if they were seen as slanderous towards Italy in any way, shape or form.

While the stories of working class struggles were being oppressed by this change, commercial filmmakers were also adopting neorealist aesthetics for generic romance flicks and run-of-the-mill melodramas. 'Rosy neorealism' used techniques from the movement to combined it with the popular comedic tone seen throughout the 1930s. In short, the techniques that had originally provided social comment and artistically valuable films were now being packaged by the industry.

One year after scenes of public protest in Umberto D. led Andreotti to publicly scathe Vittorio De Sica, filmmakers were discussing the movement at the 1953 Parma Congress on Neorealism. There could be no doubt that this important era in Italian film history had changed the way film could be used for reportage and societal change, but the overall tone of the event showed a belief that the movement had come to an end. Still, neorealism's influence on the Cahiers du cinéma writers would soon make a startling impact on the industry, and the movement had successfully provided an opportunity for dedramatized storytelling to become internationally popular throughout the 1960s.