Influences on neorealism
Italian neorealism has always been both an Italian and an international phenomenon and neorealist films and filmmakers regularly drew on both Italian and foreign influences. The neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s were among the most well-schooled in film history, capitalising on the proliferation of popular film culture and of film education in Italy during the 1930s, and drawing upon a wide range of cinematic precedents. In respect of neorealism’s documentary-like preoccupation with the everyday life of a society, the Soviet montage school of the 1920s was not widely known but had a specialised influence, especially through the translation of Russian film theory by Umberto Barbaro and the teaching of Russian filmmaking techniques at the national film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (see Brunetta 2001: 167–74). More influential because they were more thoroughly part of the common culture were French cinema, especially the poetic realism of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, which enjoyed commercial success in Italy and provided some of the most important neorealist filmmakers with their first experiences of filmmaking, and Hollywood cinema, which, prior to its exclusion by the fascist authorities in 1938, enjoyed widespread popularity and a dominant position in the market.
Of all influences on neorealist cinema, none was more important than that of French cinema – especially the work of Renoir, Carné and René Clair, which was popular with Italian audiences in the 1930s and became even more so after 1938 when Hollywood films were no longer available in Italy. The aesthetics and ethics of their films were regularly cited as an inspiration for the rejuvenation of Italian cinema called for by Giuseppe De Santis, Mario Alicata, Antonio Pietrangeli and Umberto Barbaro in their critical writings for Cinema
and Bianco e nero
in the early 1940s (see Quaresima 1996). The French film industry provided important professional opportunities to neorealist filmmakers in their days as young apprentices to major French directors. De Sica and Rossellini readily acknowledged their admiration of the films of Clair, and Antonioni worked as an assistant on Carné’s Les visiteurs du soir
(1942). Visconti spent much of his early adulthood in France, gained his first professional experience working as an assistant to Renoir on Une partie de campagne
(1936), and regularly cited the influence of 1930s French poetic realism on his own later work in cinema. Renoir’s Toni
(1935) provided a precursor of neorealism in its focus on working-class subjects, its downplaying of stardom and glamour and its location filming in the French provinces while Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione
– generally recognised as the most important Italian forerunner of neorealism, if not itself the first neorealist film proper – drew heavily on the admiration for French cinema which Visconti shared with the film’s scriptwriter, Giuseppe De Santis.
Only American culture had a more widespread presence in Italy before World War Two. Italians cultivated a fascination with the United States due to America’s status as a popular icon of urban modernity and Italy’s important emigrant population in the US whose letters and remittances sent home to family in the old country were inspiring points of contact between continents. Italian appreciation of American cinema was widespread. The neorealists admired Hollywood directors from William Wyler and Frank Capra to John Ford and King Vidor, both realist and epic in their cinematic visions. In the 1930s, Italian audiences were drawn to the realism and modernity of the American gangster film, and to escapist American movies, including those of popular icons such as Mickey Mouse, and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
(1937). According to Pierre Sorlin, during the period 1930 to 1935, US films accounted for sixty to seventy per cent of total box-office revenue in Italy while Italian films amounted to a relatively small 15–17 per cent (1996: 56). Faced with this reality, the fascist regime was ambivalent. At the end of the 1920s, the playwright Luigi Pirandello, a fascist sympathiser, declared his hostility to the coming of sound cinema as the manifestation of a vulgar American popular culture which was antithetical to theatre and art. Mussolini, however, pragmatically tolerated the prominence of Hollywood, at least partly in recognition of the Italian emigrant connection. But that tolerance would run out in 1938 when, under the new doctrine of national self-sufficiency known as ‘autarchy’, the regime unilaterally assumed responsibility for the distribution of all imported films, effectively freezing the Hollywood studios and their films out of Italy until 1944. For James Hay, the ‘essentialism and imperialism’ (1987: 66) which dominated Italian political life in the 1920s and 1930s can be seen, in part, as a reaction to Americanisation among conservative groups in Italian society.
For many Italian writers, meanwhile, American culture provided a surrogate culture of resistance to fascism. Writers such as Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini favored American authors of realist or naturalist leanings such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodor Dreiser, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and John Dos Passos. Moravia translated Ernest Hemingway and others into Italian, and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) was adapted by De Santis and Visconti to become the film Ossessione in 1943, though the book itself was not published in Italian until 1945. This socially-oriented literature, much of it compiled in Vittorini’s influential anthology, Americana (1941), remained popular in Italy despite the restrictive cultural and political climate of the fascist regime. American literature grated against the ultra-nationalism of official literary figures such as Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), the writer and soldier whose Nietzschean romanticism, super-masculine iconography and virulent antiliberal, anti-communist politics were beloved of the fascists. This is not to say that America was idealised – rather it was seen, as Pavese put it, as ‘a sort of great laboratory’ (quoted in Liehm 1984: 36) which exemplified the latest political, cultural, economic and social trends in modern urban society in a way which was exciting if also somewhat disturbing. In 1935, Mario Soldati became one of the most important commentators on the ambivalent myth of America through his book America primo amore (America: First Love, 1935), which provided a detailed account of his experiences of the energy and diversity of American culture and society during two years he spent working and completing a fellowship at Columbia University in New York. In his characterisation, the United States functioned as a symbolic counterweight to the dominant nationalist mythology and imposed social order of the fascist era.
But if American literature and, to a certain extent, American film provided a realist counter to the mythologising tendencies of fascism, realist tendencies had been established in Italy much earlier. Indeed, Italy can be said to have been the birthplace of the realist representation which dominated Western art, in the sense of perspective and figuration, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Italian cinema, from its earliest days, was constituted by a tension between a dominant spectacular and a minor realist tendency which Angela Dalle Vacche has explained in terms of the opposing Italian cultural traditions of opera and of the commedia dell’arte
– the former heroic, legendary and statuesque, and the latter, like neorealism, concerned with small-scale realities, and human, everyday interactions and environments (1992: 3–5). The dominant tendency of Italian cinema prior to the advent of the fascists in 1922 was towards technically-sophisticated and lavish melodrama and historical epic of the type provided by films from The Taking of Rome
(director unknown, 1905), The Fall of Troy
(La caduta di Troia,
1910) and Agnes Visconti
(1910) to Cabiria
(1912) and Quo Vadis?
(1914). But this tendency was met by an important, if minor, strain of documentary-style realism which flourished in Assunta Spina
(1915) and Sperduti nel buio
(1914) as well as in the films of Elvira Notari, A santa notte
and È piccerella
(both 1922), which were often filmed on location with non-professional actors in working-class environments and which achieved critical recognition after World War Two when Italian and French film historians such as Umberto Barbaro and Georges Sadoul pointed to them as important antecedents of neorealism.
However, while signs of early Italian cinema, as well as French and American film and literature, could be seen throughout neorealism, nothing influenced it more deeply than the social and political regime of fascism from which it emerged and against which it was formed, both ideologically and artistically.
Italian cinema under fascism
From its inception in 1922 until the end of that decade, the fascist regime was only remotely involved in the Italian film industry, assuming that film production was best handled by private interests seeking to emulate the commercially-oriented entertainment model of Hollywood. However, this approach proved unsustainable. From a dominant position in international cinema prior to World War One, competition from Hollywood, France and Germany increased, production companies and Italy’s famous star system (divismo)
became unprofitable, the industry fell behind international standards in equipment and training, and Italian films lost foreign market share, especially with the coming of sound. Overall feature film production fell from 371 films in 1920 to 8 in 1930. Studios in Milan and Turin were abandoned, production in Naples declined, and Rome remained the only area of continuing feature production, mostly carried out by small, independent companies (see Sorlin 1996: 53). With the exception of Italy’s one major film distributor-exhibitor, Stefano Pittaluga, and the studio Cines, Italy’s feature film industry was in dire straits.
However, the fascist regime had quickly realised the usefulness of documentary film in building and maintaining political power. In 1926, it had founded L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE) which produced large volumes of documentaries and newsreels emphasising Italy’s economic, industrial and cultural progress and making the image of Mussolini ubiquitous in Italian society. In 1929, when the regime consolidated its power by declaring Italy a one-party state, it launched the Ente nazionale per la cinematografia to give greater coordination to the film industry in response to its economic crisis and to provide Italy with a vibrant and modern film industry to rival those of other great powers. Subsequently, the fascist regime developed a sophisticated carrot-and-stick set of initiatives to foster Italian film production and then dramatically increased its control of the industry after 1936 just as it commenced its imperial wars in Africa and the Balkans, intervened in the Spanish Civil War on Franco’s side, initiated the policy of economic and cultural autarchy, and formalised its long-standing alliance with Nazism. The desirability of fascist influence on all aspects of film culture, not just documentary, became clear and cinema was recognised by Mussolini as ‘the most powerful weapon’. The regime’s approach to film culture was to foster the production and consumption of Italian films within ideological and industrial parameters which, although not as rigorous as those applied by the Nazi regime to German cinema, were nonetheless carefully-controlled and consonant with its agenda.
In 1932, the Mostra cinematografica di Venezia was inaugurated as an extension of the Venice Arts Festival, giving official cultural credibility to the medium. From 1933, Fascist party cinema youth clubs, the so-called Cine-GUF (Gioventù universitaria fascista), promoted film among the proliferating educated middle-class youth population. The founding of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in 1935, led by Luigi Chiarini, provided Italy with one of the world’s most sophisticated film schools where students, including the future neorealists Rossellini, Antonioni, De Santis, Zampa and Germi, were exposed to the influences of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Arnheim and Balázs and to new critical debates about film. Italy’s increasingly intellectual film culture was epitomised by the Centro’s theoretically-oriented in-house journal Bianco e Nero
(founded in 1937) and by Cinema
(founded in 1936) which, despite being edited from 1938 by Vittorio Mussolini, provided young film critics, including Antonioni and De Santis, with early opportunities to publish their ideas. Cinema
soon became known for its belief that cinema should display a commitment to the subject of contemporary Italian society and to the naturalistic aesthetic of verismo.
As a new generation of filmmakers and critics was produced, feature-film production was also significantly boosted by the establishment of the state-of-the-art and state-funded Cinecittà studios, on the Via Tuscolana in Rome, which were opened to great fanfare by Mussolini in 1937 and presented as an Italian emulation of the Hollywood model and the epitome of Italy’s dynamic urban modernity.
Meanwhile, other initiatives were undertaken which were more clearly aimed at controlling the character of Italian feature films. The Direzione Generale per la Cinematografia was founded in 1933 under Luigi Freddi, himself a fascist and adviser to the regime on cinema, who combined his experiences of visiting Hollywood with the advice of established filmmakers such as Mario Camerini, Alessandro Blasetti and Mario Soldati. Through the Direzione, steps were taken to limit the exhibition of foreign films by imposing taxes on their importation which could be channeled into domestic production, and requiring the dubbing of all foreign films into Italian, while selectively banning certain films, such as Jean Renoir’s pacifist film La Grande illusion
(1937), and funding others according to an official agenda, such as Carmine Gallone’s militaristic Roman epic Scipio Africanus
(1937). This kind of control was extended in 1935 with the Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche (ENIC) which, thirteen years after the start of the fascist regime, established complete fascist control of the film industry. ENIC controlled all first-run film theatres (prima visione)
in Italian cities, thereby accounting for eighty per cent of the total box office, and, despite the protests of exhibitors, took over all distribution of foreign films from the private sector in a move which forced the American studios Fox, Paramount, MGM and Warner Bros. to pull out of the Italian market by 1938. Cinema had become central to Italian fascism’s political, economic and cultural agendas and its promotion of conservative social values. These values coincided with those of the Catholic Church, which arrived at an accommodation with the fascist regime in the 1929 Lateran Pact and which also sought to promote a patriarchal and sexually-conservative social order, including by means of its own network of cinemas which showed films approved by the Catholic Centre for Cinema (Centro Cattolico Cinematografico) and publicised in its own film magazine Cinematic Information.
Following these developments, film production in Italy rose substantially from ten to twenty films per year in the early 1930s to nearly 100 per year in the early 1940s (see Quaglietti 1980: 245). An extensive programme of new cinema building was commenced, cinema audiences grew dramatically, and spending on cinemagoing as a proportion of overall consumer spending on entertainment rose, especially when the government fixed the price of cinema tickets against inflation.
The efforts of the fascist regime to influence the character of Italian feature-film production, distribution and exhibition transformed the Italian film industry into the fifth largest in the world by 1942. They fostered a cinema which was diverse in its formal strategies and thematic concerns but whose diversity was, for the most part, safely contained within ideological confines suitable to the regime. Historical epics and war films were the minority but were generally propagandistic in reinforcing the principles of national superiority, militarism and male heroism and female subservience which underpinned fascism. The most well-known film of this type, Scipio Africanus, epitomised the big-budget spectacular, overrun with excessively rhetorical and ornamental representations of classical architecture, costume and the Roman people as symbolic mass. Produced in the aftermath of Italy’s invasion and conquest of Ethopia in 1935, the film’s publicity proposed that it was intended ‘through a distant parallel of events and ideals’ to express ‘a fate through which after more than two thousand years Africa once again becomes the key of a new Mediterranean and Latin empire’ (quoted in Aristarco 1996: 80). Contemporary newsreels associated Mussolini with the film in the public mind through the visits he made to the production during filming. Scipio Africanus was funded by the government with the largest budget to that date of any Italian film and it achieved huge box-office success. Its bombast was replicated in other war films with a contemporary setting, such as Augusto Genina’s The White Squadron (Lo squadrone bianco, 1936) which glorified Italian colonialism in Libya through an orientalising representation of the desert landscape and through the heroic figure of the Italian officer, Captain Santelia. The film won the Mussolini Prize for Best Italian Film at Venice in 1936. Goffredo Alessandrini’s Luciano Serra pilota (1938), part-scripted by a young Roberto Rossellini and produced by Vittorio Mussolini, likewise honoured the heroism of Italian air force pilots in combat in Africa.
Meanwhile, the films of Alessandro Blasetti, who had been instrumental in pushing for a rejuvenated film industry in the 1920s and would remain one of the most important figures in Italian cinema after World War Two, took a direction which was less aggressively rhetorical in style and more subtle in technique. A radical fascist and a filmmaker whose work was admired by Mussolini himself, Blasetti achieved critical success with the silent film Sole
(1929) which presented a government-run land reclamation project for public housing at the Pontine marshes as evidence of fascism’s positive modernising agenda. Much of Sole
was filmed on location and Blasetti would become known as one of those filmmakers who employed realism as an aesthetic strategy in feature films in ways which contrasted with the artifice of Scipio Africanus.
His masterpiece, 1860
(1934), presented the drama of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily and the march of the one thousand which led to the formation of Italy during the Risorgimento. Though the film was a historical epic, it presented history through the extensive use of location filming, non-professional actors speaking in local dialect and scenes of peasant life and rural landscape, characteristics which some historians have taken as anticipating aspects of neorealist filmmaking practice in the post-war period. But its realism was compromised by the heroic battle sequences which made up much of its action, its valorisation of a combative form of Italian patriotism, and its closing sequence which presented contemporary fascists and veterans of the Garibaldi campaign parading together in the Foro Mussolini. Blasetti’s enlistment of realism in the fascist cause was also evident in The Old Guard
1935), whose drama commences just before Mussolini’s 1922 march on Rome and revolves around skirmishes in a small town between local fascists and communists, the former presented as heroes and the latter as brutal thugs. The Old Guard,
which was one of Hitler’s favourite films, became the most infamous of a subgenre in the mid-i930s, including Giovacchino Forzano’s Black Shirt
1933) and Giorgio Simonelli’s Dawn over the Sea
(Aurora sul mare,
1935), which strategically employed cinematic realism for its tendency to lend authenticity and truthfulness to its characters and subjects, but as a means of legitimising fascism.
Although Blasetti’s films tempered the martial rhetoric of the most overtly propagandistic historical epics and war films by emphasising the everyday life of working people in contemporary Italy, they nonetheless wore their fascist politics on their sleeve. As such, they constituted a minority tendency in Italian cinema, but one with a particular symbolic significance and rhetorical presence. Numerically, Italian feature-film production was dominated by escapist genres – costume dramas, musicals, melodramas and comedies. These did not explicitly endorse Italian nationalism, Italy’s right to an empire, the rejection of parliamentary democracy, or the physical force ideals of fascism – indeed, most of them made no mention of fascism or war at all. However, they were nevertheless complicit with the agendas of the fascist regime. Among the most important were the popular comedies known as ‘white telephone’ films, the white telephone being a desirable luxury consumer item of the 1930s. Alessandrini’s The Private Secretary
(La segretaria privata,
1931), Genina’s Castles in the Air
(Castelli in aria,
1939), Max Neufeld’s Mille lire al mese
(1939) and other films of this type were well-made, cinematically stylish, studio-filmed productions, which contained gentle social satire but were very much endeared to the material weal...