Italian Neo-Realism

Critical Background

Italian Neo-Realism began after World War II, when fascists no longer controlled Italy and Italian directors and screenwriters now had the opportunity to showcase the hardships of daily life of the common people. This tradition was prominent from 1942-1952 and is characterized by stories about the poor and working class, using unprofessional (first time) actors and filmed on location. Common themes are political, economic, and social problems like “the effects of the Resistance and the war, postwar poverty, and chronic unemployment”. The tough postwar conditions often lead people to compromise their morals or beliefs and do things such as steal and lie – acts of desperation directors wanted to feature in their films. With that said, neo-realist films never include a happy ending because it was thought to be a typical Hollywood ending, very unrealistic to what actually would happen.


Features of the Tradition

Many first time actors, on location shooting, grainy film, the main character is of the poor or working class, and there are themes of poverty and despair centered around social, economic, or political problems.


Major Filmmakers and Films

  • Giuseppe De Santis – Bitter Rice (1949), Rome 11:00 (1952)
  • Roberto Rossellini – Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), Stromboli (1950)
  • Vittorio De Sica – Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), Umberto D. (1952)
  • Luchino Visconti – Ossessione (1943), The Earth Trembles (1948), Bellissima (1951)
  • Federico Fellini  – La Strada (1954)


Still Images


Bicycle Thieves


I chose this image from Bicycle Thieves because I think it encompasses many aspects of the tradition nicely. The father is out with his son, looking for the bike, and just when he thinks things can’t get worse, it begins to rain. At this point, desperation and hopelessness is reaching its peak, and you can see it in his face. He has very little money for his family and jobs are hard to come by. His job requires a bicycle and they are expensive. It seems he’s out of reasonable options and he’s close to giving up, but he doesn’t want to let his son see this.


Rome: Open City


This shot from Rome: Open City displayed many qualities of Italian neo-realism, starting with the plot. The storyline is based on the arrest of a resistance leader, which was relevant to the recently ended war at the time. Soldiers and a priest are featured in the scene along with numerous poor and working class citizens. This scene shows the brutal fight between the people and government as Francesco is forcefully taken away, everyone is evicted from their homes for the police search, and Pina is shot down, in front of her child, for chasing after her fiancée.


Umberto D


This shot from Umberto D. captures the range of emotions associated with this tradition. Umberto doesn’t have much as far as companionship or even wealth as it turns out. But when he finds out his dog is missing and he will then be all alone, he scours all over looking for him. This shot shows how much love an adoration he has for his dog and how much he depends on him to help him through these very typical hard times.



Critical Essays

Italian Neo-Realism by: Megan Ratner
Italian neo-realism came right about right after World War II, before indie and French New Wave films. They had close to a documentary style and were influenced by the anti-fascist period that came immediately after the war. During the war, the country had been ruled by Mussolini. In those times, movies were made with big hotel rooms and high class nightclubs and ocean liners with decadent interiors. The main characters found easy resolutions to their dilemmas and there were numerous American imports. Essentially the movies were American. These films didn’t accurately reflect Italian life. So Italian directors set out, using real scenarios, casting non-professional actors, and filming in the actual streets of Italy to fully capture what life was like during those times. The directors were able to capture exactly how they were feeling and thinking, truly representing Italian culture at the time. Some key films of this movement are: Ladri di biciclette, Ossessione, Roma: citta aperta, Paisa, and Germania anno zero.


Italian Neo-Realism by: Donald Foreman
Before the war, the Italian film industry was controlled by American Influences known as “white telephone” films. Shooting on location and with available light became a necessity, and the impact of the war on the landscape created a new reality. Low budgets and few resources caused a gritty aesthetic to the films. Some believed the only difference between “white telephone” films and neo-realist films was resources but this was not true. The difference lies within philosophical meanings. Neo-realist films had real life meaning and resembled the struggle of day-to-day life of Italian people. Neo-realists were basically attempting to put the reality of society and the streets back on the screens. The key characteristics of this form of neo-realism are the use of non-actors, real locations, documentary style, social issues, poor working class characters, and episodic driven narratives. Mostly what separate Italian neo-realism from other forms is the directors driven nature to present situations as they are, in their truest form, no matter how desperate and hopeless.



Sound Design

The sound in these three films fit into the technological age of sound during that time period in the sense that sound quality was fuzzy and crackly with sometimes pops or clicks. Often times the words don’t quite align with the characters’ lips and the music doesn’t begin on cue. In this tradition the music was classical and thoughtful. In all three films, the music is dramatic and prominent, instead of overlaid in the background in a subtle, more quiet, manner like it is in today’s films.

Music and sound effects seem to play a more important role in this tradition (and in older films in general) than they do in more modern films. The music fits the tone of the actor’s voice, often one of pain or suffering, like in Rome: Open City when Pina is chasing after her fiancée on the truck and screaming out his name. The music is loud and low, with instruments like the violin that seem to hit notes in tune to her cries. Similar music styles were displayed in The Bicycle Thief. For example in the scene where Antonio is beginning his first day of work hanging up posters, the music is upbeat, played by flutes, and very optimistic which fits because so far Antonio has gotten a job and has a bike and life is good. One important enhancement that on location shooting added was the additional sound effects seemed very genuine – because they were. Unlike other films where maybe a tiny pan that was hitting the floor made a huge sound, in films like Umberto D., in the final scene where Umberto and Flick are at the park, when a car passes by and little kids voices can be heard playing and a train whistle blows and the gates are lowered, all of the sounds are at the appropriate audio levels, correctly drowning each other out, and naturally sounding like a real scene because it is one instead of staged like most other films.


What to Watch For:

  • On location shooting (open scenes, natural lighting, many people)
  • Mostly non-professional actors
  • Sometimes a child in a major supporting role
  • Grainy/documentary appearance
  • Themes of social, economic, or political problems
  • Emotions of hopelessness and despair
  • Main character is of the poor or working class
  • Fades or dissolves
  • Plot is similar to daily life – nothing wildly out of the ordinary
  • No perfect “Hollywood” ending




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