If Fascist Italy covered up the truth about Italian society with their "white telephone" films, produced by dictator Benito Mussolini's Cinecitta, a huge propaganda studio for the Italian state, Neorealism was a post-fascist and late-fascist attempt at Brutal Honesty: show just how much life can suck for the people at the bottom rung of society. At the same time, the neorealism style pointed out how poverty and poor people have stories and adventures where "little" things cause tremendous tragedy, and how almost anyone in the world, regardless of class is a Hero of Another Story which is also The Greatest Story Never Told.
The first Italian neorealist film is traditionally credited to be Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City in 1945. This was produced, made, and shot right after the liberation of Italy, made with left-over film stock bought from the black market, and while it had major stars (namely comedian Alberto Soldi in a serious role as well as Anna Magnani's Star-Making Role), it turned heads for its use of non-professional in background roles, and its use of real locations, where background shots emphasized wartime devastation. Rossellini's second film Paisan is considered the actual beginning of neorealism, since it had no stars, non-professionals in leading roles, and used even more location shooting than the previous one. The most famous of all Italian neorealist films, and arguably the most famous Italian film was Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves which was a bleak, sad, sentimental and compelling story about how a poor father has his life wrecked when his bicycle, which he depends on for his work, gets stolen.
Italian Neorealism has always been a very confusing and slippery term. Almost all of the original neorealists disavowed it when it was applied to them and their films, at least when it was no longer convenient to use as a label to market their films. Film historians now argue that it pointed the way to a different kind of cinema and inspired possibilities greater than it actually fulfilled. For instance, Italian neorealism inspired independent filmmakers across the world, and was representative of "non-Hollywood" films. In actual fact, the original Italian neorealist films were made with the help of American producers, and was distributed by Hollywood studios. It also came to typify cheap and No Budget film-making when in fact the original neorealist films were among Italy's most expensive films (Paisan had the record before Bicycle Thieves broke it), since shooting on location was far more expensive than it was to shoot on sets.
Nonetheless, in the years of its release and afterwards, Italian Neorealism had a huge and defining impact on international cinema, playing a major role in heralding the market for world cinema, for encouraging other countries to fund directors to shoot on the margins and document poor people, and generally offer a less pretty take on society and culture. The likes of Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiarostami, Luis Buñuel among many others were inspired by Neorealism, and the films were also championed by the French New Wave, British Kitchen Sink Drama producers, John Cassavetes and many many others. It also influenced Commedia all’italiana.
Tropes often seen in Italian Neorealism include:
- Amateur Cast: Untrained actors and the use of local dialects in films for the sake of realism was common.
- Crapsack World: By and large, neorealism was a push-back against the "White Telephone" melodramas of the Fascist period, where all discontent against the state was suppressed and it was not permitted to talk about the social problems in Italy. In neorealism, the heroes are starving and in Perpetual Poverty, those who leave to search for a better life are deluding themselves to think that things could be better, the government either doesn't care or is too incompetent to help those struggling, and the narrative usually implies that this will never change.
- Lighter and Softer: Neorealism started in 1945 when Italia was in ruins. However in the early 1950s when its economic situation perceptibly improved Pink Neorealism shifted the mood of the genre. It became more sentimental and turned to melodrama.
- Leave the Camera Running: Long shots of characters without dialog or action were a common feature of neorealism.
- Perpetual Poverty: Most neorealist film protagonists were either impoverished or were just barely scraping by.
- Playing Against Type: When Italian neorealism directors did hire professional actors, they had them play a certain part which differs fundamentally from roles the actor was famous for or had played in the past.
- Real-Place Background: Shot extensively on location in dilapidated cities and streets. Rossellini's films were shot in wartorn Italy and he showed the devastation of his buildings with real candour.
- Three Chords and the Truth: Cinematic version. Films were frequently made on a shoestring budget in the streets.
- War Is Hell, combined with a mild case of After the End following the destruction wrought by World War II.
Notable Neorealist films include:
- Bicycle Thieves
- Bitter Rice
- Germany, Year Zero
- I Vitelloni
- Mamma Roma
- Miracle in Milan — a curious mixture of Italian neorealism and urban fantasy
- Ossessione (Obsession)
- Rome, Open City
- La Strada (The Road)
- La Terra Trema
- Two Cents Worth of Hope — a "Pink Neorealism" film, in which the tropes above are applied to romantic comedy
- Two Women
- Umberto D