Neo-Realist Cinema

* A writing assignment from the BFA program at the School of Visual Arts.

Neo-realism is a cinematic movement from post war Italy that became a contradiction to the polished propagandized films made during Mussolini’s fascist reign. “The fall of fascism allowed for the truth to be told about the impoverished conditions of the working class and of urban life.” (Hayward 235) Instead of showing life as it could be, or telling fantastic stories like their Hollywood counterparts and the German Expressionists of the same post war era; Italian film makers leaned into a more realistic look at life in Italy. “Generally speaking, realistic films attempt to reproduce the surface of reality with a minimum of distortion.” (Giannetti 2)

Cinematic realism was already present in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, “social, political, and economic themes would never have been tolerated by the regime.” (Divadaniela) “The Term realism comes from literary and art movements of the 19th century… portray[ing] life as it really was… Realism functions in film on both the narrative level and figurative.” (Hayward 331) Transitioning the literary and artistic movement to film, where there are more tools at a creator’s disposal, the neorealist of Italy had a set of ground-rules:

First, it should project a slice of life, it should appear to enter and then leave everyday life… Second, it should focus on social reality: on the poverty and unemployment so rampant in post war Italy. Third, in order to guarantee this realism, dialogue and language should be natural - even to the point of keeping to the regional dialect… Fourth, location shooting, rather than studio, should prevail. And, finally, shooting should be documentary style, shot in natural light, with a handheld camera and using observational analysis. (Hayward 235)

They preferred to not use professional actors, casting locals to play their fictionalized counterparts. The most steadfast "rules" were shooting on location and not relying on montages to cheat your way through telling the story. Making art under constraints is difficult, making a film with these high aspirations was proven nearly impossible, “in fact only one film meets with all these tenets: De Sica’s Ladri di bicilette (The Bicycle Thieves 1948)” (Hayward 235)

The Bicycle Thieves may be the shining example of neo-realistic cinema, but a number of movies come close. A number of films share “basic tenets of this movement… that cinema should focus on its own nature and its role in society and that it should confront audiences with their own reality.” (Hayward 235)

While we can look back and see the importance this movement has in the progression of cinematic art, these films were relatively unpopular in Italy; achieving success primarily among intellectuals and foreign critics. In 1942 Vittorio Mussolini stormed out from a screening of Visconti's Ossessione shouting; "This is not Italy!” (Divadaniela) In the 1950s the Italian government appointed Giulio Andreotti to the position of Director of Performing Arts; he considered neorealist cinema and social realism as leftist/Marxist propaganda. (Hayward 236) The neorealist cinematic movement of Italy fizzled out because of governmental pressures and a lack of popularity.

Roughly eight hundred Italian films were produced between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s, only a relatively small number (about 10 percent) could be classified as neorealist. Most were box-office failures. It seems that “[a]fter years of fascist dictatorship and the deprivations of war, Italians were more interested in being entertained than in being reminded of their poverty.” (Divadaniela) The legacy of neorealism lived on, however, by inspiring the New Wave cinematic movements and modern independent cinema.

Works Cited

Divadaniela. “Film Styles: Italian Neorealism.” CineCollage,

Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: the Key Concepts. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. Pearson, 2014.

Scherman, Jess. “The Psychology Behind Society's True Crime Obsession.” Rasmussen College, 8 Apr. 2019,