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Cinematographic Representative Models: "Roma Città Aperta" and the Beginning of a New Era

Like any product of modernity, cinema is inevitably classified as another element designed for constant evolution. The end of World War II marked the beginning of a renewed search for truth. The majority of intellectuals assumed the duty to transmit a committed and dedicated cinema to humankind, as well as a voracious morality and the exhibition of raw reality. Cinema, therefore, would assume an irreplaceable role as a vehicle for ideas in the post-war era. In 1945, the Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, a precursor of the most important cinematic movement in Italy, if not all of Europe, created the film Roma città aperta ("Rome open city"). In his book, Italian Cinema, Antonio Costa shares Rossellini's position regarding the "exceptional" circumstances they were in when they made the film:

In 1944, at the end of the war, everything was destroyed in Italy, including cinema. […] One could enjoy immense freedom, as the absence of an organized industry favored exceptional endeavors. Any project was welcome. It was this state of affairs that allowed for works of an experimental nature. Furthermore, it was soon observed that, despite this character, the films became important both culturally and commercially. It was under these conditions that I began shooting Roma città aperta […]. (2021, pp. 62-63)

The present study aims to share with the reader a critical perspective on one of the most important periods in Italian cinema through the historical journey of Italian cinema during the fascism and post-war situation, its precursors, and the films born during those periods. The question arises: what was Neorealism really like, and why does it continue to influence the cinematic imagination in Italy and worldwide to this day? To better understand Neorealism's structure, it is necessary to do a journey through the Italian cinematography situation during the period of Fascism.

On November 9, 1921, Benito Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party, an extreme right-wing, nationalist, and paramilitary party. A year later, in 1922, Mussolini became the Prime Minister and head of the government after the March on Rome, accompanied by a group of paramilitary soldiers known as the Blackshirts, appointed by King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. From this historical event, Mussolini began to acquire a high-ranking political position, eventually dominating Italy in a totalitarian manner in the 1930s. Throughout history, most political regimes sought an ideological tool for affirming control over the masses. With the technological advancements of the 20th century, cinema became the most powerful dissemination tool for dictatorships, used as political propaganda. This vision was similar to the Nazi Germany, under the control of Adolf Hitler (1933-1945), or to the Francoism in Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). During this period both cinema and society underwent a radical transformation: in the 1920s Italian cinema presented a reassuring and escapist view of reality, avoiding the portrayal of political and economic problems. Films were patriotic, exalting the past of the Italian peninsula, featuring high moral content, and extreme censorship of prostitution, crime, and adultery. Most directors faced difficulties in producing films as they had to conform to a new perception of morality and rules.

Figure 1: «Cinematography is the most powerful weapon», the forceful poster in Mussolini’s Italy for the first edition of the Venice Film Festival in 1932.

The early years of the fascist regime developed a series of light comedies that depicted the Italian bourgeois society, often set in offices. Gennaro Righelli's film La canzone dell'amore (1930) marked the beginning of this genre. The film touched upon sentimental topics with a light comedic nature, incorporating elements of farce and featuring popular actors in an office setting with telephones and secretaries. The conservative and patriarchal social model promoted values of obedience, respect for the established social order, and submission to power. In some way, the objective was to revalorize a patriarchal society in which women played the role of complete submission to men. As expected, the films produced during this period portrayed women as passive and fragile subjects whose constant pursuit was to be protected and confined to the domestic sphere: an exemplary mother tasked with giving children to the nation, nurturing and educating them according to the principles mandated by the regime (Coronado, 2018, pp. 5-31). In the 1930s, under the regime, Italy aligned itself with the rest of Europe by promoting the curtailment of liberties. The promotion and exaltation of nationalism and imperialism can be seen in films of this era, such as colonial-themed movies like Aurora sul Mare (1935) or Squadrone Bianco (1936), as well as historical films like the one that inaugurated Cinecittà Studios, Scipione l'Africano (1937), directed by Carmine Gallone. In this film, the fascist state's imperialist ideal is clearly manifested through a highly eloquent metaphor that justified Italy's colonial presence in Africa, attempting to imitate the outdated colossal model of the early century.

Another movement of cinema emerged as a means between fascist cinema and white telephones comedies. This cinema rejected commercial mediocrity and the dissemination of the regime. It focused on adapting 19th-century literary works, creating films of higher intellectual range, cold and out of touch, which did not clash with fascist censorship. Giuseppe De Santis named this genre "Caligrafismo". Some works, such as Piccolo Mondo Antico (1941) by Mario Soldati, an adaptation of a novel by Antonio Fogazzaro, in which Emilio Cecchi, a key figure in the resurgence of a certain liberal consciousness in fascist Italy, and Alberto Lattuada participated in the screenplay. These names were crucial in Italian cinema in the forties and fifties (Quintana, 1997, pp. 56-57). The consciousness acquired by this movement indicates the revival of a struggle for a more conscious and liberal cinema. After World War II, Italy was in a state of devastation: the war had left the country in ruins, its cities destroyed, its economy in shambles, and a large number of people displaced without homes or support to rely on. The Italian people felt disillusioned with reality and yearned for profound change in their lives. In this context, a cinematic movement emerged that would embody the fragmented language of silenced people haunted by the horrors of war. Filmmakers aimed to expose Italian reality in its raw form, without embellishments or eloquent narratives. They sought to authentically and sincerely unveil the suffering of the working class. The camera ceased to be a "dream machine" and instead became an instrument that captured the anxieties, fears, and hopes of the people. Thus, cinema was regarded by the filmmakers of that era as a passionate and conscientious form of activism (Catena, 2017, p. 12).

Figure 2: Children of the village, Rome (Barzacchi, 1937).

During the fascist government (1922-1943) of Benito Mussolini, the media gained great prominence as they were considered by the regime as a mass dissemination tool and the main instrument for manipulating consciousness. This manipulation played a fundamental role in preserving the regime's power. Initially, the documentary sector and film magazines were dominated, showcasing fascist culture, activities, and acquired merits of the state. Cinema became a system filled with products dedicated solely to pure entertainment. The audience was confronted with a simple and easy cinema characterized by not showing reality and devoid of controversy. Most fascist films were designed by the dominant ideology with the aim of shaping the new fascist ideal man. One of the main values represented was perhaps the desire to acquire social recognition and high purchasing power, as well as the development of industrialization, the maintenance of popular traditions, the celebration of the dictatorship, and the reinforcement of nationalist spirit. The educational function fell upon the LUCE Institute, established in 1924 as the Educational Film Union. In this context, cinema became the most effective instrument for fascist propaganda. It portrayed a positivist window inundated by a society eager and thirsty for power and wealth, disregarding feelings of social justice or understanding towards the problems of the lower class.

This became the challenge for directors of the new movement, a complete and autonomous dedication to denounce a simplistic cinema that urgently cried out for radical renewal. Another notable contribution to the development of the new cinematic movement was the creation of the magazine Cinema, founded in 1936 and managed by Vittorio Mussolini until 1943. Paradoxically, the magazine later helped in the successful reception of the new cinematic movement. During those years, a new popular and realistic cinema was recognized, in contrast to the prevailing "white telephone" films characterized by their superficial and puritanical nature. After the civil war and the early stages of reconstruction, it resumed publication in 1948. It was not until 1952 that the figure of Guido Aristarco emerged as a screenwriter and chief editor, a Marxist critic influenced by the school of Lukács and Gramsci. In that same year, the magazine changed its name to Cine Nuovo until its closure in 1996 (Catena, 2017, p. 11).

Figure 3: Liberation of Rome on June 4th, 1944 (Unknown).

At the end of World War II and after the liberation of Rome in 1944, a group of intellectuals—mostly affiliated with the Italian Communist Partyboldly embarked on a new artistic path in cinema. They founded and gave life to a cultural movement of innovation known as "Neorealism". Notable figures such as Giuseppe De Santis, Pietro Germi, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, and Roberto Rossellini played a crucial role in portraying the harsh realities of Italian life with honesty. The nation had endured two decades of extreme dictatorship, a devastating war, and a population burdened by despair. It was the filmmakers' moral response to the atrocities of war that motivated them to rediscover the fundamental values of existence and social coexistence. They also aimed to address and confront the political dimension of the time, learning from the mistakes of fascism and advocating for a new language of expression. Numerous attempts have been made to define Neorealism, labeling it as a movement, school, or trend. However, it represents a distinctive period in the history of Italian cinema and its society. The origin of the term derives from various schools of thought, mostly from the predecessors of the movement. One theory suggests that it was used in the 1920s to describe the artistic trend of "Neue Sachlichkeit" (New Objectivity). Another theory proposes that Mario Sarandrei, the editor and assembler of the film Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti, after watching the complete film, sent a letter to Visconti expressing his opinion: "I don't know how to define this kind of cinema other than with the term Neo-realism" (Sarandrei, 1943). However, for others, it is associated with a nationalist context.

The film 1860 (1934) by Alessandro Blasetti featured extreme realism but, as acknowledged by the director himself, the film aimed to legitimize the Mussolini revolution (Catena, 2017). The only common element among all these theories is the recognition of a renewed perspective on reality. Antonio Costa mentioned that when Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988) won the Oscar, Alberto Moravia stated in an interview that the film's international success could be partly attributed to the revival of the provincial Italian imagery rooted in the neorealist cinema of the post-war era. Despite the changes in our society and cinema, neorealist films continue to resonate (Costa, 2021, p. 59). For many authors, Roma città aperta (1945) stands as the herald of this new era, symbolizing the Italian film industry's determination for rebirth. The film features ordinary characters: a working-class woman, a Catholic priest, and a communist intellectual coming from different social and economic backgrounds, yet united in their fight against violence and oppression. It set the course for the new cinema, drawing inspiration from everyday reality, highlighting gestures, capturing the emotional power of speech, and showcasing the rebellion of common people against war and social injustice. The neorealists were not aiming to depict the struggle of the people against the bourgeoisie, as Soviet filmmakers did, but rather the individual's struggle against an overwhelming reality. As Mira Liehm points out, Zavattini's theory of the "need to represent facts as they are" recognized that reality is constituted through "the relationship between men and reality" and is always open to "ontological cognition" (1984, p. 73). It was an ethical-political commitment of the neorealist filmmakers to everyday reality.

Figure 4: The iconic scene of Pina (Anna Magnani) and Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) in "Roma città aperta" (Rossellini, 1945).

Italian neorealism, despite not being a long-lasting movement in temporal terms, left a profound mark on the history of cinema. Its realistic approach and attention to social and political issues of the post-war period influenced the collective imagination and the way films were conceived and produced worldwide. It laid the groundwork for various future movements and cinematic styles, which are now considered cult references. Films like Roma città aperta by Roberto Rossellini presented a humanistic and existentialist view of the Italian population's resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Freedom, human dignity, and the struggle against oppression expressed the psychology of the characters within a survival environment and the making of moral decisions. Rossellini aimed to emphasize the importance of solidarity in difficult times and instill in the audience a desire of having a fairer life. Apart from revolutionizing cinematography, this cinematic movement proposed a comprehensive analysis of the post-war ideological currents. During a lecture on April 24, 1995, in New York, USA, Umberto Eco described the essence of Italian fascism:

It was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not entirely totalitarian, not because of its lightness, but because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common belief, fascism in Italy did not have a special philosophy. The article on fascism signed by Mussolini in the Treccani Encyclopedia was written by or inspired by Giovanni Gentile, but it reflected a late Hegelian notion of the Absolute and Ethical State that was never fully realized by Mussolini. Mussolini did not have a philosophy; he only had rhetoric. He was a militant atheist at first and later signed the Convention with the Church and received bishops who blessed the fascist banners. (Eco, 1995)

Following Umberto Eco's explanation, it is necessary to include solid philosophical pillars in a medium like cinema to combat misanthropy. Neorealism introduced a realistic aesthetic through various features such as the participation of non-professional actors and filming on location. This article introduced the neorealist movement: in presenting the historical context that preceded the birth of Neorealism it highlighted its importance, perceivable in movies such as Roma città aperta, and noted by filmmakers of that period, who saw in Neorealism the tangible sign of a change in society.

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). Il cinema neorealista italiano [The Neorealist cinema]. Editori Laterza.

Brunetta, G. P. (2020). L'Italia sullo schermo. Come il cinema ha raccontato l'identità nazionale [Italy on screen. How cinema told national identity]. Carocci.

Brunette, P. (1996). Roberto Rossellini. University of California Press.

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 (2ª. ed.)]. Il Mulino.

Coronado, C. (2018). Esposa y madre ejemplar: la maternidad y los noticiarios Luce durante el fascismo (1928-1945), en Historia y Comunicación Social [Exemplary Wife and Mother: Motherhood and the Luce News during Fascism (1928-1945), in History and Social Communication]. Dialnet. Retrieved June 25th, 2023, from

Interferencia. (August, 2020). Qué es el fascismo según el escritor y filosofo Umberto Eco [What fascism is according to the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco]. Retrieved June 25th, 2023, from

Quintana, A. (1997). El cine italiano 1942-1961. Del neorrealismo a la modernidad [The Italian cinema 1942-1961. From Neorealism to modernity]. Editorial Paidos.

Zavattini. C. (1979). Neorealismo ecc. [Neorealism ecc.]. Bompiani.

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