Italian Neorealism: A Cultural History, by Charles L Leavitt IV, University of Toronto Press, 328 pp, $63.75, ISBN: 978-1487507107
Some years ago a friend brought us to see the town of Acitrezza in Sicily where, arguably, the first great neorealist film was made. La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles) was, according to its director, Luchino Visconti, filmed with actors “chosen from among the inhabitants of this town: fishermen, girls, labourers, stonemasons, fish wholesalers”. The dialogue was Sicilian, very much a language in itself and coeval with Italian. Our friend told us that the woman who played one of the sisters, Lucia, who is seduced by the marshal Don Salvatore in the film, was afterwards rejected by her community and never found a husband because they believed she had become a whore. The story may be a kind of urban legend, but there are so many layers to it that it’s worth unpacking a little.
First of all, the implication is that the citizens of what was then a tiny and remote fishing port interpreted what they saw on screen as a kind of reality; because the woman had been seduced on screen, and part of the seduction took place before their eyes, she had, in fact, been seduced. In an oppressively patriarchal society such as Sicily in 1948 even a screen kiss was unacceptable behaviour for a woman, and that’s leaving aside the question of whether the woman had the right in the first place to actually take part in a film and thus be seen in public.
But secondly, the fact that the story developed (whether true or not) points to certain beliefs about the neorealist movement itself – that it really did reflect reality, that its actors were real people and had real lives in a community, that art had consequences both social and personal, and, in the context of this woman’s isolation, that art had a purpose, which was to depict society in all its complexity and to identify its flaws, indeed to effect change. On this latter point (the power to effect change) the critic Goffredo Bellonci remarked that while Defoe or Stendhal (eighteenth and nineteenth century realists) believed they were describing an objective reality, the neorealists believed “the artists themselves could create an objective world”. In that sense, neorealists were closer to Sartre’s ecrivain engagé, someone who believed her or his work could bring about change, closer indeed to certain contemporary writers or directors such as Ken Loach (who acknowledges his debt to the neorealists). It is no accident that many of the directors and critics associated with the movement were active anti-fascists and several were members of the Italian Communist Party in secret during the fascist period and in public after the war.
If the story is legendary, and I suspect it is, then we must ask ourselves what it is about the film that generated such a legend. What, indeed, is neorealism? When and where does neorealism begin and end? Why did it develop?
Charles L Leavitt’s book sets out to address such questions. He begins with a survey of attempts to define the concept, concluding that it is impossible to be definitive about a movement which he sees as encapsulating literature, art, sculpture and even neighbourhoods as well as film, and which has consistently escaped prescription and limitation. In the process he asserts, against many critics’ dismissal of it, that neorealism was indeed a movement, albeit one without a manifesto or programme, a movement that arose spontaneously from the objective conditions of fascism and postwar Italian society. To that end he quotes the director Vittorio de Sica: “It isn’t the case that one day Rossellini, Visconti, the other directors, and I sat down at a table in the Via Veneto and said: now let’s make neorealism … we were each living our own lives, with our own thoughts and our own hopes. And yet neorealist cinema was beginning to take shape as a vast, collective movement, of all of us.”
Where and when did Italian neorealism begin? Leavitt examines a wide range of critical discussion, both from Italian and outside sources. He identifies antecedents – the “formal neorealism” of Soviet cinema, French neorealism, American noir and the “neorealism” of novelists such as James M Cain, Hemingway and Faulkner, and curiously what Italian critics identified as the “impressionist verismo” (impressionist realism) of Joyce and Proust.
Of course – because this is Europe – there is a magazine in the case: Cinema, for which all the major luminaries of the inter-war years and after wrote, including Giorgio Bassani (The Garden Of the Finzi Contini), Michelangelo Antonioni, Carlo Lizzani (who made what I consider to be one of the best films about the Italian antifascist resistance Achtung! Banditi! in 1948 by what we now call crowdfunding because no producer would put a penny into it), Luchino Visconti, and many more. However, Cinema itself has a history that precedes neorealism, having been almost an organ of the state with Vittorio Mussolini, the only acknowledged son of Benito, as its editor. To be fair to Vittorio, he maintained a friendship with many avowedly left-wing and antifascist film-makers and is reputed (or claimed) to have protected Jewish critics and artists. Nevertheless, it took the death of Il Duce at the hands of Italian partisans to liberate Cinema and its writers. Its post-fascist period began to with the editorship of Gianni Puccini, who declared that the magazine was ready to participate in the reconstruction of Italian cultural life after the depredations of fascism. With his editorship began the magazine’s golden age.
Leavitt devotes considerable time to the argument that Luchino Visconti’s film Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), often called ‘the manifesto of Cinema’, is at least a “proto-neorealist” work. It was considered at the time to be the realisation of many of the ideas debated in the magazine. The story of its making is a piece of art in itself:
Contrary to expectations, perhaps, given Ossessione’s role as the unofficial manifesto of Cinema, the film was an adaption of … the American novelist James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s most famous work and the source of no fewer than five films, had attracted the interest of the French director Julien Duvivier, who suggested it to Jean Renoir, who in turn passed it on to Visconti, directorial assistant on the set of Renoir’s 1936 film Partie de Campagne. Determined to adapt the novel for cinema, Visconti could find neither an Italian translation nor an English original, and enlisted the help of his producer, Libero Solaroli, to track down a copy. Solaroli sent Giuseppe De Santis, who was to serve as one of the film’s screenwriters, to find Giorgio Bassani, at the time a virtual unknown, later a celebrated novelist, who agreed both to translate The Postman Always Rings Twice into Italian and to assist Visconti in its cinematic adaptation.
It would be hard to better Leavitt’s comment on this remarkable sequence of names and events: “For a cultural history of neorealism, this chain of influence is remarkable: each of these figures – Cain, Duvivier, Renoir, Visconti, Solaroli, De Santis, and Bassani – was key to neorealism’s development, and each in a way that bears directly on the production and reception of Ossessione.”
The context in which Ossessione was made is crucial to an understanding of its significance. Since Mussolini’s accession to power in 1922 strict censorship had been in place. Film-makers were constrained either to provide a positive image of Italy or to set their films elsewhere (often in imaginary Eastern European countries). The notorious telefoni bianchi (white telephone) romantic comedies typified the style of production under fascism. They were light-hearted, often very badly made, extremely conservative and where questionable issues such as sex were concerned, never set in Italy. The “white telephone” was a symbol of bourgeois aspirations, and the telefoni bianchi were careful (despite fascism’s supposed socialist element) to reinforce the class stratification of Italian society.
Ossessione was none of that. It featured an affair between a tramp and a woman whose husband owned a tavern-cum-petrol station which led to the murder of the owner. Made while the outcome of WWII was still in the balance, the gritty realism, the darkness of the themes and the suggestion that Italian life might not be all white telephones outraged the fascist authorities and the Catholic church and led to it being banned almost immediately. Although Leavitt is at pains to point out that Ossessione cannot be unequivocally classed as an example of Italian neorealism, it is clear from his treatment of the film that it must at least be listed as an anteprima, a preview of what neorealism would become.
Leavitt observes that the term neorealismo was in extensive use as part of the vocabulary of Italian criticism: it was applied equally to Soviet and French cinema, to certain American novels from Dos Passos to Steinbeck, to some English documentary filmmakers, certain Hollywood films such as Kazan’s Boomerang!, and to Italian writers such as Cesare Pavese – in other words, Italian critics did not identify neorealism as either a specifically Italian movement, or a specifically cinematic one. Nevertheless, in the years after the war neorealist film was identified within Italian culture as something which gave a distinctively Italian and distinctively authentic voice to Italian society – “la voce dell’Italia fatta più autentica dall’ esperienza del dolore” (“the voice of Italy made more authentic by the experience of suffering”). Again context is important. The experience of anti-fascist resistance (the Italian resistance was the most effective in Europe) was a contested one. While the left, particularly the Italian Communist Party (PCI), was by far the most effective current in the resistance, by 1948 the Christian Democrats (DC), who had largely avoided involvement in the struggle, guilty according to their critics of attendismo, wait-and-seeism, were in power, fascists in the administration had remained in place, including judges, and a period was beginning in which many partisan actions were being defined as crimes with attendant prosecutions and imprisonment of famous partisan leaders. The postwar period was a ferment of left and right politics characterised by strikes, demonstrations and in some cases short-lived rebellions by former partisans who felt betrayed by the re-establishment of the old order under cover of the DC. In short, the years immediately after the war were, in many ways, a continuation of both the resistance (mainly by means other than shooting) and the hegemony of the right. As the director Giuseppe De Santis remarked: “Neorealism was born thanks to two historical events: the fall of Fascism and the rise of the Resistance.”
Inevitably, neorealist cinema was left-wing cinema and pride in the success it was having (prizes at Cannes and Hollywood, for example) was tempered by political considerations. Showings were often boycotted or closed by the right and funding was very difficult. Many neorealist films were made on a shoestring, or even by public subscription as in the case of Lizzani’s Achtung! Banditi! They were made with few, and sometimes no, trained actors, on location because they could not afford studio prices and anyway, location shooting was a central tenet of the neorealist creed.
As part of his commitment to situate Italian neorealist cinema within its cultural context, Leavitt devotes considerable time to the figure of novelist and editor Elio Vittorini. Vittorini, a typesetter by trade, was initially a member of the National Fascist Party but gradually came to see that fascism was not a socially revolutionary movement but rather a conservative project sponsored by industrialists, aristocracy and ranchers. He was expelled from the party in 1937 for writing in support of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. By 1938, when he began the serial publication of his anti-fascist novel Conversation in Sicily, his politics were clear. He joined the PCI in that year and was, for a time, editor of both L’Unità and Il Politecnico, the Communist Party daily and weekly newspapers respectively. After the war he would become an influential editor, helping to publish, among many other young writers, Italo Calvino.
Leavitt concentrates on Vittorini’s resistance novel Uomini E No (Men and Not Men). Uomini E No is Vittorini’s attempt to write comprehensively about the partisan experience, to “represent the Anti-Fascist Resistance as a struggle within each individual partisan to retain his or her humanity while fighting against an enemy unburdened by such scruples” as Leavitt puts it. To this end he combined objective and subjective perspectives to go beyond mere realism, to present the “fourth dimension” of realism, to express the internal and external struggle, “the ethical and political crisis” in the poetics of the text as much as in the narrative. In fact the theme of humanity is central to the book and its politics and was a familiar problem for anyone who lived through the period of Nazi occupation of Italy. The Nazis had decreed mass punishment for every resistance action. The partisans would launch an attack and as soon as the shooting stopped parties of Nazis and Italian fascists would raid the area where the attack took place, burn houses, businesses and farms and kill men and sometimes women and children. There were notorious massacres, such as at the Fosse Ardeatine just outside Rome when, following a partisan attack near Piazza di Spagna which killed thirty-three SS military police, the Germans executed 335 Italians at the Ardeatine Quarries.
Thus the partisan was faced with a double conflict. On the one hand she or he (there were many female partisans, including among the brigade commanders) must steel herself to kill German soldiers or Italian fascist militia. This in itself is a serious moral problem, especially for volunteers who perhaps immediately before volunteering were factory workers, doctors or teachers. But then the consequences of that action will almost inevitably involve the deaths of people from the partisan’s own community, or among whom she shelters, and the destruction of their homes and property. Uomini e No does not provide answers to such moral problems. Instead it “internalises them in its very structure”, achieving, in the process, “a profound exploration of the interrelations between ethics, politics, and poetics”. Italian critics of the time, noting the book’s commitment to a comprehensive depiction of the reality of the partisan struggle, simply called it “neorealist”.
Leavitt observes that present-day criticism is much more reductionist in its definition of neorealism, tending to confine it purely to cinema, and to very few films (as few as five at times). This purist approach, he argues, strips neorealist cinema itself of its cultural context and history, whereas contemporary critics saw it very much as a means “to represent the facts of life in their reciprocal determination, in their relationship of exchange”. The danger in the reductionist approach, of course, is that the movement is seen to emerge from the heads of certain auteurs whole and entire and without any supporting cast, something which simply cannot be true. Leavitt makes the case, eloquently and convincingly, that neorealism has a history that precedes the war (in certain Italian writers’ admiration for nineteenth century realists such as Giovanni Verga as well as for Proust and Joyce), a history in the twenty years of fascist rule (censorship and antifascist underground activity) and a wartime history that precedes the great postwar productivity and the clearly recognisable names such as Rome Open City or Bicycle Thieves. Furthermore, no sooner was the movement born than its progenitors wanted to kill it – as is the way of most artists for whom definitions are impediments, limiting and defining the creative drive. Visconti himself declared it “an absurd label” and a “boundary and law”, and Zavattini, one of the movement’s principal theorists, said that “Italian cinema has been assailed by its most coveted honours”. In short, the artists were tired of the rules they had set themselves and wanted to get on with making art – nothing new in that.
Leavitt is scrupulous and thorough in walking us through the work of the principal theorists of the movement, the directors themselves, the novels, stories and poems that formed the context, the inspiration and the political maelstrom in which the films surfaced. The range of reference is hugely impressive and the whole is woven together in a clear, unpretentious prose even where abstruse concepts of aesthetics are involved. A case in point is his treatment of La Terra Trema. Based on the novel I Malavoglia by the Sicilian realist Giovanni Verga, Leavitt’s tour de force analysis takes us from Verga to Ulysses (both that of Homer and Joyce) via Jean Renoir, tracing the Homeric imagery that helps to structure the film and placing it in a political context.
That an aesthetic choice is also a political choice is made clear in the analysis of De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. Zavattini explains how every day hundreds of bicycles are stolen in Rome, especially those of poor people, and not one of them ever merits a report in the newspapers, whereas the film (he collaborated with De Sica) places the theft of a poor man’s bicycle at the very centre and in the process demonstrates the precarity of the protagonist’s existence. This is what Zavattini calls “the hierarchy of facts”. The fact of the theft of a bicycle from a poor man is that the poor man cannot feed his family and is reduced to misery. Thus, to the neorealist eye, the theft of a poor man’s bicycle is at the apex of the hierarchy, literally the difference between survival and starvation, a truly tragic, even epic, catastrophe. In Zavattini’s terms, it is this “hierarchy of facts” that the film, and neorealism in general, addresses.
Leavitt spends some time on the Italian word cronaca, observing in passing that there is really no English equivalent. The word means something like “small news items” or “local news”. It arises because De Sica and others of the movement describe their work as cronaca precisely because it inverts the accepted “hierarchy of facts”, placing the theft of a bicycle or the damage to a fishing boat or the death of poor woman at the pinnacle of importance. Leavitt argues, rightly in my opinion, that this inversion, which contrasts with the anodyne bourgeois aspirations of the “white telephone” period, is absolutely central to how we should understand neorealism, and this understanding leads neatly to the final substantive chapter on the politics of the movement.
For this exploration Vittorini is the touchstone. There is a detailed analysis of his thought on the role of culture in postwar (if not entirely post-fascist) society. For Vittorini the experience of the fascist years called for a culture which “came to connote not only a form of knowledge but also of praxis, a way of being, or rather of intervening, in the world”, taking as its source, as culture always does “the spectacle of man’s suffering in society”. Vittorini’s call, and by extension that of the neorealist movement as a whole, was not “for compassion, for charity, for solidarity. This was a call for culture to take power.” Bellonci argued that neorealism “characteristically performed the transition from an individual to a social consciousness, from a personal to a collective experience, from the singular I to the plural we.” Thus the neorealists aligned themselves on the left wing of the vast culture war that extended throughout Italian society from 1945 to at least the collapse of the three dominant forces of Italian political life: the Christian Democrats, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party – the first two folding under the weight of their own corruption and the PCI collapsing in ideological despair after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Italian Neorealism, A Cultural History is a comprehensive theoretical study of neorealism in the context of both the criticism of its contemporaries and the judgement of history. Brilliantly researched, it will make an indispensable reference for anyone teaching the period, either in Italian literature or in cinema. One of its delights is that every quotation from an Italian source is given first in the original language and then in translation. Inevitably, at the price, the book will be found mainly in the academy, but I would urge the publishers to make it available as a paperback for more general consumption. As a guide to the cultural ferment of postwar Italy as well as to neorealism and the neorealists it could hardly be bettered.
William Wall is the author of six novels, three collections of short fiction and four volumes of poetry. His work has been translated into many languages and he translates from Italian.