10 great Italian neorealist films

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Italian filmmakers took to the streets to film stories about ordinary people living in a country devastated by the war. With Rome, Open City back in cinemas, we present a 10-film primer on one of film history’s most important movements: Italian neorealism.

Pasquale Iannone
Updated:

Rome, Open City (1945)

Rome, Open City (1945)

Despite being regarded as one of the canonical works of Italian neorealism, the theatrical showings of Rome, Open City have tended to be from worn, poorly subtitled prints. Its forthcoming big-screen revival – in a 4K restoration no less – is a more than welcome opportunity to reassess the film, the first in director Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy (completed by Paisà in 1946 and Germany Year Zero in 1947).

Initially conceived as a documentary on Don Giuseppe Morosini, a priest accused of resistance activity and executed by the Nazis, the film’s scope was broadened to include other stories of life under the German occupation. It starred established Roman personalities Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani and it was they who helped push the project through a variety of difficulties. Rome had of course been liberated by time shooting began, but conditions remained challenging to say the least, with Rossellini frequently running out of funds and resorting to using pieces of discarded film stock. Its guerrilla-style production notwithstanding, Rome, Open City stands as a crucially important picture in the development of neorealism. It led to several more films that – if not aesthetically homogenous – were united by a way of looking at the world.

Neorealism was above all a reaction to the studio-bound, Hollywood-influenced productions of the Fascist years (the so-called ‘White Telephone films’). Its proponents – Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis and Carlo Lizzani among others – were determined to take their cameras to the streets, to reflect the ‘real Italy’, which for years had been absent from Italian cinema screens.

Although the trend was largely over by the mid-1950s, neorealism’s influence spread across the globe. From Jules Dassin to Satyajit Ray, Ken Loach to Jia Zhangke, few filmic trends have had such a profound and lasting influence on global cinema. Back home, while the likes of Rossellini and Visconti had moved on to more personal projects, a handful of the subsequent generation of filmmakers (Ermanno Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and others) took on the legacy of neorealism.

The following selection does not represent an exhaustive selection of neorealist titles, but rather a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar films, all of which are available on DVD in the UK.

Ossessione (1942)

Director Luchino Visconti

With 1942’s Ossessione – generally considered to be the first Italian neorealist film – director Luchino Visconti drew heavily on his experiences working with Jean Renoir in the 1930s to craft an earthy, pitch-black story of adultery and murder. Together with left-wing intellectuals Mario Alicata, Gianni Puccini and Giuseppe De Santis, Visconti adapted James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and set it on the flatlands of the Po delta.

The film tells of a drifter, Gino (Massimo Girotti) who arrives at a roadside trattoria owned by Bragana (Juan De Landa) and quickly sets his sights on the latter’s wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai). The lovers hatch a plan to murder Bragana but events spiral out of control. “In terms of both content and style, the film came as a shock to many,” Visconti said in a 1969 interview. “At that moment nobody could address such themes, even if they wanted to.” Visconti goes on to note that the term ‘neorealism’ was first used by editor Mario Serandrei after viewing the first few feet of material from Ossessione.

La terra trema (1948)

Director Luchino Visconti

Visconti’s second feature, La terra trema, was originally planned as a documentary on the lives of Sicilian fishermen and this was the kind of film that the director’s small troupe – which included assistant directors Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli – were expecting to make when they assembled in the coastal town of Aci Trezza. However, Visconti had developed more ambitious plans. Not only would it become a fiction film, it would also draw heavily on Giovanni Verga’s late-19th-century novel I malavoglia and be the first in a Sicilian trilogy.

La terra trema (‘The Earth Trembles’) tells of a fishing family, the Valastros, and their attempts to escape poverty and exploitation. Although the film had moved into the realm of fiction, Visconti retained many documentary elements, including having his entirely non-professional cast speak in their own dialect. The director never got to complete his Sicilian trilogy but would nonetheless make one more film in the neorealist style – 1951’s Bellissima – before moving in a different direction entirely with pictures such as Senso (1954) and White Nights (1957).

Germany Year Zero (1948)

Director Roberto Rossellini

In his short essay on Germany Year Zero, director Gianni Amelio (Blow to the Heart, The Stolen Children) picks up on critic José Luis Guarner’s observation that rather than a war picture, Rossellini’s film is actually closer to horror. Coming after Rome, Open City and Paisà, the film tells of Edmund (Edmund Meschke), a 12-year-old boy having to prematurely shoulder adult responsibility in a devastated post-war Berlin. “The adults around little Edmund aren’t vampires but zombies” writes Amelio, “they move among the rubble of their city without past or future, poised between life and death.”

In the months before he made Germany Year Zero, Rossellini lost his nine-year-old son Romano, a tragedy that undoubtedly contributed to the film’s air of unrelenting pessimism. Its final passage, with an isolated Edmund walking across the skeletal landscape of Berlin, remains one of the most extraordinary sequences ever committed to film.

Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950)

Director Roberto Rossellini

The filmic versions of the life of St Francis of Assisi have been varied to say the least – from Michael Curtiz’s CinemaScope biopic Francis of Assisi (1961) to Liliana Cavani’s two separate versions (1966 and 1989), the latter starring Mickey Rourke in the title role.

Rossellini’s 1950 film Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester) comes at a transitional point in the director’s career – poised between his neorealist work of the mid-late 1940s and his more psychological pictures of the early 1950s – a fact reflected in the film’s blending of neorealist aesthetics with a far greater sense of stylisation.

Rossellini told Sight & Sound’s Francis Koval in 1951 that he never intended to make a biopic. “The personality of St Francis is so immense that it would be impossible to do him justice within the framework of a film of normal length. That is why I confined myself to a single aspect of his personality. […] The accent is entirely on Saint Francis’ whimsical, unruffled approach to the crudities and trivialities of everyday life.”

Umberto D. (1952)

Director Vittorio De Sica

Umberto D. may well be the film with which neorealist theorist and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini came closest to fulfilling his ambition of making a film about a character to whom nothing happens. While earlier De Sica-Zavattini pictures such as Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) had focused on child characters, the protagonist of Umberto D. is an elderly former civil servant living on a meagre pension in a Roman boarding house with only his dog for company.

Umberto is played by Carlo Battisti, who in real life was a linguistics professor from the University of Florence. “We are dealing here with a cinematographic report”, André Bazin wrote shortly after the film’s release, “a disconcerting and irrefutable observation on the human condition […] I have no hesitation in stating that the cinema has rarely gone such a long way towards making us aware of what it is to be a man.”

La strada (1954)

Director Federico Fellini

Within a few years of moving to Rome from his native Rimini, Fellini met Roberto Rossellini, who invited him to collaborate on the screenplay for Rome, Open City. Fellini then served as Rossellini’s assistant director on Paisà a year later. “It was a very important experience for me”, he said in an interview with Costanzo Costantini, “Rossellini was the originator of open-air cinema, working in the midst of ordinary people in the most unpredictable circumstances. It was by accompanying him as he shot Paisà that I discovered Italy. From him I derived the conception of film as a journey, adventure, odyssey.”

When Fellini became a director in his own right in the early 1950s, his work clearly showed links with (Rossellinian) neorealism while possessing an oneiric quality all of his own. In 1954’s La strada, Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina plays Gelsomina, a young woman whose impoverished mother sells her to travelling circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). An intensely bittersweet fable, La strada proved to be Fellini’s international breakthrough, winning the inaugural Academy Award for best foreign film in 1956.

Il tetto (1956)

Director Vittorio De Sica

A lesser-known work from De Sica and Zavattini, Il tetto (‘The Roof’) is the story of a newlywed couple and their struggle to find a home. Natale Pilon (Giorgio Listuzzi) works as an apprentice bricklayer on a large housing complex. He spends the early days of married life with Luisa (Gabriella Pallotta) in the bosom of his extended family but tensions start to mount and an argument soon forces husband and wife out onto the streets. Natale makes various attempts to find accommodation but to no avail. As a last resort, he calls upon his co-workers to help him build a small one-room house by a railway line.

Like their Miracle in Milan (1951) and even Umberto D, Il tetto continued De Sica and Zavattini’s interest in Italy’s housing problems. Although they would continue to work together successfully for many years after, Il tetto brought the curtain down on the most vital, fruitful period of their careers.

Il posto (1961)

Director Ermanno Olmi

Many filmmakers of the post-neorealist generation moved as far as possible from neorealism but there were a handful of directors that sought to build on its legacy. As with many of his generation, it was Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà that provided the life-changing moment for Bergamo-born Ermanno Olmi. He began making documentaries while working in Milan offices of Edison and then turned his experience of the workplace into a feature, 1961’s Il Posto.

In the film, a young man Domenico (Sandro Panseri) struggles to make his way in the world of work as he undergoes various exams, tests and interviews while developing a tentative friendship with fellow worker Antonietta (Loredana Detto). One of the underrated, low-key masterpieces of 1960s cinema, Il posto went on to influence the Czech New Wave films of Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer.

Padre Padrone (1977)

Director Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

The Taviani brothers were still in their teens when they first saw Rossellini’s Paisà in their hometown of San Miniato in Tuscany and, like Olmi, it wasn’t long before they set off on the Rossellinian path. Since their debut feature in 1962, the Tavianis have consistently blended neorealism with modernist, even Brechtian elements, most recently in their Golden Bear-winning Caesar Must Die (2012).

In the mid-1970s, the brothers came across an article about Gavino Ledda, a young Sardinian who, as a six-year-old, was taken out of school by his domineering father and forced to work on the land until he reached adulthood. He then broke free, learned to read and write, attended university and became a Professor of Linguistics. Ledda published a memoir in 1975 and the brothers adapted it for the screen two years later, shooting on location in Sardinia and using the local dialect. “We were struck by Ledda’s tenacity”, Paolo Taviani said in a 1979 interview, “but also by the fact that he had chosen to study linguistics. To fight against his solitude, passivity, his humiliation, to find an identity, he had chosen the weapon of language.”

Gomorrah (2008)

Director Matteo Garrone

Of the three best-known Italian neorealists (Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini) there’s little doubt that Rossellini’s influence has been the most far-reaching. As recently as 2008, director Matteo Garrone cited Paisà as the main reference point for Gomorrah, his adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s extraordinary exposé of the Neapolitan Camorra. Just as Rossellini’s film focuses on multiple characters’ experience of the Liberation, Gomorrah follows a similar structure, intertwining stories of wannabe teenage gangsters, tailors, middlemen and waste-management officials to paint a shocking portrait of the Camorra’s influence on life in southern Italy and beyond.

Garrone uses long, loose, widescreen takes and brings together established actors such as Toni Servillo with a host of non-professionals. Upon its release, many critics described Gomorrah as one of the best gangster films of all time, but in both form and content, it’s the antithesis of a film like Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In true Rossellinian spirit, there’s very little romanticising here.

Your suggestions

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

1. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
2. Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949)
3. Paisà (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
4. Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica, 1946)
5. Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)
6. Il grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957)
7. Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960)
8. I fidanzati (Ermanno Olmi, 1963)
9. L’onorevole Angelina (Luigi Zampa, 1947)
10. Roma ore 11 (Guiseppe De Santis, 1952)

We asked you on Twitter and our Facebook page what we’d missed from our list of classic neorealist films. Your suggestions came thick and fast, along with some disagreement about which films could be considered neorealist. Is Gomorrah from 2008 really a neorealist film, as our list suggests? And one title was particularly conspicuous in its omission:

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  • Ossessione

    Ossessione

    Restless wife Giovanna meets Gino, a rough and handsome drifter. Their passionate affair leads to the murder of Giovanna’s boorish husband.

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