This is where Anna Magnani broke away from 2 German soldiers, ran and threw herself down on the streets. The man is explaining the making of a film, rather than some historical event. It comes at the start of a short documentary on Italian Neo-Realism, from 1973. She even hurt her knee, he adds almost proudly. A woman’s voice joins in, Aldo Fabrizi was there too. It’s almost religious, a celluloid Stations of the Cross, there should be nuns selling small statuettes of movie cameras, and T-shirts with Magnani’s face miraculously transposed onto 100% cotton.
The man and the woman were recalling scenes from Roberto Rosselini’s film Rome, Open City, when it was filmed in their neighborhood. Rossellini along with Vittorio De Sica were pioneers of Neo Realism. Their films brought a dynamism in form, that was countered by the self-reflection of their content that put Italian cinema at the center of the post-war world. Here was launched the careers of Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Visconti, Zavattini and De Sica, who described the post war years as a beautiful time - “Beautiful for artists, but ugly for Italians.”
Right after the war, passions were so strong right after the War that they really pushed us, they forced towards this kind of film truth. And this truth was transfigured by poetry, and lyricism. It was because of if its lyricism that Neo-Realism so captured the world. Because there was poetry in our reality.
Films like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Rosselini’s Rome, Open City, and Visconti’s Ossessione presented a new and dynamic way of presenting the world, which went on to influence movements such as Nouvelle Vague and directors as different as Martin Scorsese and Derek Jarman. Neo Realist films dealt with difficulties faced everyday by the working class; stories were rooted in the reality of a war ruined Italy; there were no simplistic morality tales, issues were complex, and often open-ended; actors mixed with non-actors; stylistically the films were loose, fluid, often documentary-like. However, their content did not please some Italians, who thought Neo-Realism only highlighted the bad things about Italy, which they feared might make Italians seem to be just thieves and bums.
This was not how the directors like Bernardo Bertolucci saw it:
“Realism doesn’t mean showing real things, but showing how things really are. It was this definition by Brecht that critically challenged Italian Neo-Realism. Not Rossilini though. Rossilini is the only one in Neo-Realism who didn’t just show us things, didn’t just try to be a realist, but gave us an idea of things. He wasn’t interested in the appearance of things, but in the idea behind the things. Even the idea behind the idea.”
“The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the story was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.”
For Pier Paolo Pasolini Neo-Realism was intensely political:
“It stood for the first act of critical, political consciousness that Italy had experienced. Italy up to that point had no history, no unified history as a nation, only a history as many divided little peoples, divided little countries, and with a great gap between north and south. And then the last 20 years have been a history of Fascism - the history of an aberrational unity. It was only with the Resistance that Italian history began.
“First of all, Neo-Realism meant the rediscovery of Italy. A first look at Italy without rhetoric, without lies, and there was a sense of pleasure in the self-discovery, even pleasure in denouncing one’s own short-comings, this was common to everything.
“The other common quality was its Marxist character. All Neo-Realist works were founded on the idea that the future would be better, or else [there would be] revolution.”
Most of these quotes are taken form the documentary Neo Realism (1973) which can be viewed here, and contains interviews with De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini, and Bertolucci, amongst others.