Announcing My 2023 Movie Retrospective: Italian Neorealism

The more I’ve read about the movement — or oeuvre — or feeling, labeled “Italian neorealism,” particularly in recent months, the less of a grasp I feel I have on it. My confusion stretches back to my first encounter with the term. What is that prefix doing as a descriptor of movies that were released way back in the 1940s, when, as far as the young me understood, everything in cinema was new? That, at least, I can now answer. Neorealism as a principle extended to other art forms besides the movies, calling back even to nineteenth century realist literature. But even as the neorealist spirit tried to reclaim something from the past, its expression was contemporary in many ways. The tenets are typically summarized as follows: (1) filming on location in the streets, with regional specificity including dialect, (2) the use of non-professional actors to cut through the gloss of typical mainstream cinema, and (3) a commitment to depicting harsher realities about class and the state of Italian society after the fall of fascism. However, if I was expecting a simple list of rules to clear everything up, the waters quickly became even murkier.

Neorealism has an affinity with film noir in this way, the latter also lending itself to various lists of criteria despite an abundance of exceptions. The two categories of film developed almost simultaneously — in fact, the oft-cited first neorealist film, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Whether in America or Italy, these street-level films get at something about the psychology of post-war life. And neorealism could be said to have had some effect on the style of noir, perhaps subtler than that of German Expressionism or the crime films of the 1930s.

If noir, as the name suggests, largely came to be as a category due to French critics analyzing the films after the fact, neorealism was an at least semi-coordinated effort from the start. Italian critics and academics called for an alternative to the glib entertainments and bombastic propaganda of the Mussolini era. However, the fascists also recognized the value of naturalism and documentary effects when using film to their own ends, so it’s a little too simple to call neorealism a leftist or resistance movement. In both its origins and its results, neorealism offers a complicated picture. Its luster has dimmed somewhat over the years, the early triumph of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in the very first Sight & Sound critics poll in 1952 ultimately losing out to later waves of cinema throughout the world. The two questions — what exactly is Neorealism, and what did it do — are still very much open.

Thus, in January and February of next year, I’ll be taking a closer look, celebrating the eightieth anniversary of Ossessione and the seventy-fifth anniversary of Bicycle Thieves. The fifty-nine films I’ll be watching (an arbitrary number, but one that happens to cover every night of those months) are at once too broad and too narrow a selection. There are comedies, melodramas and fantasy films listed below, period pieces in both black-and-white and Technicolor, and more than one Hollywood actor. I landed on many, but not all, of them by looking at various lists and articles about neorealism. The rest are appropriate at least in terms of counterpoint, on the assumption that sometimes it’s easier to define something by its opposite. The films of the major neorealist directors — Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, De Santis — are represented, as are the early films of younger soon-to-be-masters Antonioni and Fellini. But in casting a wide net (films ranging from 1943 to 1954), I’m sure I’ve missed plenty. In the winter 1979 issue of the journal Film Criticism, Ben Lawton writes that 90 films “can be described as neorealist in the broadest of terms” but doesn’t list them. Certainly some are obscure today, but I found roughly half of these 59 on YouTube, the Internet Archive, and Dailymotion, not to mention Kanopy and the Criterion Channel. And I’m pleased to say that I found English subtitles for all but two, one of which, Un americano in vacanza, has, as you might guess, some characters who speak English anyway. In past years, my comprehensive retrospectives on the French New Wave and Luis Buñuel each had to include several films without subtitles, so this is definite progress.

One regrettable omission is Giacomo Gentilomo’s 1946 film O sole mio, which is not a lost film (it has been shown at festivals), but doesn’t appear to have been released on video or online. It’s also, for reasons that should be apparent, a little more difficult to google than some titles.

TitleDirectorYear
Ossessione (Obsession)Luchino Visconti1943
I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us)Vittorio De Sica1943
La porta del cielo (The Gates of Heaven)Vittorio De Sica1945
La vita ricomincia (Life Begins Anew)Mario Mattoli1945
Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City)Roberto Rossellini1945
Due lettere anonime (Two Anonymous Letters)Mario Camerini1945
Abbasso la miseria! (Down With Misery!)Gennaro Righelli1945
Il testimone (The Testimony)Pietro Germi1946
Sciuscià (Shoeshine)Vittorio De Sica1946
Un americano in vacanza (A Yank in Rome)Luigi Zampa1946
Il sole sorge ancora (Outcry)Aldo Vergano1946
Paisà (Paisan)Roberto Rossellini1946
Il Bandito (The Bandit)Alberto Lattuada1946
Vivere in pace (To Live in Peace)Luigi Zampa1947
L’onorevole Angelina (Angelina)Luigi Zampa1947
Caccia tragica (Tragic Hunt)Giuseppe De Santis1947
Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth)Pietro Germi1948
Germania anno zero (Germany, Year Zero)Roberto Rossellini1948
L’amore (Love)Roberto Rossellini1948
Senza pietà (Without Pity)Alberto Lattuada1948
La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles)Luchino Visconti1948
Proibito rubare (Guaglio)Luigi Comencini1948
Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)Vittorio De Sica1948
In nome della legge (In the Name of the Law)Pietro Germi1949
Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po)Alberto Lattuada1949
Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice)Giuseppe De Santis1949
Catene (Chains)Raffaello Matarazzo1949
Stromboli, terra di Dio (Stromboli)Roberto Rossellini1950
Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St. Francis)Roberto Rossellini1950
Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi (Under the Olive Tree)Giuseppe De Santis1950
Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair)Michelangelo Antonioni1950
Il cammino della speranza (The Path of Hope)Pietro Germi1950
Luci del varietà (Variety Lights)Federico Fellini & Alberto Lattuada1950
Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan)Vittorio De Sica1951
La città si difende (The City Defends Itself)Pietro Germi1951
Achtung! Banditi! (Attention! Bandits!)Carlo Lizzani1951
BellissimaLuchino Visconti1951
Umberto D.Vittorio De Sica1952
Roma, ora 11 (Rome 11:00)Giuseppe De Santis1952
Il Cappotto (The Overcoat)Alberto Lattuada1952
La Macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine That Kills Bad People)Roberto Rossellini1952
Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik)Federico Fellini1952
Europa ’51 (Europe ’51)Roberto Rossellini1952
La Tratta delle bianche (Girls Marked Danger)Luigi Comencini1952
La signora senza camelie (The Lady Without Camelias)Michelangelo Antonioni1953
Stazione Termini (Terminal Station)Vittorio De Sica1953
Ai margini della metropoli (At the Edge of the City)Carlo Lizzani1953
Un marito per Anna Zaccheo (A Husband for Anna)Giuseppe De Santis1953
I Vitelloni (The Young and the Passionate)Federico Fellini1953
I Vinti (The Vanquished)Michelangelo Antonioni1953
La lupa (The Devil Is a Woman)Alberto Lattuada1953
L’amore in città (Love in the City)Various1953
Pane, amore e fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams)Luigi Comencini1953
La spiaggia (The Beach)Alberto Lattuada1954
SensoLuchino Visconti1954
La Strada (The Street)Federico Fellini1954
Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy)Roberto Rossellini1954
La Paura (Fear)Roberto Rossellini1954
L’oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples)Vittorio De Sica1954

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