Sunday, January 9, 2011

Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism

From early October to mid-December, the PFA presented Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism.

Born out of the ruins of World War II, the neorealist movement’s first rallying cry came from screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who called for a new kind of Italian film, one with no need for plots (which attempted to impose “order” on an already lived-in reality) or professional actors. Instead, it would take to the streets and hills to document the true lives, sorrows, and pleasures of the Italian people. Filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Alberto Lattuada, Giuseppe de Santis, and others would soon act on his words, that “the cinema...should accept, unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today.”

The 19 films series was tempting for me. The only Italian Neorealist film that I was aware of seeing was Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) which was part of the program. The series also included Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1953). I saw that film as part of a Ingrid Bergman series last year.

Excluding the two films I had already watched, I saw 15 of 17 "new" films in the program. The two films I missed Sunday in August and Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema.

Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism

Teresa Venerdi with Anna Magnani; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1941)
Paisan; directed by Roberto Rossellini; Italian with subtitles; (1946)
Shoeshine; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1946)
Days of Glory; documentary; directed by Luchino Visconti (one segment); Italian with subtitles; (1945)
Under the Sun of Rome with Francesco Goslisano; directed by Renato Castellani; Italian with subtitles; (1947)
Bellissima starring Anna Magnani; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian with subtitles; (1953)
Miracle in Milan starring Francesco Goslisano; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1951)
The Chronicle of Poor Lovers with Marcello Mastroianni; directed by Carlo Lizzani; Italian with subtitles; (1954)
Ossessione; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian with subtitles; (1943)
Without Pity; directed by Alberto Lattuada; Italian with subtitles; (1948)
The Overcoat starring Renato Rascel; directed by Alberto Lattuada; Italian with subtitles; (1952)
Bitter Rice starring Vittorio Gassman; directed by Giuseppe De Santis; Italian with subtitles; (1949)
Il Grido; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; Italian with subtitles; (1957)
Accattone; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Italian with subtitles; (1961)
Bandits of Orgosolo; directed by Vittorio De Seta; Italian with subtitles; (1961)


The series encompassed a wide range of films spanning 20 years. I considered Italian Neorealism to have commenced with the end of WWII and to have ended as the Marshall Plan lifted the country and economy from ruins. By the mid-1950s, Italy was considered a prime destination for the rich and famous to play. In my mind, Italian Neorealism is wedded to the poverty and despair of the post WWII environment. The films in the series were made before the war and into the early 1960s. There were comedies, adapted James M. Cain potboilers and whimsical tales interspersed with the "true lives, sorrows, and pleasures of the Italian people."

My favorite films from the series were Bandits of Orgosolo, Accattone, Il Grido and The Overcoat.

Bandits of Orgosolo which was the final film in the series may have been my favorite. Set in the remote Sicilian countryside, Bandits of Orgosolo tells the story of a shepherd, Michele (Michele Cossu). Cossu was not professional actors. Some bandits (who stole pigs) take refuge in his camp. Michele confronts them but being outnumbered and not wanting to make trouble with them, he has little choice but to let them stay. When the Carabinieri show up, the bandits engage them in a gunfight and Michelle runs away to avoid trouble.

Later, Michelle discovers he is a wanted man as the Carabinieri suspect him of being associated with the bandits. Through an intermediary, he hires a lawyer to defend himself. In the meantime, Michelle and his kid brother move the flock to a more remote region to avoid detection by the Carabinieri. Unfamiliar with their surrounding, the brothers allow the sheep to drink from poisoned water sources which eventually kill the sheep. With his livelihood destroyed, Michelle returns to his town to discover that the lawyer was unsuccessful and he is still a wanted man. Not only that but the lawyer wants payment for his effort. Seeing no other solution, Michelle ventures back into the wildernesss to rob another shepherd of his flock.

Ultimately, the cycle repeats as Michelle becomes like the bandits he initially deplored; that's the message of the film. It's almost as if Michelle's fate was unavoidable. Director Vittorio De Seta (not de Sica) uses a lean and detached approach to Michelle which gives the film a documentary feel. This allows for an unbiased narrative that makes Michelle's plight seem more poignant.


The Overcoat was based on the oft-adapted Nikolai Gogol short story. Alberto Lattuada's 1952 version is an absurdist comedy about Carmine de Carmine, a government bureaucrat whose threadbare overcoat is the bane of his existence one cold winter. The plot follows Gogol's story closely so only the briefest of summaries is needed. De Carmine (played by Bruno Kirby look alike Renato Rascel) buys a new luxurious overcoat which raises his profile amongst his friends and the mayor of his town. When de Carmine's overcoat is stolen, his self-confidence is also stolen. Thus begins his descent into madness and ultimately death for de Carmine.

The beauty of this version of The Overcoat is Rascel performance as de Carmine. Compared to Chaplin's Little Tramp, Rascel's de Carmine brings laughs and empathy. At times you are laughing at him and at other times, you are crying for him. The story is classic but Rascel's performance elevates the film to something special.


Accattone explores the world of pimps and whores. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini cast Franco Citti in his first role. Citti would collaborate with Pasolini many times in his career as well as play Calo in The Godfather.

In Accattone, Citti is a pimp whose downfall begins when his prostitute is arrested and he attempts to lure another young woman "into the life." Foreseeing his own death, Accattone journeys on his self-fulfilling prophecy. The pimp is never quite likeable or despicable and Pasolini plays it down the middle. Pasonlini shows the grinding poverty of Accattone's existence but never lapses into judgment. Accattone's gritty and grimy realism combined with its sordid lead character (and Citti's performance) put it firmly in the neorealist camp. A musical score by Bach and some moments of lyricism as Accattone dreams of his own death elevate the film to what some have called "second neorealism."


I could write about all the films but I'm already a month behind...and that is just from the end of the two and a half month series.

Teresa Venerdi, Days of Glory and Miracle in Milan were among my least favorites of the series.

Overall, the series was impressive and I'm glad I was able to see so many films from the retrospective.

No comments: