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Cinematographic Representative Models: The Narrative Tapestry of Neorealistic Films

What truly makes Neorealism a unique and unparalleled cinema? Is it the profound sense of closeness to the pain and anguish experienced by its main characters? Or is it the invitation to delve into the past? Perhaps it is the portrayal of deeply human characters, as Nietzsche remarked "Human, too human", maybe the pain of losing a mother or a father, or to face the desperate need for work to support their families, as is depicted in the film Bicycle Thieves (1948). What is the distinctive quality of this period in Italian history that moves and touches the audience so deeply? In his article "Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of Liberation" (1948), published in Esprit Magazine, Andrea Bazin captured the essence of this new movement. He analyzed the narrative technique of Neorealism, aiming to define the relationship between the camera, its framing, camera movements, scene transitions, and the environment. He compared these factors with the techniques used in American romance and French painting, attempting to explain how the camera became one with the guiding director. Thus, a biological necessity emerges, which then becomes dramatic.

Roberto Rossellini's film Paisà (1946) is, according to Bazin, a radical example of this shift in the construction of cinematic narrative:

The unity of the cinematic narrative in Paisà is not based on framing or an abstract point of view on reality; instead, it lies in the "fact" itself. These fragments of ugly reality are inherently multiple and ambiguous, and their meaning emerges only afterward, through the establishment of relationships with other facts. The director undoubtedly chooses these facts carefully while respecting their integrity as facts. (Bazin, 1948)

Bazin's interpretation of Neorealism, primarily focused on the aesthetic revolution, helps to understand how this cinematic movement transcended the boundaries and limitations of filmmaking at that time. This aesthetic revolution was accompanied by rigorous social analysis.

Figure 1: "Paisà" (Rossellini, 1946).

To understand better the content and form of Neorealistic cinema, it is necessary to reflect on its immediate antecedent, namely Italian cinema, during the period 1930-1943. Marked by the influence of fascism, which included censorship, cinematic art could not soar freely beyond the watchful eyes of its guardians. Films could not depict crime or poverty, and satire was also forbidden; the goal was to present an impeccable and perfect image of the nation, akin to the style of the Fasces Littore or Lictor's Fascist Empire. Productions, consequently, had to be constrained to stories lacking social depth, aiming solely for entertainment, and were consistently employed as tools for the regime's propaganda ad maiorem gloriam duci (for the greater glory). Films during the fascist era were dedicated to entertainment, completely disregarding topics related to the aspirations of the people, their fears, their vague feelings, and their desire to create a better future for all. All these neglected themes paved the way for the search for a new collective identity: the one of a country determined to rise again after a long period of dictatorship and a devastating war.

From 1945 onwards, following the military defeat and amidst a civil war, a paradigm shift in audiovisual productions becomes apparent. Some filmmakers opted for mere formalism or insubstantial decoration (such as Soldati, Castellani, Lattuada, Poggioli, or Alessandrini), while others, more radical in nature, like Lizzani, embarked on the path of covert social critique, veiled within a realistic tone that surpassed a mere statement of principles. Either way, the fact remains that Neorealism quickly demonstrated a markedly different tone and approach from what was known during the fascist era. Thus, the most significant element that aids in comprehending the "breakthrough" effect of the early films of this new movement, such as Roma città aperta (Rossellini, 1945), or Sciuscià (De Sica, 1946), is that they transparently reflect a post-war Italy, sad, black and white, and hunger-stricken, embodying the resistance and the fallen in the conflict. However, this thematic aspect is by no means a novelty in the history of cinema. The true magnificence of this movement pertains specifically to its style. Chatman asserts in his masterful work Story and Discourse that every narrative is based on a what (semantic content or story) and a how (formal and aesthetic elements or discourse), thus giving rise to the inseparable dichotomy between the two, which, in an eclectic or holistic view, signify more when united than what the mere addition of their comforting parts could provide (2013, pp. 45-50).

Figure 2: "Sciuscià" (De Sica, 1946).

The main themes present in most neorealist films resonated with the reality of the time, with war being a prevalent subject. War, as a moment of immense collective suffering for those directly involved as militants or ordinary civilians, took on a symbolism associated with the phoenix: rising from the ashes to become a better version. It was understood that if you were stronger, you could contribute to making the world a better place. This element can be noticed in films such as Roma città aperta (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germania anno zero (1948), which strongly depict this theme. The struggle for the liberation of one's own country from the invader and the tyrant, feelings of guilt for having supported an oppressive and freedom-restricting dictatorship, and the idea of reclaiming lost ideals of honor and dignity due to the war. There was a desire to eliminate any remnants of fascism from society and build a freer and more just nation. This was the meaning attributed to the themes of resistance and post-fascism, as depicted in films like Sciuscià (1946) and Difficult Years (1948).

Despite the harsh realities, figures like Vittorio De Sica supported the idea of creating a magical universe through stories that did not have such a dark ending. Ultimately, there was a portrayal of a destiny destined for fantasy, the opportunity to have a better, more just, and freer life, to fulfill one's own dreams and aspirations. A dimension of dreams and fantasy slowly re-emerged in the human soul of the characters, granting them a moment of happiness and pleasure in existing. Films like Umberto D. (1952) and La Strada (1954) reflected this theme. Following the path of Charles Chaplin's cinema, Neorealism places more significance on emotions than on iconic composition, while not disregarding the latter. Great importance is attributed to the script as a fundamental focal point of expression, thus making the weight of the dialogues crucial. They often employ dialects, as a more essential and authentic form of language, which aligns perfectly with the concept of depicting reality as it is perceived.

Figure 3: "Germania anno zero" (Rossellini, 1948).

On the other hand, the theme of everyday stories was central to Neorealism. Neorealism is characterized by its focus on depicting the everyday lives of ordinary people, often based on chronicles from marginalized or working-class backgrounds and their social and economic challenges. The films presented a realistic portrayal of the people: exploring themes such as poverty, unemployment, or the search for dignity and hope in difficult circumstances. In neorealist narratives, the stories are driven by the characters' struggles, desires, and interactions with their environment, reflecting the complex web of relationships and social dynamics at play. Neorealism is characterized by its humanistic approach. Films such as Ladri di biciclette (1948), Riso amaro (1949), and Stazione Termini (1953) exemplified this thematic approach. For the film critic and historian Peter Brunette, "the Neorealist cinema explored the theme of loss and its profound impact on individuals and communities in the aftermath of war" (1996). Another important element of the Neorealism tapestry is represented by women and children. As it is known, Neorealistic cinema employs archetypes rather than actors. Additionally, it introduced two character types that were not widely used in the seventh art before. The first of these were women, as during the final years of the war, Italian cinema had a scarcity of female performers.

This is evident in films like Siamo donne (1953), by a collective group of directors (Alfredo Guarini, Gianni Franciolini, Luigi Zampa, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti), or Rome ore 11 (1952) from Giuseppe de Santis. Films in Italian cinema innately possessed a patriarchal structure, centering on the emotions and needs of the male protagonist. Women were severely underrepresented, or used to solely highlight an aspect of the male protagonist’s character, so for this reason many modernist films began to develop the role of women. The film Roma città aperta has been canonized as the ultimate example of neorealism for both its aesthetic and theoretical techniques, it shows the traditional constructions of femininity: women are linked to the compromise of womanhood and morality as a way of gaining power in the early postwar years. It is easy to notice thanks to the psychological development of the female characters in the movie: the film was influenced by the struggle between Fascism and Nazism and the Italian Partisan Resistance, and introduces two male characters, Manfredi and Don Pietro, who command the Communist Resistance and Partisan politics, respectively, exemplify the valiant and collaborative battle against an oppressive state, in juxtaposition, there are the two female protagonists in the movie, Pina and Marina, which are presented as victims of Nazi oppression and brutality.

Figure 4: "Siamo donne" (Guarini, Visconti & others, 1953).

Marina appears to be a showgirl, glamorous and pretentious, whereas Pina is plain, simple, and without any pretension, also Pina's language with its colloquialisms puts her directly in the popular midst while Marina uses a neutral, non-regional Italian conforming to her pretensions to social mobility, on the other hand, Pina dies in the name of courage and confrontation but Marina lives because of her shortcomings and when encountered the sight of her dead lover Manfredi, she only faints in a coward's version of Pina's heroic and noble martyrdom (Sharma, 2008, p. 956). Somehow, gender segregation is dissipated, and economic-class differences, detachment from human being, cowardice, and the fight for ideals enter. The director inserts the character of Pina in the thick of the bread melee to establish her as the movie star. She, enraged by a baker who caters to Fascists, attacks the bakery in a display of vengeful punishment, accompanied by several enraged women. As a symbol of strength but also of necessity, she exits the disturbance with a small bit of bread and offers a loaf to her starving partner, an Italian policeman, with no reservation. This scene also expresses that, in spite of the courage and danger that is required to participate in such a situation, Pina resists until the end and grabs a piece of bread for her partner. To give a rational codification of this scene, Italian directors considered the female role as another citizen with the same necessities of men. Female characters were able to show strength, but also to continue thinking about their needs, she represents the fusion between maternal compassion intertwined with unwavering strength.

Yet, many experts express that Rossellini also presents Pina in two stereotypically masculine positions in this quick sequence: the provider and the savior who takes from the rich to distribute among the poor. Pina is portrayed as a humble, gentle, and assertive protagonist; however, Rossellini diminishes her value through contradictory characters. That is, he presents her pregnancy as an invalid status, and her legendary image disintegrates by reminding the viewer of her maternal obligations. In this way, the director imprisons his heroine. In the film Riso amaro (1949) by Giuseppe De Santis, another portrayal of women can be found. Perhaps the most prominent intrusion is that of the undisguised eroticism which Silvana introduces into the otherwise pure neorealist canon (Sharma, 2008, p. 959). Though Neorealism recognised the sexuality of its characters in the premarital pregnancies of Pina in Roma città aperta, and of Maria in Umberto D., for instance, it did not make eroticism one of the driving forces of the narrative activity, nor did it exhibit the physical statistics of its characters, the manner in which De Santis does in Riso amaro.

Figure 5: "Riso amaro" (De Santis, 1943).

The other element it introduces is children, an element influenced by Charles Chaplin's cinema with the film The Kid (1921). This was expertly explored in movies such as Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Miracolo a Milano (1950), both directed by Vittorio de Sica. As commented before, the essential theme of the neorealist cinema was the conflict between the common person and the immense societal forces that were completely external to him, yet completely determined his existence. The most pitiful victims of such forces because of their inherent innocence, are naturally children and therefore it is not an accident that important neorealist films featured them. Victoria De Sica himself used a child protagonist for the first time, not in Sciuscià, but in his first truly serious film, I bambini ci guardano (1943). It was based on Cesare Giulio Viola's 1928 novel Pricò and scripted by the author De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, formerly a journalist and critic. Zavattini thus became an acknowledged member of the De Sica team: his touch is immediately apparent in the extraordinary melancholy with which the story unfolds, there is an intensity of unfair feelings sthroughout the picture far beyond any of the cozy sentiments displayed in De Sica's prior movies. It was this unrelieved emotion that made I bambini ci guardano such an important film made during the last years of the Fascist regime (Cardulo, 2001, p. 296).

Films like Ossessione (1942) and I bambini ci guardano (1943) contributed to creating a strong idea of cinema in Italy. The movie examines the impact on a young boy's life of his mother's extramarital affair with a family friend. The five-year-old Pricò becomes painfully aware of the rift in his family life, and his sense of loss is made even more acute when his father sends him away from Rome to live first in the country with his unreceptive paternal grandmother, then at a Jesuit boarding school. His mother's love affair leads finally to the suicide of Pricò's ego-shattered father and, at the end of the film, when his mother comes to the school to reclaim her child, Pricò rejects her. The last time we see him, he has turned his back on his remaining parent and is walking away by himself, a small agonized figure dwarfed by the huge, impersonal lobby of the school. The cause of the marital rift leading to the wife's infidelity is never revealed, the concern of De Sica and his screenwriters being purely with the effect of the rupture on the little boy. And it is this concentration on a child's views of the world that gives a basically banal, even melodramatic tale a profound aspect.

Figure 6: "I bambini ci guardano" (De Sica, 1944).

Except for René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952), there has never been such an implacable view of the antagonism and desolation that separate the lives of adults and children. This film uses the theme of childhood innocence in confrontation with adult realities, whilst what we get from Pricò's suffering comes only in the form of his own heightened or mature perception and sensitivity. Indeed, his name is a shortened form of the Italian word for "precocious". The movie did not have a positive reception, in part, it was engineered by those who saw it as an impudent criticism of Italian morality. I bambini ci guardano is also influenced by the strictures of the past: during the era of the Mussolini regime and "white telephone" movies (which were trivial romantic comedies set in blatantly artificial studio surroundings), insidious censorship had made it almost impossible for artists to deal with the moral, social, and spiritual components of actual and everyday life. This is one of the senses in which Neorealism's roots were political (Cardulo, 2001, pp. 298-299).

Another tapestry of Neorealism cinema was the journey through Italy, showcasing long travels across the Italian peninsula, bringing out the strong social contrasts, the diversity of opinions, and forgotten areas. Normally, misunderstandings and conflicts are part of the narrative. In nome della legge (1948) and I Vitelloni (1953) by Federico Fellini are films that address this theme, as well as Rossellini's movie Viaggio in Italia (1954), one of his most famous films. A precursor of the Nouvelle Vague, the film portrays a love story between the master of Italian Neorealism and Ingrid Bergman. Upon its release in 1954, Viaggio in Italia was described by Jacques Rivette on the official Cannes Festival web as “the first modern film”. This is because the focus is not on the psychology that drives the hero of the story, but on the bodies that inhabit the scene. The camera is hesitant, appearing to have no specific goal, much like the characters, who do not know what meaning to give to their lives. According to Rivette, the genius of Rossellini’s mise-en-scène lies in its three stages: the quest, the waiting, and the revelation. In Viaggio in Italia, this last stage gives rise to one of the most beautiful scenes in film history. When the characters played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders decide to split up, they go together to Pompeii. At the excavation site, they assist the archaeologists, who are removing the earth, layer after layer, that has settled around the outlines of bodies. In a scene filmed in a quasi-documentary style, the shape appears little by little: two intertwined bodies, captured by the lava. This image of love that has been immortalised by the tragedy is as overwhelming for Ingrid Bergman as it is for the audience (2012).

Figure 7: "Viaggio in Italia" (Rossellini, 1954).

Another film by Roberto Rossellini which stars again Ingrid Bergman is Stromboli (1950). The movie narrates the tale of Karin, a Lithuanian refugee who weds an Italian fisherman named Antonio and relocates to the volcanic island of Stromboli. The film delves into themes of seclusion, selfhood, and cultural discord. Karin grapples with adapting to life on the secluded island of Stromboli, encountering skepticism and rejection from the island's populace as she strives to assimilate. The film raises queries about the essence of identity and the concept of belonging, in addition to delving into the challenge of bridging cultural chasms. It was very innovative for the time to show a cultural fusion as it appears in the film: Stromboli was filmed on-site on the eponymous volcanic island, and Rossellini masterfully exploits the breathtaking surroundings. The film's cinematography is exquisite and evocative, capturing the desolately captivating allure of the island and the impassioned sentiments of the characters. All in all, Stromboli is a potent and contemplative movie that probes intricate themes and showcases an outstanding performance by Ingrid Bergman. It is a testament to Rossellini's directorial finesse and his knack for encapsulating the intricacies of the human experience.

In conclusion, neorealistic cinema stands as a remarkable and enduring genre that captures the essence of human experiences with a unique and poignant authenticity. Through its gritty portrayal of everyday life, neorealism has explored a range of profound themes that continue to resonate with audiences across time and cultures. The genre's focus on social injustice and class divide, depicted vividly in films like Ladri di biciclette and La Terra Trema (1948), highlights the struggles of the marginalized and the working class. Neorealistic films also emphasize human resilience and survival, as seen in works like Roma città aperta and Umberto D., which depict the unwavering determination of individuals in the face of adversity. Rooted in the aftermath of World War II, Neorealism delves into the trauma and challenges of post-war societies, exemplified by films such as Germania anno zero and Paisà. Moreover, the genre's commitment to portraying everyday moments and realism is evident in movies like The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) and Ivan's Childhood (1962) offering glimpses into the authenticity of daily life. Neorealistic cinema also delves into themes of isolation and loneliness, as evidenced by works like L'avventura (1960) and Il Grido (1957), which illuminate the emotional struggles of characters in challenging circumstances.

Figure 8: Monica Vitti in "L'avventura" (Antonioni, 1960).

L'avventura (1960), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, is renowned for exploring existentialism and the complexities of human relationships. Set against the backdrop of the stunning islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the film utilizes these landscapes to create an atmosphere of both beauty and isolation. On the other hand, the islands serve as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological landscapes of the characters. As the plot unfolds, the physical beauty of the surroundings contrasts sharply with the emotional turmoil experienced by the characters. The vast, open spaces of the islands echo the characters' internal emptiness and the ambiguity of their desires. Antonioni's deliberate pacing and use of wide shots emphasize the isolation of the characters within the expansive setting. The sea's unpredictable currents mirror the characters' own unpredictable emotions and desires. The islands' tranquil beauty also contrasts with the characters' search for meaning and connection. As the characters grapple with their own feelings of emptiness, the idyllic surroundings become a poignant reminder of the disconnect between external appearances and internal experiences (Koehler, 2022).

In essence, the islands in L'avventura play a central role in conveying the film's themes of ennui, alienation, and the search for meaning. They become a canvas onto which the characters project their inner struggles, and their juxtaposition with the characters' emotional turmoil creates a haunting and thought-provoking cinematic experience. It is easy to notice the strong relationship between the characters and the place the story is developed, there is a dynamic interplay of emotions, memories, and experiences. Places hold the power to evoke a range of feelings, from nostalgia and comfort to excitement and longing. A location becomes more than just a physical space; it becomes a repository for our emotions and a canvas on which we paint our personal stories. Thanks to Neorealism, spectators developed a deeper and stronger connection with different parts of Italy, as it shows the idiosyncrasy and spirit of the towns and people of Italy. Ultimately, neorealistic cinema encapsulates the complexities of the human condition, exploring both the hardships and triumphs that individuals experience. Its dedication to authenticity, unscripted moments, and non-professional actors has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. As a genre that intertwines social critique with powerful storytelling, Neorealism continues to inspire filmmakers and audiences alike, inviting us to reflect on the universal threads of resilience, connection, and the pursuit of a meaningful existence.

Bibliographical References

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

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

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

Cardullo, B. (2001). The Children Are Watching Us. The Hudson Review, 54(2), 295–304. Retrieved August 9th, 2023 from

Chatman, S. (2013). Historia y discurso, la estructura narrativa en la novela y en el cine [History

and speech, the narrative structure of the novels and cinema]. Zilis Select Books. August 10th, 2023 from

Italics Magazine, (2019). About Anna Magnani, iconic women of italian cinema. Retrieved June 23rd, 2023 from

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Koehler, R. (2022). What makes Antonioni's L'avventura great. Retrieved August 13th

Lawton, B. (1979). Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality. Film Criticism, 3(2), 8–23.

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Perniola, I. (2004). Oltre il Neorealismo: Documentari d’autore e realtà italiana del dopoguerra [Beyond Neorealism: Documentaries by author and Italian reality after the war]. Bulzoni Editore.

Sharma, M. (2008). NEOREALISM IN ITALIAN CINEMA: 1942-55. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 69, 952–964.

Walsh, A. (2023). What is Italian Neorealism. Film History & Criticism. Perlego. Retrieved August 10th, 2023 from

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Arianna Rodriguez

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