This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.
One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.
It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:
. . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)
This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).
Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.
Casting, scripting and direction
Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.
Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.
Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.
In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)
Reading the closing sequence
The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.
In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.
Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:
“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)
In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.
If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.
Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press
Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista
Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.
The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.
According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.
Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).
The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.
Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.
The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947. The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.
Europa ’51 is an extraordinary film. It’s quite difficult to see outside Italy – although it has appeared on TCM in the US, the only DVD available does not have English subtitles according to Amazon’s contributors. I was overjoyed to stumble across a version online with English subs. It is an important picture from the period of Roberto Rossellini’s output during his relationship with Ingrid Bergman. In some ways it offers a link between Stromboli (1950) and Viaggio in Italia (1953), in others it relates to both Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and to the earlier neo-realist films of both Rossellini himself and Vittorio de Sica.
It was conceived as a commercial proposition – backed by the combination of Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis (for Lux Films), already producers who would go on to be the major figures in Italian production in the 1950s and 1960s. For Rossellini it was a very ‘personal’ project. In 1950 he married Ingrid Bergman soon after their son Robertino was born. The twins Isabella and Isotta Ingrid followed in 1952. Bergman scandalised American society when she left her first husband and her young daughter to live with Rossellini. This ‘betrayal’ was compounded by the ‘secondary circulation’ of Bergman’s star image which was informed by her roles as a nun in The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) and as Joan of Arc (1948). Stromboli had been financed by RKO in 1950 and had been a commercial flop in America. Europa ’51 was given the title The Greatest Love when it was eventually released in the US in 1954. Bergman’s husband in the film is played by Alexander Knox, the Canadian actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period in Hollywood. As with the other Rossellini-Bergman films, there were different cuts of the film for different markets. I saw the Italian cut in which Bergman and Knox are dubbed by Italian actors. There is also a version in which they dub themselves in English (the version seen in the US, I think). Rossellini created the film’s story himself and he co-wrote the script with several collaborators, some of whom, including possibly Federico Fellini, were uncredited. The music score, for what is certainly a melodrama, is by Rossellini’s younger brother Renzo and the cinematography – a major feature of the film – is by Aldo Tonti.
Outline (Some spoilers, but this isn’t a plot-driven film as such)
Irene and George Girard (Bergman and Knox) are a wealthy couple living in a spacious Roman apartment with servants and the use of luxury cars to get about the city. He is an American acting as the Rome representative of an American corporation. Irene’s family background is more complex. Her mother comes over from America, but she seems to have Italian relatives as well and she spent the war in London with her young son.
The film actually opens with an elderly couple on the Rome streets complaining about having to walk because of a transport strike. Irene then appears driving her luxury car (I wish I knew more about these models – it looks like a Bentley/Rolls/Jaguar). She is late because of the traffic problems and doesn’t have much time for her son Michele who has been home all day. There is a dinner party to be organised and Irene is busy. But during the dinner there is a dramatic incident that ends in tragedy and the boy dies after being hospitalised. Irene is distraught, blaming herself for his death and this ends the first part of the film.
Struggling to regain her confidence after days of retreating to her bed, Irene turns away from her family and goes to meet her cousin Andrea who is a campaigning journalist and a communist. He urges her to face the world and he tells her about a recent case covered by his paper of a child in a desperate condition because his family can’t afford the necessary medicine. Irene and Andrea visit the family and soon Irene is involved with a community of new migrants to the city living in the newly-built apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city in a district similar to that where De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is set. George and Irene’s other friends and family become increasingly concerned about Irene’s behaviour. This central section of the narrative reaches a climax at the end of which Irene is arrested because she has helped a young man escape from the police (though she has urged him to turn himself in). In the final third of the film, Irene’s relatives and the authorities conspire to place her ‘in care’ in a psychiatric institution.
There are many ways in which to approach this film. In thematic/ideological terms it represents the tension between Catholicism and Marxism that seems to underpin the critical reaction to Rossellini’s work. It’s noticeable in the film how both the Marxist journalist and the Catholic priest are at a loss with how to respond to Irene’s behaviour in the latter part of the narrative. Rossellini’s aim appears to have been to explore what would happen if a figure like the 14th century San Francesco was to help the poor in contemporary Rome. Rossellini had just completed Francesco guillare di Dio (Francis, God’s jester) with a script he wrote himself with Federico Fellini. Francesco and his band of brothers represent the incarnation of love for all living things, impossible to beat down and always joyous. In what was perceived as the desperate and cynical world of post-war Italy – and indeed of Europe as a whole – the prospect of Franciscan love for community must have seemed attractive. In his commentary on the film from My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese quotes Rossellini as stating in 1963 in relation to Europa ’51 that, “People can now only live in ‘society’ not in a community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love”.
This is a powerful thematic and it is one of the foundations of the film’s greatness. Another is the luminous performance of Ingrid Bergman and the third is Rossellini’s aesthetic strategy. After the opening scenes in the opulent apartment that suggest traditional modes of melodrama, the scenes when Irene visits the shanty towns and new-build ‘worker’s flats’ move directly into neo-realist imagery. At one point, Irene spends a day working in a factory so that a woman with six children (played by Giulietta Masina) can look for a better job. This is an extraordinary expressionist sequence reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times or Lang’s Metropolis. Europa ’51 is a full-blown melodrama and towards the end of the film Bergman becomes a saint in visual terms. She had already played Joan of Arc in Hollywood and she was around this time also touring with a stage presentation of Joan at the stake for Rossellini. The couple made their Joan film in 1954. Credit for the transformation must go to cinematographer Aldo Tonti as well as to Bergman herself and it doesn’t seem excessive to claim that the film’s narrative development is played out through the changing presentation of Bergman’s extraordinary face.
I haven’t been so impressed by discovery of a ‘classic’ film for a very long time. If you get the chance, do watch this film.
In researching this film I came across this excellent collection of posts on Rossellini’s films with useful screengrabs.
This is another earlier set of notes from 2006, now slightly updated during current work on Rossellini.
The second of Rossellini’s post-war films, Paisà (‘countryman’) is often quoted as the film that comes closest to the neo-realist ideal that Rossellini himself described some years later. If neo-realism was concerned with ‘finding’ stories in the world rather than imposing a fictional narrative on a location, then surely Paisà is that film. Equally, it meets the criterion of a film that refuses to be an ‘entertainment’ and speaks directly to the memory of the recent past. As the Taviani Brothers, filmmakers themselves who were inspired by Rossellini when they saw the film in 1946 as teenagers, have commented: “It presented what we had just experienced, but now we understood that experience through the presentation on the screen”.
Paisà tells the story of the Allied (here, very much the American) advance through Italy, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fighting in the North in the winter of 1944, and their interaction in each episode with the partisans and ordinary Italians. Different characters appear in each of six separate episodes – there is no possibility of us identifying with an individual American hero who ‘makes it through’ (or indeed with a British squad like that in The Way Ahead, UK 1944) to a triumphant conclusion with a German defeat.
The story derives, in Rossellini’s terms, from the concrete reality of the situation and the approach he takes to the production supports this aim. The six episodes are intercut with actual newsreel footage, titles and voiceover in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish ‘real’ from staged footage. The Americans in the film are professional actors (but not ‘stars’), but many of the Italians are played by local people in the ‘real’ locations which Rossellini uses whenever possible. In the final episode, the incidents are based on events recounted by the ‘real’ partisans. The bleak ending of the film would not be possible in a Hollywood film, but for Rossellini it is not the end of the ‘story’. As Bondanella (1993) points out, for Rossellini the ‘reality’ is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity as understood in Christian philosophy. When the film begins, the Americans and the Italians are clearly unknown to each other, but the experiences they have through the course of the narrative prove their humanity and the development of their understanding. Pierre Sorlin suggests that:
Paisà might be considered as a history film – but it is a history not told from without by a historian trying to clarify the issue. It is the subjective, intuitive vision of an Italian who thanks the Allies for their support and condemns them for having taken so much time and let so many Italians be killed. Open City asserts the cohesion of the Roman population, Paisà wonders what has been left of Italy after two years of war. (Sorlin 1996: 101)
Sorlin’s comments prompt some consideration of the British characters in Episodes IV and VI, who seem (at least the military, not Harriet) to be ineffectual and arrogant. This may just be Rossellini recognising that the Americans were paying for the film.
Episode IV and Episode VI feature the use of Rossellini’s ‘long shot, long take’ approach to action. The argument in favour of the long take and the long shot is clearly demonstrated in the production still above. We are presented with a series of long takes in which the action unfolds, often in relatively long shot. The scenes are carefully orchestrated to flow almost seamlessly. Although there is clearly a ‘leader’ (the American officer), we are not invited to adopt his viewpoint. When mid-shots or medium close-ups are used, they pick out particular narrative incidents rather than develop individual characters. Most of all, the camera is used to create for us the viewpoint of the partisans who live in this unique environment. As André Bazin writes:
. . . the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions exposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon (Bazin 1971:37) )
Robin Wood (1980) makes some important observations which place the analysis of style and content in Paisà in context. He reminds us that what distinguishes Rossellini is his refusal to make a ‘well-made film’ and that his placing of the camera is governed by a desire to reveal the actions of characters and their consequences. Comparing the final episode of Paisà with the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, he comes down on the side of Rossellini who, unlike Eisenstein is not producing a film from a position of having triumphed in the Revolution. Instead, Rossellini’s camera suggests: . . . “total instability, the sense of a world where nothing is certain except ultimate desolation, physical and emotional, a world of random and casual cruelty . . . “ (Wood 1980: 889) In other episodes, especially the one with the MP and the boy, Wood sees Rossellini as undermining our expectations of conventional stories with familiar ‘types’ and predictable outcomes, “leaving us in every case, not only without complacency, but without hope”.
Paisà was, not surprisingly, shunned by popular audiences in Italy at the time, but does it work now to bring home the horrors of war and the capacity for human suffering? We could argue that Paisà was the ultimate achievement of Rossellini’s neo-realist approach. Its episodic structure, long shot compositions and avoidance of star performances focuses absolutely on the concept of liberation won by partisans and soldiers en masse.
André Bazin (1971) ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ in What is Cinema?, Vol. II (originally published in Esprit, January 1948), Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press
Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: CUP
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge
Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg
Roy Stafford 20/5/06
The British Film Institute has just released a digital restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s important film Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953). I’m preparing an introduction to the film and I realised that there is nothing on the blog directly about Rossellini, one of the most important directors in the history of global film. I’ve dug out some notes that I compiled for an earlier event in 2006 at the time of Rossellini’s centenary and I’ve updated them slightly.
Introduction: Rossellini and the ‘problem’ of Fascism and ‘neo-realism’
Any presentation of the work of Roberto Rossellini has to deal with a central issue in fi lm studies and more generally in cultural history. In most popular histories of the cinema, Rossellini is associated with the influential film movement known as ‘Italian neo-realism’. In particular, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), produced in 1945 has been hailed as the first ‘neo-realist’ film. That position was later challenged by scholars who made claims for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) made in 1943. But by the 1970s and the development of film studies, scholars began to re-assess their ideas about Italian cinema and to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were to be found in the early 1930s cinema of Jean Renoir in France and in the Fascist Cinema of Italy in the late 1930s. But the re-appraisal of Italian Cinema faced two problems. On a pragmatic level, most of the Italian films of the later Fascist period are difficult to see (certainly in the UK and US). Secondly, what Hay (1987) refers to as the “almost sacred trinity” of neo-realist ‘auteurs’, Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, had all been involved in the Fascist industry and it was difficult for them personally and for their supporters to re-assess their relationships with the Fascist state of the 1930s. De Sica did cover this period in his 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Federico Fellini (a boy in the 1930s) famously gave his view of the period in Amarcord (1973). But Rossellini, who became part of the Fascist film industry in 1936 did not look back to the period. Indeed, one feature of the late 1940s discussion of neorealism’ was the rejection of Fascist cinema as ‘worthless’.
Fascist Italy and the cinema
Roberto Rossellini was the son of a successful architect in Rome and he was 19 when Benito Mussolini assumed full dictatorial powers over Italy in 1925. On 27 April 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the new film studios of Cinecittà in Rome and the establishment of Centro Sperimentale – an élite film school. Both these innovations survived the Second World War and became part of a successful postwar Italian Cinema. Rossellini stumbled into the industry when he needed to earn money – having spent his family’s money on a playboy lifestyle. He counted as friends at this time not only Mussolini’s son Vittorio, but also future leading figures in the Italian Communist party. Through his connections he was able to get work as a sound technician, an editor and eventually as a scriptwriter. The three films Rossellini made during the war, La Nave Bianca (about a hospital ship), Un pilota returna (a pilot escapes from a prison camp) and L’Uomo della croce (an army chaplain on the Russian front) are all ‘propaganda films’ presenting heroic images of individuals in wartime. To some extent, they sound like British propaganda films of the time. Guarner (1970: 11) suggests that:
“. . . if they are considered apart from their set purpose as films, they reveal a personality distinct from other Italian films of the time . . . they do show sufficient respect for reality, care for objective mise en scène and perceptiveness over detail to raise them above the other Fascist films of the period.”
Guarner was writing at the height of the ‘authorship’ phase of film studies and he possibly overemphasises the ‘personal’ approach of Rossellini. What is more likely is that Rossellini learned from other filmmakers who had also developed some ‘realist’ techniques.
Rossellini and ‘neo-realism’
The roots of neo-realism are now seen to be in the 1930s, but there is no doubt that, in 1945, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta caused a sensation in cinemas not only in Italy but also in the US and the UK, where it arrived in 1947. Film Review in the UK, a popular film annual, greeted the film with the following tribute:
. . . one of the most completely damning , moving and altogether inspiring anti-Nazi films ever made . . . tremendously effective both as entertainment; by turns exciting, amusing and terrifying . . . varyingly photographed, technically inferior [Open City] was always beautifully acted. Direction was assured, witty and full of brilliance; inspired to the extent of giving those sudden, human, familiar little touches to a movie which makes it suddenly, breathlessly alive.
This is a very fair and perceptive review. Rossellini and his collaborators made the best of what equipment and filmstock they could fi nd in the ruins of Rome and mixed it with melodrama, comedy and action. The film has since become mythologised as ‘realist’, but it was the more considered Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947) that more clearly fitted the developing neo-realist ideal. All three films include location shooting and use of non-actors in many roles, but they also required studio shooting and they made use of the highly emotional music provided by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo.The failure of Germany Year Zero, a very bleak and emotionally shattering film, saw the end of one kind of realist filmmaking for Rossellini – ironically before Rome, Open City had been fully distributed. Rossellini went on to be a great innovator, but also a good interviewee about his methodology. The following quote is a useful guide to Rossellini’s cinema and to neo-realism more generally:
The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the fi lm from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete. . . It refuses recipes and formulas. . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think. (Roberto Rossellini in Retrospettive, April 1953, reprinted in Overby (1978))
This argues for cinematic realism as a progressive aesthetic opposed to ‘entertainment cinema’ and in favour of ‘education’. (Rossellini was taken up by Marxist critics in the 1970s, but he remained a Catholic humanist intellectual throughout his life). One of the central features of Rossellini’s camerawork in his ‘neo-realist trilogy’ is the combination of the ‘long shot’ and the ‘long take’. The long shot is the ideal framing device to show crowds and the movements of soldiers in battle. Its use in Hollywood tends to be restricted to establishing shots and genres like the western where ‘figures in a landscape’ are important. Usually, however, stories are told in mid-shot and medium close-up with attention paid to individual characters. Long shots are also difficult to organise on studio sets, where framing is often required to disguise the fact that a set is just a collection of ‘flat’ walls without a ceiling. Allied to the long shot is the use of deep-focus which allows the filmmaker to compose a shot in-depth with objects in the foreground and the background, both in sharp focus. Different actions can take place within the frame and the audience can select to look at the foreground or background. Deep-focus works well on location and like the long shot was common in silent cinema before bulky sound equipment began to restrict camerawork.
A long take is any shot lasting longer than about 20 seconds (the Hollywood average throughout the studio period is about 12 seconds). For the filmmaker, the long take poses problems because all the actions must be carefully worked out in advance. Long shots and staging in-depth help because they give greater possibilities of movement in the frame. Alternatively, moving the camera by panning or tracking allows greater freedom. The panning and tracking camera, shooting in long takes, is a feature of Rossellini’s films at various times, especially in the more action-orientated episodes of Paisà.
Rossellini’s fi lms tend to focus on stories about ‘ordinary people’ in situations which are in one sense ‘ordinary’ – except that in Italy in the late 1940s ‘ordinary life’ was often quite ‘extraordinary’. Here is a useful quote from another spokesman for neo-realism, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini describing the starting point for a typical neo-realist film:
“A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction . . .” (See Williams (ed) 1980: 29-30)
Zavattini can ask himself, “Why does the woman want the shoes?”, “What else will she not spend the money on if she does buy the shoes?”, “How important is the sale to the shopkeeper – does he know the woman?” etc. In Rossellini’s terms the narrative comes from ‘the world’, from the ‘reality’ of an everyday experience.
Rossellini and Bergman
In 1948, Rossellini received a telegram from Ingrid Bergman offering to work for him for next to nothing, so impressed was she with his neo-realist films. Rossellini didn’t know that Bergman was at the height of her popularity in Hollywood, but he saw the possibility of Hollywood money and invited her over to Italy. They started a passionate affair and she starred for him in Stromboli (Italy 1950). Stromboli saw Rossellini shifting his approach in two significant ways. The story involves a Lithuanian woman who in the aftermath of war finds herself in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Karin (Bergman) chooses marriage as her passport out of the camp and finds a Sicilian fi sherman on his way home from a prison camp in South Africa. With Hollywood money, Rossellini made the most of the landscape of the volcanic island of Stromboli. He also continued a policy of using several local people in acting roles, but this time placed amongst them one of the biggest fi lm stars in the world. Suddenly the film becomes almost a documentary on Bergman as a sophisticated woman attempting to act with an amateur cast – just as the character, Karin, finds herself stuck on a ‘primitive’ island from which she feels she must escape. The Hollywood studio, RKO cut the film by nearly 20 minutes and it flopped badly in an English language version in America. Now the film, at its original length is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. Audiences are likely to dismiss the film or to be overwhelmed by it. Partly this is a function of the completely ‘open ending’ when it is not clear what Karin will do about ending or maintaining her marriage.
Eventually, Rossellini and Bergman were divorced from their previous partners and they married. Rossellini proved a jealous husband/director and would not allow Bergman to work for anyone else. In 1953 he cast her in a fi lm often cited as having a major influence on the French New Wave in the late 1950s, Viaggio in Italia. This film continued the idea of using the predicament of the actor as a feature of the narrative. Bergman plays the wife of an English ‘gentleman’ who inherits a house in Italy. The couple have a ‘difficult’ marriage and they think that a holiday to complement their trip to Naples to sell the house might improve their relationship. George Sanders plays the husband and he found working for Rossellini very difficult, not least because Rossellini and his scriptwriter constantly changed the script the night before a day’s shooting so that Sanders and Bergman were unaware of what might happen. In one famous scene, the couple are sent to the ruins of Pompeii where Rossellini knew that a startling archeological find was to be revealed. Their consternation became part of the plot. On this film Rossellini proved that, as long as you have a clear overall plan, you could make it up as you go along – something Jean-Luc Godard has never forgotten.
‘The cinema is dead’
Rossellini and Bergman split up in 1957 and in 1961, Rossellini declared cinema dead and launched into a television career. From now on he eschewed conventional narratives and sought to make ‘historical films’ with a strong educational purpose. There were clear links to his earlier films in that he concentrated on his characters as ‘people’ first and important historical figures second. He concentrated on detailed research into the clothes, furnishings and everyday rituals of the central characters who were played by non-actors, or at least non-stars. The details were accurate but the sets were not lavish and the camerawork was as simple as possible.
Rossellini wanted an unobtrusive camera that could record the action without unnecessary cuts or dramatic close-ups. To this end he invented a remote control zoom device that enabled him to easily change the focal length as the camera moved just enough to capture the whole scene and the movements of the characters in a restricted area. The most acclaimed of these films, made for French television, recorded The Rise to Power of Louis IV (France/Italy 1966). Others focused on Socrates, Blaise Pascal and Cosimo de Medici. In 1976 he produced a life of Jesus and when he died in 1977 he was said to be working on a film about Karl Marx.
These notes refer to only a selection of Rossellini’s film credits from a career spanning forty years. By necessity, they are limited to the films that have received public distribution in the UK. Apart from Rome Open City, Rossellini’s films have not been major box office successes – they have been more discussed by critics and other filmmakers than by popular audiences. Yet Rossellini’s films and his ideas about films have been very influential, both on filmmakers outside the US entertainment system attempting to apply neo-realist ideas and to modernist filmmakers like those of the French New Wave, as well as his early collaborators such as Federico Fellini and younger Italian directors such as the Taviani Brothers. Since his centenary in 2006 one or two more titles have become accessible with English subtitles in the US and as imports from Italy. I hope to watch some of these and write about them on the blog.
Roy Stafford, 20/5/06
References and further reading
Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jose Luis Guarner (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista
James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press
David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: a Reader on Neo-Realism, London: Talisman
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge
Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism in the Cinema, London: Routledge Kegan Paul
Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg
The best starting place for a websearch on is via Senses of Cinema
The UK gets a re-release of the classic neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves next week courtesy of Arrow and Park Circus. To celebrate this good news, I decided to post the detailed notes I wrote for students in 2002 (the whole thing is 4,000 words plus). A note on titles: The Bicycle Thief is the American title. The UK title is Bicycle Thieves. The latter is more accurate (and a better translation) – see the Synopsis at the end of the Notes.
Bicycle Thieves is a classic of global cinema, a film that every student needs to see at least once, a film that in some sense represents filmmaking at a particular time and in a particular place. It has become associated with the film movement known as Italian neo-realism and its status as a classic to some extent depends upon this association. Vittorio De Sica, the producer/director of Bicycle Thieves, has perhaps been ‘forgotten’ in later theoretical writing about neo-realism, which has tended to concentrate on the more intellectual approach of Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti in such films as Paisà (Italy, 1946) and La Terra Trema (Italy 1947).
Rossellini and Visconti became established directors during the latter part of the Fascist period, but De Sica was already a highly successful actor by the early 1930s and very much the star – “a legendary figure in his time, only to be compared to Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles” (Sorlin 1996). He began directing by the late 1930s and produced one of the earliest films to have subsequently been associated with neo-realism, The Children Are Watching in 1943. He went on to direct Sciuscià (Shoeshine) in 1946, the first of a neo-realist trilogy about ‘everyday lives’ which continued with Bicycle Thieves and ended with Umberto D in 1951. His films were championed by the influential French critic André Bazin, who proclaimed them ‘pure cinema’. It was De Sica’s success in presenting his stories without obvious stylistic devices or signs of ‘personal expression’ that perhaps caused his fall from favour in the later ‘auteurist’ cinema of the 1960s.
However, in terms of debates about neo-realism, it is important that De Sica worked closely with the writer Cesare Zavattini, who has been recognised as one of the main promoters of neo-realism and the provider of some of its ‘manifesto’ statements. The simple idea at the centre of the story of Bicycle Thieves – a man’s search for his stolen bicycle without which he cannot work – is the perfect example of Zavattini’s claim to be able to create compelling drama out of a relatively insignificant incident in a crowded city. This approach to narrative has been widely influential all over the world since the 1940s and is one of the recognisable elements in the contemporary success of Iranian Cinema, the current ‘critics’ favourite’.
These notes trace the neo-realist elements in Bicycle Thieves and also consider the context of its production and reception in Italy and across the world from the late 1940s and through the 1950s.
Cinema and society in post war Italy
The fighting in Italy during 1943 and 1944, especially after the surrender of the Italian army and the subsequent fierce resistance by German forces against the Americans, British and anti-fascist Italian partisans, had a savage impact upon the Italian economy, exacerbated by the movements of thousands of displaced people. For several years after the complete liberation of Italy, the country was plagued with unemployment, housing problems, severe poverty and the destabilising effects of a rampant black market for goods. This unrest, in both the devastated cities and the rural communities, formed the ‘real world material’ for neo-realism. (But it is important to realise that neo-realist films represented only a tiny proportion of Italian film production in the late 1940s. Pierre Sorlin suggests as few as 60-80 features out of the 1,000 films made between 1945 and 1955).
The politics of the period saw a struggle between the Italian Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe, and strong in the major cities in Central Italy, and the right-wing Christian Democrats, with their strength in the North. Despite the success of the Labour Party in the UK in 1945, American and British support went to the Christian Democrats and with the support of the Catholic church, the communists were denied political power. Politics is not openly represented in Bicycle Thieves, except when Antonio first arrives home after the loss of the bicycle. He stumbles in on a political meeting, but quickly leaves to find Baiocco. Several commentators have pointed out that there would be no story if Antonio was a member of the Communist Party, since the local branch would have either found him a new bicycle or helped him look for his own.
It is clear from several scenes that Antonio is not a Roman – he is probably an immigrant from the South or from a village in Central Italy. He seems uncomfortable in Rome and the ‘natives’ treat him like an outsider. He is an appropriate victim of ‘displacement’. (Ingrid Bergman plays a ‘displaced person’ who becomes a fisherman’s wife in Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), another neo-realist film made at roughly the same time as Bicycle Thieves.)
Mary Wood (1996) quotes a French film journal, Films et documents from 1952 and its “Ten Points of neo-realism”:
- the message;
- topical scripts inspired by concrete events – great historical and social issues tackled from the point of view of the ‘common people’;
- a sense of detail as a means of authentication;
- a sense of the masses and the ability to manipulate them in front of the camera;
- the truth of actors, many of them non-professionals;
- the truth of lighting;
- the truth of decor and the refusal of studio;
- photography, reminiscent of the reportage style stressing the impression of truth;
- an extremely free camera, its unrestricted movements resulting from the use of post-synchronisation.
Lists like this are useful in setting out an agenda, but they shouldn’t suggest that all neo-realist films will demonstrate all the points or that all films that might be called ‘neo-realist’ will look the same. This particular list is strong on what could be termed the conventions of a certain form of cinematic realism. It is less effective in explaining the motivation of some of the filmmakers.
One of the more ‘theorised’ views of neo-realism comes from Roberto Rossellini:
There are those who still think of neo-realism as something external, as going out into the open air, as a contemplation of misery and suffering. For me it is nothing more than the artistic form of truth . . . I cannot believe in an entertainment film . . . if it is not a film which is at least partially capable of attaining the truth.
The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the film from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete . . . It refuses recipes and formulas . . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think.
(Roberto Rossellini in Retrospective, April 1953, reprinted in Overby 1978)
Rossellini’s view is genuinely revolutionary. Instead of a scriptwriter suggesting a story, which is then constructed in cinematic time and space in such a way as to suggest the realism of the event, Rossellini proposes to literally make films out of the reality he finds. Eventually, this would lead Rossellini to making a film like Viaggio in Italia (1953) in which he made up the script as he went along.
Cesare Zavattini, who worked with De Sica on his first two ‘neo-realist’ films and briefly with Rossellini, had what at first seems a similar approach:
A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction. (Quoted in Williams 1980)
Zavattini is a scriptwriter rather than a director so his aim is to present a story to the director. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, the original story idea in fact came from a novel. Zavattini read the novel and immediately wrote a ‘loose adaptation’. He then took it to De Sica who had been searching for:
. . . action which would be less apparently ‘extraordinary’, which could happen to anyone (above all to the poor), action which no newspaper wants to talk about. (De Sica 1948, reprinted in Overby 1978)
What emerges from De Sica’s explanation of the genesis of the film is that he has a clear artistic aim, just like Rossellini, but it concerns the question of how to represent:
” . . . the modern dimension given to small things, that state of mind considered ‘common’. Thanks to the camera, the cinema has the means to capture that dimension. That is how I understand realism, which cannot be, in my opinion, mere documentation. If there is absurdity in this theory, it is the absurdity of those social contradictions which society wants to ignore. It is the absurdity of incomprehension through which it is difficult for truth and good to penetrate. Thus, my film is dedicated to the suffering of the humble.” (op cit)
De Sica’s inherent ‘humanism’ – his interest in the importance of ‘small things’ to the man in the street – is the essential ingredient of Bicycle Thieves. The film does reveal ordinary lives in the face of official indifference and the audience cares about Antonio, Bruno and Maria. The film has a ‘social message’, but not one ‘tacked on’ artificially. Even so it is a film that entertains its audience with the ordinary adventures of father and son. De Sica’s methods and approach fit the time period. Later he would make films that simply set out to be entertaining.
Bicycle Thieves was in many ways a conventionally produced film costing around Lire 100 million (about £50,000, not too dissimilar to UK features of the period). De Sica read thirty or forty scripts after finishing Shoeshine before Zavattini appeared with Bicycle Thieves and he spent a long time casting the film and preparing the shoot. The print of the film currently on video release is of a high quality and a long way removed from the grainy look of Roma – citta aperta (1945), the film Rossellini made using filmstock scavenged from whatever source he could find. Although they shared an attention to seeking ‘artistic truth’, and this is what makes them both ‘neo-realists’ in this period, De Sica and Rossellini were actually very different filmmakers.
Representing social issues
Whatever manifesto statements we accept for neo-realism (e.g. Zavattini or Rossellini), the central feature of all the narratives is their engagement with the social issues of the time. Bicycle Thieves concerns unemployment and labour control. Umberto D is about a pensioner whose savings have disappeared, Shoeshine features child workers on the streets. Other films concerned themselves with rural problems.
The poverty of the Roman working-class is shown in Bicycle Thieves when Antonio and his wife pledge their bed linen and redeem his bicycle. Antonio looks through the hatch to see the bed linen being stored alongside hundreds of similar parcels. These were views of Italy that the right-wing political parties did not wish to see on Italian screens. The popular audience was interested in films about these issues up to a point – some films, like Bicycle Thieves, were good box office, even if they struggled to get a decent release in cinemas. However, it appears that by 1950 the popular audience had moved on to more escapist fare.
Perhaps the right-wing politicians were right to fear the ‘negative view’ of Italy. Certainly, a handful of neo-realist films were enthusiastically received in Paris, London and New York (much as Iranian Cinema is received now, but on a greater scale). It often took a year or two for the films to travel to the UK and Bicycle Thieves opened at the Curzon in Mayfair in 1950. Film Review described it as a ‘sad Italian comedy’ but nevertheless claimed it as one of the two outstanding European films seen in the UK that year (the other being a Jacques Tati comedy). Richard Winnington, the acerbic critic of the News Chronicle (the liberal mid-market paper), was not unusual in his praise of Bicycle Thieves in January 1950 as “a film that spoke, after so long, the fundamental language of the cinema.” He comments, like many others, on the way in which Rome is represented not as a tourist haunt with statues and famous buildings, but as a working city seething with life. For many critics and filmmakers, the experience of neo-realism, watching Italy’s social issues explored with humanity on the same screens that showed Hollywood musicals and westerns, was a revelation. Bicycle Thieves succeeded as a humanist film. The genuine interest in the characters and the brilliant direction of actors in their ‘real’ setting was what worked on audiences. The ‘open’ending of the film distinguishes it from most Hollywood product, as does the focus on such an everyday theme.
There were Hollywood films being made ‘on the street’ in the late 1940s, especially by 20th Century Fox, but mostly these were crime films or ‘social problem’ films with conventional narratives. Nothing matched the character driven account of the everyday presented in Bicycle Thieves.
The neo-realist aesthetic and Bicycle Thieves
The two main aesthetic features of the film are the location shooting and the acting performances. Both are remarkable and are linked through the difficulty of directing non-professionals in scenes requiring complex movements.
The importance of location shooting is not primarily about the ‘authenticity’ of the backdrop. Instead it is about conveying the idea of actions literally taking place ‘out there’ in the real world. Even in contemporary films shot on location, it is not unusual to get the feeling that when the action switches to a new location, the actors have started moving just a few seconds earlier – in other words, the street is just a location for the story. But in Bicycle Thieves, we get the impression that action is going on whether the camera is running or not. This is achieved through careful framing of the action so that ‘background’ activities (i.e. by people not involved in the main story) carry on regardless at the edge of the frame or move in and out of shot. The camera is selecting from life on the street, not simply imposing a story on a backdrop. Mary Wood quotes the example of the scene when Antonio is being shown how to paste up his first poster. The camera not only allows us to see Rome getting on with its business in the background, but also to follow the boys and the man they beg from, panning away from Antonio and the pasting. We hear Antonio and his trainer off screen, but watch the boys. All this helps set up the theft of the bicycle. The theft is shot from a similar angle and we are acutely aware of the dangers on the street which might affect Antonio.
The camerawork shows the main features of neo-realist shooting with more long shots than similar Hollywood films, allowing more portrayal of the characters as part of the background. Deep focus is used without the expressionist style shown in films like Citizen Kane and tracking shots with relatively long takes emphasise the continuous narrative space of the action. Bazin claims there is ‘no studio work’, but close analysis suggests that some scenes were probably shot in adapted rooms, if not in a studio – interior lighting of Antonio’s flat etc. would be difficult otherwise. (In Roma – citta aperta, Rossellini converted a building into a crude studio to shoot interiors.) Even so, there is no sense of ‘artificiality’ and exteriors and interiors blend smoothly.
All the main actors are non-professionals, Antonio being played by a factory worker. However, all the dialogue is ‘post synchronised’ (i.e. ‘dubbed’) and Antonio’s lines are spoken by a professional. Dubbing later became a standard feature of Italian cinema, proving especially useful when European co-productions brought many different language speakers together in Italian films. The big advantage for neo-realism was that the camera could be moved freely on location without the encumbrance of sound recording.
Bazin tells us that De Sica spent a long time selecting the cast and he suggests that it is De Sica’s own knowledge and experience as an actor that is evident in the excellent performances. The scenes between father and son are particularly convincing.
The meaning of the film
The best two guides to the meaning of the film are probably Bazin and Sorlin. Bazin says that it is “the only valid Communist film of the whole past decade” [i.e. the 1940s]. By this he means that the social message of the film is not explicitly stated. Instead, it simply arises out of the story – the poor will steal from the poor in order to survive. De Sica shows the differences between rich and poor in the restaurant and satirises the charity and the authoritarianism of the church and the ineffectiveness of the police in helping Antonio. The state can regulate a brothel and regulate the labour market, but it can’t reduce poverty.
The pairing of father and son is crucial. The boy is a witness to his father’s humiliation and also an inspiration – e.g. in the scene by the river when Antonio fears the boy may have drowned and thinks again about his priorities. Visually, the tall man and the small boy make more interesting protagonists than the man alone.
Sorlin (1991) is more interested in the sociological messages of the film. He points out that Antonio and his wife and son are a ‘nuclear family’ with no local relations and few friends. This supports the view that Antonio may be an immigrant. He is clearly uneasy venturing into central Rome and is unable to break down the solidarity of the community which protects the thieves. Theft is a ‘profession’ in the society, but the thieves need to prey on ‘outsiders’ like Antonio. He, by contrast is an ‘amateur’ when he tries to steal a bicycle himself. But, as Sorlin points out, Antonio is the future – men like him will create the new Italy in the 1950s. The nuclear family is ‘modern’ and so is the apartment block in Val Melaina (even though it was begun in the 1930s and similar construction took place around Rome for another ten years or more). The image of ‘new housing’ linked to ‘displacement’, ‘social engineering’ and ‘reconstruction’ is common across Europe in the post-war period and its appearance in a wide range of feature films is a sign of the impact of the neo-realist approach.
The “origins of neo-realism” and its influence on world cinema
Neo-realism has undoubtedly been one of the most influential ‘film movements’ in the history of cinema. Crucially important was the timing. All film industries post 1945 were struggling to come to terms with new circumstances. The immediate impact of neo-realism was on critics and filmmakers in Britain, America and France. Although the lasting effects of exposure to neo-realism were limited in the mainstream cinema, it was a ‘forming’ experience for filmmakers with a more ‘personal vision’ and proved an inspiration for the French and British New Waves, as well as filmmakers in Germany, Spain and Czechoslovakia. With the development of academic interest in film history and film studies generally (fostered by the ‘critics turned filmmakers’ of the French New Wave), neo-realism has come to be recognised as a major artistic movement generating a ‘re-think’ about the possibilities of cinema and taking its place alongside earlier movements such as German Expressionism and Soviet cinema, both in the 1920s.
But the immediate impact in the 1950s and 1960s was on the emerging cinemas in Africa and on more socially committed filmmakers in India (e.g. Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal) and Latin America. For twenty years or more neo-realism was an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers with some form of social agenda and it became the dominant aesthetic of the international film festival circuit.
None of this is contentious, but one aspect of the analysis relates to the idea that neo-realism was a form of ‘New Wave’ which was conceived as a backlash against what had gone on before – in this case against the Italian cinema of the 1930s. Even the excellent short account in Abrams, Bell and Udris (2001) succumbs to the generalisation of ‘the white telephone films of the 1930s’ (a phrase used to describe the escapist world of middle class melodramas). The Italian filmmakers of the late 1940s who were labelled ‘neo-realist’ were conscious of the social and political context of the period. They had changed as people and as filmmakers, and they did want to create something new. But it is important to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were laid in the 1930s and that Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica had all made films before 1945 that show the developing signs of the neo-realist approach. De Sica had also appeared in a series of films by director Mario Camerini. These presented De Sica as something of a ‘matinee idol’ in films which nevertheless satirised social mores in the middle and upper classes. In the same way, those films that are described as ‘neo-realist’ also carry on earlier traditions, particularly of melodrama and comedy. The use of music is noticeable and also the moments of comic ‘business’. The triumph of Bicycle Thieves is that they become an integral part of the story (such as the priest hitting the surprised Bruno on the head when he peers into the confessional).
If there is a major break with previous modes of Italian cinema, it is the move away from escapism and propaganda under Mussolini towards notions of presenting the ‘truth’ about contemporary society and this is why, of course, the films were attacked by the right. However, it would be wrong to see the neo-realists as ‘new filmmakers’ adopting a revolutionary approach as a conscious attempt to produce something different from their predecessors – which was the case with Godard, Truffaut et al and with the signatories of Dogme ‘95.
Neo-realism and contemporary cinema
If the striking feature of Bicycle Thieves is the simplicity of the narrative ‘concept’ – man needs bike, bike is stolen – the two relatively recent films which are most like it as neo-realist films are Raining Stones (UK 1994) and Not One Less (China 1999). In Ken Loach’s Raining Stones, a father needs money to buy his daughter a confirmation dress and thieves steal the truck he buys in order to look for work. This film would make an excellent comparison with Bicycle Thieves, in both subject matter and visual style. Loach is a confessed neo-realist admirer. In Not One Less, a more unlikely director, Zhang Yimou (best known for sumptuous melodramas) tells the story of a mountain village girl who is put in charge of the school when the teacher has to visit a dying relative. She will only be paid if the children keep attending. When one goes off to the city, she is forced to follow and attempt to bring him back – again direct parallels with the ideas of Bicycle Thieves.
An earlier Zhang Yimou film, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) sees Gong Li, the glamorous star of earlier melodramas, playing a pregnant peasant woman whose husband is injured by a kick from the village chief. She demands justice and pursues her case through each level of bureaucracy up towards the Communist Party hierarchy. The film is an interesting ‘test’ for ideas of neo-realism, since on the one hand the camerawork suggests ‘authenticity’ but the star presence of Gong Li works against it (much as Julia Roberts amidst the social realist view of California in Erin Brockovich). Some critics also see this film and Not One Less as examples of Zhang Yimou bowing to government pressure and showing a ‘propagandist view’ of China.
A full realisation of the brilliance of Bicycle Thieves probably depends on students attempting to tell a simple story ‘on the street’ themselves and investing it with the same drama and humanity. It isn’t simply a matter of pointing the camera at a scene.
Analytical exercises might include:
1. Imagine that an American producer had commissioned De Sica to make Bicycle Thieves for a major Hollywood studio. De Sica claims that this did in fact happen and that a sizeable budget would have been available, had he been prepared to cast Cary Grant as Antonio. What other changes do you think there might have been to the casting, the story and the way in which it was filmed?
2. De Sica appears to have decided to concentrate on the Antonio-Bruno relationship. What lies behind this decision? What does Antonio’s wife, Maria contribute to the narrative? How might the film have been different if the husband-wife relationship was at its centre?
3. What view of life in Rome in 1948 does the film offer? What do we discover about Italian society from the experiences of Antonio and Bruno?
4. De Sica claims that there is nothing ‘extraordinary’ about the actions in the film. Nevertheless the script does take Antonio and Bruno through a series of ‘adventures’ in order to make an interesting story. What can you say about the different situations that the father and son encounter and why do you think they were selected by De Sica and Zavattini? (Analyse specific situations like the scenes in the church or the restaurant.)
If you don’t want to know the full story, be warned – it’s all in here:
There is mass unemployment in postwar Italy, but on the new estate of Val Melaina on the outskirts of Rome, Antonio Ricci is offered a job as a bill poster by the council labour co-ordinator. The job requires that Antonio provide a bicycle. His wife Maria pawns the family bed linen in order to get Antonio’s bicycle out of hock. On the way home, she slips into a fortune-teller’s flat to pay her some money – the woman had predicted that Antonio would get a job.
Next day Antonio sets off for work proudly, but almost immediately his bicycle is stolen while he is pasting bills. Dejected, he must walk home with his small son, Bruno, back to Val Melaina. In despair he turns to his friend Baiocco, a refuse collector and leader of the community theatre in the apartment block. Early the next morning (Sunday) Antonio and Bruno join the refuse gang in searching through the massive bicycle market where they expect the thieves to sell the bicycle. The market traders are angry that someone should suspect them of handling a stolen bicycle and Antonio has to call the police in order to check the registration number on a bicycle frame. But it isn’t his.
The refuse men go home, but Antonio and Bruno keep looking after sheltering from the rain. Antonio sees a young man with a bicycle exchanging something with an old man. Antonio thinks he recognises the youth and gives chase. Failing to catch the boy on the bicycle, Antonio and Bruno search for the old man, finally tracking him down to a local church with a soup kitchen, but the old man also gives them the slip.
Antonio and Bruno end up having a meal in a restaurant which they can’t really afford and then they visit the fortune-teller who will only tell Antonio that either he will find the bicycle quickly or not at all. Soon after leaving the fortune-teller, Antonio again sees the youth he believes is the thief and this time he catches him when the youth runs into a brothel. But they are thrown out by the madam and it is clear that this is the youth’s neighbourhood as an angry mob soon surrounds Antonio. Bruno fetches a policeman, but he can do little since Antonio has no proof other than his own assertion that this is the thief. Antonio and Bruno are effectively run out of the neighbourhood.
Father and son reach a football ground and Antonio casts his eyes over the racks of bicycles left by the spectators. He tries to send Bruno home and then attempts to steal a bicycle himself. But he is caught. The owner, perhaps recognising how desperate Antonio is, does not press charges and Antonio and Bruno, who has witnessed his father’s humiliation, walk off into the dusk. FINE
Nathan Abrams, Ian Bell and Jan Udris (2001) Studying Film, London: Arnold
André Bazin (1971) What is Cinema? (Vol 2), Berkeley and London: University of California Press
Vittorio De Sica (1948) ‘Why Ladri di Biciclette?’ in La fiera letteraria, February, reprinted in David Overby (1978)
James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy: The Passing of the Rex, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-realism, London: Talisman
Pierre Sorlin (1991) European Cinemas, European Societies 1939-1990, London: Routledge
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996, London: Routledge
Roy Stafford (2000) ‘There’s life in neo-realism yet’ in in the picture 40, Autumn
Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism and the Cinema, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/BFI
Mary Wood (1996) ‘Bicycle Thieves – a neorealist film?’ in itp Film Reader 1, Keighley: itp
All text in these notes © 2002 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated.