An introduction to Italian Neorealism: Depictions of post-war Italy

Italian Neorealism is a film movement that took place in post-war Italy.  When the country lost their studios and scenery filmmakers began to focus their stories in the impoverished streets of the villages affected by the war. Using non-professional actors and war-torn villages as their backdrops these films showed their audiences something those Italian families at the time were familiar with. Poverty. Unemployment. Oppression. Desperation.  People usually flock to the cinema to escape from their lives for two hours but Italian neorealism didn’t bother to do that. They exposed the hardships of everyday life and reminded those who weren’t living through it of its existence.  Here are some examples of neorealism (and also my favourites):

Rome Open City (1945) Roberto Rossellini 


“Rome Open City” is the essential neorealist movie and the first one I actually caught on TCM. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special but I got the exact opposite. The film is about the lives of people living in Nazi occupied Rome.  An impregnated widow is approached by a Resistance leader – a friend of her fiancée – to help him hide from the Gestapo. The three of them, and with the help of a local priest help the man get a new identity, only for things to quickly turn sour. This movie is enticing, raw, suspenseful and oddly enough, comedic at times and despite the outdated circumstances it still feels incredibly real.  Also, the ending just might be one of the saddest and haunting things you might ever see. Actually, the ending of the movie is one of the most well-known scenes in the movement.

Bicycle Thieves (1948) Vittorio De Sica


                “Bicycle Thieves” focuses on a man named Ricci, who finally gets a job after searching for two years in post-war Italy. The job – pinning up posters across the city asks for one thing only – a bicycle. Ricci and his family sacrifice their own bed sheets in order for him to obtain a bicycle, but while on the job his bike gets stolen by a petty thief. He begs for the police to take his situation more seriously but after being ignored he seems like he has lost all hope and takes matter into his own hands. He catches the thief but since they have no actual proof that he stole the bike he’s let off the hook. Ricci, who can’t afford to lose his job, contemplates stealing a bike for his own but isn’t as lucky as the man who stole his. I found this film absolutely heartbreaking. Although circumstances are different nowadays it’s a known fact that the feelings of poverty and the desperation that comes out of it is universal. The ending of this movie as well, is heart shattering.

Two Women (1960) Vittori De Sica 



Although neorealism wasn’t as popular as it was in earlier years, “Two Women” is one of the greatest neorealistesque films made in my opinion. This film stars Sophia Loren as a widowed mother and Jean Paul Belmondo as an intellectual Communist and takes place during the “Marocchinate” (mass rape/murders done by French Moroccans  during WW2). “Two Women” is about a widowed mother, Cesaria (Loren) and her 12 year old daughter who escape Rome (by foot) and go to her native town in Lazio ,where they befriend a man named Michele (Belmondo) who is a Communist. Michele is taken as a prisoner by the Germans and is killed. Soon after, the women return to Rome where they are unfortunately ganged raped by a group of Moroccan soldiers inside of a church. The film ends on a rather sad note, as Cesaria’s daughter becomes traumatized and becomes distant from her mother. “Two Women” is my favourite movie out of the entire selection I have put here. Despite the incredibly hard to watch rape scene, “Two Women” showcases how women’s lives were directly impacted by the war and I find that incredible.

Without Pity (1948) Federico Fellini


Unfortunately I couldn’t even find a trailer for this one which is a real shame. “Without Pity” is a film about an African-American G.I who falls in love with an Italian prostitute.

 La Strada (1954) Federico Fellini 


A lot of people don’t consider “La Strada” to be a neorealist film but I disagree to some extent because there are some aspects about it that are neorealist. Unlike the other films I’ve put on here, “La Strada” has a more whimsical plot, and isn’t as government oriented but the setting and the directing style are very neorealist. The story is about a young woman named Gelsomina who is sold to a brutish strongman by her starving family in post-war Italy. Together, they travel the countryside and perform at weddings, parties and street festivals, but not all is well between the two. The strongman, Zampano (played by Anthony Quinn) is abusive and brutish to the young Gelsomina. He forces her to follow his rigorous rules and forbids her to talk to anyone else but him while he leaves her alone and night and excludes her from his activities. Despite all of this Gelsomina loves Zampano and stays loyal to him. But when he beats a fellow performer to death she reaches a crisis. This movie is extremely saddening but worthy. Anthony Quinn is the perfect guy to play Zampano and Giulietta Masina does an amazing job playing the delicate little Gelsomina.

L’Amore (1948) Roberto Rossellini/ Federico Fellini


“L’Amore” is an Italian anthology film but in the link and this this paragraph I’ll be only talking about one part of the film which is called “The Miracle”. In “The Miracle” a delusional peasant is impregnated by who she thinks is St. Joseph.

Italian Neorealism is one of my favourite genres of film. My being Italian has to do a great deal of it because before I even heard of the genre, I thought Italian people had very little to do with the film industry and based their movies off Hollywood productions. Upon discovering the genre I felt a new sense of pride in my nationality, for even though Italy was in its shambles their artists still thrived and made most of their new surroundings. These films are also part of my history. My grandparents were alive and living in Italy while this was all happening and being able to experience their lives to some extent is incredible and beautiful. If it weren’t for these movies I wouldn’t have become the film buff I am today, it’s safe to say this genre is truly a part of me.

By Monica

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