Italian Redemption of Cinema: Neorealism from Bazin to Godard, the

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  • Topic: Italian neorealism, Roberto Rossellini, Umberto D.
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  • Published : June 15, 2008
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In 1952, the Parisian journal Films et Documents codified the "ten points of neorealism" and, with this definitive gesture, pronounced neorealism a school.1 By contrast, Italian critics have always seemed reluctant to acknowledge neorealism as a movement and so have never produced a manifesto or program for an ideological faction. Neorealism in Italy may be said rather to encompass two somewhat different meanings. The term comes to be associated, on the one hand, with the project of reformulating the nation's identity in the period immediately after World War II and, on the other, with the notion of a privileged instrument for the recuperation of reality either in its immediacy (Zavattini) or in a critically mediated form (Aristarco).2 Cesare Zavattini and Guido Aristarco may be regarded as the two chief Italian expositors of neorealism. Zavattini worked as the screenwriter for Vittorio De Sica and authored several of the masterpieces of neorealist cinema including Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Miracolo a Milano (1950). Aristarco founded the journal Cinema Nuovo and encouraged the idea of Italian cinema as a natural progression fron neorealism to what might be called critical realism. Interested in promoting a realist agenda reminiscent of Lukács's throughout the arts, Aristarco contended that the descriptive approach of early neorealism was too simplistic and ought to be replaced by a more critical method. In Visconti's Senso (1954) he identified the exemplary expression of a realist poetics informed by historical criticism. With respect to periodization, neorealism generally is supposed to start with Visconti's Ossessione (1942), to culminate in Rossellini's Roma citta aperta (1945) and De Ska's Ladri di biciclette, and to begin to decay after De Sica's Umberto D (1952), which Guglielmo Monetti has portrayed as the last neorealist masterpiece.3 Whereas French critics such as Bazin and Deleuze have ascribed to neorealism the achievement of a unifying paradigm, Italian critics by and large have always attributed to neorealism a composite condition. Brunetta, for example, imagines neorealism as a "quadrilatero" that places De Sica and Zavattini at one vertex and positions Visconti, Rossellini, and De Santis at the other three. From Zavattini's own perspective, neorealism acquires an exemplary value in its epistemological rather than ontological dimensions. One of his main creative principles was "conoscere per provvedere" [to know in order to provide], an imperative that in his opinion neorealism fulfills by way of a "pedinamento" or "stalking" of reality that proceeds not in the manner of a work of mimesis, but of a simultaneous exploration and construction of reality.4 In a certain sense, Zavattini may be said to bring to light the pragmatic character of neorealism, an almost utilitarian philosophical outlook that takes knowledge as its ultimate aim: "No means of expression besides cinema has this ordinary and congenital ability to photograph things that according to us deserve to be shown in their everyday quality, which means in their longest, truest duration. No expressive means besides cinema has the possibility to convey knowledge to the greatest number of people"5 (Neo, 98). After initial, reductive efforts to interpret neorealism as a sign of sociopolitical redemption, historians of Italian cinema have tended to downplay the importance or cogency of neorealism, as have many directors such as Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni who in their early careers came under neorealism's sway, only to disavow the influence in later years.6 Already in 1948, Bazin could remark the fate of the concept in Italy: "I think there is not a single Italian director, including the most neorealist, who does not insist that they must get away from it" (WIC, 2:48). The resistance of Italian critics to the canonization of the neorealist phenomenon was made manifest at the Pesaro conference in 1974, where no consensus was reached on a...
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