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Cinematographic Representative Models: Exploring the Uniqueness of Neorealism


The creative choices were mainly driven by necessity. During the period in which the movement emerged, artists were encouraged to merge with their surroundings. Cinecittà, the post-war film studio, ceased to be a site dedicated to regime-produced films and became a refuge for people fleeing war and bombings. Mega-productions organized by producers were not feasible at the time. Instead, directors enjoyed creative and aesthetic freedom, thanks to the use of handheld cameras. Neorealist cinema frequently employed portable cameras, allowing for greater mobility and the ability to film in small spaces or on the streets. Natural lighting took precedence over artificial lighting, resulting in a more realistic and unembellished visual style that captured spontaneous and authentic moments.

One of the defining aspects of neorealist storytelling is its use of non-professional actors, who bring authenticity and rawness to the performances. This adds to the sense of realism and immediacy, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Long takes in public or private locations were common, with the settings often mirroring the actual filming locations. In his book, The Neorealism: a dictionary of Italian Cinema, Stelvio Catena writes: "There was a particular emphasis on children and their role in a declining society, as neorealist filmmakers aimed to explore and convey an authentic and profound moral perspective" (2017, p. 13).


Most directors preferred the use of open scripts or flexible narrative schemes, allowing for improvisation and the inclusion of elements from real life during the filming process. The script became a fundamental focus of expression, for the Neorealists' dialect was an important way of portraying reality. The scripts often paid attention to the dialogue, emphasizing dialectal assignments without subtitles in Italian. In fact, some films were not translated at all. A brief example is Luchino Visconti's film La Terra Trema (1948), which was entirely filmed in Sicilian dialect and later subtitled. The emphasis was not on dubbing, as the goal was to maintain closeness to the people and the internal psychology of the characters. The editing was often highly melodramatic, yet many plot points triggered profound existential reflections on the story.


Figura 1: "La Terra Trema" (Visconti, 1948).

Before the fall of fascism and the end of the war, Luchino Visconti's film Ossessione (1943) anticipated typical themes and styles of Neorealism. Its filming took place in the same location where the story was set, showcasing unprecedented perspectives of the province of Ferrara and breaking away from the compositional conventions of previous cinema. Neorealism itself emerged as a response to the repercussions of war and injustice but was forged through the influences of various currents that flourished at that time. Among the intellectual movements and personalities that predominantly influenced Neorealism, there is the Cine Kammerspiel, a German cinematic movement with a psychological approach born in the early 1920s, which based its principles in the intimate theater known as Kammerspiele, founded by Max Reinhardt (an Austrian-born theatre and film director, intendant, and theatrical producer) alongside the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1906 and inaugurated with the staging of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening directed by Reinhardt himself.


The Kammerspiel theater normally recreated stories with few actors, preferably three characters, the sets design was also minimalist and highly symbolic: it was characterized by a naturalistic style, subjects focused on everyday life, and the use (not always logical or systematic) of Aristotle's three unities of action, space, and time, which cinema tends to elude by its nature (Spagnoletti, 2003). It was also characterized by the great attention to scenic objects, which sometimes seemed to have a life of their own, and above all, the tendency to eliminate verbal communication provided by intertitles. Instead, a powerful and engaging flow of images, supported by a relentless dramatic rhythm, took its place. The protagonists, often small bourgeois philistines, were immersed in an often dark and always essential environment, which, in its cosmic sadness, served as a mirror of the soul of the dramas and passions that unfolded within the film (Spagnoletti, 2003). It emphasized the use of close-ups, focused on emotionally nuanced dialogue from the protagonists, and frequently employed camera movements that closely followed the actors, creating a sense of pursuit. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the greatest masters of the movement and one of the greatest directors of the time, he had the idea of mixing Expressionism and the Kammerspiel as in the 1924 film The Last Laugh, which is a perfect example.


Figure 2: "The Last Laugh" (Murnau, 1924).

Italian Neorealism was characterized by the commitment to portraying the reality of post-fascist Italy, and the first theoretical founders started writing in film journals as critics. One significant publication was the one of October 1941 in the Cinema journal, which featured the article "Truth and Poetry: Verga and Italian Cinema" by Mario Alicata, a critic and politician, and Giuseppe De Santis, an artist. In their article, they advocated for a cinema that showcased the authentic conditions of the Italian people during that period. They drew inspiration from the works of Giovanni Verga, a 19th-century writer known for his realist literature, which depicted the naturalistic aspects of Sicilian life and landscape. Verga's writings were known for delving into themes such as misfortune, disease, relationships, and the struggles faced by the working classes. Alicata and De Santis saw Neorealism as an opportunity to challenge the elitism prevalent in popular Italian studio films at the time, they aimed to overthrow the conventional narratives and polished aesthetics of these films, seeking instead to present a raw and unvarnished depiction of reality, by focusing on real people, real locations, and real social issues, they believed Neorealism could provide an honest reflection of post-war Italy and its challenges. Therefore, the deliberate revival of 19th-century verismo literature, particularly the works of Verga, played a crucial role in shaping the ideals and aspirations of Italian Neorealism. Through their article in Cinema, Alicata and De Santis articulated the vision of a post-fascist new realist cinema that would prioritize the portrayal of everyday life and social conditions, aiming to engage and resonate with a broader audience. It was a call for Italian filmmakers to return to the rich tradition of Italian realist literature: fatalistic portrayals of human experience, regional dialects, and customs, as inspiration for a relevant cinema that would confront the problems of modern Italy in the 1940s (Gariff, 2018, p. 1).


On the other hand, French naturalism represented different authors that aimed to explore the psychological and social reality through a positivist philosophical lens, particularly focusing on the proletarian and petite bourgeois spheres. In 1880, authors like Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Hery Céard, Léon Hennique, and Paul Alexis contributed to the creation of a publication called Les Soirées de Médan (The Evenings of Médan), a volume of short stories dedicated to exploring the argument of the existence of a distinctive naturalist school of writing. This group of intellectuals purported to take a more scientific-analytic approach to reality, treating dissection as a prerequisite for description. The term naturalism was a Zola attachment and borrowed from Hippolyte Taine, a positivist philosopher who claimed for literary criticism the status of a branch of psychology. Naturalist fiction was characterized by two types of plot structure for Nicholas White, author of French Literature:


First, the rise and fall of modern tragedy, in which ignoble protagonists are pushed down the slope towards their nemesis by supra-individual forces, explained in materialist rather than theological terms (naturalism seeing myth itself as a social fact); and, second, the pessimistic anti-plot which is in a double sense platitudinous, given its flat narrative trajectory and listless characters. The first of these forms is exemplified by Zola's study of physiology, Thérèse Raquin, which follows the path from wifely adultery via the murder of Thérèse's husband, Camille, at the hands of her bull-like lover, Laurent, to the lovers' eventual suicide. (White, 2011, pp. 552-530)

Figure 3: "Ladri di biciclette" (De Sica, 1948).

From the first characteristic, Italian Neorealism finds that the nemesis of the protagonists is the random force of social injustice, likewise explained more in materialistic than theological terms, which approaches the purest condition of post-war man, without a home, without a homeland. It exposes the decadence, as the second structure of the plot, which consists of a pessimistic but realistic anti-plot. Verismo is clearly inspired by Naturalism: its works represent the human condition, and both depicted the desperate adherence to the reality of the impoverished and submissive people known as "the defeated" (Catena, 2017), individuals who could not overcome the inevitable obstacles of reality. Thus, Neorealist cinema brought together a multitude of thoughts and authors who wanted to tell the experience of war of the most afflicted and the resistance. It aimed to represent everyday life and the conditions of the working class to create an important social ideology.


Another avant-garde movement was Kinoglaz, the Russian cinematic movement founded in 1924 by Dziga Vertov, a Soviet pioneer documentary film and newsreel director, also one of the first to study the relationship between cinema and thinking. He also asserted that people should only capture the truth of reality. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that the films of Dziga Vertov are done with a “type of eye”, pointing:


This is not a human eye. Rightly: Vertov’skino-eye is not an eye that tethered to earth-bound and phenomenological flesh; not is it an eye that inhabits an isotropic space with an up and a down and a left and a right; not is it an eye that is subject to the laws of linear causality that link together events in a chain of befores and afters. Is “an eye in matter, a perception such as it is in matter”. (National Museum of Reina Sofia, 2017, p. 3)

An example of this movement is the film Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a revolutionary film both in terms of its message and its form, where the camera's gaze becomes the subject's own vision. Vertov, with this film, glorified the work of the cinematographer, classifying the various stages of filmmaking and presenting the operators as true folk heroes. He made use of the hidden camera, long shots, and natural lighting. Vertov's most notable feature was his use of montage as a tool capable of giving an explicit look at the world. Therefore, as a general example, the film Ossessione not only reveals the discovery of a forgotten provincial reality, overlooked by literature and propaganda, but its magic lies in its ability to express the need for new models of representation and interpretation. This is the greatest encounter with Neorealist cinema, an intellectual and moral openness that involved not only cinema but also a moment of reality. The filmmakers' connection with reality was expressed through the technique, style, and narrative structure of documentary filmmaking. There was a total rupture with the cinema made until 1945, the spectacle was eliminated, and the movie stars and the big studios were practically extinct. The new form of filmmaking openly sacrificed technical perfection in favor of the effectiveness of direct expression.


Figure 4: "Man with a Movie Camera" (Vertov, 1929).

One of the innovations introduced by the neorealist filmmakers to the audiovisual language was to introduce the feeling before the image, more relevance was given to the iconic composition. The objectivity of the representation was expressed through the use of the documentary style that showed testimonies of events that really happened, the lives of people in precarious states, or extremely human situations such as philosophical aspirations and desires for a different life. The camera was an extension of reality, whose line of separation was blurred by the realism of the image. The fluidity gave it an unmanufactured shape mostly present in the documentary style, particularly in the narrative and technical ease, natural environment, and lack of material structures.


Documentaries are mostly known for educational purposes, for transmitting a message or documenting reality, they are usually viewed as a visual source of social truth, however is a term that can include fiction in its narrative. There are undeniable associations shared between documentary-style film and Italian Neorealism for example, both styles have been used as an important medium for spreading knowledge with an emphasis on reality, non-fiction style, realism, and filming on location. The styles offer comparable camerawork, reduced editing stylization, exploration of culture, appreciation of humanity, and social themes. Documentaries are generally not profit-driven, Neorealist filmmakers were also not profit-driven, they mostly focused on documenting harsh truths in the world around them. "What makes the task of defining this movement so challenging is that even though most neorealist films share a similar pattern when it comes to their themes and subject matters, they each have a distinctive way of dealing with them" (Kartal, 2013, p. 141).


The goal was to propose to the audience a coherent profile of reality and compel them to reflect on their choices, offering them a glimpse into collective sentiments and prompting them to question some of the causes and effects of the population's many conditions. "The realism that characterizes the documentary dates back to the Lumière brothers, turning into an aesthetic and political motif" (Camineti, 2012, p. 52). Sometimes the central theme did not matter, as the fundamental characteristics of the language of documentary cinema permeated the narrative: purity, immediacy, and truth. Beyond the personal, political, and cultural complexities of Italian society, Neorealism, apart from being an organic and cohesive movement, emerges as an extraordinary affirmation of the cinematic medium. According to Zavattini, "Neorealism is the understanding of one's own time using the means of cinema" (Costa, 2021). When cinema recognizes the times in which it lives, recognizes the human condition and its power to change it, then it is perhaps the best tool with which to generate a social change.


Bibliographical References

Brunetta, G. P. (2000). Cinema italiano dal Neorealismo alla "Dolce vita" in Storia del cinema mondiale. L'Europa, Le cinematografie nazionali. [Italian cinema from Neorealism to the "Dolce vita" in History of world cinema. Europe, National cinematography]. Einaudi.


Brunetta, G. P. (2009). El cine neorrealista italiano [The Neorealist cinema]. Ediciones Cátedra.


Caminati, L. (2012). The Role of Documentary in the Formation of Neorealist Cinema. Academia. University of Mississippi Press. Retrieved July 8, 2023 from https://www.academia.edu/7847165/The_Role_of_Documentary_in_the_Formation_of_Neorealist_Cinema


Catena, S. (2017). Dizionario del cinema italiano: Il Neorealismo [Dictionary of the Italian cinema: The Neorealism]. Guerra Edizioni.


Costa, A. (2021). Il Cinema Italiano (2ª.ed.) [Italian Cinema]. Il Mulino.


Gariff, D. (2018). The melodramatic Realism of Luchino Visconti. Luchino Visconti at the National Gallery of Art [Pamphlet]. The National Gallery of Art. Retrieved July 5, 2023 from https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/calendar/film/pdfs/notes/ngafilm-visconti.pdf


Kartal, E. (2013). Defining Italian Neorealism: A Compulsory Movement (Vol. 2.2). Kadir Has University. Retrieved July 7, 2023 from https://cinej.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/cinej/article/view/73/227


Spagnoletti, G. (2003). KammerspielFilm, Enciclopedia del cine [Kammerspielcinema, Encyclopedia of cinema]. Treccani. Retrieved July 4, 2023 from

https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/kammerspielfilm_%28Enciclopedia-del-Cinema%29/


Walsh, A. (2023). What is Italian Neorealism. Film History & Criticism. Perlego. Retrieved July 5, 2023 from https://www.perlego.com/knowledge/study-guides/what-is-italian-neorealism/

White, N. (2011). Naturalism. In W. Burgwinkle, N. Hammond, & E. Wilson (Eds.), The Cambridge History of French Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI:10.1017/CHOL9780521897860.060


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Visconti, L. (1943). Ossessione. Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane S.A. Retrieved July 8, 2023 from https://www.shutterstock.com/zh/editorial/image-editorial/ossession-1943-2293434c


Figure 1: Visconti, L. (1948). La Terra Trema [Still]. Universalia. Retrieved July 4, 2023 from https://palermo.repubblica.it/cronaca/2018/08/31/news/la_terra_trema_i_settant_anni_di_un_capolavoro-300883008/


Figure 2: Murnau, F. W. (1924). The Last Laugh [Still]. UFA. Retrieved July 8, 2023 from https://mubi.com/films/ossessione


Figure 3: De Sica, V. (1948). Ladri di biciclette [Still]. PDS Produzioni De Sica. Retrieved July 8, 2023 from https://mubi.com/es/films/bicycle-thieves


Figure 4: Vertov, D. (1929). Man with a Movie Camera [Still]. Vseukrainske Foto Kino Upravlinnia. Retrieved July 8, 2023 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTlgxtoqhg



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Arianna Rodriguez

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