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What is Cinema? Vol. II
By André Bazin, Hugh Gray
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2005 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
AN AESTHETIC OF REALITY: NEOREALISM
(Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation)
THE HISTORICAL importance of of Rossellini's film Paisà has been rightly compared with that of a number of classical screen masterpieces. Georges Sadoul has not hesitated to mention it alongside Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen, or Greed. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this high praise as long as the allusion to German expressionism is understood to refer to the level of greatness of the film but not to the profound nature of the aesthetics involved. A better comparison might be with the appearance in 1925 of Potemkin. For the rest, the realism of the current Italian films has been frequently contrasted with the aestheticism of American and, in part, of French productions. Was it not from the outset their search for realism that characterized the Russian films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovjenko as revolutionary both in art and politics, in contrast to the expressionist aestheticism of the German films and Hollywood's mawkish star worship? Paisà, Sciuscà, and Roma Città Aperta, like Potemkin, mark a new stage in the long-standing opposition between realism and aestheticism on the screen. But history does not repeat itself; we have to get clear the particular form this aesthetic quarrel assumes today, the new solutions to which Italian neorealism owed its triumph in 1947.
Confronted with the originality of the Italian output, and in the enthusiasm engendered by the surprise that this has caused, we have perhaps neglected to go deeply into the origins of this renaissance, preferring to see it rather as something spontaneously generated, issuing like a swarm of bees from the decaying corpses of fascism and the war. There is no question that the Liberation and the social, moral, and economic forms that it assumed in Italy have played a decisive role in film production. We shall return to this later. It was simply a lack of information about the Italian cinema that trapped us into believing in a sudden miracle.
It could well be that, today, Italy is the country where the understanding of film is at its highest, to judge by the importance and the quality of the film output. The Centro Sperimentale at Rome came into existence before our own Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques; above all, intellectual speculation in Italy is not, as it is in France, without its impact on film-making. Radical separation between criticism and direction no more exists in the Italian cinema than it does in France in the world of literature.
Furthermore, fascism which, unlike Nazism, allowed for the existence of artistic pluralism, was particularly concerned with cinema. One may have reservations about the connection between the Venice film festival and the political interests of the Duce but one cannot deny that the idea of an international festival has subsequently made good, and one can measure its prestige today by the fact that five or six European countries are vying for the spoils. The capitalists and the Fascist authorities at least provided Italy with modern studios. If they turned out films which were ridiculously melodramatic and overly spectacular, that did not prevent a handful of bright men, smart enough to shoot films on current themes without making any concessions to the regime, from making high-quality films that foreshadowed their current work. If during the war we had not been, albeit justifiably, so prejudiced, films like SOS 103 or La Nave Bianca of Rossellini might have caught our attention more. In addition, even when capitalist or political stupidity controlled commercial production completely, intelligence, culture, and experimental research took refuge in publications, in film archive congresses, and in making short films. In 1941, Lattuada, director of Il Bandito and, at the time, the head of the Milan archive, barely escaped jail for showing the complete version of La Grande Illusion.
Beyond that, the history of the Italian cinema is little known. We stop short at Cabiria and Quo Vadis, finding in the recent and memorable La Corona di ferro all the proof we need that the supposed characteristics of films made beyond the Alps remain unchanged: a taste, and a poor taste at that, for sets, idealization of the principal actors, childish emphasis on acting, atrophy of mise en scène, the dragging in of the traditional paraphernalia of bel canto and opera, conventional scripts influenced by the theater, the romantic melodrama and the chanson de geste reduced to an adventure story. Undoubtedly too many Italian films do their best to justify such a caricature and too many directors, including some of the best, sacrificed themselves, sometimes with self-irony, to commercial necessity. The great spectacles like Scipio Africanus were, of course, the primary export. There was another artistic vein, however, almost exclusively reserved for the home market. Today, when the thunder of the charging elephants of Scipio is only a distant rumble, we can the better lend an ear to the discreet but delightful sounds made by Quattro passi fra le nuvole.
The reader, at least one who has seen this latter film, will undoubtedly be as surprised as we were to learn that this comedy with its unfettered sensibility, brimming over with poetry, the lightly handled socialist realism of which is directly related to the recent Italian cinema, was shot in 1942, two years after the famous La Corona di ferro and by the same director: Blasetti, to whom, about the same time, we owe Un'avventura di Salvator Rosa and most recently Un Giorno nella vita. Directors like Vittorio De Sica who made the admirable Sciuscià were always concerned to turn out human and sensitive comedies full of realism, among them, in 1942, I Bambini ci guardano. Since 1932, Camerini has made Gli uomini che mascalzoni, the action of which, like Roma Città Aperta, is laid in the streets of the capital and Piccolo Mondo Antico, no less typically Italian.
As a matter of fact, there are not so many new names among the directors in Italy today. The youngest, like Rossellini, started to make films at the beginning of the war. Older directors, like Blasetti and Mario Soldati, were already known in the early days of the talkies.
But let us not go from one extreme to the other and conclude that there is no such thing as a new Italian school. The realist trend, the domestic, satirical, and social descriptions of everyday life, the sensitive and poetic verism, were, before the war, minor qualities, modest violets flowering at the feet of the giant sequoias of production. It appears that from the beginning of the war, a light began to be shed on the papier-maché forests. In La Corona di ferro the style seems to parody itself. Rossellini, Lattuada, Blasetti were striving toward a realism of international importance. Nevertheless it is the Liberation that set these aesthetic trends so completely free as to allow them to develop under new conditions that were destined to have their share in inducing a noticeable change in direction and meaning.
The Liberation: Rupture and Renaissance
Some components of the new Italian school existed before the Liberation: personnel, techniques, aesthetic trends. But it was their historical, social, and economic combination that suddenly created a synthesis in which new elements also made themselves manifest.
Over the past two years, Resistance and Liberation have furnished the principal themes, but unlike the French, and indeed one might say unlike the European cinema as a whole, Italian films have not been limited to themes of the Resistance. In France, the Resistance immediately became legendary. Recent as it was, on the day of the actual Liberation it already belonged to the realm of history. The Germans having departed, life began again. By contrast, in Italy the Liberation did not signify a return to the old and recent freedom; it meant political revolution, Allied occupation, economic and social upheaval. The Liberation came slowly through endless months. It had a profound effect on the economic, social, and moral life of the country. Thus, in Italy, Resistance and Liberation, unlike the Paris uprising, are in no sense just words with a historical connotation. When Rossellini made Paisà, his script was concerned with things actually happening at the time. Il Bandito showed how prostitution and the black market developed on the heels of the advancing army, how disillusion and lack of employment turned a liberated prisoner into a gangster. Except for unmistakable Resistance films like Vivere in Pace or Il Sole Sorge Ancora, the Italian cinema was noted for its concern with actual day-to-day events. The French critics had not failed to emphasize (whether in praise or blame but always with solemn surprise) the few specific allusions to the postwar period that Carné deliberately introduced into his last film. If the director and his writer took so much trouble to make us understand this, it is because nineteen out of twenty French films cannot be dated within a decade. On the other hand, even when the central scene of the script is not concerned with an actual occurrence, Italian films are first and foremost reconstituted reportage. The action could not unfold in just any social context, historically neutral, partly abstract like the setting of a tragedy, as so frequently happens to varying degrees with the American, French, or English cinema.
As a result, the Italian films have an exceptionally documentary quality that could not be removed from the script without thereby eliminating the whole social setting into which its roots are so deeply sunk.
This perfect and natural adherence to actuality is explained and justified from within by a spiritual attachment to the period. Undoubtedly, the tide of recent Italian history cannot be reversed. Thus, the war is felt to be not an interlude but the end of an era. In one sense Italy is only three years old. But other effects could have resulted from the same cause. What is a ceaseless source of wonder, ensuring the Italian cinema a wide moral audience among the Western nations, is the significance it gives to the portrayal of actuality. In a world already once again obsessed by terror and hate, in which reality is scarely any longer favored for its own sake but rather is rejected or excluded as a political symbol, the Italian cinema is certainly the only one which preserves, in the midst of the period it depicts, a revolutionary humanism.
Love and Rejection of Reality
The recent Italian films are at least prerevolutionary. They all reject implicitly or explicitly, with humor, satire or poetry, the reality they are using, but they know better, no matter how clear the stand taken, than to treat this reality as a medium or a means to an end. To condemn it does not of necessity mean to be in bad faith. They never forget that the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned. It is silly and perhaps as naïve as Beaumarchais' praise of the tears induced by melodrama. But does one not, when coming out of an Italian film, feel better, an urge to change the order of things, preferably by persuading people, at least those who can be persuaded, whom only blindness, prejudice, or ill-fortune had led to harm their fellow men?
That is why, when one reads resumés of them, the scenarios of many Italian films are open to ridicule. Reduced to their plots, they are often just moralizing melodramas, but on the screen everybody in the film is overwhelmingly real. Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their humanity.
I am prepared to see the fundamental humanism of the current Italian films as their chief merit. They offer an opportunity to savor, before the time finally runs out on us, a revolutionary flavor in which terror has yet no part.
An Amalgam of Players
What naturally first struck the public was the high quality of the acting. Roma Città Aperta enriched the world's screen with a performer of the first order, Anna Magnani the unforgettable pregnant young woman, Fabrizzi the priest, Pagliero a member of the Resistance, and others whose performances rival in retrospect the most stirring of film characterizations in the past. Reports and news items in the public press naturally made a point of letting us know that Sciuscà was filled with genuine street urchins, that Rossellini shot crowds taken at random at the scene of the action, that the heroine of the first story of Paisà was an illiterate girl discovered on the dockside. As for Anna Magnani, admittedly she was a professional but from the world of the café-concert. Maria Michi, well, she was just a little girl who worked in a movie house.
Although this type of casting is unusual in films, it is not new. On the contrary, its continual use, by various realistic schools ever since the days of Lumière, shows it to be a true law of the cinema, which the Italian school simply confirms and allows us to formulate with conviction. In the old days of the Russian cinema too, we admired its preference for nonprofessional actors who played on the screen the roles of their daily lives. Actually, a legend has grown up around the Russian films. The theater had a strong influence on certain Soviet schools and although the early films of Eisenstein had no actors, as realist a film as The Road to Life was in fact played by professionals from the theater and ever since then the actors in Soviet films have continued to be professionals, just as they have in other countries.
No major cinematographic school between 1925 and the present Italian cinema can boast of the absence of actors, but from time to time a film outside the ordinary run will remind us of the advantage of not using them. Such a film will always be specifically only slightly removed from a social document. Take two examples: L'Espoir and La Dernière Chance. Around them, too, a legend has grown up. The heroes in the Malraux film are not all parttime actors called on for the moment to play their day-to-day selves. It is true that some of them are, but not the principal characters. The peasant, for example, was a well-known Madrid comic actor. As regards La Dernière Chance, the Allied soldiers were actually airmen shot down over Switzerland, but the Jewish woman was a stage actress. Only productions like Tabu are entirely without professional actors, but here, as in children's films, we are dealing with a special genre in which a professional actor would be almost unthinkable. More recently, Rouquier in Farrebique set out to play the game to the hilt. While noting his success, let us also note that it is practically unique and that the problems presented by a peasant film, so far as the acting is concerned, are no different from those of an exotic film. So far from being an example to be followed, Farrebique is a special case in no way invalidating the law that I propose to call the law of the amalgam. It is not the absence of professional actors that is, historically, the hallmark of social realism nor of the Italian film. Rather, it is specifically the rejection of the star concept and the casual mixing of professionals and of those who just act occasionally. It is important to avoid casting the professional in the role for which he is known. The public should not be burdened with any preconceptions. It is significant that the peasant in Espoir was a theater comedian, Anna Magnani a singer of popular songs, and Fabrizzi a music-hall clown. That someone is an actor does not mean he must not be used. Quite the opposite. But his professionalism should be called into service only insofar as it allows him to be more flexible in his response to the requirements of the mise en scène, and to have a better grasp of the character. The nonprofessionals are naturally chosen for their suitability for the part, either because they fit it physically or because there is some parallel between the role and their lives. When the amalgamation comes off—but experience shows that it will not unless some "moral" requirements are met in the script—the result is precisely that extraordinary feeling of truth that one gets from the current Italian films. Their faithfulness to a script which stirs them deeply and which calls for the minimum of theatrical pretense sets up a kind of osmosis among the cast. The technical inexperience of the amateur is helped out by the experience of the professionals while the professionals themselves benefit from the general atmosphere of authenticity.
Excerpted from What is Cinema? Vol. II by André Bazin, Hugh Gray. Copyright © 2005 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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