Neorealism and the “New” Italy: Compassion in the Development of Italian Identity centers on the investigation of the emotion of compassion the neorealist artists express through their characters’ interactions. It proposes compassion as an emotion that may be activated to unify certain individuals and communities and explores the meanings that compassion attains in promoting emotional intelligence, influencing the formation of Italian identity, and in redefining neorealism as a topic of investigation.
Specifically, the questions, textual examples, and theories of emotions that this analysis addresses are aimed to produce a deeper understanding of neorealist representations of the “anguish of a nation,” and the forms of compassion through which Italy is re-encoded and reconstructed. By analyzing the overlooked roles that compassion plays in the development of Italian identity, and by redefining neorealism as a field of study highlighting representations of a particular period of Italian history, this work explores compassion as an emotion that is constructed to connect individuals at many levels.
The book is divided into four parts focusing on the mechanisms that allow compassion to operate during the postwar period. Part I presents the contextual material to understand neorealism. Part II provides the background to understand compassion and its functions during the Fascist time. Part III deals with representations of compassion and the connection with different examples of female characters’ participation in the war. Part IV centers on the depiction of compassion in the most horrifying circumstances of the Holocaust.
Neorealist authors and filmmakers fashioned their works out of the ruins of World War II and attracted global approval for their elaboration of an aesthetic defining post-Fascist Italy. Neorealism was not an official artistic school with rigid beliefs but it became noted for its literary and cinematic attention toward events that characterized the ordinary lives of common people during Fascism, the Nazi Occupation, World War II, and the postwar period in Italy. Usually perceived as thriving from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, the movement extended considerably during the 1960s and 1970s as many authors and directors resumed the original subjects of neorealism.
The neorealist movement has been connected mainly with leftist scholars who hoped that a more democratic form of government would ultimately succeed in Italy after the defeat of Fascism. Neorealist artists renounced the verbal embellishments generally associated with the Fascist regime (1922–1942) and shaped a documentary style, recounting the ruthless material situations of postwar Italy in unpretentious and colloquial language. They focused their consideration on social, economic, and political problems, and developed the concept of social commitment of artists in order to renovate Italy and Italians. Neorealism conveyed emotions, realities, and conflicts formerly masked by the Fascists. To understand the expansion of the neorealist attitude and methods, theorists agree that it is central to acknowledge the significance of the historic time in which these ideas started. Neorealist artists lived through an exclusive period of transformation that inspired their ways of perceiving and sharing present or past situations.
With the aim of offering the critical background for analyzing compassion in neorealist representations, Part I offers an overview of the literary and cinematographic origin of neorealism, the connection between the movement and its cinematographic and literary productions, its main subjects, and the methods used by neorealist artists to introduce emotional involvement.
Based on the models of Aristotle, M. Nussbaum, and Whitebrook, compassion is considered as the affective participation in another’s experience, recorded through variations in affect or insight or through actions to better the condition of another individual. It can be displayed in a multiplicity of manners such as a reassuring word, a supportive action, or a helpful gesture recognizing that the other person is facing a difficult time. Compassion, which embraces sympathy in M. Nussbaum’s terms and pity in Whitebrook’s, specifies both the manifestation of an emotional condition and the immediate or evaluated involvement in another person’s misfortune or anguish and the consequent expression of that realization.
Through the analysis of characters, circumstances, and plots, neorealist artists suggest a way to relate compassion with a rational progression and to propose a new evaluation of this emotion. The depictions of characters, which demonstrate comprehension of another individual’s plight, present compassion as an emotion that can be generated by observing the difficulties experienced by others and through active participation in specific situations. These displays of compassion arise from reflective consideration of a specific circumstance or as instant reactions to devastating suffering.
Compassion can be distinguished by other similar emotions, such as pity, empathy, and sympathy. Examining the intensity of the pain or the point of view of the perception, specialists have struggled to underline these differences. For this examination, it is significant to keep in mind features of these similar emotions since here compassion could include characteristics traditionally attributed to other similar emotions. The focus of this work is not the examination of the degree of pain or the point of view of the observation but rather the political and social repercussions that emotional participation in others’ suffering may generate. Specifically, this analysis focuses on the meaning and implications of different compassionate behaviors on postwar Italian society. In that context, compassion is activated in connection with the ability of mastering a new moral code resulting from the struggle of dangerous circumstances such as the war, the Fascist and Nazi occupation, and the Holocaust.
In order to provide a critical structure for analyzing compassion in neorealist representations, Part II briefly examines the functions that emotions and particularly compassion exercised in the cultural discourse during the Fascist time. It compares the usage of compassion in Mussolini’s and Bernari’s works, recognizing that compassion achieved libratory as well as punitive purposes. Mussolini, addressing women as objects of compassion because of their sacrifice to the nation, conceives this emotion as a means to impose disciplinary control. In his model, compassion is sacrificed for political achievements. Bernari, unlike the political dictator, utilizes compassion as a tool to better relationships and to offer individuals new models of behavior. Through compassion shown by his characters, Bernari proposes innovative manners to relating among individuals, highlighting also the misery of the political and social conditions of that time.
Part III centers on four different models of neorealist texts, which underline diverse representations of women’s partaking in the fight against Fascists and Nazis. The following texts have been examined: Natalia Ginzburg’s autobiography Family Sayings, Alberto Moravia’s Two Women, Renata Viganò’s L’Agnese va a morire (Agnese Goes to Die), and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.
The works by Natalia Ginzburg and Alberto Moravia propose compassion as an emotion often unused toward members of the same family or middle class. Proposing different methods for individuals to create their communities, the authors challenge previous standards proposed by the Fascist culture. By questioning the patriarchal power of her Jewish family, Ginzburg promotes an Italian identity respectful of gender differences and minorities, thus encouraging less rigid gender divisions.
Demonstrating the importance of understanding the suffering of others, Moravia employs compassion, triggered or denied among the characters or toward the environment, to instill awareness of crucial cultural elements, thus allowing Moravia to provide his own social statement. For instance, he rejects a blind nationalism, suggesting a more inclusive Italian identity, and enlarges the concept of neorealism through the promotion of a consideration for the plight of others.
By questioning the connection between women and obedience and passivity, Viganó challenges the supposition that during the war, women’s involvement was merely at home. In contrast, she demonstrates that women’s abilities moved beyond the domestic sphere. Through their dynamic contribution, they functioned efficiently in the more extended community, helping in achieving the partisans’ political cause and demonstrating women’s effort in exploring a new space for emancipation.
Rossellini, similarly to Viganó, uses compassion as a tool to propose conflict resolution and to endorse the political and social involvement of modern women. However, unlikely Viganó, the film also communicates that those features are appreciated when females display the patriarchal values worshiped by Fascism. This neorealist director denies any compassionate reply toward female figures exemplifying manners in opposition to the patriarchal description of women. Therefore, the commitment to the roles of wife and mother associated with the domestic sphere are still an important prerogative for Rossellini. The director suggests a less inventive way of problem-solving and proposes an innovative postwar female Italian identity but still connected to previous models.
The examination of compassion in the previous neorealist works displays different ways of promoting individuals’ emotional ability perceived as a significant element for the new Italian identity. Emotional ability allows individuals to reach knowledge and consequently mental well-being, self- and cultural awareness, and conflict resolution. Ginzburg’s work confirms the psychological importance of mental well-being as a central element in human behavior. As affirmed by recent studies, this component is relevant to permit individuals to value their emotions and use them to influence their life and community positively.
Moravia uses self- and cultural awareness to reflect on the social condition, acknowledge the emotions of others, and connect with them. Self-awareness is the individuals’ ability to consider both their individuality and others’ standpoints. Cultural awareness is the skill of becoming receptive to our cultural values. The author employs these traits to promote awareness of individuals’ cultural values and similarities with others, thus facilitating communication among them.
Through the construction of idealized female characters’ representations of compassion, Viganó and Rossellini propose conflict resolution, which is a human process associated with individuals’ emotional capability and aptitude to recognize the value of significant elements for others. This practice includes communication and motivation. Therefore, the neorealist authors teach that individuals’ capability to generate a change in others is connected to the ability to understand their perspectives since this approach opens pathways to creative problem-solving. Rossellini, unlike Viganó, suggests that his emotional capability is anchored to previous ways of thinking, which affect his way of proposing solutions.
Part IV focuses on the depiction of compassion in the brutalizing surroundings created by the Italian anti-Semitic racial laws (1938) and concentration camps. It centers on two works: two testimonial narratives, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi and Smoke over Birkenau by Liana Millu. This part explores the connections between compassion and identity, imagination, gender, national, and ethnic differences. Levi employs compassion in numerous manners. By denying it, he underlines isolation. By using it deceptively, he exemplifies the loss of trust consequential the gaining of personal benefit. When he depicts the prisoners reinstating recognition for others, he shows compassionate reactions as a tool for controlling ethical standards. These various manifestations of compassion offer ways to understand the dynamics of compassion and a manner to challenge the positivist view that emotions are distinct from other modes of learning.
The stories proposed by Millu and the compassionate reactions activated by her characters accentuate manners of contrasting dehumanization. The author proposes stories that center on the anguish of Millu’s female companions and their emotional sustenance of one another during their imprisonment at Birkenau. These stories underline the violence, the resistance, and the compassion of these women. Millu’s work provides a perspective on compassion and shows that this emotion offers a system to refashion affectional bonds and impart support among the women. Contrasting the Nazi regime that inflicts division, Millu recommends coalition and family connections.
Levi and Millu, as Bernari during the Fascist time, encourage the practice of compassion to create relationships that prove to be crucial for individuals’ salvation in the camps. Even if extremely difficult to be triggered, this ability allows individuals to influence others, communicate and build bonds, and therefore help people to progress and expand their perspective through a limited exercise of judgment. While Levi underlines the struggle in establishing relationships among men in the camps, Millu depicts these bonds as a common component of women’s relationships. Contrasting the traditional male literature that has been gender neutral, she demonstrates that women can offer a different perspective on the Holocaust, and that their culture suggests diverse conditions through which to express their opportunities and act powerfully.
Through the analysis of compassion, neorealist artists encourage the employment of emotional capability, which, by encouraging social behavior, helps increase inclusion in the postwar Italian identity enlarged by recognizing others’ perspectives and suffering and by cautiously practicing the ability of judging others. Additionally, it enhances individuals’ ability to find positive solutions, reject a blind nationalism, promote women’s relationships, and understand their different sensibilities and ways of coping with dramatic events. Hence, neorealism becomes a tool to encourage women’s ability to be active participants in it. By recognizing the significance of others’ emotions and standpoints, neorealist artists admit the relativity about their methodology. Since emotional ability is culturally constructed, these artists leave open the possibility for further explanations in the new Italy.
The compassionate reactions examined in this work highlight powerful ways to value individuals’ perspectives and women’s sensibilities in the postwar period. Although they recognize morals that neorealist artists propose to be part of the new Italian identity, these principles could be further explored. For instance, women’s compassionate reactions prove to be a powerful tool to enhance their active inclusion in the postwar Italian identity; however, the subject is far from being exhausted. Further investigation could be practiced to underline women’s situation and to examine, for instance, if their compassionate effort was practiced to understand or reduce men’s embarrassment as a consequence of their involvement changing.
Another potential area of enquiry is the examination of the limit of compassion. In fact, caring for people influences an individual emotionally and might cause exhaustion. It would be relevant to examine if postwar individuals had a limited capacity for compassion and if this emotion would exhaust itself under specific circumstances. The quality of a compassionate conduct orders that it should be done for its own sake and not with the purpose of being rewarded; however, it would be interesting to evaluate if people will set boundaries on compassion in order to avoid depletion of their resources and if they can find subtle methods of recognition that could potentially recharge their batteries.
A further topic of investigation would be to explore if compassion is an unchanging capability or if it underwent a specific evolution from the postwar period to now, as affirmed by the study by Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas. Moreover, of equal interest it would be to research if this emotion becomes easier with practice or if it would be beneficial in specific situations not to trigger it. For instance, during the dramatic events of a war, individuals might face the difficult position of sacrificing a few individuals for the benefit of the majority. In this context, compassion is sacrificed for the advantage of many. Further examination regarding these features of compassion could provide additional clarifications on the practices of this emotion, the degree people are willing to open themselves to others under dramatic conditions, and the social impacts that this procedure generates.
The examination through this book offered a new way to systematically examine how neorealism, praised for its compassionate characters, employs compassion to reach its own objectives. By promoting compassion and emotional intelligence, neorealist artists help us to realize how people act and adjust themselves to their social surroundings. Additionally, they highlight actions of bravery directed toward individuals and small communities and denounce the need of translating this quality into larger actions in the new Italy to promote social justice for many, diminish the anguish of the nation, and prevent tragedies originated by human desire for triumph.