Legendary film director Martin Scorsese has stated many times that one of the biggest influences in his work was the Italian Neorealism period in Italy. His personal documentary My Voyage to Italy (also check out: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies) is a journey through Italian Cinema history and marking influential films. But what is Italian Neorealism?
“I saw these movies. They had a powerful effect on me. You should see them.” – Martin Scorsese
Mussolini’s government wasn’t the only thing that ceased to exist after the Second World War. The making of traditional Italian movies also stopped as all the film studios were destroyed during the war.
In the year 1943, when Mussolini lost control of the Kingdom of Italy, local cinema saw significant changes that led to the birth of a new genre in the entertainment industry. This new genre took the film world, not only in Italy but the neighboring countries as well, by a storm.
Filmmakers were facing an extremely hard time making films owing to limited resources and a lack of studios where they could shoot. One thing led to another, and soon top filmmakers of the country found a solution to cope with the issue. This was the start of Neorealist thought in the Italian film industry.
Protagonists of the Thought
Huge names like Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio de Sica are some of the many who emerged to the fore and laid the foundation of Italian Neorealism, also known as an Italian Spring. The ideas and the messages behind the films changed with changing social and political scenarios.
At this time producers and directors were ready to put their money and efforts, respectively, into the movies which focused on social shortcomings and the plight of people. Society, economy, and politics were the main niche of interest, under the influence of Italian Neorealism.
The directors dared to make these movies now, which the former fascist regime, led by Mussolini, would have never tolerated.
Ideological Impact on the Movies
Reviewing the films, which were produced in Italy during the era between 1943 and 1950s, we come to know that all of them opted a theme of post-war poverty, depression, injustice, unemployment, and other menaces which were plaguing whole of the Italian society.
Not only the topics of the films were primarily affected by the Italian Spring of 1943, but it molded the ways of making movies up to a greater extent as well. Unlike the movies of the past, these movies hired new – lesser-known – actors and revolved around the contemporary issues of the time.
Moreover, films weren’t directed in huge studios, but the directors took their work onto the roads, interceding into the social fabric of society.
A common consideration is that these films were based on the Marxist thoughts passed on by the pro-socialist writer Karl Marx, as these focused not only on injustice and chronic unemployment but also shed lots of light on the economic disparities between bourgeois and proletariat.
With the growing thought of economic disparities and rising, anxiety among the people, liberals and other parties found it hard to send their messages to the people of Italia.
The liberals condemned the thought of Italian Spring by suggesting that a nation which is already struggling to develop a balance and lacking stability will get further plunged into the social menaces, lest the expansion of Italian Neorealism is checked.
With the turn of the 1950s, Italian Spring started to see a gradual decline in its popularity as people started searching out for an optimistic approach towards life.
It wasn’t exactly after the defeat of Italian Empire that neorealist thoughts prevailed in the society. The first film of the sorts, Ossessione featuring Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamao, was prepared by Luchino Visconti in May of 1943 when Mussolini was still in office.
He left the office in July of the same year and Italy was invaded by Allied Powers in September, after which scores of such films came to the fore.
It wasn’t until Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (released in the year 1945) that the whole world came to know about Italian Neorealism. Once the idea and the thought spread, other countries also followed the lines of the Italian film industry and started making movies that were based on social anarchy, imbalance, and disparities.
Famous Movies of the Neorealist Era
Here, we have listed some films created during the era of ‘Italian Spring’ ranging between 1943 and early 1950s.
The film revolves around Giovanna and Gino, with the former killing her husband with the help of the latter when they meet at a gas station for the first time. In the hope to get away with the crime, Giovanna seduces Gino and tempts him to kill her husband. But, this leads to a string of deaths and betrayal which is faced by both these characters.
Rome, Open City
Rome, Open City single-handedly set the dawn of Italian Spring and following thoughts in the nearing countries of Europe and Asia. The film features Giorgio, as the leader of a resistance force against the Nazis. Once tracked down by the Germans, Giorgio is on the run and comes to his friend, Francesco, for help. He asks Francesco’s wife, Pina, to warn the priest, Pellegrini, that Giorgio needs to leave the town at earliest.
The Bicycle Thief
It is another film that portrays the felonies which were happening in the Italian cities during the time of World War 2. Thanks to the war that Antonio is unemployed and his family is facing a hard time.
When he finally finds employment of hanging posters in Rome, his wife sells bed linens to help Antonio get his bicycle back from the pawnshop. But then, the disaster strikes and Antonio cycle is stolen. The only way he will get his job back is if he finds his bike. Antonio with his protagonist son, Bruno, comes to the city to find his lost bike and to seek justice.
Germany, Year Zero
This film masterpiece is one of the finest works of Roberto Rossellini. The story is about a 12-year-old, Edmund, who lives with his family in a devastated building, where five other families have also sought refuge. Edmund’s brother is a former Nazi and is on the run from the police. His father is too ill to help the family.
In such a situation, it comes down to the 12-year-old Edmund to earn for his family. The case pushes the innocent child into the black market, and this is where one of his former teachers comes to the rescue.
The Earth Trembles
On return to his fishing village in native Italia, the dreams of Antonio are shattered as all of his investments are gone when the boat, he has spent on, is severely destroyed by a sea storm. Antonio finds himself at the expense of his rivals.
He is forced to work for them. During all these proceedings, his family ties are destroying, and it is disintegrating rapidly. Seeing all this, Antonio’s dreams and his trust in social fabric fade away swiftly.
Francesca and Walter, a criminal couple, are on the run from the authorities. During a tough phase in their mutual life, they part ways for the time being and find refuge in far off places, to avoid the law.
Francesca finds work with a group of peasant women in the rice fields of Po Plain. Slowly she starts finding solace in her new life where she gets hard-earned, clean money.
When Walter returns to her, she finds it hard to get along with him and to get back into the criminal world which she has left far behind.
Miracle in Milan
This movie shows the horrific side of the capitalist world. Toto is an orphan, brought up by Lolotta who found him in her cabbage patch. When Lolo dies, Toto leaves the orphanage and lives with a group of homeless in their junkyard.
Everything is going well until oil is discovered underneath the yard where Toto and his lowly friends live. Capitalists come in, trying all they can do to drag Toto and his friends out of the place so they can benefit from the reserves.
When Umberto, an old pensioner, finds it hard to pay his long overdue monthly rents, he fakes illness to go to the hospital and spend some time there. His only companion, his dog, is also parted from him during these developments. Umberto gives it to Maria, who is a maid of his landlady, to take care of the dog until his return.
These are some of the many movies which showed Italian Neorealism. The idea remained active in the Italian film industry until the turn of the 1950s. Economic Miracle happened in Italy, as a result of which people saw an increase in their wages and an improvement in their lifestyles.
Neorealist films weren’t much relevant anymore. So, their demands decreased drastically.
Moreover, the American cinema was at its boom as well, during this phase of the previous century. As more films came to the fore, in the Hollywood, which showed a positive side of life, the demand of neorealist movies lowered among the Italian people. Italian people.
Transcript: Italian Neorealism
Our topic today is the influential movement called Italian neorealism. Eighth, our movement of filmmakers that arose in Italy at the end of the Second World War, and had although it was a very short lived movement lasted only six or seven years before it kind of dissolved of its own of its own way.
In part Incidentally, because although the films were very successful with critics, and several of the neorealist films won Academy Awards as the best foreign film of the year in 1946. And then again in 1948, when when the film you’re going to see tonight, Bicycle Thieves won the award. Despite that acclaim, and even global success, the movement sort of petered out, although its influence, as I’ve suggested, was very great.
One reason the movement petered out was that forces in Italian society, chambers of commerce types, people who are interested in encouraging the rebuilding of a devastate of the devastated cities of Italy, a function of a consequence of the of the Second World War, those folks began to feel that the messages coming from neorealist films were too negative. And we’re discouraging foreign investors. So although it was a very remarkable movement, it lasted only, as I say, a short time, but its influence ramified very, very, very broadly.
We can trace its influence to virtually every national cinema that came after it, and there, there are certain very particular influences that one can trace from the neorealist movement to certain American directors of film noir in the 40s and early 50s. to certain very interesting and historically curious forms of television that emerged in the early years of American television that were deeply imitative of and influenced by Italian neorealist movies. There was the man that many would identify as the greatest of all Indian directors satyajeet, Dre was directly inspired to make movies by the Bicycle Thief, and he made a series of three films that are essentially a form of Italian neorealism moved to India.
Wonderful trilogy of films, some of them actually about the untouchable classes in in India called the apple trilogy, and they are they remain among the most treasured forms of Indian of Indian film. The Italian neorealist had had a profound influence on other European cinemas as well, and most particularly can be said to be the originating movement behind the French nouvelle wet nouvelle vog the new wave movement that in France, that emerges at the end of the 50s in the early 60s, and in involved such now recognized.
Such directors now recognized as major figures in the history of film, as john Locke Godard and Francois Truffaut. So it was, although a short live movement, a profoundly influential one, and it produced some enduring and beautiful, and I guess I would say immortal films, the most famous and perhaps in some ways, the most perfect of those films is the one you’re going to see tonight, Bicycle Thieves, and I’ll talk a bit about that film, in my introduction to the lecture this evening. I want to begin though, by giving you a sense of how Neorealism feels a kind of a kind of a kind of distilled version of a distilled embodiment of many of the deepest principles of Neorealism.
And in order to do that, I want to show you a clip from the very beginning of the film you’re going to see tonight. So you’ll see this beginning twice. Hopefully, the second time you see it, you’ll be alive to more alive to some of its implications. So here is the very opening of bicycle themes. And one of the things I want to ask you to watch for is, first, how much information how much visual information, dramatic information becomes available to you under the titles and then help fluently and fluidly, the film moves out of the title sequence into a kind of continuation of the drama that’s articulated in that title sequence. On the surface. This little anecdote at the very beginning of the film seems very modest.
And one might even think of it as simply expository, that is providing information to the audience so that they can get on with the story, as I hope you’ll recognize, and as I’ll try to show you briefly after I’ve shown you the clip, much more is going on in that and it’s a particularly wonderful example of the way in which the best neorealist films generate a kind of texture or a kind of density.
What is sometimes called a multiplicity that we have suggested in this course, is one of the fundamental ways in which you can distinguish between entertainment, and serious entertainment or between entertainment and art. When items and objects begin to have this multiplicity, when they begin to serve multiple functions, not just a single function. You’re in the presence of something not only complex, but something that acknowledges the complexity of the world in some in some respects, and this opening sequence of Bicycle Thieves does this remarkable economy. Oh, here’s the beginning of the film.
Kenny G. geeky, Richie. says can you freeze it for a second? One thing I should mention, while you’re watching this to interrupt the sequence for a moment, the activity that you see taking place under the titles is supposed to be confusing at first, although after a while it begins to clarify, perhaps you’re not fully clear what is going on until the titles disappear. And you see these men assembling around that staircase there were a man with a list is speaking to them.
What is going on here is what in the United States in the in the 40s and 50s on the on the docks in New York, they called the shape up. And a shape up is a place where men who are eager for work sort of come and hang around and wait for the boss, the the the foreman or the or the hiring boss to pick them out of the crowd. Shape ups are always unpleasant experiences because there are many people who are excluded.
And the people who were chosen are often This was especially true on the New York waterfront in the days when which I know about because my father was a longshoreman for a while. It was a particularly bad thing in the New York waterfront because you had to know somebody to get work. I don’t know if that’s an implication here or not, although you’ll see as the men complain that some of them have that suspicion. In any case, what’s going on here is what is called a shape up men are gathered around men who are unemployed, looking for work.
A system of attacking everything touching your PC. You’re the victim of deliberate, genuine, unnatural images. Done. I see on some of them, you know that that was actually one of the speedo were in the shallow end. And so we don’t know. Today we’re talking about establishing data. Several establishing register, churches. Representative arbitrators represent?
Good guess. And headed across the whole revolution. Can I get the job? Let me also be an actor.
I wish I could let the scene run on but I hope you I hope you I can tell some of you were responding to what you saw there. Make some observations about what you saw there. What that in that introduction?
What do we learn as an audience? You have to be fast. I only have a few minutes here. Yes. All right. One thing we know is that there’s a lot of unemployment in this a lot, right? And there’s a lot of discontent. And then the minute he says, I don’t have a bicycle, virtually everyone else in the crowd says I have a bias. Everyone is desperate for a job, not just Ricci.
That’s right. So there was he, he we learned how grateful he is, but also how troubled he is. What is what’s the evidence in the film that he is really very unhappy, very, very troubled by the fact that he doesn’t have a bicycle to get this job after so long. What’s the most dramatic piece of evidence we see that he’s distracted? by his anxiety? help with the water? He doesn’t help his wife with the water?
Yes, it’s a very dramatic scene, isn’t it? she she’s walking behind him carrying these too heavy. And he doesn’t ignore her because he’s a nasty patriarch who thinks that women should carry water. He is so distracted, he doesn’t notice it. And in fact, what he walks down that that little incline and looks back and sees her struggling, goes back. And as soon as he recognized that he takes one from her. And it’s significant, isn’t it that he takes only one from her is that they really partners? I mean, and it’s also what else is significant? She doesn’t yell at him.
She doesn’t say, My God, Ricci, what kind of a pig Are you making me carry all this stuff by myself? Because she shares his his anxiety and his concern, doesn’t she? So on the surface, what the the the seat the scene certainly dramatizes reaches desperate need for, for for a job and the fact that he’s one of many people in a similar situation. But what does it tell us about his marriage? On the basis of these details, what you just saw in this beginning, you think he has a good marriage? That he has a good relationship with his wife that that it’s a mutually trusting relationship that they, of course, of course, right? And how would we know that we know that from that detail?
Now, the detail does not advance the plot in the sense of telling us anything further about his need for the bicycle or his on employment. But it does reveal to us something about their marriage, about the kind of man he is about the kind of woman she is, right. So that it’s a moment in which his anxiety about his job is maybe the primary thing we see.
But what is also dramatize for us is the nature of the relationship and his dramatize for us without anyone coming out and saying, Let me show you a mutually engaged couple who depend on each other and who survived in part because they share each other’s troubles, people whose respect for each other so total, that even when one of them commits a really mean Or at least or, or at least unpleasant act by ignoring his wife struggles, she doesn’t even think to complain to him about it because she shares his anxiety.
So that’s, it’s an example of what I mean by a moment of multiplicity in which something about the relationship, something about their marriage emerges. Even as we are also learning something about the economic circumstances in which these characters live. say a little bit more about the scene that you saw. How about the place where she’s drawing water?
What about that? Why would there in a city they’re they’re walking, in fact, to a high rise apartment house in which they live? What does it mean that she’s carrying two buckets of water to an apartment, and then she’s going to climb up four flights or three flights to get to their apartment? What does that tell us? About? Mussolini’s Italy? There’s no running water in the building in the in the high rise apartments, right? And not just that, is the water precious? How do you know it is? say that, but yes, but what else? Where do they get the water? Is the water? Do they go to a pump in the open square? No, it’s in a barbed wire compound. Right?
Again, these details may not register instantly, as deeply significant thing, what they tell us about the conditions of urban life in Rome in 1947, or 1948, when the film is when the film is set up. And you can even go further look more closely at the setting did anything grow there, it looked like they were walking across a wasteland of mud, except for these high rise tenement buildings.
So we have high rise, tenement buildings sit down in a kind of desert, right? A place in buildings that don’t even have running water, in which in which the main water pump has to be protected by barbed wire, right? So that it’s almost as if in this brief introduction to the film, the whole socio economic environment of the story has been established for us without anyone giving us lectures about it or calling our attention to it. That’s what I mean by multiplicity, when the details of the film, serve character and serve, plot and serve our sense of the environment.
Right? So it’s a it’s a rich moment. It’s a moment, it’s a moment of art. It’s a moment of complexity. It’s a moment of human truthfulness, that that resonates for us as the as the film as the film goes on. Well, there are many, many moments like this virtually every moment in Bicycle Thieves has this kind of density or texture has this kind of implication built into the particular details. I want to very quickly set the kind of the context for I’ve already implied the context for the Neo realist movement. The basic context is the end of World War Two.
most historians traced the beginnings of the Neo realist movement to two films that were made under Mussolini, Wild Wild fat while the war was still going on. And some people actually date the very beginning of, of the movement to a film made in 1942 by Luciano viscounty, called obsession. It’s actually a an adaptation of a very popular American pulp novel called the Postman Always Rings Twice.
It’s been made twice into an English language American movie, most recently starring Jack Nicholson. But but but the attend the Italian version may be the most the most important than interesting of the films made from the book. The the book itself is a rather tawdry new are a story about about a the owner of a diner who’s who an ugly middle aged pug, who’s married to a beautiful and somewhat younger woman who very unhappy with her husband begins an affair with a drifter who comes by and
ultimately encourages the drifter to kill her husband. And it’s a it’s actually a rather a rather heavy handed, male chauvinist fantasy about, about, reportedly about about how cutting and dangerous women are. The Italian version is much more interesting in part because the working class dimensions of the story are given much greater emphasis in Lucina, this country’s version and the film partly becomes a kind of meditation on the fate of undocumented workers and non union workers in in, in Italian society.
In any case, the emphasis on ordinary people and the emphasis on socio economic circumstances in that film by this country came to be defining features among the defining features of Italian neorealist filmmaking. But the movement really doesn’t get going until after the war. And the context of the war is variable. Important, we need to recognize that the film is really set in a devastated society, a society in which we’re talking now about all of Europe after the Second World War, unemployment reached at 25, or 30%.
Higher in some societies, there was economic turmoil in virtually every European society, profound, terrible pressures from black market activities of all kinds. The death of the war was so devastating that something on the order of 35% of all the permanent dwellings in Western Europe were destroyed during the war, the 20th 25% of the Polish population was killed, a tremendous proportion, virtually every Well, a very large number of Italian cities were damaged very badly, including, of course, Rome itself.
And these these abject and terrifying economic conditions, where we’re, of course, in Italy, doubled by the problem that Italy was on the losing side in the war and had and therefore faced even more difficulties in in a record in the recovery than then as a culture like the French culture or the or English society.
So the devastation of world war two and the turmoil and dislocation caused by World War Two is the fundamental fact and what what is still operative in Italian society, what institutions still work is one of the implicit questions that the film explores, and the film suggests that a lot of the official institutions like the police and the and the and especially the religious institutions have broken down and are not really helping people very much as you’ll see when you when you watch tonight’s film, but that there are there are other forms of help and aid that people get mostly in some sense from there, the film suggests from their local communities and from there and from and from their immediate families.
Well, to this basic sort of setting of devastation and turmoil and and economic uncertainty, we need we need to add to other contextual factors, both of them having to do with the film traditions against which Italian Neorealism set itself against which it understood itself to be our to be in a kind of profound argument. The first tradition was the tradition of fascist film under Mussolini.
These were very almost all studio films, they were shot inside studios, neorealist films are shot outdoors. And they all and they were largely escapist. They were largely escapist fare, focusing more often than not on the upper social orders. In fact, there was a genre of film so devoted to the romantic entanglements of aristocrats that they came to be known as white telephone films. The reason for this is that in the old days before cell phones, and before multicolored phones, all telephones were black.
And it was a mark of astonishing, aristocratic privilege that the people in some of these films had white telephones. They were such unusual objects for the time that the films came to be labeled as white telephone films. And they were largely, as I said, escapist movies with with beautifully made up actors and actresses, you know, artificial light performing what were essentially artificial stories. The second tradition against which the Neo realists are responding against which they are reacting is the tradition of Hollywood glamour.
There’s a wonderful moment in the Bicycle Thief. And you’ll, as you’ll see tonight, when Ricci finally goes off to get his job, he recovers his bicycle from Hockett, he’s pawned it. And that’s why he’s so nervous. He knows where the bicycle is, but he doesn’t know how they’re going to get it out of porn. And you’ll see how his wife solves that problem. In the very next sequence is beyond.
Beyond the one I’ve just shown to you. When he finally goes to work for the first time, he has someone with him giving him instructions. And what he is is a bill sticker. He puts up posters, great, in fact, the poster that he’s putting up as opposed to for an American movie, and it has a great amount of famous American movie star of the 40s and 50s Rita Hayworth on the on it and as he’s putting the picture up he you put paste on the board then he’s given the stupid instructions. Anyone could do this job but the man giving him instructions acts as if he’s explaining something really difficult like like rocket science, when all he’s doing is telling telling him how to paste a poster up on a board.
But his but his instructions include a systematic remarks about being sure not to leave any wrinkles in it. And I’ve taken that myself to be a kind of implicit complaint against Hollywood. There say the Hollywood the Hollywood female has no wrinkles, the Hollywood female The Hollywood star the Hollywood movie is so glamorized that you never see wrinkles or defects. And this couldn’t contrast more sharply with the ordinary faces of the actors that we see in Neo realist films. So true traditions of glamour and of and of escapism are essentially the antagonists.
That that, that that that that that helped to explain how Italian Neorealism defines itself and understands itself. It’s worth briefly mentioning that Neorealism has distinguished origins in at least three different national cinemas. The first is in Italian cinema itself. There was a movement in during the silent era, a kind of documentary movement that wanted to talk as Quasar documentary movement when they were still fiction films, but they wanted to talk more openly and honestly about contemporary events in contemporary society.
And the movement was called the very small movement. The truth movement occurred between 1914 and 1916. In Italy, and this and when the Neo when, when the Neorealist began to articulate their own manifestos, and to explain theoretically, what they were up to, they sometimes reached back to the very small movement as a way of saying we’re actually traditional as well as new. A second fundamental influence on Neorealism. A kind of earlier version of Neorealism occurred in the German tradition at the end of the silent era in a series of films made in the 1920s by the director GW Papst, pa BST is the most famous of these films is a film produced in 1925, called the joyless Street.
It partly deals with prostitutes. And it ended and it talks in it tries to dramatize in realistic ways, the conditions of the lower social orders. And, of course, the final originating source. This also explains the richness of Neorealism that there are these other film traditions that are feeding into it and enriching it is French. And it’s the it’s the kind of French film that we associate with john Renoir and with the traditions of poetic realism.
Some of the Neo realist and one of at least one of the Neo realist directors of this company had worked as an assistant director for john Renoir at one point in his career. And I believe I’m not sure this is accurate, so don’t take this as absolute fact.
But I believe that it was Renoir himself, who gave a copy of the Postman Always Rings Twice to this Conte, which led to the creation of what many people would identify as the very first Neo realist renier realist film, the basic practices and traditions of poetic realism are carried over in Neorealism. And in one sense, one can see Italian Neorealism as an extension of poetic realism. The difference is that Neorealism has a more political and social orientation it’s more conscious of having a political and social ambition they wants to it.
And and and sometimes neorealist films can seem a bit preachy, because of that. I mean, there’s, there’s clearly a kind of sentiment, deep, deeply sympathetic to the lower social order is deeply suspicious of the hierarchies of capitalism. Some of the Neo realists were Marxists or Marxist sympathizers. And that helps to explain the political orientation of Neo realist films.
But the basic features of poetic realism the use of an outdoor camera, the interest in a meson sin style. And in a film made by which I mentioned, I think, last time made by Renoir in 1935, a film called Tony to and I, we have a French version of Italian Neorealism, because that film, as I mentioned, last time, is about Italian quarry workers in the south of France. And it has a lot of nonprofessional actors in it, something that became a key feature of Neorealism.
So the Neo realist movement then has this powerful context which creates a kind of moral and, and and aesthetic energy that helps to explain the power and the excitement of these films. It has two very clear antagonists, the glamour of Hollywood, and the the false and aristocratic glamour of the film under Mussolini. And it also draws as well on older traditions of film in Italian, in German and in French, that set earlier examples for the kind of thing that the Neo realist wants to do.
I’ve already talked about the key features of Neorealism when I have just a second to go when I spoke about poetic realism, but let me mention some of those key features in a little bit more detail. One way to think about Neo realist films is to recognize that their emphasis on reality is one which insists I’m trying to create an illusion of plus of a plausible actuality.
And what this meant to them was, listen, people have warts on their noses. People are not beautiful the way they are in Hollywood, let’s So one thing we need to do is we need to roughen up the look of our performers. And in fact, professional actors, it was felt often bring a kind of smoothness or a fluidity to their performance that is inherently artificial.
So many neorealist films have no or virtually no professional actors in them, or sometimes only professional actors in the major roles. In the film you’re going to see tonight, the star is a non professional actor, he actually ended up having a tragic life in the film won the Academy Award as the best foreign film of the year in America in 1948. And the man who played Ricci was an intern became an international star. But he he fell into hard times and ended up not not really making much making much money off his off or from his, from his very brief stardom. And then and my understanding is that that he that he never again made a film as remarkable as the Bicycle Thief.
But one of the things that is absolutely astonishing about the performance is that this man is not an actor, you would never get it. I mean, it’s an absolute, well, maybe you would, but you would guess it only after having been told that because he performs with such naturalists and such grace. So the use of non professional actors is was one of the key features of neorealism.
A second key feature is a rejection of studio filming all neorealist films like almost all poetic realism films, realist films were shot outdoors in natural light, partly because they wanted natural light. And partly because studios lie about the texture of the world we want the texture of the world in our films, the near our films are really about reality. So we can’t shoot in we can’t shoot indoors.
A third non professional actors outdoor camera, a third feature would be what we might call a fundamental Nisa unsend style, taken directly from the the stylistic habits established by john Renoir and other French directors who worked in the same style, a relatively modest forms of editing. The forms of montage that you see are, are not disruptive, you won’t get jump cuts or, or or disorienting moments, the camera, the camera is, as with Renoir, constantly restless and in motion, but often in very gentle ways.
There’s a wonderful motion moment in the scene I mentioned a moment ago, where we see Ricci putting up his first poster when the camera is watching them. And he’s getting these instructions from his comrade about how to put the thing up. And it’s really boring. Well, the we one reason that you know, it’s boring it, obviously you as a viewer, you begin to probably feel it without registering that it’s boring.
But the wait reason that you know it is is that the camera suddenly looks away. What happens is the camera discovers something interesting happening on the street. And while the conversation continues on the soundtrack, the camera shifts away from Ricci and his instructor and follows a wealthy man and two children who are walking behind him and they’re really beggars trying to get money from and the camera just it found it interesting. So we looked at it a very genre noir ish move, there are other moves like this.
So in the in the film, as if the camera like john Renoir’s camera is so interested in the world that it’s capable of being distracted, there’s a sense that the world’s complexity is always threatening the the coherences and meanings that the film is releasing for us. So nonprofessional actors, outdoor filming, armies on set, a profound serious, Misa unsend style influenced by deeply by john Renoir. And finally, we might have maybe another not Finally, one more.
A fourth feature, we might say, is what what I what I was trying to indicate when I talked about the social or political bias of these films, one might say that these films have a more profoundly documentary flavor. I don’t mean that we feel we’re watching documentaries. But we watch, we do feel we’re watching a slice of life, that the economic and moral and social and personal circumstances of the characters we see in Neorealist films are a version of what we would find if we walked into Rome, not in a movie and just look for people of this class, right, a documentary flavor. So that’s four features. And a final feature that I suppose I would want to add has to do with the relation between plot and character. It’s not quite true to say that these films are plotless.
They’re not. And one of the most magnificent things about the Bicycle Thief is the economy of its plot. And I’ll talk a bit about that tonight. But it’s nonetheless true that in new realist films, you do not feel that action drives events. what you feel is that character drives events in some sense, that the that the plot isn’t what the plot aims for is a natural unfolding. You’re never supposed to feel in an neorealist film that that some event in the plot has been introduced arbitrarily, you’re never supposed to step back and say, oh, that could never happen that how implausible is that?
Or I guess they did that because they wanted to show the ex right, the kind of response you often have watching certain forms of Hollywood entertainment, and other forms of merely escapist entertainment fair. But you don’t ever have that feeling. In a good real Neo realist film, what you feel is that the events of the plot unfold naturally out of the economic and social realities the characters live in and out of their characters.
You can test this generalization against tonight’s film, and I’m sure that you’ll find that it’s a compelling one that it really describes this movements, respect for the complexity of character over plot for the complexity of character, and therefore for its commitment to a kind of movie that is it more interested in character than it is in in story or event in a narrow sense.
The central figures of Neorealism are important to mention, and maybe especially the fellow that I have first on my list here shows a raise of a teeny, because he’s the least well known of the names I’ve listed there. The other three names are all famous directors. And of course, the seek is the director of Bicycle Thieves, and I’ll talk about his career this evening.
But 17 he was the theoretical genius behind neorealism and a figure for whom I still retain a tremendous sympathy and affection. He he was a novelist and a an essay writer, as well as a screen screenwriter he collaborated with with Vittorio De Sica on almost every one of the seekers in significant films, not on everyone but on virtually every one that is truly outstanding, and there are a number of them he’s, he’s the the scriptwriter on.
And he had a particularly symbiotic relation to the seeker Sabbatini also articulated what came to be understood as the manifesto of Neorealism. And in one such essay, I don’t know what was titled manifesto of Italian Neorealism, but that was its effect.
He said this to try to summarize what he thought the ambitions of Neorealism were, he said, a good film ought to be focused on on the life of an ordinary man to whom nothing happens. Now, he didn’t really mean that nothing would happen. Right? It’s not It’s not an early version of the Seinfeld program. What he’s trying to get at is this idea that plot does not dominate that character dominates, that the events of the story grow organically out of the materials of the, of the textbook, out of character and out of out of out of social out of social realities.
So Sabbatini was in many ways, a visionary figure, an overt Marxist for a good part for a good part of his life and probably the central intellectual influence on the Neo realist movement. This Conti, the grid, the director, whose dates I’ve put there, is sometimes suggested, it is often said that not all of this country’s work fits neatly, maybe none of it fits neatly into the category of Neorealism. And this partly has to do with a with a kind of flamboyance in in in this country’s visual style, and maybe also a fondness for decadence and for and for elaboration that does not comport with the social meanings that are implicit in the realism. So he’s one of the main neorealist he’s the he’s the one who fits least well, but he’s often said to be the best of them.
And there are many historians of film and scholars of film, including David cook, who believed that the earth trembles the film that he made in 1948 luck, Terra trema, the earth trembles is the greatest of all neorealist movies. I have sometimes been tempted to show it but it’s less characteristic of Neorealism. So I don’t show it but it is a very remarkable film and and this Conti is a very important figure in this in this movement, even though he probably can be said in his later films to to move beyond neorealist concerns.
Roberta Rossellini, who also had a very rich long career as a filmmaker, and I’ve only listed his one film there because I want to show you a clip from it is part of a trilogy of films he made at the very end of the war, called it was called his Roman trilogy or his Rome trilogy, and the first one was always World War Two trilogy.
The first one was called Rome opens. And then there were two other. The third one was called Germany years zero. And they all had sort of political and social ambitions. They wanted to dramatize the post war conditions and show the devastation that followed. The the aftermath. That was the aftermath of the Second World War. Open city had a tremendous impact when it was first released, especially in Italy, because it told an anti fascist story. It’s a somewhat melodramatic film that ends in a very, in a very melodramatic death in a very melodramatic murder acts or an accidental murder.
And and and and partly for that reason it’s it’s a lesson it’s a less powerful and less compelling film totally then something like Bicycle Thieves. But but but its importance is can’t be overestimated. In established the basic principles that I’ve been talking about it was actually begun before the war was over when it was illegal to when when the when the German authorities were still fascist authorities were still controlling Roman Italian society.
And you weren’t supposed to you couldn’t film without a license and receive some of the early scenes from Rome, open city were actually shot illicitly on very bad film stuck from behind doorways and around corners. So the people, the people behind the camera wouldn’t be caught by the authorities. And then the film was completed after peace came in after after the after the defeat of the Axis forces. I’m going to show you a clip from that sequence from that film, from the very beginning of that film to give you a feel for what that film is like as well.
And I think that that clip will also show you why the film was so successful. But I’m partly explained it now. I think the Italians love this movie because it told the useful myth it made it made it appear that very few Italians collaborated with the Nazis, and that most Italians were really on the side of the saboteurs who were trying to blow up fascist waterworks. And this is probably not entirely historically accurate since Mussolini was during much of his career, a very popular figure in Italy. But you can certainly understand why it would have hit a sympathetic chord among Italians, many of whom I’m sure felt terrible ambivalence and shame over the over the events of the of the Second World War.
The Italians were always much more reluctant anti Semites than the Hitler fascists were. And the story of Italian anti anti semitism is much more complicated than the story of, of German anti semitism in this in this period, especially. So I think that one reason for the success of the film had to do with the way atoll, the kind of anti fascist fable that worked particularly well for this post war society that wanted to put fascism behind it, that wanted to repudiate that past that felt they were certainly segments of the population that had never gone along with that past anyway.
So the film sort of mobilized a feel a new kind of feeling of Italian patriotism, and maybe even some, in some sense of a kind of, despite the catastrophe in which it is a kind of hope for the future because the film takes place entirely within the period when the when the fascists were still in control of, of Italy. And the catastrophe that occurs at the end is an isn’t is an is an act of fascist murder and assassinate open and indifference to humanity.
The so so Rasul Rosaleen, he went on to make many, many films and I feel a little guilty only mentioning this one. not totally characteristic film of his but it’s important in the history of Neorealism. Rossellini is a director I much admire, partly because he moved away from fiction. And at the end of his career, he was he was making what he thought of as educational or instructional films.
But but but with the dazzling technique of a great fiction filmmaker. So he’s a very interesting figure to, to study and to, and I hope some of you will, will look at more Neo realist films and consider looking at Rossellini to seek as the final figure that I want to mention as a as a fundamental energy in Neorealism. And I’ll only say about him that he’s probably the most various and gifted of all of all the Neo realist figures, partly because he had been a very successful actor on before he became a director. And I’ll talk a bit more about the secret this evening.
What I want to illustrate now in the in the time we have left is an aspect of the Neo realist aesthetic, if we could use that term that I’ve talked about before, when we discussed Renoir and that I implied in earlier comments that I made this afternoon. It’s what I call the Neo realist counter plot. And what by counter plot, what I really want to call attention to, are all those elements in the film that seem not to take part in the forward momentum of the story, or what we might even think of them as retarding elements in which the in which these films will sort of pause to smell the roses.
It’s not our version of what I mean, what I mean by this renewal realist counter plot might be said to be embodied, in that, in that astonishing camera move we studied at the end of buddhu saved from drowning last week, where the camera makes 180 degrees swerve, becomes interested in the beauty of the of the river becomes interested in the scenery, almost as if it’s forgotten its character, right?
Now, what I mean by the counter plot is this impulse in these films, and especially in these Italian films, to to, to complicate the social and political and even the psychological processes of the story, simply in order to give us a sense of what the experience it’s describing as like, as if it’s a version of what I have what I’m interested in when I talk about how the camera can distract itself. And one way I can illustrate what is so what I mean by counter plot, then are energies that retard or slow down the basic the basic story or that seem not to directly contribute to the basic story, but are but but but remain part of the film’s desire to represent the world to represent reality and something of its complexity and something of its nuance, even in something of its contradictory incoherence.
Right? In other words, I don’t really want to call these moments incoherent moments, they’re not because they build a much larger and more complete picture of the whole world you’re looking at. And in that sense, they’re not incoherent. But but but they are a kind of counter to the ongoing pressure to find out what happens next, what happens next, what happens next? Well, there are many, many examples of this principle in the Bicycle Thief and in other neorealist films. Um, but I want to show you one very dramatic one also, to give you a sense, a flavor for an earlier neorealist film other than the one you’re going to see tonight. This is from the very beginning of open city. Remember, logarithmic associates.
These are residents of Rome. They heard the slogan the sabotage going on in Rome notes near the end of the war when the war is not over. And now the saboteurs returned home and look how they turned out to be. And of course, that’s why No, my Yanni was the actress was worried about where the children were because they will kill you. reality there’s already a counterpart operating here. I hope you see what I look at these innocent faces. So the saboteurs have now come home watch. Wow.
Charlie challenge you know, why challenge you to build a team. Cabeza de la jolla. Coming up. Right? And that’s pretty cheap. Jordan know that I know. Alright, girl stop. I’m stopping it a little early the scene continues, you actually go into another room in a moment. And you see children in a kind of dormitory like room in which there’s one little child sitting on a party. And I think it’s the first party scene in western film, they do something very disturbing to they pick him off the potty and put him back in bed without wiping him.
But the maybe there was no toilet paper in postwar Italy. But I, your laughter indicated to me that you sort of got the point. But talk to me a little bit about what you see there be what, it’s a wonderful example of what I was trying to illustrate at the beginning as well, this principle of multiplicity, what’s happening in this sequence? What what what do we learn? What about living conditions in Rome?
What do we learn and nobody gives a lecture about it? What you think there is a housing crisis in Rome, seven families living together in the same room, an old man in bed, lying in a bed in the parlor, right in the middle, in the space where they’re in the living space of the place. Right? And so that’s clearly where he stays. He’s very ill. Right? What else? The deviation into comedy, the extent right, the mean, the extent to which a kind of kind of series of comic encounters occur after what after a moment of political sabotage, right.
And the incongruity of these little children who are the ones who are the saboteurs is also part of the comedy even before we see them fully returned to the condition of children, when their parents start slapping him in their in the faces and saying, How dare you stay out so late? I didn’t mean to suggest that the parents actually know that the children are saboteurs.
Although, although some may. But I think the point is that being outside at night, it is very dangerous for little children in this environment. And that’s why they’re so concerned. But they but but the fact that even the children are part is an anti fascist fighters becomes a part of what the film is about. So now you can tell from the very beginning from this beginning, what the real sort of pluck energy of the film is, yet, can you and it will take a bit longer before it finally, turns out, the man that she’s about to marry is a is a is a secret agent.
And he’s been he’s under he’s, he he’s being he’s being hunted by the fascist authorities, and the film is about how he’s how how the good Italians try to hide him. But we don’t learn that yet. And I what I want to suggest you is something of life is variety, something of life’s comedy, something of life’s incongruity, so emerges for us in those moments, and it’s what I want to call a counter plot.
Because we take delight in those moments, we don’t we get impatient and say, Come on and film, tell me where you’re going. Because what the film teaches us is that it’s not in that narrow sense of our plot at all. But it’s about life.
In its infinite complexity. The greatest Neo realist films, embrace this principle, as well as any films I’ve ever known. And in addition, they have a kind of moral authority. That’s very rare. I’m very jealous of those of you in this course, who have never seen the Bicycle Thief because it is a remarkable film that I’m sure you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.
We continue our discussion of Italian Neorealism by looking closely tonight at one classic instance of the Neo realist movement, the single most famous film from that from that school bicycle themes. Before we before I turn to talking a bit about aspects of Bicycle Thieves itself, which I hope will frame your viewing in a way that will help you get a lot out get a lot out of the first viewing of the film.
I want to say a few words about Vittorio De Sica himself. I mentioned this afternoon that the Neo realist movement although it was immensely influential, and continues to be influential, in fact, on on realist filmmakers, and on documentarians, and it was especially in its in its earliest phases, hailed globally as a very remarkable movement. It incited criticism almost from the beginning inside Italy.
And I suggested this afternoon that some complaints against the movie essentially came from conservative forces in the society that felt that the portrait of decay and breakdown and dislocation that was at the center of neorealist films, they after all, they were about the contemporary world and about the the broken universe that we the broken planet that were the at least the broken Europe that we encountered. After the war.
There were many conservatives who, in Italy, who felt that it promulgated a bad image for the society that it made investment more difficult than that it was a kind of downer. And this criticism was very powerful. But what really undermined the movement in terms of getting financing, why the reason that the movement sort of ended after about the time, Umberto de, the last of the truly Neo realist films that the seeker made was produced in 1952.
Its life was very, very brief that many people would say that was the end of Neorealism, although there are some films that come after that that have neorealist dimensions and elements in them, including some by Fellini. Still, the idea that the movement had a very short life, despite its immense influences is an accurate one. But what I had left out this afternoon is an important qualification or addition, which is that the film’s also incited criticism from the left, you would think that that’s when you see Bicycle Thieves, you’ll see why that might be a surprising fact, because the sympathies of the film are so totally on the side of the of the underprivileged and the underclasses of the culture.
That it’s, it’s difficult from our contemporary vantage point to see what would have offended leftists. But there were there was a very vigorous and theoretically sophisticated communist movement in Italy, in this period, as there continues to be today in some degree, and and many people on the left especially communists, but other but socialists as well, also complained about Neo realist films, and in particular about the secret films because they come because their complaint was not that the difficulties of the World War exposed, they were perfectly happy with that, but they were angry that there wasn’t a program for innovation.
What they were really angry about was that there wasn’t a Marxist or a socialist program built into the film’s. And it’s always struck me as very revealing and interesting facts about the movement that couldn’t satisfy either left or right, even though these films are among the most powerful and compassionate films about the lives of ordinary
of not just ordinary people, but of people without power of people without control over their lives that have ever been made. So it’s it’s a curious fact that they bothered to seek all his life that that he he seemed unable to please either side in that political argument and, and at one point in, in an interview, he said, something that I if I can find my notes, I’d like to quote to you he said, in response to the to it to a question that asked him why do you think the socialists and the communists were some, at least some socialist members of a team he was a socialist, so he collaborated deeply within loved diseq and collaborated with him on his most important films. I don’t mean that all socialists thought Ill of Italian Neorealism.
They did not. But some did, and certainly people on the far left definitely didn’t. And here was the sequence response to why he said when he expressed disappointment about this, but his response really in a way as a critique of, of the programmatic demands that these that these people were making on his films, he said, my films are a struggle against the absence of human solidarity.
And you should think about this quotation, as you’re watching tonight’s film, because there, as you’ll see, in the film, the official institutions of the society seem to have broken down, or at least two have been to have become not effective. They’re there, they’re there, they’re overburdened, they’re somewhat indifferent. It’s mostly that they’re overburdened, that the problems of the society are too great for the institutional structures that are in place to handle the problems. But in any case, you as you’re watching the film, I think you’ll notice not only clearly this breakdown of institutions, that we might expect to be helpful to Ricci in his quest.
But what we will also discover is that there are other forms of solidarity that emerge in the film. One of them is the solidarity of husband and wife, another as the solidarity very much tested in the film, it’s the great central theme of the film, the solidarity of father and son. And then there is also the solidarity of what we might call neighbors, or neighborhoods.
And you’ll see how that element works toward the end of the film. And it’s remarkable and surprising conclusion. Now, here’s the quotation. My films are a struggle against the absence of human solidarity, against the indifference of society towards suffering. They are a word in favor of the poor, and the unhappy. And one reason I like the statement is it’s so in a certain sense, unsystematic. It shows it, they seem to me to be the words of an artist, not a political pamphleteer.
And they partly explain the richness, the resonant resonance, what I’ve been calling the multiplicity of bicycle themes. There’s a moment in bicycle themes, about which Andre Bazar has written very beautifully. The same critic that smokes that was a champion of French poetic realism and genre Anwar, of course, becomes one of the great champions of Italian neorealism, he can see that, that that the Italian form of realism is an extension and elaboration and in some ways, a deepening of the implications of poetic realism. And he, and he has written brilliantly about the Neo realist, and especially about about the seeker. And there’s one place in the film that he particularly focuses on in one of his essays.
It’s a it’s a month, I have to give away a small part of the plot in order to explain this, but it really won’t trouble you because the the plot engine gets going so early in the film, that it’s hardly a surprise. In fact, you really know what’s going to happen almost from the opening dialogue in the film where people are arguing about who has bicycles and who does not.
The film is organized in a very elegant, relatively simple way it covers essentially three days of time. The first day is the day that in which Ricci gets the the Commission for the job. And then go then goes with his wife to get his bicycle out of hock. And you’ll see that they have to go through certain certain kinds of tricks to find the money for for to do this.
And then once he has his bicycle, he goes to work. And on his first day of work, guess what happens? Someone Guess who hasn’t seen the film? What do you think might get stolen? Okay, right, his bicycle is stolen on the first day of work, okay. Now, the fact is, you’re really not surprised when it happens. Because almost from that first scene, you’re aware that bicycles are this incredibly precious object in the world, and yet also incredibly common. And that’s part of why it’s such a resonant symbol in film.
But at the center of the film, the most fundamental and and most memorable parts of the film involve what I call sort of the third segment, I don’t know that the segments are actually equal in proportion. In terms of time, I think the third is the longer one. But the third sequence is the Odyssey, or the quest in which Ricci and his young son embark on in order to recover his bicycle. So he spends the whole I think he gets his job, gets his bike starts his job on Friday has his bike stolen on Friday.
Maybe it’s on Saturday, but in any case, he he then he then gets his bike stolen. He then He then asked for help from various sources and the following day, he spends the entire day walking through the city of Rome looking for the thief trying to find his bike, he actually finds the thief as you’ll see in the grand climax of the film.
Although the thief turns out to be as as miserable and at least as much without prospects as portrayed He himself. And something very interesting happens in that moment in the film because your sympathies shift in some way to the, to the thief in in an odd way and your watch as his neighborhood gathers around the thief to protect him in certain respects.
So the so the heart of the film is this search that the father and the son go on through the third day of the of the of the plot looking looking for the bicycle. And as the day wears on the Father, the father becomes more and more nervous more and more uneasy, more and more filled with anxiety, the bike seems to him the solution to all difficulties. And sometimes the sun slows him down.
And then there are scenes in which the father becomes annoyed or angry with the son getting a bit ahead of myself. So I won’t repeat this again. But I’ll come back to these matters, the theme of fathers and sons. In any case, there’s a moment in this Odyssey where the father and the son are engaged in this search for the bicycle, when it’s just after I think it’s exactly at a moment when there’s a gigantic downpour, they’re caught in a terrible rainstorm. I think in fact, the rainstorm may have caused this, the boy has to pee very badly.
And so he tweeted me and he interrupts the quest to go and pee. I mean, he has to be you have to go, you have to go. But the father is so upset that the boy has slowed him down that he slaps him. And it’s a tip like you get a sense that is maybe the first moment that this man has ever struck his son. I mean, it’s it’s a tremendously fraught moment. And and this is how Besant talks about it. And this is why I mentioned this moment.
Now it’s a way of illustrating this principle of texture or openness to experience. That’s part of the seekers vision of the world. He is a socially conscious director, but he’s not a programmatic or, or a politically preachy director. So that focuses on that moment I’ve just described you and he says, The boy needs to pee. A downpour interrupts the chase, then he says, quote, The events are not necessarily signs of something of a truth of which we are to be convinced. They all carry their own weight, the rain, the need to pee, the father’s anger, right.
They all carry their own weight, their complete uniqueness, they all have bas n says. So finally, they all have that ambiguity that characterizes any fact. When a film is able to capture that ambiguity that characterizes any fact. It’s a work of art. Right? It can be programmatic if it does that. And in fact, the moment I’m describing is, is really in some sense, a version of what I’ve been calling the Neorealist counter plot.
What constantly happens in good neorealist films and what happens again and again in the Bicycle Thief is that the ongoing quest for the bicycle is retarded or interrupted by various kinds of accident disturbance, strange encounter, so that the so that the search for the bicycle becomes something much larger than that. And every particular moment in the film has, as bizarre says, its own uniqueness, its own, its you don’t feel that anything is in the film to further the plot, or to illuminate the character, or to tell you something about what political attitudes you should have.
Although by the time you’re finished with the film, you do have a very coherent sense of how the society is breaking down of what of how people are sustaining themselves of how about how difficult life is in post war, Italy, you’re aware of all of these things. And, and aware of them with a concreteness and a clarity that you wouldn’t have.
If you read an abstract essay. You’ve seen them embodied in a totally believable fiction. But what gives the fiction its authority what gives it its power is precisely that you don’t feel you’re watching a sermon, you don’t feel you’re watching something in which in which some political moralist is beating you over the head and telling you.
Well, you better love this poor guy you but and in fact, as the film goes on, one of the things you discover is that there are very there are nasty or bad sides to poor Ricci, we understand that he’s driven by economic anxiety that’s very deep, and it partly certainly mitigates his his behavior, but he behaves crudely and cruelly to his son, never intending to.
And then of course, there are moments when he recovers and tries to tries to make up with his son. I’ll come back to this in a moment. So this passage from bezer also calls attention then to what I think of as a signal feature in these films, the pet, and especially in the Bicycle Thief, that power that that any moment in the film has to express a kind of complete uniqueness, the ambiguity that characterizes reality itself. Well, what I’d like to briefly do is give you a partial account, a, a modest account of the seekers own career, and then say some things about the bicycle about Bicycle Thieves.
The seeker was a stage actor. He gave regimental performances when he served in the army in the First World War. became a stagehand right after the war and an actor in 1923. He joined a theater company in 1925 as a touring company, and he became a tremendous success. In a series of performances he was in 1927, he appeared on stage in Rome in something called the zabuton reviews. And I think it involves singing and dancing. And this was an unbelievable success and turned him into a kind of matinee idol, or at least the theater icon.
He made his first film in that same year in 1922, as an actor, and his first success came, he continued to act in films intermittently for the next decade, but he didn’t become a recognizably serious film actor until his first major success in 1932. And then he and then, for 10 years, he is a kind of matinee idol on in Italian movies, he made over 40 films in the period between as an actor between 1932 and 1942 him a very handsome man, as some of you may know if you’ve seen him, and tape capable of great subtlety as an actor.
This may help to explain why he was such a great director of non professional actors, because he knew intuitively I think, how to bring out a performance from it from it from someone who was not trained in, in performing and in acting. He begins to DirectX in 1940, and makes a series of interesting but forgettable films, I suppose. His first really significant film from one angle anyway, but if we’re especially if we’re interested in the development of Neorealism is a film he makes in 1942, co screenwriter Cesare Sabatini entitled The children are watching us.
And it’s it’s it’s I’ve seen the film it’s it’s not a great film. But it’s an interesting film. And there are some remarkable moments in it. The title tells you something about the neorealist commitment to focus on the underprivileged and the disempowered in society that many neorealist films focus directly on children and the children are watching us is one such film.
And it almost announces that the the idea that children are among the victims of society because they are subjected not only to all the political and social authorities of the society, but also to the arbitrary authority of their own parents and their own and their own immediate family environment. So the children are watching us announces this interest in the disenfranchised and especially in children. And it’s a film about the breakup of a middle class marriage, mostly told through the eyes of the children.
So there are certain things certain behaviors on the part of the adults are never fully explained because you witness and experience the film, through the not just the eyes, but through the perceptions, the understanding the sensibility of children who are somewhat confused about what they’re seeing.
The the film that established him as an international figure and established Neorealism as an international movement was one that De Sica and Sabatini collaborated on in 1946. And it was entitled shoe shine. And I sometimes have been tempted to show shine in this course, even though it’s a much less perfect film than Bicycle Thieves because in its own way, it’s so powerful and moving. One of the most interesting things about Italian Neorealism. Apart from the fact that it was so short lived is how relevant the film still feel today.
If you watch shoeshine, or another of the films that I’ve that I’ve listed here, on Berto D, which is about the problems of people who have gone into rid of all of the old people who are retired pensioners, and the problems they face when there is horrific inflation. The Secret dedicated that film to his father, and it’s about an old man who’s very proud of us to be redresses very well, but he’s tremendously isolated. He’s terribly poor, he’s almost reduced to begging in the course of the film. And there’s even a moment near the end of the film where he contemplates and then pulls back from suicide.
So, but but watching that film today, it feels much less dated than some films that are much later than that, that were produced 1015 2025 years after it, because the theme is so relevant to me because we know that in society today, there are so many in all Western societies, but especially in the United States, there are pensioners who can’t make ends ends meet And the same thing is true I think in some degree of the of the, of the fate of children in modern society.
So shoeshine, although it has a very melodramatic and violent ending, it’s an immensely powerful film, essentially, it’s a story about two boys to Roman street urchins, who are taken advantage of, in some sense by by, by their own relatives, who are trafficking in black market goods. It’s just the same, it’s set in the same moment at the at the end of the war.
In fact, the film opens with these, these, these urchins trying to make a living as shoeshine boys. That’s why that where the title comes from, and the shoeshine boys are wandering the streets of Rome, going up to American soldiers who are dominating the streets, the West, it’s still an occupied city, asking soldiers if they want shoe shines, and and the the, the children are unbelievable victims, they’re very close friends, they end up buying a racehorse, a broken down old racehorse that that can’t race anymore, and they stable it someplace.
And they’re, they’re very excited about about their, about their possession of this horse. And there’s some early scenes in which you see them riding on the horse with tremendous joy and so forth. But, of course, this is the the dawn before the miserable night. Because what then happens is the kids are taken advantage of by one of their by by a close relative.
They’re involved in black market activities, the many the adults use the children because they know that the children are less vulnerable than they would be if they’re caught. The children are caught caught. They’re sent to reform school. And most of the film takes place in the reform school and you see these two bright eyed beautiful young children. No, maybe 10 years old, who are the fastest and closest of friends when they go into jail slowly breaking down you see their humanity being beaten out of the by the conditions in the reforms in the in the in the children’s prison.
It’s a it’s a terrible, disturbing film, in part, because you can you can see that the people who are running the prison actually mean well, they’re not vicious, evil people who want to harm children. They just the the, the system seems designed simply to cause more harm than good and to and to destroy the vitality and optimism and and when I say the film ends melodramatically one one child strikes out at his erstwhile best friend and knocks him down a bank and he dies. So there’s an effect accidentally murders is a person who had been his dearest friend.
I think it’s a failure in the film. I think that you didn’t need the murder for the meanings of the film to be available. I think that the seek to learn something from that and when you watch the ending of the Bicycle Thief, one of the things I hope you’ll ask yourself is why is it so apparently undramatic? And why does that undramatic ending in the end seem so profound, so moving so meaningful? It’s as if it’s as if the sequence sort of learned his lesson. It’s as if he drove his point home too heavily at the end of shoe shine. And he realized that to have a truly organic text that did what Blizzard wants text to do reflect the unique the unique ambiguity of every of every experience.
The ending of the bicycle of Bicycle Thieves does that much more effectively as I hope you’ll watch for when you went when you’re watching the film. So shot but Shawn was it what made a tremendous impact and it one of the first of four Academy Awards that to seek one as as Best Director for this was for the best foreign film of the year in 1946. And he put Neil realism on the map. And then, two years later, Sabatini and and diseq have followed with what I suppose we could call their masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. I want to say this is not a complete remotely complete list of the sequence films. I’ve just listed some highlights here because I want to give you a sense of his work.
I’ve mentioned Umberto de already the last neorealist film according to many people, and a very moving one about about an old pensioner the film to women starts to feel aren one of the one of the great sort of pulchra Tunis, Italian movie stars of the 50s and 60s, and it got a lot of attention. And there and there were other interesting many other interesting films that he made.
But one of his great triumphs was the very last film he made and that’s why I want to mention it does have a teeny return to do an uncredited co screenplay work to do uncredited screenplay work on finzi containing and you can feel that devotees hand in many moments in the in the film, it’s an adaptation of a novel. And of course, as some of you may know, it’s really a holocaust film. It’s about the build up to the Holocaust and the things that continue are very wealthy, Italian Jews. The story is about a poor young Jewish scholar who is because of the anti Jewish laws that are developing in, in Fascist Italy is barred from using the Public Library. And he’s a very gifted young scholar.
He’s in his early 20s. So he gets permitted. So he finds out that this very wealthy aristocratic family, also Jewish, the finzi, Contini, have a magnificent library and the things that continue open their library to him since he’s barred from going to public life. And, of course, what happens is, you might you might guess this, too. It’s a wonderful novel, The film is even more beautiful. I think.
He falls in love with the finzi Contini daughter, right. So it’s a it’s a class issue, you know, that poor boy rich girl. And the film The film, that sort of foreground of the film is this cross class romance. But in the background of the film, all the it’s something like cabaret but not as dramatic, not as overt. Because what’s going on in the background of the film is the is the growth of fascism.
And, and the film ends. With many of the characters we’ve gotten to know very well both young and old, all of them Jews, some very aristocratic and some at the bottom of the social hierarchy, all being herded together, being ready to be shipped off to the camps, you don’t actually go into the final scenes of the film, have them in the railroad station being being prepared for their for their final journey. And the film has a film is also full of comedy, just as
the some of the passages that I showed you in clips this afternoon, mixed comedy with social with socially serious themes. This is even truer of the garden of the finzi Contini. One of the reasons I liked the film so much is that it’s a return to the energies and the moral passion that had marked to seek his earlier career. And I think that my own feeling is the finzi continue the Garden of the finzi continues, is one of the great European films, it’s, it certainly would be on my list of the best 15 or 20. European films of the sound era.
And I think I think many of you would find it very instructive and moving. But I think especially so after you saw some of the true Neo realist films, the early Neo realist films, it one can’t really call the Garden of the finzi containing a NEO realist film, although it has many elements in common with those earlier texts. So the seeker was a remarkable man, a significant actor, a great director.
He directed over 25 films he directed 25 films in his career won four Oscars for Best Foreign Film. He acted in more than 150 films, mostly light, comic, social manners kind of roles. But there’s one exception I perhaps should mention. Playing in a film for his friend Roberto Rossellini in 1959. Rossellini his greatest film a film called General delauro via the secret play the lead, he plays the general and it’s probably his most memorable performance. And it’s very, very subtle and good film of all about political ambiguities and conflicts of loyalty, it’s an add human frailty, human inadequacy, you know, in a way that’s characteristic of the best neorealist work. Now, those are all films I recommend, or urge you to consider watching in your in your leisure time.
Let me say a few words now and about about bicycle themes. And I’ve already implied or actually set a part of my what I want to say. So I think I can be briefer than I had originally planned. Let’s say it’s, let me remind you again, about the structure I’ve mentioned to you that the structure of the film is elegantly simple, that the amount of time that passes is very compressed.
And that’s helpful because you, you you’ve the time compression makes you aware of the urgency of the quest that the Father and the Son are engaged on when they start when when they’re searching for the bicycle. So one way and and as the story unfolds, a number of things begin to happen. The quest for the bicycle becomes a kind of Odyssey in which in which several things happen.
One is the film takes you on an exploration of Rome, you actually it’s like one of the great city films, it visits the city, it explores the city, you see different, different, it’s not just that you see police stations and religious institutions and the catacombs underneath the city where the unions meet. And where Ricci first goes to get help from his union from union members who promise him that they’ll find his bike very easily and they give him a plan and he’s very excited then the next morning when they follow the instructions of the Union boss doesn’t help.
So the unions are breaking down as well as the church as well as certain kinds of welfare organizations from the state and so on. So one thing that Phil becomes then is a kind of travelogue, a kind of exploration of the city, the city’s geography, as well as the city’s makeup in some way. You You go into different neighborhoods and you hear, I think Italians can pick up different different neighborhood speech patterns in the film, at least I’ve been told this by nature by native Italians.
So it’s a kind of travelogue, in one sense, it explores this, this play, and part of the exploration of course, part part of the exploration up involves certain ancillary or, or, or, or, or other themes that are not that are that are organically linked to the, to the story of looking at going through the city looking for the bicycle. And one of these one of these, of course, is what we might call the social themes of the film. Because as the the protagonists make their way through the city searching for the bicycle one, what you encounter are little vignettes that tell you something about the social hierarchies of the society, about the efficacy or inadequacy of its institutions.
Right, I won’t go into great detail here, I want to, I hope you’ll draw your own conclusions and name some of the names some of the specific examples that reinforce this general idea. But I do want to mention,
at least one moment, in this in this in this Odyssey, one of the most dramatic and disturbingly comic moments in the film occurs when Ricci and his son actually think they’ve seen the thief, they think they recognize him and they FOLLOW Him. And they get to a, essentially a mission, were relatively well off. Self satisfied self-satisfied Christians are serving meals to the indigent and the poor, right? And Ricci gets into this institution, not but not because he sort of wants the meal or because he needs the religious uplift.
But because he’s chasing his thief, right. And he finds once he’s in there that he can’t get out. It turns out that in this institution that not only do they do the, the poor, have to pay for their meal by by agreeing to all kinds of religious behaviors, prayers and other kinds of things. But they’re also locked into the building, they’re not allowed to eat, they’re not allowed to leave, at least until they finish eating, maybe they’re not allowed to leave, until they can be checked to make sure they’re not stealing the soup bowls. But in any case, it’s it’s it’s a very interesting moment, because you can see that even the people who intend to do well in the society often do more harm than good.
And, and of course, the implication is that the traditional religious institutions and traditional religious arrangements are not sufficient to take care of or to or, or, or adequately to respect the the difficulties of the poor. And that’s just one such moment. The mean, there, there are a number of there are a number of others. And in fact, there is one other moment I should mention, as a kind of contrast. I’ve said that we see many instances in which we understand that the larger institutions of society, like the police, or the religious system, or the union system are breaking down or not really helping people.
But I’ve been I’ve also said that there are some other sort of unofficial and non institutionalized sources of solidarity uncomfort that emerge in the course of the film, and I hope you’ll watch for them and think about what they’re what what their significance is. But there’s one, but there’s one moment in which we might say, which complicates this argument, because we can see the social institution of the society, social institutions have not actually functioning effectively, but at least showing some compassion.
It’s an astonishingly vivid, meaningful moment in the film another one of these moments, so full of multiplicity that the meanings are are so deeply embedded in what you dramatically see that sometimes you don’t even step back to generalize on the meaning of what you’ve seen. And this is a scene a very early in the film, where Ricci actually goes to retrieve his bicycle. And his wife has figured out a way basically what she figures out his will sell they have a little bit they they sell her dowry, she has a couple of fancy silk sheets and they take them to the hock shop and they and they pour on the sheets in order to get enough money to get the bicycle out of hock right that means they’re going to be sleeping on mattresses.
But so what this is more important, right? And so and you see Ricci and his wife go to the pawn shop which is clearly it’s clearly run by the state it’s not like a private porn but it’s obviously a city institution of some kind and and they bring the linen up to the guy and he looks at them and he says okay, I’ll give you this much money and they need a little bit more because they need more to get the bike out of hock so they they ask him for more money and he looks at he says it’s not really worth it. Okay. And he gives that and it’s an act of generosity on his part because he didn’t have to do it and you Gives them just enough money for this stuff so that they can get his bike out of pocket then completely silent.
You see him pick this material up this this pawned bedding this pawn linen, and he turns around I think he does it he may give it to another character I haven’t looked at the scene and a year or two, so I don’t remember the you’ll recognize the seed. I think it’s the same man who does it or you may give it to someone else with the material. The three or four sheets that are involved are taken by somebody walk to the back of a room, and he begins to climb a ladder and as he climbs you realize that what he’s climbing up is a he’s he’s climbing a ladder, which is leaning against a series of shelves that seem to go on endlessly.
They seem to be in a in an auditorium the size of the city of Pittsburgh, and they go up endlessly high. And every single shelf every single inch of space on the shelf is filled with bedding, as if the entire city of Rome has pawned its bedding.
As if everybody in Rome is sleeping on mattresses. Now the film never makes a comment about this. No one in the film says anything about it. But it’s an unbelievably resonant and rich moment. And it’s and it’s also it does further the sort of social themes of the film. But it occurs in a moment in which you also see the pawnbroker showing a moment of compassion and generosity. And if he did not show that generosity, they wouldn’t have been able to get the bicycle. So it’s a it’s a complicated moment.
It does mean if all this linen has been pawned, there’s some question about whether or not the city services are doing much good for anybody that the city’s in obvious trouble if nobody has any bed, then linen any longer. The implication is this is an unbelievably impoverished and, and and damaged environment. But it’s done in such a quiet, and there’s even some it’s done in such a quiet way. There’s even something almost comic about the sense you have of the endless number of these things. Well, even the idea that you have to distinguish one from the other seems from our vantage point, a bit silly, even though each one has a ticket on it, each one belongs to an individual family.
So watch for that moment, it has some of that ambiguity that we’ve been that present talks about. So the structure of the film is organic in the sense that nothing that happens in the film doesn’t seem to arise naturally out of the needs of the characters, we have to find our new bite, we have to find our bike. And in the course of their travels, other things happen, the boy has to pee, they get hungry, they have to eat, or sometimes it rains, they have to get out of the rain, right. And that’s part of that becomes part of the ongoing sort of, or organic development of the of the story you never once feel, I think in this film, that that any event has been imposed from the outside, every event seems to arise naturally out of the circumstances, and nature of the characters.
That’s why I call it organic. It’s a deeply it’s a it’s a deeply organic way of thinking about the material, but it’s organic. And another way to of course, because it’s deeply coherent. When you finally finish the film. When you step back, you say okay, yes, the film slowed down here. And yes, the film seem to generate what Thorburn calls a counter plot here. Nonetheless, the taken as a whole, there’s a profound moral and, and thematic coherence in this organically fluid movie. So the structure of the film is part of its essence. And although I haven’t put this on the outline, because we’ve talked about this so often already, pay attention to the Renoir ish type camera behavior. I mean, this, the film’s visual style is like john Renoir’s, there’s a kind of, there’s a kind of elegant restlessness to the camera.
That’s that, that that’s very much a part of what the film of what the film achieves. So, in talking about the social themes, all I meant to call your attention to was the extent to which in a variety of ways, the film calls attention to the miserably endangered circumstances of ordinary people in this broken down war torn environment. And it also looks to those who are seems to find without even looking to those sort of dramatize or reveal those sources of support and sustenance, that get us through bad times. And as you’re watching the ending of the film, ask yourself what these things mean. And what it means that the that whether I won’t I won’t actually tell you whether he recovers the bike or not let you see that for yourselves.
Ask yourself whether or not he recovers, the bike wouldn’t have made any difference. Does it matter what given what the film is finally saying to us in those final in those final images? Well, character This is one of the great films about character I think, and especially about about the relation between the Father and the Son. They’re at the very center of the film. I’ve already said in a way that this Odyssey that they go on as a travelogue. It teaches us about the geography and social circumstances and social arrangements and class system and institutional systems of Rome.
It does that But it also, it’s also an odyssey in which the father and the son get to know each other in the in a deeper and in many ways, much more disturbing way than has ever happened to them before. The most poignant and terrible thing about this film, in fact is that the Odyssey I’ve been describing through Rome with his son, by Ricci, is also an initiation story, a story about growing up. But what happens to Ricci son in this film doesn’t happen to most young boys, until they’re much older, and it happens gradually, not all at once. But what reaches son discovers in the course of this day, are his father’s flaws. He discovers things about his father, that no boy really wants to know even if he’s 67 years old, like your professor.
And he discovers these things about he discovers these things about his father, in the most stressful circumstances, his father is violent toward him, his father is indifferent toward him, then there are moments when after his father feels terrible anxiety and grief over the way he’s treated, where his father tries to make up with him. And these, and you can see the boy not wanting to let him do it. It’s unbelievably rich. And I don’t think anyone who pays attention to this will fail to recognize the interactions between the father and son as unbelievably true, marvelously accurate to the way in which loving parents and loving children often interact with each other because they have many moments where they’re really not happy with each other at all. What the boy discovers about his father are some things that no child ever wants to know about his father.
Not just that he’s flawed, but that he’s deeply, deeply flawed, that he’s that he’s capable of really terrible behavior. And the boy is and something that happens in this Odyssey, it’s one of the subtlest things about the film, the basic relations between fathers and sons are reversed. And we find that the Son, this little child, is twice in the film, in the condition of in the position of having to rescue his father. I’m simplifying certain things, because I don’t want to give away the plot. But you will see how this works out in the film. I mean, there are two moments in the film in which Ritchie’s fate would be far more dire than it is because of his son’s presence.
His Son, in a sense is his Savior, so that the fathers are supposed to protect their sons not the reverse. And part of the meaning of this adventure is that Ricci has been reduced to such a miserable level, that he even has to rely on his son’s help in order to get in order to get by this, and both of them father and son, experienced this reversal. So it’s a, it’s a psychologically traumatic and deeply moving experience.
Although Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that the child doesn’t come to terms with what he does come to terms with what he learns. I think it’s quite remarkable. I mean, I mean, I would have had trouble with what that boy comes to terms with as an adult, and he does it as a child. But I think, of course, it’s also believable, as you’ll see.
So the so the film, so the film is profound and serious about the social circumstances of post war Italy, its profound and serious about the indifference of certain kinds of institutional arrangements to the, to the real miseries of, of human experience. And it is powerful and deep exploration of human character, and especially, centrally the relation between Richie and his son, the relation between fathers and becomes a kind of one of the great parables of, of the relations between adults and children between fathers.
It’s one of the great father and son stories of of all time. Let me conclude by saying a couple of words about the title. I mean, there’s much more in the film I wish I could talk about. But by this time in the course, if you can’t get this stuff yourself, I haven’t done my job. I hope all of you are watching films much more attentively and carefully than you had before.
I hope that your enjoyment has been increased rather than decreased by what you’ve learned in this course. And let the Bicycle Thief be a test. Because in many ways, it’s not the kind of film most of you guys would go out to watch. First of all, it’s only it’s in black and white. Second, it’s whatever it is more than 50 years old. But I think you’ll I think you’ll recognize that it that it hasn’t aged that that that the film is as compelling now as it was when it would may be even more compelling now than when it was made because some of the political turmoil has disappeared.
There’s no longer there’s no longer the taint of fascism hanging over Italian. artistically productions as they were at the end of the war, there’s a historical sense of the importance of this movement. So maybe we can look at these at these neorealist films with a more objective eye than than the original audiences could. In any case, the title is an interesting one. When it was first translated into English it was and in fact, it’s still widely known, you might have noticed a few slips of the tongue on my part where I started to call it the Bicycle Thief.
The reason is, it’s still on often called that, and when it was originally brought into the United States and translated both in in Great Britain and in the United States, it was called the Bicycle Thief. Now the Italian is in the plural, it’s labrie dBc. Collect thieves of the bicycle would be the literal translation. Right? Now the question is why the plural? And I think you can imagine the answer just from that opening sequence that I showed you this afternoon. Can you?
What, why? Why would it be plural? Why would the title be plural? One of the reasons is from the very opening sequence we see that everybody that first that the bicycle is a very ambiguous and complicated symbol in the film, symbol as a bad word, because it’s such an actuality that it seems pretentious to call it a symbol, you see hundreds of maybe 1000s of bicycles in the film. That’s part of what makes Ritchie’s loss of the bicycle so poignant. You have the sense as he’s walking around the city that oh, my God, everybody has a bicycle.
There are 10 million bicycles in this city. Poor Ricci can’t find one can find does it seem I mean, there’s something there’s something horrific about the idea that’s an item so common could still for Ricci be so precious, as to constitute his livelihood or threat, a threat against his livelihood if you can’t find the bicycle. And you can guess now on the basis of what I’ve already said, One reason for why the title is plural. Why as Ricci is walking around, looking for his bicycle, walking through a city full of hundreds and 1000s of bicycles, what might he think?
What might you think, if you needed the bicycle desperately? Why not pinch one, right? Why not? So one of the reasons that the title is plural is that we choose one of the thieves, right? I mean, oh, I’m only suggesting that he’s the thief by sort of psychological inclination he looks lovingly at But as you’ll see, the plot makes this even more explicit. I didn’t want to I don’t want to give away the plot, he actually, I will, he actually does, in a certain sense become a thief.
But long before he becomes a literal thief, and actually puts his hands on someone else’s bicycle, you you win am I even think that some people in the audience may get the idea before Ricci does. mean you’re watching this guy was so terrible looking from looking every place for his bicycle, and he’s surrounded by bicycles. He’s inundated by bicycles. It’s after he recovers the bicycle before he goes to work.
His wife asked him to take him to a special location. She wants to thank someone, it turns out that that he had, so when they get on the bike, she rides behind him and he rides over on the bike. And he waits outside this place when his wife goes up, his wife is taking a long time. So he leans his bike against the wall, and he starts to go up the stairs and he looks he sees that his bike is vulnerable. So he walks down, he finds a kitten, he gives the I think it gives the kid a coin, and tells the kid to guard the bike.
Then he starts walking up the stairs. Again, this is very early in the film. And think how clever This is. And you’re aware of how vulnerable The bike is, from that moment long. Wait, this is a day before it’s stolen, right? And, and you’re you’re aware of how precious it is. And as you ascend the stairs, you actually become afraid that his bicycle might be stolen.
You begin so that one of the reasons that the title is ambiguous is I think in the end, that the title encompasses not just the thief who steals Rich’s bike, and not just Ricci himself, who contemplates becoming a thief in his desperation, but also the audience, which becomes complicit in Rich’s impulse to criminality, because we ourselves to God steal the goddamn bike, take the bike, stop worrying about get it get away, there’s a bike you can take. And I think anyone watching the film has this feeling after a relatively short time, so that we’re Bicycle Thieves as well.
So part of the subtlety of the time. And you’ll see as the as the film works itself out, I’ve already implied this, when they finally catch up with the lead with the thief, the guy they think is the thief, he turns out to be an even more miserable specimen, then poor Ricci he’s an epileptic, he has these out of work, he has to be protected by his community. His mother is very protective of him.
There’s some modest minor possibility that he’s acting, he’s faking his, his his his his his mental problems, and maybe faking everything. But I don’t think so. And you can judge yourself whether there’s what is in any case, the case, what is any case, surely true. Is that is that the neighborhood coalesces around him because Ricci and his son are strangers and are attacking someone from their neighborhood, right.
When when this When this happens, one of the things that you one of the things you feel is not just that that the thief that Ricci was going going after deserve some sympathy to you begin to feel some sense that his difficulties are not that you excuse his thievery, but you understand it in a in a deep and generous way I think. And that complicates your sense of who thieves are and what thieves are and then you’ve come
to recognize that reaches a potential beef and you care about rich you see what a loving father he is what a desperate what how desperate he is to take care of his family. So you you sympathize with him and then you realize if you’ve been thinking about it that of course you’ve been coveting bicycles yourself as if you so the audience and the real thief and Ricci the would be thief are all implicated together as if what he’s saying is that our common humanity is what Bicycle Thieves suggest. And that’s one of the reasons that the title needs to be plural. Because the film is not about a single Bicycle Thief. It’s about the Bicycle Thief in all of us. Enjoy the film.