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In Le Amiche (1955), Michelangelo Antonioni told the story through a series of disconnected events.

The History of the Italian Cinema

Part 4 – Neorealism and the Beginning of the Golden Age

Following the Second World War, huge changes took place on every level of Italian society and when film production in Italy resumed, a new type of genre emerged which signaled the cultural change and social progress of the country. The first of the Neorealism films was shot before the war even ended – Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione in 1943. The films are characterized by contemporary stories and ideas, set among the poor and the working class. Neorealism films often contended with the difficult economic and moral conditions and the difficulty of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice and desperation.

The films were often shot in the streets, since Cinecittà was unable to support production for a number of years after the war. Very often, non-professional actors were used; although in a number of cases, well-known actors were cast in leading roles, playing strongly against their normal character types in front of a background populated by local people, rather than extras brought in. The style explored the demoralizing economic conditions in Italy after the war. Characters oftentimes existed within a social order where survival was the primary objective. Performances primarily consisted of scenes where people would go about performing fairly mundane activities, but the realism that was portrayed was in contrast to the self-consciousness, overacting or “deer-in-the-headlights” that is typically associated with amateur actors. Neorealist films often featured children in major roles, though their characters were frequently more observational than participatory.

The film genre became globally renowned in 1946, when Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first major film produced in Italy after the war. The film established several of the principles of the genre, clearly depicting the struggle of normal Italian people living from day to day under the extraordinary difficulties of the German occupation of Rome, while consciously doing what they could to resist the occupation. Children played a key role in this and their presence is indicative of their role – as observers of the difficulties of today who hold the key to the future.

Some of the country’s most enduring films emerged during this period. These included Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Miracle in Milan (1951) and other Rossellini films, Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948). The style influenced film makers around the world and these movies are now recognized as the beginning of the Golden Age of Italian film making.

As well as Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica, the post-World War II era saw the rise of some of Italy’s most celebrated directors, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergio Leone, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and Franco Zeffirelli. Each offered something new to Italian cinema. In Le Amiche (1955), Michelangelo Antonioni broke with the conventions of traditional film narrative and told the story in a series of disconnected events. His next feature, L’avventura (1960), became his first international success.

Sergio Leone wrote screenplays for the emerging sword and sandal epics, graduating to assistant director on large-scale international productions, including Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). But his most original work was in the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of the 1960s.

Franco Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini after the war, but turned his attention toward theater until he made his mark with adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays in 1960s. The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was followed by his breakthrough work, Romeo and Juliet, in 1968.

Italian neorealism declined in the early 1950s. The first positive effects of the Italian economic miracle forced pessimism and cynicism out of style and most Italians favored the optimism shown in many American movies of the time.

By the mid-1950s, Neorealism had evolved into a lighter form of film and actresses Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Silvana Mangano became international stars. Loren proved she was more than just another sex symbol when she won the 1961 Academy Award for the De Sica’s film, Two Women. She was one of two Italian women to win the award, the other being Anna Magnani in 1955.

The late 1950s also saw the emergence of the ‘sword and sandals’ epics, beginning with American bodybuilder Steve Reeves’ film Hercules. Because of its popularity, Italian films finally made inroads into the lucrative American market.

Italy’s move from individual concern with Neorealism to the tragic frailty of the human condition can be seen through Federico Fellini’s films. His early works, La Strada (1954) and Il bidone (1955) are transitional movies. The larger social concerns of humanity expressed in Neorealism gave way to the exploration of individuals and was a common focal point in the Italian films of the 1960s. Similarly, Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Blow-up (1966) look at the post-war trappings of society and bring out the suffering and search for knowledge of the individual. Set against these gripping topics are the comedies and the style known as Commedia all’Italiana, which will be in Part 5 of this series.