In an attempt to shed light on the relationship between art and realism in Italian Neorealist film, Andre Bazin wrote the article “An Aesthetic of Reality”, analysing one of the most contentious subjects in the study of film – how a director can create a piece that is truly both realistic and artistic, staying loyal to a blueprint of realism whilst creating a worthwhile artistic work: in other words, adding to reality without changing it.
In this piece Bazin attempts to dissect the body of realist cinema, in order to shed light over the essential contradiction of the pursuit of realism within art – indeed neorealism survives on contradiction: in Rosselini’s Rome: Open City (1945) alone there are the contradictions of historic events with dramatised interpretation, of comedy with tragedy, of non-professional actors playing fictionalised characters. Bazin states:
“Every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered. But when this aesthetic aims in essence at creating the illusion of reality, this choice sets up a fundamental contradiction which is at once unacceptable and necessary… that is why it would be absurd to resist every new technical development… actually the art of cinema lives off this contradiction.” (Andre Bazin, ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ – What is Cinema? Vol 2, Berkley press 1971, pp33)
However there have been criticisms levelled at the neorealist style, singling out the contradiction between the crusading moral aspirations of its leading protagonists (Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica and Zavattini chiefly) and the limitations inherent in this ‘aesthetic of reality’ – the attempts to both reflect and affect an external reality through fictional cinema. For example, criticism has been made, by the likes of Pierre Sorlin and Roy Armes, of the choice to cast non-professional actors in leading roles. Cesare Zavattini asserted in a short theoretical paper that using the “real protagonists of everyday life” rather than trained actors led to a certain honesty of performance, creating characters less to do with the prestige of the silver screen and more tied to the outside world and its issues.
This technique certainly had its failings. Whilst Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci) might have more experience of Italian working class society and socio-political issues explored by the film than a successful professional actor, the fact remains that he is playing a role, a character created before his casting, separate from his own life, his own struggles. He may be a ‘real protagonist of everyday life’, but his reality does not make the character any more real, barring any technique on his part to bring his own life experiences to his performance in order to formulate his character, which in any case could simply be considered method acting, a style which could just as easily be employed by a talented professional actor. In short, he may have a greater experience of the social setting explored in the film than most professional actors, but he is still a man playing a role.
The popular argument expounded by Sorlin and Armes then is that this negates Zavattini’s assertion about “real protagonists of everyday life”, that the effect of casting non-professionals adds nothing to the integrity of character that a skilled professional could not – in fact the character of Antonio, like the protagonists in Umberto D. and Rome: Open City, had to be completely dubbed by professional actors – and hence is unsuccessful in attempting to reflect and affect the external reality of post-war Italy. However the true influence lies not within the film’s own internal reality, not in fact in the performance of Maggiorani, for it is a ‘performance’, but in the influence upon the ‘reality’ the film seeks to reflect. This is evident in the very fact that such critics feel it necessary to make the point.
The effect of casting ‘real people’ in leading roles lies in the way this casting, and our knowledge of it, leads us to consider the film – not simply as a cinematic product, but as a product of its society, not simply a fictonalised account of the struggles of the Roman post-war under-class, but a culmination of these struggles, of more political might than other cinemas, grounded in everyday reality. This effect is brought about not by the performance of the non-professional or the content of the character, but by our knowledge of the protagonist’s non-professional status, of his grounding in the socio-political environment envisioned by De Sica, and the way in which the informed viewer then considers his performance, his role, and their relevance to the everyday world outside the cinema that neorealism is so concerned with.
This knowledge serves to persuade the audience to consider the film as something more truthful, honest, realistic, relevant, and indeed more powerful than classical fictional cinema. It seeks to tell the audience that the character they see on screen is one of them, and what he experiences in the film is experienced everyday in Italy. Given the response of the Italian Under Secretary Andreotti in 1952, who claimed that neorealist cinema should “commit itself to offer its public a healthy and constructive optimism” (quoted by Sorlin in ‘Italian National Cinema’), it seemed to work.
This technique could be compared to modern guerrilla marketing, such as the way directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez used the internet to create a ‘real’ mythology around The Blair Witch Project (1999), prior to its release, making waves with their fabricated rumours that the film was comprised from genuine documentary footage shot by three teenagers who died whilst filming. Of course, the façade did not hold up for long, but by the time the myth had faded, the film, made on a shoestring budget, was already one of the most talked about of the year, and indeed amongst the highest grossing.
This is not to suggest the same kind of trickster element on the part of Zavattini and De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, et al. But we can see that both films sought to manoeuvre themselves out of the cinematic realm and into the public sphere. Whilst Myrick and Sanchez did this in the pursuit of notoriety and success, De Sica and Zavattini did so in the search for socio-political accreditation. So whilst we can see that the idea of finding a more realistic performance through the use of non-professional actors may be flawed, the effect of the non-professional actor on the reputation and influence of the film serves De Sica and Zavattini rather well, as even when some critics deride the techniques they used in attempting to create a style of film that both reflected and affected reality, the film is nevertheless being discussed in terms of its relationship to reality, rather than simply in cinematic terms. And in any critical argument there will be crusaders for each side. The “real protagonist” may have questionable success in his internal reality, but he is successful in the external reality.
As has already been mentioned, Pierre Sorlin talks about the Church’s disapproval of the neorealist films in his book ‘Italian National Cinema’:
“Catholics were suspicious of ‘realist’ pictures likely to give a ‘deprecatory vision’ of Italy. But, above all, the priests were upset by the negative image of the clergy presented in many films, for instance those pious wealthy who, in Biycycle Thieves, force beggars to attend a mass before granting them a piece of bread and some soup, or even the parish priest of Rome: Open City, who acts on his own initiative, without consulting his bishop, and gets involved in political matters.” (Pierre Sorlin, ‘Italian National Cinema 1896-1996’, Routledge 1996, pp90)
Sorlin’s assertion that the church might have felt aggrieved at the presentation of the “pious wealthy” seems flawed, as surely a devoted catholic would see persuading the poor to pray and to praise as just as helpful an act of samaritanism as feeding them, as act devoid of any kind of personal gain. Perhaps then what the church looked sternly upon was the presentation of a kind of faded morality which permeates through The Bicycle Thieves, Rome: Open City (Rosselini, 1945), and many of the neorealist films. The neorealist attitude has been described as a hope for social upheaval post-fascism, post-occupation, followed by a gradual dismay, and the loss of hope, as this upheaval fails to materialise. Ginette Vincendeau states:
“Although the expression has been understood in many different ways, the core characteristics can be defined in terms of method (location filming as a preference, use of non-professional actors), attitude (a wish to get close to everyday reality), subject matter (the life of the popular classes in the aftermath of the war), and ideology/politics (the expression of a hope for political renewal after the years of Fascist dictatorship and Nazi occupation, and then of a certain disillusionment when many aspects of the renewal failed to materialise).” (Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Encyclopedia of European Cinema’, Cassel 1995, pp302)
What is also evident is the representation not just of a loss of hope, but a loss of faith. When Antonio enters the decrepid, crumbling chapel, it is not to pray, but to chase and accuse the old man. Likewise the old man is there for his soup tin. The characters are at mass out of function rather than faith. When Antonio seeks help in his darkest hour, he goes not to confessional, not to pray, but to the psychic Madam Serena. When he runs out of the chapel to chase the old man, he exits through a side room, cluttered with various religious objects and affectations, stuffed and piled like old furniture waiting for the garbage truck, relics from earlier days pushed to one side or ignored as Antonio searches for the one thing he really needs, more than crucifixes and Christ and blind faith – his bicycle, and all it can provide for his family.
Particularly in a country such as Italy, where the national faith is such an accepted and integrated part of the social framework, it is easy to see how a loss of faith in the country and the society might entail a loss of religious faith too, that a sub-culture of unemployed fathers, who went from fascism to Nazi occupation to a tainted freedom characterized by squalor and struggle, might find it harder to put their trust in the cross hanging from the wall of their empty kitchen.
Sorlin talks of the parts of Rome De Sica chooses to photograph: “Ricci enters the city three times… on none of these occasions does he go through Roman Rome or Classical Rome, and he never goes past an ancient monument” (Sorlin, ‘European Cinemas, European Societies’, Routledge 1991, pp121). Just as Roman Rome is characterised by the prestige, glory and beauty of its religious art and architecture like the Pantheon or the Foro Romano, so the squalid backstreets and half-finished urban sprawls are reflected by the small, cramped, decaying, decrepid chapels, the simple crosses hanging in the simple apartments, a low-key spirituality where faith has given way to function. In a similar way, De Sica chooses to ignore the beauty of Rome’s most familiar landmarks in favour of crumbling alleys that could be in any Mediterranean city.
We might expect in a film based around the social climate of post-war Rome to see wide, open piazzas, grandiose architecture, baroque statues, ancient monuments, the accepted international face of Rome. But De Sica chooses to set his story in a Rome of high-walled alleys, hawkish markets, dusty half-finished buildings, twisting side-streets. The prestigious beauty of Roman Rome is conspicuous by its absence; De Sica’s Rome is a city of lost glory.
We can see then that when we describe these films as being ‘realistic’, what we really mean is that they are socio-political. They may also claim themselves to be of the ‘real world’, of everyday protagonists, populated by non-professional actors, shot in natural lighting, even occasionally using improvised dialogue, but as we have seen, neorealist films remain adventures in fictional cinema. In understanding them then, we must understand what they are compared against, in the world of fictional cinema. To describe them as ‘realistic’ or representative of the real world is not necessarily to say they are more ‘real’ than, for example, a well executed melodramatic tale of love and passion set in Beverly Hills. Is Don Pietro, in Open City, for instance, more real than Greta Garbo’s character Marguerite Gautier in Camille (Cukor, 1936)?
What we can see is that, in being less grandiose, less deliberate, and less glamorous than the mainstream cinema of its time, The Bicycle Thieves references external reality, becoming attached to it by comparison. It is perhaps better to consider the film as socio-political as opposed to realistic, the underclass not having a monopoly on reality, and the most effective way to present socio-political subject matter (such as post-war unemployment) is in a departure from the glamour of mainstream cinema, via the backstreets and slums of Rome, simple ragged costumes, natural lighting, long takes with few edits. One can become bogged down in discussions of realism and artifice, but as Millicent Marcus has said, neorealism was first and foremost a moral statement, and in this respect The Bicycle Thieves is one of the most successful films of the neorealist movement. You can also order dissertations at our site
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