By far the most impressive foreign pictures of the immediate post WWII period, that of delapidation and regenesis were those made by Italian neo-realists who, refusing to dodge the issues by intoxicating themselves with pretty pipe dreams and resonant extravaganzas, looked unflinchingly at he way things really were: chaotic, ignoble, decayed and ragged at the edges. Through their films, mobs of unchildlike children roved in clothes too big for them: a precociously crafty and rapacious band of waifs worked with black-market hoodlums in Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine; in Roberto Rosselini’s Open City, boys from a parochial school watched through a barbed-wire fence as their priest, a partisan, was shot by a German firing squad. The resignation in their dry eyes testifying to other monstrous things they had seen.
De Sica’s camera and Rossellini’s, and those of Fellini, Luigi Zampa, and Renato Castellani, picked up the empty Roman plazas, the murky courtyards, and the haunting fountains, the dazed faces of ordinary people on trolley cars, rangy cats walking cleverly over skylights, tides coming in, religious processions through country towns, dispirited prostitutes, and drunk GI’s. Sick babies howled in wretched tenements where the blistered walls sweated; women pawned their sheets; old men sold their treasured books; hungry crowds looted bakeries; hope, when it was painfully born, was short lived; and although the national persuasion to sing was irrepressible, arias from Puccini and Verdi were heard in counterpoint to the military music of the Fascisti. Nothing was certain and fear was quotidian.
These surgical and uncompromising probings of a society’s ulcerated wounds were not accepted gracefully by Italian audiences, who wanted to wake from the nightmare of how life was into a dream of how it might be in a never-never land of sweetness and light and fun and games; they wanted cheesecake not bitter rice and the projections of their own downtrodden lives. But despite the apathy of their countrypeople, these radical directors continued to hold up to the public its flawed, twisted, and often heroic image.
The products of their devotion included, besides Open City, Rossellini’s Paisan, a group of unrelated and unfinished episodes during the last years of the war as the Allies moved north from Sicily to the Po Valley; De Sica’s profoundly disturbing Bicycle Thief, the tragedy of a laborer who, bereft of his bicycle, is bereft also of his job and who, in the hopeless search for the stolen machine, turns on his small son in a fury of frustration, introducing the boy to the pain of unkindness that is not deserved.
Umberto D., also the work of De Sica, is the portrait of a broke and friendless and homeless old man, marred by sentimentality but having nonetheless a great many dramatic details and photgraphic virtues. There were somewhat later, Fellini’s famous La Strada, a pathetic and Grand Guignol story of a free-lance strongman and a simple-minded girl clown and their rural peregrinations from circuses to fairs to country weddings.
Inevitably, this was followed by money-making themes of sex-crime and melodrama; basically tasteless films with the likes of Sophia Loren which took precedence over an Anna Magnani, a vigorous actress who was not prettied up. There were a few flashes of the original fire after, Rossellini and his General Della Rovere was uneven, overlong and wanting in tension but ultimately very powerful where the elements of tragedy, though common, were skillfully and sometime brilliantly employed.
In Di Sica, we have characters who are pathetic or elegiac, leading one to be impatient with his monotonous victimization and servility, but his early late 50′s direction was daring and ingenious. In Umberto D. the old man, bereft of friends and family and a roof over his head, unable to find a home for his mongrel dog, is impelled to let it be killed rather than brutally starve to death; and for a breathless eternity, we watch all the cars of a long express train go by before we learn that the dog has not, after all, been crushed beneath the wheels.
In the episode “
ese” in the Gold of Naples, he keeps his camera on Silvana Mangano sobbing against a lamppost for a nearly intolerable length of time until h sends her back to the house of her bridegroom, an unhinged masochist who has married her, a whore, to do penance, by making himself socially unacceptable, for an earlier cruelty to a girl he had driven to suicide.
As Fellini in 1959 expressed in an interview, ” it is completely useless to prepare a statement for a crowd, or make a film with a message for everyone. I don’t believe in talking to a crowd. Because what is a crowd? It is a collection of many individuals, each with his own reality. That is also the reason why my pictures never end… when you show a true problem and then resolve it, the spectator is beguiled into feeling that the problems in his own life, too, will solve themselves, and he can stop working on them for themselves.”Read More:ftp://ftp.icesi.edu.co/mlcuellar/Cine%20italiano/Nov.%204/Fellini/The%20Road%20Beyond%20Neorealism.pdf
It was a solemn creed, and it limits the use of fiction; it eliminates the impossible, the castle in Spain, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Still, it was a creed of integrity, and it admitted to the effect of accidents upon essences: the types of Bardone’s in General Della Rovere, where the catalyst of circumstance transforms, as at some point in our lives, it transforms us all, for better or worse. It’s hard to believe that in present society where kitsch and the near perversion form the narrative content of film/advertising/product placement/ entertainment that the medium was actually being used for a nobler cause at one point.