Naples:life,death &
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               ErN 72,  entry Aug 2007   


As early as 1933, the Italian writer, Leo Longanese, said that in Italy you didn’t need film studios; just take the camera out on the street and film real people doing real things. This is precisely what happened in Italian cinema after WW2.

Neo-Realism (NR) is the name given to a genre of Italian literature and, particularly, film that attempted to depict the real lives of ordinary people caught up in the difficult and dramatic times in post-war Italy. Typically, NR films were characterized by loose plots and episodic structure, essentially just “turning the camera loose” on real people. Filming was almost always on location instead of on a set in a studio; non-professional actors were often used; real conversational speech was used as opposed to scripted literary dialogue (this included the use of authentic regional Italian dialects instead of standard Italian), and there was little “artistic” camera work and lighting, the films thus having an almost documentary style about them. In novels and plays, the style of writing is devoid of flair, with an emphasis on straightforward description of persons and places as well as on realistic dialogue, again including the use of dialects. Depending on the author, NR literature usually contains a certain amount of ideological or political slant as it deals with such things as social justice and equality.

(The “Neo-“ in NR points back to the original literature and art of Realism, a style current in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was a genre that dealt with social injustice, emphasizing natural settings and everyday life. Realist painters from that period included Gustave Courbier and Honoré Daumier; Realist authors included Balzac, Dostoevsky, and, in Italy, Giovanni Verga. In Naples, Realist authors included Raffaele Viviani, Ferdinando Russo, Francesco Mastriani, and Roberto Bracco -- link to Bracco in this note, below)

            note: As a genre, Italian Neo-Realism refers to films from 1943-1952, important ones of which are listed directly below. Many film historians, looking for antecedents from the 1930's and before, have suggested films from before that period as precursors to the "Neo" in Neo-Realism -- that is, just plain Realism in silent movies, to go with the Realism in the literature of the day. One of the films mentioned frequently is Lost in the Dark (Sperduti nel buio), a 1914 Italian silent drama film directed by Nino Martoglio. The screenplay was by Roberto Bracco and was based on his own 1901 play of the same name.                 There is no extant copy of the film, so it is hard to make a judgement.* Bracco, himself, was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature numerous times in the 1920s. There is a separate entry on him at this link.

            *The author of the main article (link directly above) says: "I was able to find a little more about Sperduti nel Buio, the silent film of Bracco’s play that was lost. Apparently, after the establishment of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana in the fall of 1943, Mussolini ordered most of the movie archive of the Italian Cinematography School in Rome moved north and the movie reels, including Sperduti nel Buio, were put on a train going to Venice. There is extant list of those movies being moved , including Sperduti nel Buio (no. 18 on the list).  It looks as if the films ended up in Germany and the movie may now be in Moscow, moved there by the Red Army after the fall of the Nazi regime. The info comes from a 2018 RAI documentary.                    

From the 1948 film, Bicycle Thieves, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) hanging a Rita Hayworth poster. The film tells the story of Antonio and his son searching for their bicycle, which has bee stolen. Antonio used this bike to get around and put up posters (image). Spoiler alert: they never find the bike and the father gets beaten up. This is a very depressing movie.

Italian films viewed as NR include:

  • Ossessione (1943) dir. Luchino Visconte
  • La Porta del Cielo (1945) De Sica and Zavattini (see separate article)
  • Roma, città aperta (1945) dir. Roberto Rossellini
  • Sciuscià (1946) dir. Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini
  • Paisà (1946) dir. Roberto Rossellini
  • Germania anno zero (1948) dir. Roberto Rossellini
  • Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (1948) dir. De Sica and Zavattini
  • La terra trema (1948) dir. Roberto Rossellini
  • Bitter Rice (1949) dir. Giuseppe De Santis
  • Stromboli (1950) dir. Roberto Rossellini
  • Miracle in Milan (1951) dir. De Sica and Zavattini
  • Umberto D. (1952) dir. De Sica and Zavattini

Of that list, Sciuscià takes place in Naples (the title word is a dialect neologism deriving from the English word “shoeshine”), and Paisà is an episode film, one of which segments takes place in Naples. The entire genre had immediate effect elsewhere. Even Fred Zinnemann’s The Men (1950) (Marlon Brando’s film debut) is NR in that it is a gritty slice-of-life where, if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d swear you were watching real people and not actors. The same can be said for some later Italian films such as De Sica’s La Ciociara (Two Women) from 1960 [related link here] and the later works of Neapolitan director Francesco Rosi (link at bottom of this entry), whose films La Sfida (1956) and Salvatore Giuliano (1961) deal with organized crime.

We note that a "lost film" by Vittorio De Sica, The Gate of Heaven, made in Rome in 1944 while the Germans still occupied the city, is sometimes mentioned as a candidate to be the first film of Italian Neo-Realism. That story is here.

Generally speaking, Italians have always viewed film as an extension of literature; thus, it is common in Italy to link film and “author” (i.e., the director); one speaks of “Rossellini’s Paisà,” for example. Only film buffs know the names of the non-actors in many of these films. (Exceptions include Roma, città aperta, a film that featured professional actors such as Anna Magnani, and, of course, the film Stromboli, with Ingrid Bergman.) The use of non-professional actors also has some amusing stories connected with it. De Sica told of how he cast the title role for Umberto D., a film about a pensioner trying to keep from being evicted. De Sica saw a gentleman sitting on a park bench who looked like he might fit the part. The gentleman happened to be Carlo Battisti, a linguistics professor at the university of Florence. When De Sica asked him if would like to “be in a movie,” Battisti (who, indeed, wound up with the role) dead-panned, “I don’t know how to ride a horse.” The use of dialect also caused some problems among the movie-goers, who had been used to professional dubbing in standard Italian in all films, foreign and domestic; that is, even Italian actors were often redubbed with "better" voices! (See film dubbing.)

Neapolitan films that might be called NR include Napoli Milionaria (1950, dir. Eduardo de Filippo) and L’Oro di Napoli (1954, Vittorio De Sica). Although there are bizarre, surreal episodes in these films, the emphasis is still on authenticity and everyday life. The fact that they contain moments of great humor (virtually absent in other examples of NR) is irrelevant. Sometimes life is funny, like it or not.

NR authors in Naples include Giuseppe Marotta, Domenico Rea, and Carlo Bernari (1909-1992), among whose many works is the five-part novel, Vesuvio e pane (Vesuvius and Bread) (1952), a work written in a straightforward style and absolutely devoid of false sentimentality or forced humor. There is none of what has been called “Eduardo-ism” (in reference to Eduardo de Filippo), perhaps an unfair criticism, but implying a style that renders even poverty artistically quaint. Vesuvio e pane is simply about what it’s really like to live in a city that is very difficult to live in.

When I mentioned to my mother-in-law that I thought many NR films were great, she sighed and said, “I lived through two world wars. Why do I want to go and relive all that in the movies.” That sentiment was apparently wide-spread. NR ran its course brilliantly and swiftly.

AND -- added 30 Oct 2018 -- one that is not Neo-Realism, but sure looks like it:

A Special Day (Una giorata particolare) - 1977

AND -- added 28 Apr 2019 -- also not NR, but clearly related: The Magliari by Francesco Rosi.

AND --
added 7 July 2021 -- People ask, Are the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini Neo-Realism? Yes. See this link.

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