An explanation of neorealism and an insight to the films of Federico Fellini – a personal understanding

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In this essay, I would like to analyse the genre of neorealism, with particular reference to the films of Federico Fellini. This may seam an odd combination, the association of neorealism to Rossellini, Visconti, or Desica may seem more appropriate, but I hope to show that Fellini used all that was special pioneered in the pure neorealist years of 1943 to 1951, and extended it with a very personal new vision. His antecedents were impressive, his collaboration with Rossellini in ‘Roma, Citta Aperta’ (1945), and scripting and directing parts of ‘Paisan’ (1946), and ‘The Miracle’ (1947) has made Fellini a significant figure in the movement called Italian neoralism, and it is here I would like to begin.

Any understanding of the neorealist movement must be based upon an understanding of what happened in Italy during the war. During 1943 and 1944, Italy had been torn apart. Mussolini’s government, full of lies and empty rhetoric, had fallen. The new Badoglio government had surrendered to the invading Allied armies in the South, while the Germans had occupied the North. Anti-fascist Italians of every political and religious persuasion had been involved in the fighting to liberate their country and had been united by the struggle against fascism. From this cauldron, neorealism emerged. I think it emanated from the filmmakers of Italy turning away from the lies of the fascist era, and turning toward a confrontation with reality, an encounter with the truth.

Inspired by the war of liberation, filmmakers rejected the old cinema (long since controlled by the fascist government) and its conventions. They had a belief in ‘showing things as they are’, and they hoped that this would help build a new Italy. In this way the moral and aesthetic principles of neorealism were united. The manner and style of the new cinema was to be as much a statement as its subject matter. To explain, I noted four points that all neorealist films share. These points are partly explained by the state of Italian film production at the end of the war, for example a lack of studios, equipment, film stock, and actors, but they form the aesthetic that neorealism is now justly famous.

1. Documentary openness.

2. Real locations rather than studio sets. Real people rather than exclusively actors.

3. An emphasis on the commonplace and the common man over the exceptional. The denial of the heroic ideal over social equality.

4. Mise-en-scene over montage (to preserve reality and minimise its manipulation).

Cesare Zavattini, the writer of Vittorio De Sica’s major films, and a director himself in the 1950’s, formulated the theory of neorealism. Cinema’s task was no longer simply to entertain, but to confront audiences with their own reality, to analyse that reality, and to unite audiences through a shared confrontation with reality.

Frank Burke has said,

For Zavattini, realism entailed an extremely objective, reportorial method, one that approached the pure recording of reality without formative intrusion on the part of the director. Yet all the major neorealist films were, in large part, fictional, clearly the result of imaginative shaping rather than mere mechanical replication. Recognising this, scholars have begun to emphasise the fabricated, staged aspects of neorealist films as well as its documentary realism.1

This point relates directly to Fellini, it was an attempt to purify the imagination redefine the task of art, through reconnection with the concrete. The difference between some directors of neorealism, for example Fellini in Amarcord or De Sica in ‘Umberto D’ appears to lie in how realism is addressed. All of the great Directors of neorealist films had four major goals. The first was to counteract the kind of illusions promulgated by Italian films of the 1930’s and 40’s. The film industry had previously been firmly under the control of the fascist government and had concentrated production on Mussolini propaganda films or escapist comedies centred on the monied classes (known as ‘white telephone’ movies). Both had been fairly studio bound modes of production. The huge studio complex of Cinecitta, and the Italian film school of centro sperimentale di cinematografia were run in line with fascist dictates. Not every film made under the fascist regime was poor, but none came close to touching the social reality of Italy. Now both institutions were in ruins, and a necessity to film outdoors, and a new desire for realism produced the aesthetic familiar to neorealist films.

This new reality formed the second goal, to reveal the social and economic conditions of post-war Italy. Leftist in spirit, the Directors of neorealist film sought to redirect Italian consciousness from bourgeois ideals to proletarian reality. Thirdly, this in turn was hoped to awaken a new sense of human solidarity following the oppression and fragmentation of the fascist period. Finally, the Directors hoped to develop a new sense of national cinematic identity, freed of dependence on Hollywood for either technique or romantic subject matter, in my opinion, the films of Federico Fellini attain all of these goals but with a slightly different approach. Burke says,

Fellini’s early films share neorealist opposition to bourgeois illusion; escapism, preconception and authoritarianism (‘The white Sheik’) dissimilarities to neorealism are striking. The notion of a world out there waiting to be documented is far too static for Fellini. The world does no pre-exist, it is always in the act of becoming.2

For Fellini, to stand removed from the process, to try merely to capture and analyse reality, is to remain one step behind. For example, the protagonists of ‘A matrimonial Agency’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ suffer precisely because of their alienation from the act of living. This is a common motif in Fellini’s films most famously shown in ’81/2′. Notions such as objectivity and detachment run counter to the Fellinian sense of love and engagement.

This imaginative shaping of reality flowed directly against the writings of Zavattini, the foremost theorist of neorealism. But there is common ground. Zavattini insisted that there was a natural affinity between the cinema and reality, despite the fact that a camera will record whatever is in front of the lens and that the processed film will then (depending upon the skill of the film maker) convince a spectator of the reality of what he is seeing. For Zavattini, cinematic realism was merely a convention, and the neorealist method was only one possible approach to cinema. Here is a link then between the theory of neorealism, and the great films, often imaginative, that are labelled neorealist.

For example, in ‘Rome Open City’ real locations were used for almost the entire film, but no one has complained that the priest’s room, the Gestapo headquarters, and one apartment were constructed entirely in a studio and therefore broke the rules of authenticity. Similarly, the principle that roles should be played by real people was often broken. In De Sica’s ‘Umberto D’ the non-actor playing the role of an unemployed government official was in real life an elderly professor. He was highly praised for the reality of his performance, but it was a performance, the professor had nothing in common with the character except age. In fact, the only truly neorealist film I have seen is Visconti’s ‘La Terra Trema’ where the non-actors are real fishermen. ‘La Terra Trema’ achieves a clear understanding of how the fishermen are exploited and how this ‘social reality’ works to oppress people generally.

But even this film violates Zavattini’s code by being based on a novel. Perhaps the best-known neorealist film ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is again not true to neorealism, as the protagonist’s problem of unemployment is never properly analysed. We see it criminalize him, humiliate him, and see his final redemption, but at the end of the film we are no closer to an understanding of his social reality. Burke says,

The crucial human problems are no longer materialist, so much as spiritual (The change in emphasis occurs in the work of nearly all directors who came of age in the neorealist period -Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and even Vittorio De Sica and Alberto Lattuada.3

For some critics ‘reality’ meant ‘social reality’ and in particular the representation of the conditions of the poor and unemployed. Later, when directors like Rossellini and Visconti moved away from the working classes, they were denounced as ‘betrayers of neorealism’, as if the middle classes were not a part of social reality. This is where Fellini’s films stand out for me, they combine the great social reality portrayed in films like ‘La Strada’ and ‘Nights of Cabiria’ with affectionate memory and imaginative exploration ’81/2′ and ‘Amarcord’. Burke has said,

As growth becomes increasingly possible for Fellini’s characters, the stifling socio-economic conditions emphasised in neorealist films are seen in a new light. Instead of serving as inescapable reality, they become transformable. As Cabiria evolves beyond a material existence, she is able to turn prostitution into genuine love. Her currency becomes not money but spirit, her home not a little suburban box but in the world at large.4

It is clear from his films that Fellini is equally concerned with the validity of creation, with a neorealist authenticity of observation. The neorealists seek to be true to the way things are. While Fellini seeks to be true to the way things can be transformed. But in both a neorealist guise, and a more imaginative and creative guise, Fellini is dedicated to accuracy, faithfulness and accountability, clearly neorealist goals. Burke says,

By the time Fellini gets to ’81/2′, life transformed into imagination has almost entirely replaced ‘primitive’ reality, even as the starting point of his work. This is not a form of escape or rejection – just an acknowledgement that as people develop their powers of intelligence, ‘reality’ becomes not a brute fact but value; experience informed and evaluated by mind. As Fellini’s main characters become more imaginative, they come to resemble less and less the ‘common man’ prized by Zavattini.5

Both Fellini and the neorealists are vitally concerned with the transformation of consciousness. The neorealists thought they could effect it by showing the negative consequences of war, fascism and bourgeois ideology. Fellini, instead ‘enacts’ transformation. I believe this extension nevertheless is a link between the two schools. Even Zavattini said,

To exercise our poetic talents, we must leave our rooms and go, in mind and body, out to meet other people. This is a genuine moral necessity.6

Fellini’s best films are centred on an intimate characterisation of individuals with transformation as a key motif. Although imaginative, their very nature is neorealist in origin. Fellini said,

For me neorealism is a way of living without prejudice, and a means of liberating oneself completely from bias; in short, a way of facing reality without preconceived ideas.7

Here then is a final link. Burke has said,

This need to be free of prejudice, of fixed ideas and categories, of habits that blind one to the world, is in the largest sense a desire for renewed vision, recovered authenticity. It is in this, perhaps, more than anything that Fellini and neorealism most fully conjoin. Each is engaged in a revolution against disabling tradition, institutionalisation and false consciousness.8

I would finally like to illustrate some of the similarities I have drawn between neorealism and Fellini, by briefly looking at one of his best films ‘The Nights of Cabiria’.

This film is shot almost entirely on location, in and around Rome. It has a documentary openness when we see the living conditions of the protagonist compared to some characters she encounters on ‘the other side of town’. Culminating in an amusing sequence when our seemingly simple and common little prostitute Cabiria tries to ply her trade on the upper class via veneto.

The real locations, the ideal of the commonplace, the use of mise-en-scene (especially in Cabiria’s encounter with a famous actor) and the social reality of the film, mark it as neorealist, but there is more. Cabiria is played by the great professional actress, and Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina. Masina’s performance is so dignified, subtle and convincing, that she endows Cabiria with a power a non-actor could not achieve. She is even more impressive than her own portrayal of Gelsomia in Fellini’s ‘La Strada’. Burke has said,

Cabiria, for example, is genuinely exceptional in her capacity for creative experience. Yet she does not become a ‘hero’ (heroine’) in the negative sense of being separate, superior dominant. In fact, her true genius and originality lie in her ability to become vitally related to everyone – ‘democratic’ in the richest of ways. Individuation, which is a crucial dimension of all Fellini’s affirmative films, is never individuation ‘from’ it is always individuation ‘in’ and ‘through’. It leads to greater harmony, higher forms of engagement.9

The social reality motif of the neorealists is met through the motif of prostitution, which characterizes a world in which the feminine, loving and personal are reduced to a sexual commodity. Figuratively it signifies a willingness of characters to sell themselves out to illusions such as the bourgeois ideal of financial security, salvation through institutionised religion or marriage. Fellini lifts the film into the sublime by showing the only real salvation lies in transcendence. Cabiria is a phantasmagorical figure who despite all of the terrible social reality facing her rises without the crutches of a bourgeois society. It is ultimately redemptive rather than tragic, and a good example of Fellini pushing the boundaries of neorealism to produce a work which defines comparmentation and who’s power I will never forget.

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