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Cinema: Italian neorealism and its importance for the formation of a new post-war identity

Atualizado: 13 de mai. de 2021

With the Second World War (1939-1945), cinematographic productions were interrupted or reduced, as in Italy and Germany, to films of exaltation to Nazism. But the period was a starting point for the development of a new language and themes that marked generations and made history, both in Europe and in the United States.

In some countries, cinema was seen as a civilising instrument to rebuild European cultural identity in the post-war moment. Going in another direction to what was produced in Hollywood, the post-war period brought artistic proposals from an unknown cinema, Modern Cinema emerged, better defined by Neorealism.

Rome, Open City (1945) by Roberto Rossellini

The origin of the movement lies in the films produced by Italian documentary filmmakers under Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, in power from October 1922 until the end of German domination. In 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the Cinecittà, a cinema studio bombed by allied countries in the Second World War. Intellectual and artists stood out for their resistance against fascism and throughout Nazi occupation.

In cinema, Italian neorealism follows a period marked by biblical-themed productions, films exalting Nazism - as mentioned, or melodramas where people were obsessed by the divas. These were called “White Telephone” cinema because they were made in a studio that represented chic residences and stories outside of Italian reality.

The son of the then dictator, Vittorio Mussolini, was a cinema lover and was interested in developing authentic productions. In 1938 he founded Revista Cinema, which had the collaboration of several artists and leftist intellectuals. Most of them are considered good documentarians, such as Giuseppe De Santis, Mario Alicata, Giovanni Puccini, Roberto Rossellini and Vitorio De Sica.

The documentary approach registered simple, working class and unemployed people from the suburbs in search of job opportunities who were soon taken to fiction films in order to show off the misery of the popular classes, accentuated during and after the War. They were films produced with few resources, there was no structure for production, much less distribution.

Neorealism was characterised by the aesthetics of framing in joint planes and medium planes. There were no close-ups, as the objective was to record the scene as it goes. The camera did not lead the viewer. The scenarios were real with scenes shot in the middle of the city, during busy times. The scripts were improvised with simple dialogues and enhancement of the dialects, usually done with the use of non-actors

In 1943, still during the war, the precursor films of this movement were made: Four Steps in the Clouds (1942), by Alessandro Blasetti, The Children are Watching Us (1944), by Vittorio De Sica and - the most impactful of all - Obsession (1943), by Luchino Visconti. This is an adaptation of James I. Cain's novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), which later had two adaptations in US cinema.

Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti

The film required a long research of integration of the characters with the landscape. The plot brings a woman and her lover, who plan the murder of her husband to rescue the insurance money. Obviously, it was considered a work of affront to the family's Christian values. Fascists hated it and the Church rebuked it.

Director Roberto Rosselini, who was part of the Italian resistance, filmed the city of Rome in 1945, two months after the Nazi eviction. The film project was presented by a young screenwriter at the time, who would later become one of the greatest filmmakers in the world: Federico Fellini. The film Rome, Open City (1945), shows the wreckage of the war, in addition to recording the still strong presence of the German soldiers (who come as extras in the plot).

The narrative brings resistance to fascism, with striking scenes of tortures and murders. The best-known actor in the film is Aldo Fabrizi, who plays Don Pietro Pellegrini, the priest in the scenes of humor and intense drama. Actors Anna Magnani and Marcelo Pagliero became known in this work. The scene in which Pina (Anna Magnani) runs after the police car and is murdered in front of her son has become anthological. Rejected by Italian critics, Rome, Open City was consecrated a masterpiece at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, which was worth the top prize and its worldwide circulation. Most of the Neorealist films used children as a symbol of optimism, sicking for a better future.

Roberto Rossellini became one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema, making a vast body of work until the early 1970s. Together with Rome, Open City, they composed the so-called War Trilogy: Paisá (1946), a set of six episodes, about World War II situations; and Germany, Year Zero (1948), a sad and beautiful representation of the post-war ruins of Germany, which features a child as the protagonist.

Another key director of the Italian Neorealist movement is Vittorio De Sica. In addition to the aforementioned, The Children are Watching Us (19434, his most important and well-known films of this movement are Victims of the Storm (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951) and Umberto D (1951). The latter deals with the drama of the elderly in the post-war period, whose retirement is not enough to pay for their home. There is an emblematic scene, even funny, in which Umberto is admitted to a public hospital and one of the patients reveals that he insists on getting sick to have the food and hospital roof. A sad reality of the period.

The third most significant filmmaker in Italian Neorealism was Luchino Visconti, of noble origin (he was the Count of Lonato Pozzolo), but a communist. Called the “red count”, Visconti began his career with neorealist films, such as the aforementioned Obsession (1943). Portraying post-war Italy, he made La Terra Trema (1948) and Bellissima (1951), this considered the last and most characteristic film of the movement. Then, always improving his aesthetic refinement, he expanded the thematic possibilities of his films, making great masterpieces, already without the mark of the post-war movement, such as White Nights (1957); Rocco and His Brothers (1960); The Leopard (1963); The Damned (1969); Death in Venice (1971); Ludwig (1973); Conversation Peace (1974) and The Innocent (1976).

From the second half of the 1950s, Italian productions took on other facets, especially with good quality comedies. But this break with Hollywood cinema left its mark until today, projecting and reinforcing contemporary identities that influenced the beginning of Modern Cinema around the world. The movement originated in Italy and inspired several other countries to create fictional productions with documentary tones.

Italian Neorealism showed Italian experience from a new angle. They changed the way that the World thinks about cinema, as mentioned by Martin Scorsese. Differently from White Telephone films, the movement went to another direction from socially conservative stories with family values, respect for authority and class hierarchy. It was an experimental field willing to explore real identity based on personal and intimate conflicts, raising a simple question that moved the whole cinema to another level: what are we as a person?

Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica


Rocchio, Vincent F. Cinema of Anxiety. A Psychoanalysis of Italian Neorealism. University of Texas Press, 1999.


Cinecittà. Wikipedia. Accessed, May 2021.

Cinema Novo. Wikipedia. Accessed, May 2021.

Heckman, C. (2019, November 11). What is Italian Neorealism in Film? Defining the Style. Studiobinder.

How Italian Neorealism began. Movement in Films. Accessed, May 2021.

Italian Neorealist Films (1943 - 1954). Movement in Films. Accessed, May 2021.

Martin Scorsese on the Films of Roberto Rossellini - Conversations Inside The Criterion Collection. (2014, August 31). Vice channel on YouTube.

Scott, A.O. (Aug. 16, 2020) Why You Should Still Care About ‘Bicycle Thieves’. New York Times, Section AR, Page 4.

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