For one to understand the importance of neorealist films in the 1940s, one must first look at the previous eras in Italian filmmaking. Neorealist films and the aims of the directors and crew proved to be vastly different from their cinematic predecessors.
In Italian silent film, many genres were embraced and filmed; however, historical epics and dramas drew in the crowds and the money both in Italy and international markets. Filmmakers drew from the works of Shakespeare and Dante, and supported their major productions with lavish sets, huge amounts of extras, and innovative film techniques. For instance, in the 1911 production of L’inferno, art directors employed, “monsters [and] special effects, including flashbacks, superimpositions of images, and double exposures” (Bondanella 7). A new breed of artists, filmmakers, were discovering a new and exciting art form, steadily experimenting and drumming out new techniques or embracing those of their fellow colleagues around the world.
Cabiria (1914) is perhaps the most famous and most influential film of Italian silent cinema. Pastrone’s film ultimately premiered with a length of three hours, but behind those three hours were over one million lire, twenty thousand meters of film, numerous innovations still in use today (the dolly and use of close-ups, for instance), and a successful publicity campaign. By tinting scenes in the film, the director and crew were able to represent a somewhat colorful film, and the huge, detailed, and historically accurate sets added to the extravagant atmosphere emanating from the film. Cabiria’s influence even spread of American director, D.W. Griffith, one of the most revered silent filmmakers in the world; Griffith’s lengthy and expensive historical epics owe much to Pastrone’s film.
As is typical of the history of cinema in many countries, women were only able to participate in limited roles, the most influential being that of the lead actress. In Italy, male actors found it impossible to reach the heights of fame and popularity which women so easily achieved. Actresses, or dive, existed at the center of Italian film, taking important roles in the overly dramatized productions, excelling at exuding the passion and drama needed for such unrealistic roles. However, many argue this melodramatic excess damaged Italian influence on world cinema. The artificiality of sets and indoor filming proved detrimental to Italy’s movie industry (Bondanella).
FASCIST & PRE-WWII CINEMA
The early “talkie” era of Italian film existed during the height of Mussolini’s reign. Mira Liehm writes, “The colors of the films made under fascism were ‘pink’ and ‘black.’ The pink productions—sentimental comedies and romantic melodramas—far outnumbered the black ‘truly’ fascist films” (21). These films are referred to today as white telephone films, as stories generally centered on affluent women and men who only used expensive white telephones. Although the films’ “pink” exteriors may have clouded Fascist undertones, the lifestyle portrayed was clearly one promoted by the ideals of the state. The actresses of silent film, who were able to exude sexuality were allowed much more freedom then than in the white telephone films, where “femmes fatales became bad creatures, and purification through love was reserved for women with a strong moral sense, who would always forsake the husband to his legal wife and children” (Liehm 22). Films presented a comedic way of life that completely avoided the very real troubles Italians faced in reality, leaving a gaping hole open for the coming wave of neorealist directors.
Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009. Print.
Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance: Film In Italy From 1942 To The Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.