The production history of Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) is one so rich that it at times risks distracting us from the intricate internal mechanics of the film itself. Leading up to his directorial debut, Visconti’s collaboration with Jean Renoir as assistant director on the ill-fated La Tosca (1941) – described by Visconti in retrospect as “a horrible film” – introduced him to a network of film critics linked to Milan’s Cinema magazine, key figures in the blossoming Neo-Realist movement. Their radical ideological agenda would spark within Visconti a taste for Marxist ideals. Visconti threw around a number of ideas for his first movie, including an adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s realist story L’amante di Graminga, a proposal rejected by Italy’s then Fascist government censors.
Inspiration for Ossessione struck when Renoir gave Visconti a copy of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), a translation into French that Renoir himself had received from Julien Duvivier. Initially titled Paluda (Marsh), the script at first held little interest for censors because on the surface it appeared to be no more than “a melodrama with the message that ‘crime doesn’t pay'”. Yet for Visconti and his Cinema magazine collaborators, the project united his aesthetic, ideological and stylistic ambitions with concrete melodramatic foundations, all within a solidly recognisable socio-cultural context.
If not the birthplace of Italian neo-realism per se, Ossessione was still foundational. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observed: “It anticipates certain of the themes and styles that were to become the stock-in-trade of the movement, but, for good historical reasons, necessarily misses out on others”. According to Henry Bacon, Visconti “wanted to convey the internal life of his characters through their behaviour and their relationship to the environment, to capture their essence by showing them as an organic part of a certain social reality, which in various ways constantly conditions and guides their behaviour, their thoughts and feelings”.
By late 1942, Visconti and his team were under close government scrutiny, yet the production was permitted to continue: the film even debuted at a film festival in May 1943 that Mussolini himself hosted. According to Bacon, Visconti at first took this as government approval, but it was not to be the case. One memorable account claims that Benito’s son and film critic Vittorio Mussolini fled the cinema screaming “this is not Italy!”.
The scandal that surrounded the film’s subsequent release, censorship and distribution is the stuff of legend. In 1943, Italy was going through the most dramatic social and cultural upheaval since Italy’s unification during the Risorgimento, with the Allied invasion occurring less than four months after its initial release; Neo-Realism was in large part a response to this tumultuous climate. Ossessione’s bleak worldview was a flagrant challenge to the Fascist vision of Italy during this period. In this context, Ossessione faced great distribution and exhibition obstacles, with the Fascists at one point even cutting and destroying prints of the film. (Visconti wisely squirrelled a version away himself, and thus the film survived).
Likewise, in the capitalist United States it was as late as 1977 that Ossesssione received its first limited release (after a short festival run the year before), as Visconti did not attain the rights to the original Cain novel. Accordingly, it was not until much later that Ossessione’s historical importance to the story of Italian Neo-Realism was acknowledged, with directors such as Roberto Rossellini – himself coincidentally having a close relationship with Italy’s ruling Fascists – privileged historically instead.
Yet watching the film today, it is as much Ossessione’s radical sexuality that provides its devastating punch as much as its history. With its title translating literally to ‘obsession’, Nowell-Smith has described it as “a film about the destructive power of sexual passion”, and the viciousness with which Visconti executes his blistering attack on normative romantic idealism is powerful and complex. This is as much due to the Ossessione’s central performances by Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti as it is the unrelenting rawness of the film’s tale of infidelity, murder, betrayal and disillusionment. The year before, Calamai had been a cause célèbre for her brief appearance in Alessandro Blasetti’s La cena delle beffe, providing one of the first topless appearances by a woman in Italian cinema. Her association with dangerous sexuality was in Italy at least therefore very much alive in the Italian public imagination.
Calamai’s Giovanna is far from Lana Turner’s cold calculating female protagonist in Tay Garnett’s 1946 Hollywood adaptation. Instead, Giovanna is marked by a sympathetic desperation, her bleak predicament unambiguously the result of the grim reality of broader, broken social structures rather than any reflection of her moral character. In one of the film’s most devastating moments, she slumps heartbroken amongst the dishes in her kitchen after a busy day at her trattoria, drinking soup alone before collapsing, just as isolated after the murder of her husband as she was before.
As much as the 1946 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice has earned its place as an important American Film Noir, so too Ossessione is essential to Italy’s history of lurid, intoxicating giallo cinema.Ossessione provides a perfect bookend to Calamai’s final performance as Marta in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975): in both films Calamai embodies a similar bug-eyed feminine insanity, both characters pushed to the edge of violence and despair at their seeming invisibility to the men in their lives, and to society in general. As Nowell-Smith notes, Visconti’s Ossessione converted “Cain’s parable of arbitrariness into a demonstration of necessity”.Ossessione is a film about survival in every sense. A landmark film in both Neo-Realist and giallo traditions, the legacy of Ossessione lives and breathes in every frame.
Ossessione (1943 Italy 140 mins)
Prod. Co: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane Prod: Libero Solaroli Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis and Gianni Puccini Phot: Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti Mus: Giuseppe Rosati Art Dir: Gino Franzi
Cast: Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Juan de Landa, Dhia Cristiani, Elio Marcuzzo
Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) and Alessandro Blassetti's 1860 (1934) influenced neo-realism, but the movement was to a great extent a matter of 1940s practicalities: with Cinécitta (Rome's studio complex) relegated to refugees, films had to be shot outside. Surrounded by the shambolic ruins of World War II, human and structural, filmmakers had ready-made drama even in their backdrop, the atmosphere anxiety-charged and utterly uncertain. After twenty-one years under Mussolini, all bets were off as to what direction Italy would take. In the war's aftermath, members of the Resistance (including several of the neo-realist directors) had to come to terms those who collaborated. Though unstated, this almost civil war-like tension fuels neo-realist cinema.
Ideologically, the characteristics of Italian neorealism were:
- a new democratic spirit, with emphasis on the value of ordinary people
- a compassionate point of view and a refusal to make facile (easy) moral judgements
- a preoccupation with Italy's Fascist past and its aftermath of wartime devastation
- a blending of Christian and Marxist humanism
- an emphasis on emotions rather than abstract ideas
Stylistically, Italian Neorealism was:
- an avoidance of neatly plotted stories in favor of loose, episodic structures that evolve organically
- a documentary visual style
- the use of actual locations - usually exteriors - rather than studio sites
- the use of nonprofessional actors, even for principal roles
- use of conversational speech, not literary dialogue
- avoidance of artifice in editing, camerawork, and lighting in favor of a simple 'styless' style
So what is neo-realism? André Bazin called it a cinema of 'fact' and 'reconstituted reportage', having its antecedents in the anti-Fascist movement with which these directors identified. Although they owed a debt to Renoir (with whom both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni had worked), the neo-realists respected the entirety of the reality they filmed. This meant occasionally showing scenes in real-time and always resisting the temptation to manipulate by editing. Scenes are shot on location, with no professional extras and often a largely unprofessional cast. Set in rural areas or working-class neighborhoods, the stories focus on everyday people, often children, with an emphasis on the unexceptional routines of ordinary life.
Neorealism preferred location shooting rather than studio work, as well as the grainy kind of photography associated with documentary newsreels. While it is true that, for a while, the film studios were unavailable after the war, neorealist directors shunned them primarily because they wanted to show what was going on in the streets and piazzas of Italy immediately after the war. Contrary to the belief that explains on-location shooting by its supposed lower cost, such filming often cost much more than work in the more easily controlled studios; in the streets, it was never possible to predict lighting, weather, and the unforeseen occurrence of money-wasting disturbances. Economic factors do, however, explain another characteristic of neorealist cinema - its almost universal practice of dubbing the sound track in post-production, rather than recording sounds on the supposedly 'authentic' locations. Perhaps the most original characteristic of the new Italian realism in film was the brilliant use of nonprofessional actors by Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti, though many of the films accepted as neorealist depended upon excellent performances by seasoned professional actors.
Some film historians have tended to portray neo-realism as an authentic movement with universally agreed-upon stylistic or thematic principles. In fact, Italian neorealist cinema represents a hybrid of traditional and more experimental techniques. Moreover, political expediency often motivated interpretations of postwar neorealism that overlooked the important elements of continuity between realist films made during the Fascist era and realist films made by the neorealists. After 1945, no one in the film industry wanted to be associated with Mussolini and his discredited dictatorship, and most Italian film critics were Marxists; neorealism’s ancestry was thus largely ignored.
The most influential critical appraisals of Italian neorealism today emphasize the fact that Italian neorealist cinema rested upon artifice as much as realism and established, in effect, its own particular realist conventions. All too many early assessments of Italian neorealism focused lazily upon the formulaic statement that Italian neorealism meant no scripts, no actors, no studios, and no happy endings. In the 1964 edition of his first resistance novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1947), Italo Calvino (1923–1985) reminded his readers that Italian neorealism was never a school with widely shared theoretical principles. Rather, it arose from a number of closely associated discoveries of an Italian popular culture that had traditionally been ignored by 'high' Italian culture. Neorealist film and literature replaced an official cinema and literature characterized by pompous rhetoric and a lack of interest in the quotidian and the commonplace. Cesare Zavattini, who functions as a kind of godfather of the movement, stated: "This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist." The aim, method and philosophy was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice. Breezy fare this is not, but it did significantly alter European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world. Neo-realism reflected a new freedom in Italy and the willingness to pose provocative questions about what movies could do. As director Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo's brother) noted: "The cinema was born with neo-realism."
Postwar Neorealism: A Brief Decade
With the fall of Mussolini and the end of the war, international audiences were suddenly introduced to Italian films through a few great works by Rossellini, De Sica, and Luchino Visconti that appeared in less than a decade after 1945, such as Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) and Paisà (Paisan, 1946); De Sica’s Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948), and Umberto D. (1952); and Visconti’s La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948). Italian neorealist films stressed social themes (the war, the resistance, poverty, unemployment); they seemed to reject traditional Hollywood dramatic and cinematic conventions; they often privileged on-location shooting rather than studio work, as well as the documentary photographic style favored by many directors under the former regime; and they frequently (but not always) employed nonprofessional actors in original ways. Film historians have unfortunately tended to speak of neo-realism as if it were an authentic movement with universally agreed-upon stylistic or thematic principles. While the controlling fiction of the best neorealist works was that they dealt with universal human problems, contemporary stories, and believable characters from everyday life, the best neorealist films never completely denied cinematic conventions, nor did they always totally reject Hollywood codes. The basis for the fundamental change in cinematic history marked by Italian neorealism was less an agreement on a single, unified cinematic style than a common aspiration to view Italy without preconceptions and to employ a more honest, ethical, but no less poetic, cinematic language in the process.
These masterpieces by Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti are indisputably major works of art that capture the spirit of postwar Italian culture and remain original contributions to film language. But with the exception of Rome, Open City, they were relatively unpopular within Italy and achieved success primarily among intellectuals and foreign critics. "Back in 1942, when Vittorio Mussolini, the head of the film industry, saw Visconti's Ossessione, he stormed out of the theater shouting, "This is not Italy!" Most Neorealist films elicited a similar reaction from postwar officials. The portrait of a desolate, poverty-stricken country outraged politicians anxious to prove that Italy was on the road to democracy and prosperity. The Catholic Church condemned many films for their anticlericalism and their portrayal of sex and working-class life. Leftists attacked the films for their pessimism and lack of explicit political commitment". In particular, De Sica was criticized for "washing Italy’s dirty laundry in public" by Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democratic politician who was later to become one of Italy’s most powerful prime ministers.
"Few Neorealist works were popular with the public. Audiences were more drawn to the American films that came flooding into Italy. The state undersecretary in charge of entertainment, Giulio Andreotti, found a way of slowing the advance of American films while also curbing the embarra ssing excesses of Neorealism. The so-called Andreotti law, which went into effect in 1949, not only established import limits and screen quotas but also provided loans to production firms. To receive a loan, however, a government committee had to approve the script, and films with an apolitical slant were rewarded with larger sums. Worse, a film could be denied an export license if it "slandered Italy". The Andreotti law created preproduction censorship. This move coincided with a general drift away from the 'purer' Neorealism of the period from 1944 to 1948".
One of the paradoxes of the neorealist era in Italian film history, an epoch that lasted no more than a decade, is that the ordinary people such films set out to portray were relatively uninterested in their self-image. In fact, of the approximately eight hundred films produced between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s in Italy, only a relatively small number (about 10 percent) could be classified as neorealist, and most of these few works were box-office failures. After years of fascist dictatorship and the deprivations of war, Italians were more interested in being entertained than in being reminded of their poverty.
A number of less important but very interesting neorealist films were able to achieve greater popular success by incorporating traditional Hollywood genres within their narratives, thereby expanding the boundaries of traditional film realism. This group of commercially successful works include Vivere in pace (To Live in Peace, 1947) by Luigi Zampa (1905–1991), a comical view of Germans, Italians, and Allied soldiers at war that cannot help but bring to mind the World War II TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes; Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948) by Alberto Lattuada (1913–2005), a daring film noir about the black market, prostitution, and American racism in postwar Livorno; Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) by Giuseppe De Santis, a vaguely Marxist film about proletarian class solidarity that gave birth to the phenomenon in Italy of the 'sweater girl' known as the maggiorata, making Silvana Mangano (1930–1989) an overnight sensation; and Il cammino della speranza (Path of Hope, 1950) by Pietro Germi (1914–1974), a film about poor Sicilian miners migrating to France in search of work. These four films reflect a shift from the war themes of Rossellini to the interest in postwar reconstruction typical of De Sica’s best efforts, but they are even more important as an indication of how the Italian cinema moved gradually closer toward conventional American themes and film genres. Neorealist style in these films becomes more and more of a hybrid, combining some elements identified with neorealism with others taken from the commercial cinema of Hollywood or Rome.
"Some filmmakers sought to acquire a Neorealist look by shooting traditional romances and melodramas in regions that would supply picturesque local color. Other directors explored allegorical fantasy - such as in De Sica's Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951) and Rossellini's La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine to Kill Bad People, 1952) - or historical spectacle (such as Visconti's Senso). There also emerged rosy Neorealism, films that melded workingclass characters with 1930s-style populist comedy. Against this background, De Sica and Zavattini's Umberto D. (1952), which depicted the lonely life of a retired man, could only strike officials as a dangerous throwback. The film begins with a scene of police breaking up a demonstration of old pensioners, and it ends with Umberto 's aborted suicide attempt". In a public letter to De Sica, Andreotti castigated him for his wretched service to his fatherland:
If it is true that evil can be fought by harshly spotlighting its most miserable aspects, it is also true that De Sica has rendered a poor service to his country if people throughout the world start thinking that Italy in the 20th century is the same as Umberto D.
Controversy over tax breaks and subsidies also clouded Pietro Germi’s semi-film noir about a troubled youth, Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth, 1947), a situation that would repeat for Germi’s emigration drama Il cammino della speranza (The Road of Hope, 1950).
The "Crisis" of Neorealism
In spite of the fact that Italian intellectuals and social critics preferred the implicitly political and sometimes even revolutionary messages of the neorealist classics, the public preferred Hollywood works or Italian films made in the Hollywood spirit. While the key works of Italian neorealism helped to change the direction of the art form and remain today original contributions to film language, they were, with the exception of Rome, Open City, relatively unpopular in Italy. They were far more successful abroad and among filmmakers and critics. In addition, it became more and more difficult to make neorealist films, as political pressures to present a rosy view of Italy limited government financing from the ruling Christian Democratic party. Also, the Italian public was more interested in Italian films that employed, however obliquely, the cinematic codes of Hollywood or in the vast numbers of films imported from Hollywood itself. Besides resistance at the box office, where ordinary Italians preferred Hollywood works or Italian films with a Hollywood flavor, even the most famous neorealist directors soon became uncomfortable with the restrictive boundaries imposed upon their subject matter or style by well-meaning leftist critics, Italian intellectuals or social critics that films should always have a social or ideological purpose.
As mentioned before, in Italian cinematic history this transitional phase of development is often called the 'crisis' of neorealism. In retrospect, it was the critics who were suffering an intellectual crisis; during this period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Italian cinema was evolving naturally toward a film language concerned more with psychological problems and a visual style no longer defined solely by the use of nonprofessionals, on-location shooting, and documentary effects. Three early films by Michelangelo Antonioni ( 1912-2007)), Fellini, and Rossellini are crucial to this development. Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), Antonioni’s first feature film, is a film noir in which the director’s distinctive photographic signature is already evident, with its characteristic long shots, tracks, and pans following the actors, and modernist editing techniques that attempt to reflect the rhythm of daily life. Fellini’s La Strada (1954), awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a poetic parable that explores a particular Fellinian mythology concerned with spiritual poverty and the necessity for grace or salvation (defined in a strictly secular sense). Rossellini’s 'cinema of the reconstruction' in Viaggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy, 1954), starring Ingrid Bergman, marks his move away from the problems of the working class or the partisan experience to explore psychological problems, middle-class protagonists, and a more complex camera style not unlike that developed by Antonioni.
"Italian neorealism also had a worldwide impact as a model for an oppositional cinema against the Hollywood commercial cinema. The working methods of neorealism offered a way to produce films without large financial resources. The stories of common men, often played by nonprofessional actors, inspired filmmakers in Europe such as the directors of the French New Wave school of the late 1950s and early 1960s championed by critic André Bazin, who were heavily influenced by Rossellini’s Paisan". Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer embraced neorealism as proof that filmmaking could be possible without a huge industrial structure behind it and that filmmakers could be as creative as novelists. In particular, they appreciated the psychological move beyond neorealist themes in the works of Antonioni and Rossellini. "Neorealism’s influence can also be seen in the Cinema Novo of Brazil, the Free Cinema of Britain, the Nova Vlna of Czechoslovakia, the Third Cinema of Argentina, in Egyptian neorealism, the Mexican films of Bunñel such as Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950), and even to the present day in the films from the emerging cinemas in countries with extremely strict censorship codes, for example, turn of the millennium Iran, or whenever a film/television serial is made based upon simple production values that attempt an objective depiction of everyday existence". Even in Hollywood in the immediate postwar period, such important works as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) and Edward Dmytryk’s Give Us This Day (1949) aka Christ in Concrete show the direct influence of neorealism’s preference for authentic locations within the American tradition of film noir.
Most importantly, however, a second generation of Italian directors reacted directly to the model of the neorealist cinema. The early films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975), Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1940), Marco Bellocchio (b. 1939), Paolo (b. 1931) and Vittorio (b. 1929) Taviani, and Ermanno Olmi (b. 1931), particularly those shot in black and white, returned in some measure to the conventions of documentary photography, nonprofessional actors, authentic locations, and social themes. But this second generation also combined lessons from their neorealist predecessors with very different ideas taken from the French New Wave, and they were far more committed (with the exception of Olmi) to an aggressively Marxist worldview. Olmi continued to be true to the neorealist preference for nonprofessional actors in such important works as Il posto (The Job, 1961), I fidanzati (The Fiancees, 1963), L’albero degli zoccoli (The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, 1978), and Il mestiere delle armi (Profession of Arms, 2001). The neorealist heritage may still be detected, with a postmodern twist, in the cinema of Nanni Moretti (b. 1953), such as Caro diario (Dear Diary, 1993) and the more recent La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room, 2001).
The last word on this goes to Fellini. He agreed in principle, he said, with the neo-realist idea of taking films from life but he redefined it for himself as "looking at reality with an honest eye - but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him." Fellini taps into the essence of neo-realism, the reason the films of that particular era still appeal and the reason they continue to inspire: they address the human condition which, despite technological advances and special effects, remains very much what it was when these filmmakers took to the streets and captured what surrounded them.
In retrospect, the appearance of Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession, 1943) made it clear that something original was brewing within Italian cinema. Assisted by a number of young Italian intellectuals associated with the review Cinema, Visconti took Cain’s 'hard-boiled' novel (without paying for the rights) and turned the crisp, first-person narrative voice of the American work into a more omniscient, objective camera style, as obsessed with highly formal compositions as Visconti’s protagonists are by their violent passions. Visconti reveals an Italy that includes not only the picturesque and the beautiful but also the tawdry, the ordinary, and the insignificant. Simple gestures, glances, and the absence of any dramatic action characterize the most famous sequence in the film: world-weary Giovanna (Clara Calamai) enters her squalid kitchen, takes a bowl of pasta, and begins to eat, reading the newspaper, but falls asleep from exhaustion. Postwar critics praised neorealist cinema for respecting the duration of real time in such scenes. Equally original in the film is Visconti’s deflation of the 'new' man that Italian Fascism had promised to produce. Even though the film’s protagonist, Gino, is played by Fascist Italy’s matinee idol, Massimo Girotti (1918–2003), his role in the film is resolutely nonheroic, and he has implicit homosexual leanings as well. Even Visconti’s patron and friend Vittorio Mussolini rejected such a portrayal of Italian life. Interestingly enough, Vittorio’s father, Benito Mussolini, had screened the film and did not find it objectionable.
Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy
Though Obsession announced a new era in Italian filmmaking, at the time very few people saw the film, andfew realized that the aristocratic young director would have such a stellar career. It was the international success of Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), which so accurately reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of the immediate postwar period, that alerted the world to the advent of Italian neorealism. With a daring combination of styles and moods, Rossellini captured the tension and the tragedy of Italian life under German occupation and the partisan struggle out of which the new Italian republic was subsequently born. Rome, Open City, however, is far from a programmatic attempt at cinematic realism. Rossellini relied on dramatic actors rather than nonprofessionals. He constructed a number of studio sets (particularly the Gestapo headquarters where the most dramatic scenes in the film take place) and thus did not slavishly follow the neorealist trend of shooting films in the streets of Rome. Moreover, his plot was a melodrama in which good and evil were so clear-cut that few viewers today would identify it as realism. Even its lighting in key sequences (such as the famous torture scene) follows expressionist or American film noir conventions. Rossellini aims to provoke an emotional rather than an intellectual response, with a melodramatic account of Italian resistance to Nazi oppression. In particular, the children present at the end of the film to witness the execution of partisan priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) point to renewed hope for what Rossellini’s protagonists call a new springtime of democracy and freedom in Italy.
Paisà (Paisan, 1946) reflects to a far greater extent the conventions of the newsreel documentary, tracing in six separate episodes the Allied invasion of Italy and its slow process through the peninsula. Far more than Rome, Open City, Paisan seemed to offer an entirely novel approach to film realism; in fact, when future young directors would cite Rossellini as their inspiration, they would almost always refer to Paisan. Its grainy film, the awkward acting of its nonprofessional protagonists, its authoritative voice-over narration, and the immediacy of its subject matter—all features associated with newsreels—do not completely describe the aesthetic quality of the work. Rossellini aims not at a merely realistic documentary of the Allied invasion and Italian suffering. His subject is a deeper philosophical theme, employing a bare minimum of aesthetic resources to follow the encounter of two cultures, resulting in initial misunderstanding but eventual brotherhood.
The third part of Rossellini’s war trilogy, Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948), shifts the director’s attention from war-torn Italy to the disastrous effects of the war on Germany. It was shot among the debris of the ruins of Hitler’s Berlin before reconstruction. The director’s analysis of the aftereffects of Hitler’s indoctrination of a young German boy, who eventually commits suicide, reflects Rossellini’s ability to empathize with human suffering, even among ex-Nazis. Immediately noticeable and an aesthetic attributed to neorealism is the film’s atmosphere. Berlin is entirely bombed out with the family even living in a tenement that is bombed out. Long shots are utilized dwarfing the already small child to proportions that are nothing but metaphoric. Filmed in 1947, Rossellini depicted Berlin as it was objectively, never pointing a finger. Instead he presents an objective film that challenges the viewer to reveal their own sentiments toward Nazis and the German people.
Vittorio De Sica's Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) begins outside Rome, in a kind of idyll of the countryside. Two shoeshine boys set aside what they've earned to buy a horse. Back in the narrow and unforgiving streets of Rome, they're roped into a blackmarket deal that goes sour. Nabbed by the authorities, they're sent to a juvenile prison, their friendship strained nearly to breaking. After an escape, one of them accidentally dies, his death blamed on his friend. De Sica kept his exposition short, detailing the boys' existences through carefully composed scenes such as their neighboring prison cells, each one headed for a different fate. Opening and closing with the horse, De Sica shows the freedom that's denied these two boys.
Compared to the daring experimentalism and use of nonprofessionals in Paisan, De Sica’s neorealist works seem more traditional and closer to Hollywood narratives. Yet, De Sica uses nonprofessionals—particularly children—in both Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thieves even more brilliantly than Rossellini. In contrast to Rossellini’s dramatic editing techniques, which owe something to the lessons Rossellini learned from making documentaries and studying the Russian masters during the Fascist period, De Sica’s camera style favored the kind of deepfocus photography normally associated with Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. Shoeshine offers an ironic commentary on the hopeful ending of Rome, Open City, for its children (unlike Rossellini’s) dramatize the tragedy of childish innocence corrupted by the world of adults, the continuation of a theme De Sica began in one of his best films produced before the end of the war, I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943). The moving performances De Sica obtains from his nonprofessional child actors in Shoeshine arise from what the director called being 'faithful to the character': De Sica believed that ordinary people could do a better job of portraying ordinary people than actors could ever do.
La terra trema: Episodio del mare (1948)
"With his film Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), Luchino Visconti put into practice the realist theories of the Cinema group trained in the Italian professional cinema of the late 1930s and early 1940s. During the war Visconti was an active participant in the Resistance and was eventually captured and imprisoned in Rome by the Nazis, who planned to execute him. He managed to escape from prison just before the American Fifth Army entered Rome in 1944. In 1946, Visconti contributed to the multi-director documentary recreation film about the Resistance, Giorni di gloria (Days of Glory, 1945). After the war, Visconti returned to theater productions in Rome. At the same time, Visconti’s interests continued to focus on two key figures who were to influence his next film, La terra trema: Episodio del mare (The Earth Trembles): novelist Giovanni Verga and the Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci. In 1948, Visconti turned his attention to the problems of Italy’s rural poor with The Earth Trembles, an adaptation of Verga’s novel in the verismo style, I Malavoglia (The House by the Meddlar Tree). Visconti originally intended to make a film trilogy about Sicily based on Verga’s novels but only completed The Earth Trembles, an epic-length film set in the Sicilian coastal village of Aci Trezza about a young fisherman Antonio Malavoglia who tries to raise his family out of poverty by fighting the exploitative owners of the village fishing boats. Antonio decides to take out a loan with the family house as collateral in order to buy his own boat. But the project ends in failure because Antonio is unable to enlist the support of the other fishermen in Aci Trezza. Visconti’s film is a faithful adaptation of Verga’s novel and is close to Verga’s realistic portrayal of the Sicilian poor, showing their passions, superstitions, and stoic nobility, which often involves a passive acceptance of fate. Visconti, influenced by Verga’s attempt to accurately reproduce the speech of the Sicilian peasants, employed an entirely nonprofessional cast speaking their own Sicilian dialect. Incidentally the language used by actors is different enough from standard Italian that when the film was released in Italy, occasional voice-over commentary by Visconti was added to help non-Sicilians follow the story. Visconti’s film makes extensive use of close-ups with depictions of the day-to-day life of its characters. Visconti’s pacing in the film anticipated the art cinema style with less emphasis on action and more emphasis on character development. The film has many long sequences that may at first viewing seem unnecessary for the development of the plot, but that are actually crucial to Visconti’s study of the daily life in Aci Trezza. The film’s patient depictions of the daily habits of the fishermen and their families recall the detached scientific tone of anthropological or wildlife documentaries. Following the ideas of Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Visconti’s film concentrates on a rural rather than an industrial situation, and pays close attention to the regional question by emphasizing Sicilian mannerisms and speech. The Earth Trembles is a convincing portrayal of a social struggle that fails to produce significant change. Nevertheless, at the end of the film it is evident that despite his defeat, the main character, Antonio, is still determined to overcome the exploitation in his village. In practical terms, the film was one of the first box office disappointments of the neorealist period".
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
De Sica’s faith in nonprofessional actors was more than justified in his masterpiece, Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948), the leading roles of father and son occupied by two nonprofessionals. (David O. Selznick was willing to back the film, but only with Cary Grant as lead, an offer De Sica fortunately had the confidence to refuse.) When the bicycle he needs to do his job is stolen, the young father and son scour Rome to find it; the father is finally driven to steal a ride of his own. The Bicycle Thieves also employs location shooting and the social themes of unemployment and the effects of the war on the postwar economy. The performances of Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio Ricci, the unemployed father who needs a bicycle in order to make a living hanging posters on city walls, and Enzo Staiola as Bruno, his faithful son, rest upon a plot with a mythic structure - a quest. Their search for a stolen bicycle - its brand is ironically Fides ('Faith') - suggests the film is not merely a political film denouncing a particular socioeconomic system. Social reform may change a world in which the loss of a mere bicycle spells economic disaster, but no amount of social engineering or even revolution will alter solitude, loneliness, and individual alienation.
De Sica orchestrated the film carefully, shooting some scenes with multiple cameras and drawing attention to its existence as fiction, not a documentary. Bazin termed it the "only valid Communist film of the whole past decade" and the film was often seen as simply a criticism of working conditions in Italy at the time, when unemployment stood at 25 percent. But unlike the clearcut moralizing of Rossellini's films, De Sica's works focus on a humanist sense of individual and mass. Bicycle Thieves has a mythic feel, the father ultimately forced into thievery, each moral quandary no sooner solved than De Sica poses yet another, the father sympathetic but flawed.
Riso amaro (1949)
"Giuseppe De Santis, like De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini, Vergano, and Antonioni, gained valuable experience in the Italian professional cinema of the 1930s. Like Visconti he began his directing career in the multi-director Resistance film Giorni di gloria (Days of Glory, 1945) before making his first feature Caccia Tragica (Tragic Hunt, 1946). The film starring Massimo Girotti, is similar to the gangster film genre and reveals the the struggles between friendship, collaboration, and political duty during the Resistance. De Santis’s later film Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) also mixes elements of neorealism with the gangster or noir crime film genres depicting the seasonal harvest of the mondine, female rice pickers, who worked in the Po Valley in northern Italy. De Santis depicts sequences of the indigenous culture, such as the call and response songs of the mondine rice pickers while also displaying an understanding of pop culture in the early postwar years. He recognizes the attraction of American popular boogie woogie culture with the sexually charged performance of actress Silvana Mangano emblematic of the the natural background of the rice fields within a community of hard-working and sexually vibrant women rice pickers. Silvana also represents the desires of the Italian working classes for a life removed from hard work and the threat of poverty. She yearns for the materialism of consumer culture and admires foto-romanzi (pulp magazines) like Grand Hotel. Silvana is attracted by the ne’er-do-well thief and womanizer Walter played by Vittorio Gassman whose cynical attitude toward crime and mannerisms recall standard characterizations in Hollywood noir gangster films. In Bitter Rice, Walter is a contrast to the model of solidarity and hard work from the suitor Silvana rejects, the goodhearted soldier Marco, played by Raf Vallone. The trio (Mangano, Gassman, Vallone) would appear later in similar roles the melodrama, Anna (1951). De Santis’s social message in Bitter Rice is that the individual can be saved through collective action. De Santis remained a committed leftist even after the Soviet suppressions of popular revolts in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Bitter Rice shares a common theme with other neorealist-era films such as Pietro Germi’s Gioventu perduta (Lost Youth, 1947) with Carla Del Poggio and the Antonioni’s episodic docu-drama about the nihilistic youth of postwar Europe I vinti (The Vanquished, 1951), which deals with individual alienation in post war popular culture. Bitter Rice was also influential for the manner in which it conveyed an ideal of female physicality, which incidentally provoked threats of censorship in the United States. De Santis also developed innovative camera techniques such as his extended crane shot that moves from a close-up of a single character (full or medium figure) without any specific spatial or temporal localization, to the discovery of a space, often unlimited, natural landscape, and of a group or “chorus” to a close-up of another or the same character. The purpose of each shot was to underline De Santis’s belief in the essential need for an individual to be closely connected to a community. A similar crane shot was later made famous in the opening long-shot sequence of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958)".
Miracolo a Milano (1951)
De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951) abandons many of the conventions of neorealist 'realism.' Not only does the film rely upon veterans of the legitimate theater for its cast, but De Sica also employs many special effects not generally associated with neorealism’s pseudodocumentary style: superimposed images for magical effects, process shots, reverse action, surrealistic sets, the abandonment of normal notions of chronological time, and the rejection of the usual cause-and-effect relationships typical of the 'real' world. In spite of the fact that Zavattini, De Sica’s scriptwriter, once made a famous pronouncement that "the true function of the cinema is not to tell fables" (a view that became associated with Italian neorealism and that tended to obscure the very real fables that this cinema invented), Miracle in Milan is, in fact, a fable that begins with the traditional opening line, "Once upon a time . . ." and revolves around a comic parable about the rich and the poor. The result is a parody of Marxist concepts of class struggle. De Sica and Zavattini show us poor people who are just as selfish, egotistical, and uncaring as some wealthy members of society once the poor gain power, money, and influence. At the conclusion of the film, the poor mount their broomsticks and fly off over the Cathedral of Milan in search of a place where justice prevails and common humanity is a way of life. Miracle in Milan stretches the notion of what constitutes a neorealist film to the very limits.
Italian audiences hardly embraced these new films. To be shown their country in such stark terms made the majority very unhappy. It even became part of the law: the Andreotti Law (1949), named for its author Giullio Andreotti, offered subsidies for those who followed the neo-realist style in a manner "suitable... to the best interests of Italy," but with the proviso that they avoid the blemishes on Italian life. Legislation had little immediate effect on what was made, though the stories began to reflect the scramble for work and stability that defined this period. Visconti's terrific Bellissima (1951) centers on a daughter and fanatic stage-mamma, the inimitable Magnani, eager to get her modestly talented daughter a spot in a movie. To her husband's dismay, she squeezes every extra penny into lessons and cosmetic improvements for the little girl. Ultimately, the mother all but puts herself on the market to get the recognition she's convinced will make life worth living. Set in a working-class Roman neighborhood, Bellissima gives rare insight into how provincial big-city life could be, each neighborhood a virtual small town, the neighbors sometimes helpful, often petty and jealous of any advantage. Though not traditionally considered a neo-realist film, Bellissima did focus on people's lives in the wake of war, the sense of wanting to better oneself and the struggle to find a way out of the grind of poverty. It becomes yet more poignant in this context.
Umberto D. (1952)
The sense of Rome as a small town is especially acute in Umberto D. (1952), which was De Sica's favorite film and is in many ways the masterpiece of neo-realism, an overall superb piece of work. The crisis-filled days of a pensioner, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), and the complications of his relationship with his dog and a young maid in his apartment building become a study in the difficult drama that constitutes an ordinary life. As played by a dignified nonprofessional - a professor, who, in the event, was often subsequently taken for his character on the street - Umberto D. is stodgy, fussy, irritating and curiously sympathetic. Unlike other films of the era, this was shot nearly entirely in the Cinécitta studios. The indignities of the family-less and indigent old-age are laid out with sensitivity but not sentimentality. Umberto is vulnerable and all but invisible, barely distinguishing himself in a crowd of protesting pensioners, desperately trying to maintain his independence and self-respect. There is no real plot other than the minuscule and life-shaping crises of late-life impoverishment. Even the end strikes a melancholy note of ambiguity.
Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974)
The seminal figure of the neorealism movement, Vittorio De Sica was born in Sora, Italy, on July 7, 1901. Raised in Naples, he began working as an office clerk at a young age in order to help support his impoverished family. He became fascinated by acting while still a youth, and made his screen debut in 1917's The Clemenceau Affair at the age of just 16. In 1923, De Sica joined Tatiana Pavlova's famed stage company, and by the end of the decade his dashing good looks had made him one of the Italian theater's most prominent matinee idols. With 1932's La Vecchia Signora, he made his sound-era film debut and went on to become an even bigger star in the cinema, appearing primarily in light romantic comedies throughout the decade.
In 1939, De Sica graduated to the director's chair with Rose Scarlatte. Over the next two years he helmed three more features (1940's Maddalena... zero in condotta along with 1941's Teresa Venerdi and Un garibaldino al convento, respectively), but his work lacked distinction until he, along with fellow Italian filmmakers Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, began exploring the possibilities of making more humanistic movies documenting the harsh realities facing their countrymen as a result of World War II. With 1942's I bambini ci guardano, De Sica revolutionized the Italian film industry, crafting a poignant, heartfelt portrait of a downtrodden culture free of the conventions of Hollywood production. Working with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who remained a central figure in the majority of his greatest work, De Sica employed non-professional actors and filmed not in studios but on the streets of Rome, all to flesh out the working-class drama of Zavattini's script.
The war prevented De Sica from directing another film for four years, but finally in 1946 he resurfaced with the brilliant Sciuscià. His greatest film, Ladri di biciclette, followed in 1948; a virtual textbook of neorealism in action, it featured all of the aesthetic's key tenets — gritty production, almost improvisational acting, and a lean emotional compression — and it even added authentic documentary footage into the narrative to establish a greater sense of truth. (Like Sciuscia, Ladri di biciclette won a special Academy Award; not until several years later was the Oscar category for Best Foreign Language Film officially established.) Three years later, De Sica returned with Miracolo a Milano. Its follow-up, 1952's Umberto D., clearly ranked among his finest work, but when it proved to be a box-office disaster, he returned to the lighter material of his formative years with Villa Borghese (1953).
The 1956 Il tetto marked something of a return to neorealist form, but when it too failed commercially, De Sica's career as a filmmaker was critically damaged. Unable to secure financing for subsequent projects, he turned his full focus to acting, starring in a string of pictures including 1957's A Farewell to Arms (for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and 1957's Souvenir d'Italie (It Happened in Rome). Over the course of his long career, he appeared in over 150 features. Finally, in 1960, De Sica returned to directing with La Ciociara, leading his star Sophia Loren to an Academy Award. The 1963 Ieri, oggi, domani also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but in many regards De Sica's reign as one of the world's great directors was over. Features like 1966's Caccia alla volpe, 1967's Sette volte donna, and 1970's Girasoli were lightweight at best, and although 1971's Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini won yet another Academy Award, it bore little relation to his neorealist classics. De Sica died in Paris on November 13, 1974, following complications from surgery.
Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)
The son of a wealthy Roman architect, writer/director Roberto Rossellini was more technically than artistically inclined when he began making amateur films as a teenager. From his first project in 1934, Rossellini was far more fascinated with the mechanical intricacies of dubbing, editing, and photography than with such things as plots and performers. His 1938 short subject Prelude a l'apres-midi d'une faune, was considered worthwhile enough by some film-industry insiders to warrant a theatrical release; unfortunately, it was banned by Italy's censorship bureau on the grounds of indecency. Even so, when Vittorio Mussolini - the dictator's movie-executive son (and a family friend) - invited young Rossellini to become a professional filmmaker, the 22-year-old dilettante jumped at the chance. Assigned to direct a documentary about an Italian hospital ship, he expanded the project into a fictional feature, La nave bianca, completed in 1940 and released the following year.
During the war, Rossellini found himself in the delicate position of acting as technical director for fascist-commissioned films, all the while secretly shooting documentary footage of anti-Mussolini resistance fighters. In 1943, he began work on what many consider the first neorealist film, Desiderio, in which, utilizing a hand-held camera, Rossellini attempted to approach his subject matter as a spectator rather than director. Unfortunately, he was forced to drop the project, which would be completed by other, more conventional hands three years later. Nonetheless, his brush with cinematic naturalism had left an impression, and, in 1945, he gained international fame with his stark, neorealist feature Roma, città aperta (Roma, Open City). This film so impressed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick that he invited Rossellini to come to America to direct Selznick's next Ingrid Bergman vehicle. Bergman, herself, wrote an affectionate fan letter to the director, never dreaming what effect this simple gesture of courtesy would have on her life. Resisting the temptation to pack up for America, Rossellini remained in Italy to co-write and direct Paisà (1946) and Germania anno zero (1947), two of the most influential works of their time. He then switched focus from the devastations of the postwar era to the earthy charms of his lover Anna Magnani in L'amore (1948). He finally met Bergman the following year, and their mutual admiration quickly deepened into love. Leaving their respective spouses, Rossellini and Bergman married in 1950, sparking an international scandal that resulted in fervent condemnations from politicians and clergymen alike. From 1949 through 1953, Bergman worked for no other director but Rossellini; the collaboration yielded one truly worthwhile film, Stromboli (1950), and a series of self-indulgent, critical, and financial disasters.
Although the Bergman-Rossellini liaison produced three children (including current film star Isabella Rossellini), their relationship quickly soured. While preparing a multi-part TV documentary on India in 1957, Rossellini became involved with Indian screenwriter Somali Das Gupta, whose subsequent pregnancy effectively ended his marriage to Bergman and nearly destroyed his film career. (Rossellini's later marriage to Gupta would also end in divorce.) In 1959, Rossellini restored his tattered reputation with his best film in years, Il generale Della Rovere, which starred fellow director Vittorio de Sica. After completing Vanina Vanini in 1960, Rossellini devoted his energies almost exclusively to TV films, turning out several respectful but non-reverential biographies of such historical figures as Socrates, St. Augustine, and King Louis XIV; three of these films would be afforded theatrical release. In his last movie, Il messia (1978), the director once more stirred up controversy, though '70s filmgoers of were less-easily outraged than those of 1950. Rossellini died in 1977. His autobiography, My Method: Writings and Interviews, was published posthumously in 1993.
Luchino Visconti (1906-1976)
One of seven children, Visconti was born in Milan into a noble and wealthy family, one of the region's richest. His father Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone was the Duke of Grazzano. In his early years he was exposed to art, music and theatre, and met the composer Giacomo Puccini, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and the writer Gabriele d'Annunzio. During World War II Visconti joined the Italian Communist Party.
Visconti made no secret of his homosexuality. His last partner was the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, who played Martin in Visconti's film La caduta degli dei (The Damned). Berger also appeared in Visconti's Ludwig in 1972 and Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece) in 1974 along with Burt Lancaster. Other lovers included Franco Zeffirelli, who also worked as part of the crew (i.e. production design, assistant director, etc.) in a number of Visconti's films and theatrical productions.
He began his filmmaking career as an assistant director on Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) and Une partie de campagne (1936), thanks to the intercession of their common friend, Coco Chanel. After a short tour of the United States, where he visited Hollywood, he returned to Italy to be Renoir's assistant again, this time for La Tosca (1941), a production that was interrupted and later completed by German director Karl Koch because of World War II. Together with Roberto Rossellini, Visconti joined the salotto of Vittorio Mussolini (the son of Benito, who was then the national arbitrator for cinema and other arts. Here he presumably also met Federico Fellini. With Gianni Puccini, Antonio Pietrangeli and Giuseppe De Santis, he wrote the screenplay for his first film as director: Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), the first neorealist movie and an unofficial adaptation of the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
In 1948, he wrote and directed La terra trema (The Earth Trembles), based on the novel I Malavoglia by Giovanni Verga. In the book by Silvia Iannello Le immagini e le parole dei Malavoglia, the author selects some passages of the Verga novel, adds original comments and Acitrezza's photographic images, and devotes a chapter to the origins, remarks and frames taken from the movie.
Visconti continued working throughout the 1950s, although he veered away from the neorealist path with his 1954 film, Senso, shot in color. Based on the novella by Camillo Boito, it is set in Austrian-occupied Venice in 1866. In this film, Visconti combines realism and romanticism as a way to break away from neorealism. However, as one biographer notes, "Visconti without neorealism is like Lang without expressionism and Eisenstein without formalism." He describes the film as the 'most Viscontian' of all Visconti's films. Visconti returned to neorealism once more with Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960), the story of southern Italians who migrate to Milan hoping to find financial stability.
Throughout the 1960s, Visconti's films became more personal. Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), based on Lampedusa's novel of the same name about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the Risorgimento. It starred American actor Burt Lancaster in the role of Prince Don Fabrizio. This film was distributed in America and England by Twentieth-Century Fox, which deleted important scenes. Visconti repudiated the Twentieth-Century Fox version.
It was not until La caduta degli dei that Visconti received a nomination for an Academy Award, for Best Screenplay. The film, one of Visconti's best-known works, concerns a German industrialist's family which slowly begins to disintegrate during World War II. Its decadence and lavish beauty are characteristic of Visconti's aesthetic. Visconti's final film was L'innocente (The Innocent, 1976), in which he returns to his recurring interest in infidelity and betrayal.
Visconti was also a celebrated theatre and opera director. During the years 1946-1960 he directed many performances of the Rina Morelli-Paolo Stoppa Company with actor Vittorio Gassman as well as many celebrated productions of operas. Visconti's love of opera is evident in the 1954 Senso, where the beginning of the film shows scenes from the fourth act of Il trovatore, which were filmed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Beginning when he directed a production at Milan's Teatro alla Scala of La vestale in December 1954, his career included a famous revival of La traviata at La Scala in 1955 with Maria Callas and an equally famous Anna Bolena (also at La Scala) in 1957 with Callas. A significant 1958 Royal Opera House (London) production of Verdi's five-act Italian version of Don Carlos (with Jon Vickers) followed, along with a Macbeth in Spoleto in 1958 and a famous black-and-white Il trovatore with scenery and costumes by Filippo Sanjust at Covent Garden in 1964. In 1966 Visconti's luscious Falstaff for the Vienna State Opera conducted by Leonard Bernstein was critically acclaimed. On the other hand, his austere 1969 Simon Boccanegra with the singers clothed in geometrical costumes provoked controversy.
Cesare Zavattini (1902-1989)
Italian journalist and writer of screenplays for Italian neorealist cinema, Cesare Zavattini is known especially for his collaborations with director Vittorio De Sica. After completing a law degree at the University of Parma, Zavattini wrote two successful novels - Parliamo tanto di me (Let’s Talk A Lot About Me, 1931) and Il poveri sono matti (The Poor Are Crazy, 1937) - before writing the script for Mario Camerini’s classic social satire, Darò un milione (I’ll Give a Million, 1937), starring Vittorio De Sica. In his lifetime, Zavattini completed 126 screenplays, 26 of which were for De Sica as director or actor. He also provided screenplays for such figures as Alessandro Blasetti, Giuseppe De Santis, Luchino Visconti, and Alberto Lattuada, but his work with De Sica established Zavattini as the leading exponent of Italian neorealism in the decade immediately following the end of World War II. But it was the four neorealist classics created by the two friends that made film history: Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), an account of the American occupation that earned the first award for foreign films bestowed by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948), a tale of postwar unemployment that received an Oscar for Best Foreign Film; Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), a fantastic parable about the class struggle in a fairy-tale Milan; and Umberto D. (1952), a heart-rending tragedy about a lonely pensioner and his dog. Zavattini became the outstanding spokesman for neorealism, advocating the use of nonprofessional actors, a documentary style, authentic locations as opposed to studio shooting, and a rejection of Hollywood studio conventions, including the use of dramatic or intrusive editing. He wrote contemporary, simple stories about common people. In particular, he felt that everyday events provided as much drama as any Hollywood script could produce by rhetorical means or that any special effects and dramatic editing might create. Nevertheless, after neorealist cinema evolved in the late 1950s, Zavattini wrote screenplays for De Sica that enjoyed great commercial success: Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. 1963), a social satire that garnered an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and featured a legendary striptease for Marcello Mastroianni by Sophia Loren; La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel about the horrible effects of war, which won Loren an Oscar for Best Actress; and Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1970), the narration of the destruction of the Jewish community in Ferrara before World War II, which won De Sica his fourth Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
One of the most visionary figures to emerge from the fertile motion picture community of postwar-era Italy, Federico Fellini brought a new level of autobiographical intensity to his craft; more than any other filmmaker of his era, he transformed the realities of his life into the surrealism of his art. Though originally a product of the neorealist school, the eccentricity of Fellini's characterizations and his absurdist sense of comedy set him squarely apart from contemporaries like Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, and at the peak of his career his work adopted a distinctively poetic, flamboyant, and influential style so unique that only the term 'Felliniesque' could accurately describe it.
Born in Rimini, Italy, on January 20, 1920, Fellini's first passion was the theater, and at the age of 12 he briefly ran away from home to join the circus, later entering college solely to avoid being drafted. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he wrote and acted with his friend Aldo Fabrizi, and during wartime he composed radio sketches for the program Cico e Pallina, meeting his future wife, actress Giulietta Masina. Additionally, Fellini worked as an artist on fumetti (Italy's illustrated magazines), and occasionally even made his living as a caricaturist at Roman restaurants. He only entered film with the aid of Fabrizi, who recruited Fellini to continue supplying stories and ideas for his performances; between 1939 and 1944, the two men worked in tandem on a number of largely forgotten comedies, among them Quarta pagina, and Campo de' fiori.
The pivotal moment in Fellini's early career came in the days following the Allied Forces' 1945 liberation of Italy, when he and Fabrizi both began working with Roberto Rossellini, a young, largely unknown filmmaker with only a handful of directorial credits under his belt. Rossellini's initial plan was to film a fictionalized account of the Germans' shooting of a local priest. With Fellini on board as a screenwriter, however, the film eventually grew to become Roma, Città aperta, a landmark of Italian neorealism and one of the most widely acclaimed pictures of its era. For the follow-up, 1946's Paisà, Fellini graduated to the position of assistant director, later collaborating on films by Pietro Germi (including In nome della legge and Il cammino della speranza) and Alberto Lattuda (Il delitto di Giovanni Episcopo and Il mulino del Po), among others.
In 1948, Fellini completed the screenplay for Il miracolo, the second and longer section of Rossellini's two-part effort L'amore. Here Fellini's utterly original worldview first began to truly take shape in the form of archetypal characters (a simple-minded peasant girl and her male counterpart, a kind of holy simpleton), recurring motifs (show business, parties, the sea), and an ambiguous relationship with religion and spirituality, a relationship further explored in his script for Rossellini's 1949 Francesco, giullare di Dio, adapted from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1950, Fellini made his first attempt at directing one of his own screenplays (albeit with the technical guidance of Alberto Lattuda); the result was Luci del varietà, which further developed his fusion of neorealism with the atmosphere of surrealism.
After two more screenplays — 1951's La città si difende and 1952's Il brigante di Tacca del Lupo, both directed by Pietro Germi - Fellini again took over the directorial reins for the romantic satire Lo sceicco bianco . The film marked his first work with composer Nino Rota, who emerged among the key contributors to his work throughout the remainder of his career. Fellini's initial masterpiece, I vitteloni, followed in 1953. The first of his features to receive international distribution, it later won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the first of so many similar honors that eventually an entire room in his house was devoted solely to housing his awards. The brilliant La strada followed in 1954, also garnering the Silver Lion as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture and some 50 other worldwide prizes and citations. The picture's success brought his singular combination of the sublime and the grotesque to international fame, launching wife and star Masina to global stardom as well.
After helming 1955's Il bidone, Fellini and a group of screenwriters (including a young Pier Paolo Pasolini) began work on 1956's Le notti di Cabiria; the completed film won a second Academy Award. Upon writing the screenplay for Viaggio con Anita, a tale based on the death of his father which remained unfilmed before Mario Monicelli agreed to direct it in 1979, Fellini mounted 1959's La dolce vita, perhaps his most well-known film. The first of his pictures to star actor Marcello Mastroianni, who would become Fellini's cinematic alter ego over the course of several subsequent collaborations, its portrait of sex and death in Rome's high society created a tremendous scandal at its Milan premiere, where the audience booed, insulted, and spat on the director. Regardless, La dolce vita won the Palm d'Or at the annual Cannes Film Festival, and remains a landmark in cinematic history.
The success afforded to the film left Fellini in a state of confusion as he considered his next project. Ultimately, his writer's block became the subject of perhaps his greatest film, 1962's 8 1/2, the story of a filmmaker (Mastroianni) attempting to mount a movie which remains unmade. Again, the international acclaim was virtually unanimous, with yet another Oscar forthcoming, and after winning the Great Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, he never again entered festival competition. With 1965's Giulietta degli spiriti, Fellini worked for the first time in color. After experimenting with LSD under the supervision of doctors, he began scripting Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna, inspired by the death of his friend Ernest Bernhard. Over a year of pre-production followed, hampered by difficulties with producers, actors, and even a jury trial. Finally on April 10th, 1967, Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown, resulting in a month-long nursing home stay. Ultimately, he gave up on ever bringing Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna to the screen, and his new producer, Alberto Grimaldi, was forced to buy out former producer Dino De Laurentis for close to half a billion liras.
As the decade drew to a close, Fellini returned to work with a vengeance, first resurfacing with Toby Dammitt, a short feature for the collaborative film Tre passi nel delirio. Turning to television, he helmed Fellini: A Director's Notebook, a one-hour special for the NBC network, followed by the feature effort Fellini - Satyricon, an erotic adaptation of Petronius' text. I clowns, directed for RAI (an Italian state-TV broadcasting company), followed in 1970, with Roma bowing in 1972. Amarcord, a childhood reminiscence, won a fourth Academy Award in 1974, but as criticism that his work was becoming far too eccentric and self-indulgent continued to mount, it proved to be his final international success. After acting in Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland and Ettore Scola's C'eravamo Tanto Amati, he shot 1976's Il Casanova di Federico Fellini, which found favor only in Japan.
After both 1979's Prova d'orchestra and 1980's La città delle donne also proved unsuccessful, Fellini turned to publishing with Fare un Film, an anthology of notes about his life and work. E la nave va and Ginger e Fred