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Italian Neorealist films did not have a strict model for what specifications a film had to meet to qualify as neorealist’, nor did it need to use all of the classic characteristics which neorealism was know for. Because of this, neorealist films ” despite following many of the same tropes ” usually had significant variation in its message, plot, tone, and cinematic style; these differences also effected the public perception. An example of these neorealist films that have many points of comparison as well as contrasting elements is Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film Rome, Open City and Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves.
Both films use classic neorealist staples and techniques of using non-professional actors, shooting on location, and focusing of stories of poverty or the working class, injustice, and desperation; however, where Rome, Open City sensationalizes the Fascist occupation, Bicycle Thieves focuses on the struggles of a singular impoverished Italian family, as a representation for all working class Italians at the time, who were mostly all struggling to survive.
Italian Neorealist films are important because they were able to capture a realistic perspective of postwar life and setting/city. This film movement, which only made up Landry 2approximately 10 % of films released in postwar Italy, provides a glimpse into the day-to-day struggle of the impoverished common citizen. Mainstream cinema at the time provided viewers with a fictionalized version of Italy; the sets had been intentionally designed to avoid capturing the ruins of the cities and the popular plots were consumed by escapist drama.
Realistic portrayals of the immediate human condition were often not received well by the public because Italian citizens did not want another reminder of the continued deterioration of their cultural economic environment.
After the war, this fictionalized drama flourished because it comforted viewers by providing a form of entertainment that temporarily allowed them to escape the traumatic memories of war and postwar financial distress. Popular film at the time focused on Hollywood imports, Italian farces, and historical dramas; social realism was not of much interest to the general Italian public. Even though the majority of Italian society was preoccupied with watching escapist dramas, new filmmakers deemed the fictionalized representations of Italian life inappropriate’, and they began to strive toward more accurate portrayals of day-to-day existence in postwar Italy. This emerging cinematic style became known a realism’ and was primarily concerned with communicating the reality of social situations.
For example, poverty in the working class; excessive working, selling personal items and trading comfort in the name of basic survival; the emotional tension this caused in families; and the increase in crime rates and blackmarket sales. The neorealist films were shot in black and white and professional actors were not usually used for these films; instead, regular people were hired for the roles. In hiring non-actors for these parts, the directors came even closer to achieving Landry 3their goal of authenticity and realistic representation. These regular people’ often had similar backgrounds, lives, or were in similar situations as the characters they were portraying; therefore, they were able to tap into their real experiences and emotions when playing their role. Despite the unique blend of tradition and cinematic experimentation, relevance of the subject matter, and importance of the larger social commentary, Italian society did not take much of an interest in neorealist films.
In terms of popularity, Peter Bondanella notes in Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present that neorealism has always been an art cinema,’ with many or most neorealist films performing poorly at the box office and in the eyes of critics (Bondanella, 36). Although the movement did not have much of a successful reception in Italy, some Italian neorealist films were more accepted in other countries. For example, during its initial release, Rome, Open City was not well received by Italian audiences, likely due to their preoccupation with postwar escapism; however, Rossellini’s film was very successful in the United States and even played for a 70 week period in New York.
As other countries started taking an interest in the film, Italian cinema industry gained in popularity amongst Italian audiences, as well as an international audience. In 1944, Rossellini started working on Rome, Open City shortly after the Allies made the Nazis leave Rome. His film is heavily focused on Rome in World War II under the Nazi’s oppression. The World War II impacted the world, and therefore, Rome, Open City, despite taking place in Rome, was ”to a certain extent ” universally relatable and a topic of Landry 4interest around the world. The depiction of German injustice toward the Italians and the resistance’s efforts to fight against the Nazis in Rossellini’s film, is a unique perspective previously unexplored in films that were produced earlier in the war when, under Mussolini’s rule, Germany and Italy were allies.
Nearing the end of the 1960s, Bicycle Thieves gained a more prominent role in English-speaking critical film discussions. Prior to this, De Sica’s film was viewed as an important neorealist commentary on working class citizens and familial relationships in postwar Italy; however, despite cinephiles acknowledging De Sica’s work, it had not been discussed to the same extent as Rome, Open City had been until the 1960s. One possibility for this shift in popular opinion is due to the time that had passed since the second world war. Previously, Rome, Open City’s connection to World War II established it as a universally relatable topic of interest; however, the film had a rather specific Italian resistance perspective and, over time, those concepts became dated. Bicycle Thieves, on the other hand, has ageless topics such as familial relationships of tension and forgiveness, poverty, a quest, injustice, and a sense of hopelessness. Whereas Bicycle Thieves takes place in postwar Italy, Rome, Open City is set during the war, which make a huge difference on how the audience interprets these respective films. The tension in Rome, Open City has to do with the characters’ affiliation with the resistance, their caution and mistrust toward police, and the constant threat of being caught.
The audience even witnesses a moment of urgency and desperation when Francesco is taken, and Pina is shot while running after him. The moments of tension in De Sica’s postwar film Landry 5mainly centres around the relationship the man has with his son and the sense of increasing urgency is because the longer it takes him to find his bike, the likelihood that he never finds or that he bike gets sold for parts increases. Without the bike, he will lose his job and, therefore, will not be able to sustain his family.
Bicycle Thieves addresses the all-too-common occurrence of poverty in postwar Italy. Not only is this commentary accomplished through the protagonist, Antonio’s pursuit of the bike thief, but it is present as an overlying theme throughout the entire film; the child is dropped off and picked up from work, the scene in the restaurant demonstrates the longing toward a secure lifestyle, and the act of desperation when the father attempts to steal a bike himself. Additionally, when the couple sells their linen in order to afford the bicycle, the camera gives the audience a glimpse into the back room of the pawn shop. It is so full of pawned items, that the character climbs shelf after shelf of identical bags. This addresses the idea that poverty is running rampant in Italy. It is not just the protagonist who is at the pawn shop, there is an entire crowd of people who are there for similar reasons; poverty and the need to fight for survival is a shared experience with the rest of the working class population. The protagonist encounters another instance of duplicate items while searching for his stolen bicycle.
At a particular market he searches, there are bicycles and parts everywhere, none of which belong to him. A major theme in this film is the concept of poverty combined with the phycology of deprivation in postwar Italy’. Examples of this are present in nearly every section of the city that Antonio visits. The first scene opens to a crowd of men hoping to get called upon for a job, and this display of crowding people is repeated throughout the Landry 6film; the pawn shop is filled with people lined up to sell their belongings, the audience is shown a crowd attempting to squeeze onto the trolley, the crowd waiting to see the psychic, and the mass at church, some of whom are only in attendance so that they can receive the free food at the end of the service. In all of these situations, Antonio attempts to spatially disassociate himself from the rest of the crowd.
In the first scene, he is not standing and listening attentively with the rest of the workers; in fact, because he has separated himself from the others, one of the other members of the crowd is sent to retrieve him; the scene from the pawn shop is shot from within the building, so Antonio and his wife’s face only appear through a small square window, making it difficult to see the characters who are waiting in line behind them; when he finds his wife, Maria waiting to see the psychic he tries to get her to leave, and when he returns to see visit the psychic himself, he pushes past everyone, disregarding the line entirely; at the market he sticks out as neither a buyer or a seller, he continues to walk past anyone who is trying to get his attention in the hopes of selling him something, then accuses a man of theft; he causes a disturbance at the church when chasing a suspected thief, and the public even turns on him when he relentlessly insists that he has found the young man who stole his bike. Spacial awareness and positioning is used in Bicycle Thieves to non-verbally transmit information and tone.
One of the most noticeable examples of this is the increasing spacial distance between the protagonist and his son, which is used to represent how their relationship is becoming estranged; however, it is also used to indicate Antonio’s relationship with the rest of society and possibly how he sees himself in relation to other people. At the Landry 7end of the film, the way Antonio and his son disappear into a crowd of people had a duel meaning. Firstly, it is symbolic of a sense of unity of the shared experience; everyone else in the crowd in in a similar situation as the protagonist. His narrative could have easily been someone else’s. Antonio’s disappearance into the crowd also indicates a fundamental shift in Antonio’s character. The ending does not leave the viewers with a sense of fulfillment; in fact, the opposite could be true. They were unable to retrieve the bike, Antonio resorted to theft out of desperation, and now he is facing unemployment and an inability to help his family survive the economic crisis.
The interpretation of what the final scene indicates about Antonio’s character is left rather ambiguous. He could be accepting his role in this society and recognizing that he is not any different from anyone else; although, it could also be interpreted as Antonio giving up, the inability to retrieve the bicycle broke him. Even though it may initially appear to lack the narrative complexity of Rome, Open City, Bicycle Thieves has hidden depths and uses symbolism to make larger commentary about society, poverty, family bonds, injustice/law enforcement’s inability to help, and desperation. On the surface, the plot seems rather simplistic: a man trying to catch the person who stole his bicycle; however, the bicycle represents hope, and his ability to provide a sense of security for his family. The film is highly symbolic and represents much more that the inability to get justice. Unlike Bicycle Thieves’ neorealist characteristics, Rome, Open City has a different approach to neorealism. Th film is emblematic of the neorealist movement in many ways Landry 8because of its aesthetic and theoretical techniques’. The urgency and immediacy of the film aligns with the neorealist movement in content and form.
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