The Emergence of Neorealism

Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), 1948


“We were emerging from the tragedy of the war. We had all taken part in it, for we were all its victims. I sought only to picture the essence of things. I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lines of film drama. The actual facts were each more dramatic than any screen cliché.”

– Roberto Rossellini, famed neorealist director (Quandt)

Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), 1949

Neorealism came about as both a response to the high-gloss, fantasy pre-war films and in response to the brutality of the war. The great contrast between Fascist filmmaking and neorealism reflects changes in Italian society in which the filmmakers themselves were enmeshed. In both the stories portrayed and the techniques used, these films were to reflect the gritty day-to-day lives of real Italian people. Filmmakers broke away from the confines of the studio and took their cameras to the street, filming on location with natural light. Casting typically consisted of unknowns who had never worked in film, although stars of the stage and cinema could be seen as well. The cinematography was minimal as well, preferring to be invisible; directors no longer relied on creative cuts and dream sequences, instead choosing to film much as a documentarian would (Quandt).

La terra trema (The Earth Trembles), 1948

However, rarely do the movies fulfill all of these requirements, instead blending the realist look with melodramatic storylines to explore philosophical questions about morality in daily life and demonstrate the horrors of reality in wartime Italy. To read more about the types of stories depicted in these films, I drew up a list of the must-see neorealist films, including synopses, HERE.

Vittorio De Sica, director of neorealist classics like Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) and Sciuscià (Shoeshine), commented:

The experience of the war was decisive for us all. Each felt the mad desire to throw away all the old stories of the Italian cinema, to plant the camera in the midst of real life, in the midst of all that struck our astonished eyes. We sought to liberate ourselves from the weight of our sins, we wanted to look ourselfes in the face and tell ourselves the truth, to discover what we really were, and to seek salvation… Shoeshine was a small stone, a very small stone, contributed to the moral reconstruction of our country” (Marcus).

The films, whether concerned with the war directly or simply the in and outs of daily life in Italy, allowed the filmmakers to express much of what they were forbidden to explore in Fascist Italy. The renewed feeling of by Italian filmmakers directly reflects the atmosphere of reconstruction in postwar Italy, and therefore, the “rebirth of the Italian national identity will thus owe as much to the cinema as it does to the various political and cultural movements we normally associate with the rise of a new social order” (Marcus xv). This leads one to ponder: if cinema in Italy could so accurately reflect the status of Italy following World War II, can the depictions of gender and sexuality in films like Roma, città aperta and Paisà, for example, reflect the lives of real Italian women? Or are these women’s stories ignored or amplified in order to attain the goals of the male filmmakers? As feminist critiques and research on this matter have proven scarce, I will employ this blogging exercise as a way to delve into these same questions.


Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print.

Quandt, James. “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Myth and Manipulation.” Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. (2009): 11-19. DVD.

NOTE: The Quandt  source above is from a booklet of essays in the 2009 Criterion Boxset of Rossellini’s films. I was unsure of how to cite such a source.


Bicycle Thieves, Bitter Rice, & The Earth Trembles / Umberto D.


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