Defenseless under the
Our world in stupor lies
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of ligh
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages...
(Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’, lines 89-94)
W.H. Auden at the beginning of the Second World War indicated the necessity of the creation of critical constellations during the impending “age of catastrophe” (Hobsbawm 109). The collapse of values and institutions of liberal civilizations under the reactionary regimes of Hitler and Mussolini made personal involvement, commitment and resistance to Fascism an obligatory ideological choice for liberal intellectuals around the world in this period. Surprisingly, Auden’s questions, “who shall reach the deaf, / who can speak for the dumb?” (76-77), gained resonance not in the neutral air of liberal America, but in war-inflicted and post-war Italy. The political turmoil brought by the war, the anti-fascist Resistance and the wartime experience compelled filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti , Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, to use the cinematic mode to burst the fascist “prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second”( Benjamin 236). It impelled them to create an aesthetics that was “useless for the purposes of Fascism”(Benjamin 218) As Italy had at its disposal a cinematographic institution, which had escaped Fascism relatively successfully, and which could map out resistance and popular life underlying oppression, it became the apt mode for the “Just [to] exchange their messages” (94).
In effect these filmmakers presumed the function of intellectuals as they needed to confront not only Fascist ideas and ideologies, which operated at the level of ‘common sense’, but also the social forces behind them (Gramsci 348). These anti-fascist intellectuals, in the words of Robert A. Ventresca, widely “shared the belief that Fascism had risen to power and [had] survived so long precisely because of the political apathy of most Italians” (33). Unsurprisingly, then, the chief objective of the anti-fascist Neo-realist filmmakers during Resistance and Liberation was to shake Italians out of their political stupor and to make clear to them that political activity was their moral duty. This paper contends that the tendency to be politically ‘committed’ took variable forms even as it resulted in the creation of a new aesthetics of ‘reality’, ‘facts’, and ‘actuality’ (Bazin 20). This new aesthetics was termed ‘Neorealism’ by film editor Mario Serandrei in 1942. Sharing with Auden the desire to “undo the folded lie… the lie of Authority” (79-80), the Neo-realists produced a constellation of films in which narrative, war, political passions, and the multifaceted cultural realities and plights of different Italian regions and cities were inextricably woven.
It seems to me that this desire to “undo the folded lie” and to politicize the arts coincided with the wish to tell and hear “the truth” and to chronicle the present as the “time of struggle”. The obsession with time ‘present’ honed the Neorealist aspiration to portray reality and create what Bazin calls “fact images” (37). These cinematic chronicles were founded upon the belief that the Fascist regime was built on lies and that the films under Fascism were either flawed by mystification or crippled by the need to be silent or hermetically ambiguous in order to avoid possible persecution. The Italian Neorealist cinema explored the multivalent strategies of dissidence and dissent and ensured production and consumption of anti-fascist ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourses. With their stark, documentary style portrayals of the subaltern struggles, oppression of children and women, crime, unemployment and corruption, films such as Rome Open City (1945), Paisá (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1948)1 challenged the Fascist notions of family, gender roles, and the healthy productivity of the Italian provinces. However, this cinema often relied on a highly reductive and sometimes self-serving view of the arts under Fascism. The fascist arts were to be substituted by ‘neo-realistic’ arts. In other words, this cinema encouraged the idea that ‘realism’, which emphasized ‘totality’ and ‘wholeness’, was the only acceptable mode of representation during the ‘interregnum’. It seems that the Neo-realist ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourses, to use Richard Terdiman’s formulation, often evoke a “principle of order just as systematic as that which sustains the discourses which they seek to subvert” (56). The tensions and conflicts generated during the time of crisis (which for the Neo-realists was always the time ‘present’) ensured that the Neo-realist films would deal with ruptures, even as they ostensibly dealt with ‘totality’.
Before I examine these ruptures, it is important that I further interrogate the Neo-realist preoccupation with ‘truth’, ‘reality’ and ‘today’ not as abstractions, but by using specific examples from the Neorealist oeuvre. Interestingly Cesare Zavattini2 suggested that the Neo-realist slogan was: “today, today, today…” He also claimed that the “true function” of “cinema [was] not to tell fables” but to “tell a reality as it were a story”, so that, there was “no gap between life and what is on the screen” (qtd in Pacifici 50-51). Andre Bazin seemed to echo Zavattini when he insisted that the main feature of Neorealism was “its claim that there is a certain wholeness to reality” (97). Furthermore, filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, often regarded as the father of Neorealist cinema, insisted that Rome Open City (1945) dealt with ‘actual facts’ (qtd in Pacifici 51). Rossellini perceived in his context “a tremendous need for truth” (qtd in Bazin 14). It seems then that the preoccupation with ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ was ubiquitous in the Neorealist oeuvre.
Furthermore, to use Lukacs’ formulation, “a correct aesthetic understanding of social and historical reality” had become the precondition of the Italian Neorealism (114). But what was the social and historical reality that impacted the Italian Neorealism? Defeated in 1943, Italy had been fought over and occupied by the Allies and Germans for two years, had suffered a civil war in the North, had faced unemployment amounting to several millions and had lost her foreign markets when Roberto Rossellini started filming Rome Open City. Lacking financial resources, it was shot on the actual locations, using different film stocks and hand-held camera, in conditions that made lighting difficult, rendering a documentary visual style to the film which blurred the distinction between the created story and the realized drama of postwar turmoil. The film inaugurated the tendency of Neorealism to create a provocative effect of reality. Besides the startling use of real landscapes and locations to frame the characters actions (in contrast to the studio sets characteristic of the Fascist-era films), this effect was achieved by reducing intrusive or expressive montage to the minimum.3 Long takes that are a hallmark of Rome Open City, Paisá and The Bicycle Thief make it seem as if the events were narrating themselves. The Venice episode in Paisá demystifies for the audience the new method of filmmaking. The conventional cinematography is challenged as Rossellini shows his audience the captured partisans virtually in the dark; the entire sense of the sequence emerges through the anguished conjunction of their mumbled despair and the utter blackness which engulfs them. Echoing Auden’s, “Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death...” (‘Spain 1937’, line 81), the soldier calmly proclaims that “we’ll all die one way or other”. The social content of the episode which highlights hunger, poverty and destitution of the soldiers and fishermen, however, is almost overpowered by the new-cinematic technique which involves long-takes, low-lighting, grey tones of newsreels, non-synchronized sounds and shooting in difficult locations.4
The mimetic and perspectival representation of visual space was further achieved by the Neorealists through a system of organized gazes (shot/countershot, spectator/screen, camera/event). This strategy was used by Sica in The Bicycle Thief to set up several spatial dialectics to covey the class struggle in post-Liberation Italy. One such shot/ counter-shot sequence involves Antonio and the bicycle he plans to steal. The shot sequence evokes his miserable class predicament, and depravity caused by economic necessity. Moreover panning and tracking shots of bicycles effectively convey the sense of a culture which involves an absolute fetishization of commodities. They further record the economic and social ramifications of class-identifying objects such as bicycles. Pan and dolly shots often open up into deep background space placing the characters in a specific social context5. Maria is introduced amidst women fighting over water through such a shot. The historical precipitous drop in real incomes of ordinary Italians is also conveyed by an effective use of mise-en-scene. Despite Bazins assertion that The Bicycle Thief is ‘pure cinema’ characterized by ‘disappearance of mise en scene’; it is the background/foreground tension of the mise-en-scene which structures the tension between the individual and his society in this film (58). The spatial constrictions of interior locations (the Ricci apartment, the pawnshop, the work place, the police station, the basement, the church, prophetess flat, the thief’s place, and the brothel) mirror the dilapidated urban exteriors. They further indicate that Antonio’s inner-consciousness is a product of his social circumstances.
If the mise-en-scene continued to exist, so did the montage. Although the Neorealist filmmakers and theoreticians like Bazin perceived editing as the destruction of cinematic form and privileged the shot or the unedited gaze of the camera for capturing ‘reality’, the Neo-realists nevertheless often impressively used editing techniques to convey a stark and bleak picture of their social ethos. In Rome Open City or in Paisá there is virtually no hesitation or dramatic buildup when the Germans shoot Joe or Pina. As soon as Joe shows his face by the lighter, the scene cuts abruptly to a group of German soldiers; and as soon as the German shoots, it cuts back with equal abruptness to a shot of Joe being hit by the bullet. The emotional effect and what Benjamin calls ‘the deepening of apperception’ (235) are achieved through slow motion in the Joe scene.
More than editing, however, the veracity of representation came to depend upon the presence of what Georg Lukacs has termed “typical characters” (138). The Italian Neorealist filmmakers generally .chose characters from the lowest strata of the society to unravel the unbearable and tragic predicament of the subaltern groups. The Neo-realist filmmakers avoided casting professionals in roles in order to block the prejudices and presumptions of the audience. They even preferred medium and long-shots over close-ups in order to hinder the establishment of the cult of any star. To provide a specific instance De Sica chose a worker from the Breda arms factory, Lamberto Maggiorani, who had never acted before to play the part of Antonini, and a street urchin to play the part of Bruno. Although these characters often seem clichéd, Deleuze rightly points out that Neorealist cinema involved “a consciousness of clichés” (Cinema1 214). Indeed, each character retains the capacity to become principal, and revert back to being secondary. Instead of genteel upper-class heroes, there is a preoccupation with the erstwhile minor or secondary characters. A few shots can establish the death of virtually every character (the death of Anna Magnini / Pina in Rome Open City is a case in point). Individuals finally remain subordinated to the social processes. Manfredi’s comment, “we’re not heroes…,” establishes the importance of ordinary deglamorized people 6 in Neorealist cinema. 7
The concern for the ordinary translates into a fixation on the most banal and everyday situations. Both Rossellini and Sica chronicle events and facts culled from the daily existence of Italian people. These situations are conveyed through what Deleuze refers to as “opsign and sonsign” 8(Cinema 1, 7). The sequences in which Umberto D 9examines himself for fever or when the maid kills the ants epitomize “pure optical images” (2). Deleuze points out that
Nonetheless, there is a constructive, purposive and political dimension to the plot in Sica’s and Rossellini’s films. Rossellini’s Paisá is not a series of sketches or a succession of stories, since they are all caught in the same socio-historical context which disperses them. There is an attempt to reconstruct and rediscover an identity for Italy as a nation. In contrast to Fascist films, as Lucia Re points out, which promoted ‘the myth of a unified nation’, Neorealist directors such as Sica and Rossellini, preferred to deal with a nation constituted by variable identities and differences (109). Rossellini’s Paisá comprises six narratives, each of which is set in a different part of Italy. Also, Rossellini preserves dialects and regionally inflected voices, even as he retains the silences, contradictions and ambiguities of actual speech.
It can be suggested that in narrating the vicissitudes of the inhabitants of Italy, Rossellini through Paisá , disseminated a narrative of interconnected stories that stand for a collective, multivoiced history. It seems then that ‘history’ was, as Auden calls it, ‘the operator’ and the ‘organizer’ or the signifier and the signified of the Neorealist cinema (‘Spain 1937’ 35-36). Andre Bazin points out “recent as it was, on the day of the actual liberation; [liberation] already belonged to the realm of history” (19). Instead of describing and transcribing events which had already happened, Rossellini and Sica devoted their films to chronicling the events in the course of happening. Although Francisco seems to suggest that events needed to belong to the realm of the past if cinema was to record them— “And everybody thought it’d be over soon, that we’d only get to see it in the movies”, Sica and Rossellini were able to chronicle the present. This was achieved by cutting across facts and sometimes by provoking and producing facts.10 As Andre Bazin points out, “the new cinematic unit was not the ‘shot’… but the ‘fact’ and it derived its meaning only by establishing relationship with other facts” (37). Thus, the juxtaposition of the documentary footage with the ‘fictional texts’, rather than highlighting, undermines the contrast. It is the time ‘present’ which leaks out of each frame.
Still the ‘facts’ do not speak for themselves; the cinematic historian speaks for them. He speaks on their behalf, and fashions the fragments of the past and the present into a whole whose integrity lies in ‘re-presentation’11. It is in Paisá that the presence of a historian or a chronicler becomes self-evident. The business-like voice-over leaves no doubt that the events and memories are being interpreted for the audience: “The Advance through southern Italy was rapid…” Undeniably, in order to tell their stories, the Neorealist chroniclers chose “a mode of emplotment, a mode of argument, and a mode of ideological implication” (White 427). They seized hold of memories and events at a historical juncture when it was necessary to question Fascist ideologies. One can discern in Sica’s and Rossellini’s films a conscious attempt to desaturate and disestablish the predominance of Fascist ideologies which continued to exist even in the post-Liberation period. The institutions such as family, religion and state, which had helped in the establishment of the Fascist hegemony in Italy, are opened up for interrogation and dominant discourses are contested.
Consequently, the blackmarket and the inefficient state become running motifs in the Italian Neorealist cinema. The police’s indifference to Antonio’s report at the police station during the Piazza Vittorio market scene and in the Via Panico neighbourhood reinforces the blackmarket as the status quo. Since the blackmarket and Fascism were the outcome of a competitive Capitalist ethos, Sica turns his critical gaze and camera towards the ramifications of Capitalism. He reveals that Capitalism privileges economic necessity even over biological necessities. Bruno not allowed to urinate is a metonym for working-class oppression. Moreover, in The Bicycle Thief the blackmarket and Capitalism are challenged by the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the proletariat classes. Pina organizes the raid to the bakery and ensures the circulation of food items amidst people who needed them the most. Giorgio Manfredi assumes conscious responsibility, and resists state-surveillance and force till his last breath. He circulates his belief that the Italians were involved in a struggle ‘for something that must come’.
Since the Fascist State’s primary ally was religion, the Neorealist filmmakers often took a strong anti-clerical stand in their films. The charity ward scene in The Bicycle Thief unravels religion as another “Ideological State Apparatus” (Althusser), which tries to diffuse political unrest by sermonizing and feeding the poor. The tracking shots of darkly lit poverty-stricken worshippers in the Church shed light on Sicas anti-clericalism. Religion blocks the development of the proletariat protagonist, i.e. Antonini, even in the post-liberation period. Nevertheless, religiosity continues to exist in the Neorealist films. Bruno genuflects in the church while Antonini pays a visit to the prophetess. While Rosselini indicates in Paisá the inability of the Franciscan monks to see ‘the light of truth’ even as they fast to save ‘two lost souls’, he simultaneously reveals religions counter-discursive potential. In Rome Open City the priest, Don Pietro, makes evident the relationship between religion, struggle and resistance: ‘Those who fight for truth and justice walk in the way of the Lord’.
Even more than state and religion, it was the Fascist notions of family and gender roles which the Neorealist filmmakers needed to resist. This was a historical necessity for as Wilhelm Reich points out: “the family was the most important instrument of power” during the Fascist era (qtd . in Tamasulo 8). Visconti and Rossellini deliberately included homosexual characters in their films. Edmund’s teacher in Germany Ground Zero (1948) is an apt example of the Neo-Realist subversion of the dominant gender-roles. The Neorealist filmmakers further posited the family as the site of conflict and resistance. Antonio Ricci in The Bicycle Thief tries to avoid the rigidity and authoritarian ideology of patriarchy in his relationship with Bruno preferring to treat him as a compatriot rather than a subordinate: ‘We’ll get drunk’, he tells Bruno. A similar relationship exists between Francesco and Marcello in Rome Open City, even though they are not biologically related.
However, there is an awareness that the configurations of the filial unit changed forever because of the war. Children are more often than not deprived of security and warmth by the Italian Neorealist filmmakers. Bruno’s space is almost always constricted and his gaze directed towards an adult who, although also helpless, does not refrain from exercising power. His question-- ‘why’d you hit me like that?’— sheds light on the predicament of children in his milieu. While Bruno is still privileged to have a home and family, the child in Paisá’s second narrative is an orphan (‘Mama and Papa are dead – Bombs’) and compelled to fend for himself. The threatening cityscapes of Italy which do not create but consume, expose children to extreme conditions. Nonetheless, even as children struggle with calamities, moral emptiness and desperation in the absence of homes and schools, they resist defeat and victimization. Children in Rome Open City are in fact in league with the ‘permanent persuaders’: “We must form a solid block against the enemy”.
Interestingly, the Neorealist filmmakers never successfully formed or endorsed “a solid block against the enemy”. The contradictions are shown but never resolved, and hence, no clear perspective for struggle is offered. Rather than collectivities and solidarities, both Rossellini and Sica continued to concern themselves with individuals. They often invested energy in the American ideology of the limitless potential of the individual. No scenes of an organized coalition of workers are seen; instead, groups are set in opposition to individual fulfillment in Rossellini’s and Sica’s films. The protest in Umberto D. lasts only till the arrival of the police and the organizers of the protest are referred to as ‘scoundrels’. Also, the proletarian members of the union offer no help to Ricci and impede on his project to regain his bicycle.
It seems then that the very films of contestation, which detect ruptures, make us aware of the dominant ideology’s massive power. The Italian Neorealist filmmakers were unable to free themselves from the dominant ideologies. Sorrow becomes the normative state of being as the economic basis for exploitation is displaced by natural events such as rain (The Bicycle Thief). Moreover, there was often a refusal to accept responsibility for the oppressive conditions in Italy. The thief’s German hat and the presence of the Gestapo commander in Rome Open City indicate a displacement of blame onto Nazism, rather than Italian Fascism. The Manichean binaries constructed between Fascists and Americans or Fascists and anti-Fascists seemed justified in that historical moment as the assumption that Fascism was simply evil was reassuring. But these binaries could not have withstood the test of historical or critical scrutiny.
Furthermore, alternative resolutions were found by the Neorealists in quasi-religious and melodramatic discourses of love. It was suggested by the Italian Neorealists that personal/filial/Christian love could resolve all conflicts. But then ‘ove was always an interpersonal force that never took into account interclass struggles. Ironically, there was no space for fulfilled romantic love or women’s sexuality in the Italian Neorealist Cinema. The patriarchal family structure could not have been wished away and the Neorealist filmmakers ended up unveiling the power of this dominant discourse. Patriarchal authority continues to exist and this is made evident by the disappearance of the wife/mother once she has sacrificed the family linen in The Bicycle Thief. The mother figures only as an ephemeral presence or a censoring agent: “if mama could see us….” The yearning for an integrated patriarchal unit remains. It is conveyed through the melodramatic gesture of Antonio clasping the hand of his son at the end of the film. Carmella in Paisá also confirms that the patriarchal status-quo remained intact: “You’re all alike. You Germans, Fascists, men with guns”. Rather than highlighting the role played by women like Carmella in revolutionary struggles, Rosselini renders prominent her status as a sexual object: “she will be more than enough for us three-…” There remains a lingering suspicion of women’s sexuality which gives rise to the belief that most of the Italian women had become prostitutes: “you’re all alike”, proclaims the American soldier in the Florence episode of Paisá. In a cinema that consciously adopted moral positions, and which strived to create a ‘Just City’ (‘Spain 1937’ prostitutes remained outsiders.
Still, the relevance of the shift initiated by the Italian Neorealists “from the conservative dark/ into the ethical life” (‘September1, 1939’) can never be negated. In a milieu governed by “terror and hate” and in a time marked by intense struggles, as Bazin suggests, it was this cinema which was able to chronicle and disseminate “a revolutionary humanism” (20-21). It was this cinema which confirmed the Audensque dictum, “we must love another or die” (‘September1, 1939’). Sadly, the Neorealist cinema constituted films of the interregnum (Interregnum: “when the ‘old is dying and the new cannot be born,” (Gramsci 276) and thus came to an end when the anti-fascist ethos gave way to the rule of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy.
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