How A New Generation Of Politically-Charged Films Are Reawakening The Spirit Of Italian Neorealism

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)It's difficult to place into words the impact Italian Neorealism has personally had on me. The genre speaks to me on a visceral level. The old Italian films, born out of desperation, still hold up against the blockbusters of today. In an age where authoritarianism is making a comeback, we are witnessing a subconscious reemergence of the formerly communist left-supported Italian Neorealism movement. A genre "reboot," so-to-speak, passionately defiant of the Donald Trumps, the Boris Johnsons, the Kim Jong-Uns, the Rodrigo Dutertes, paralleling the recent wave of democratic socialism and a greater societal readiness to accept left politics.In order to contextualize the circumstances surrounding its reemergence, one must revisit the circumstances out of which Italian Neorealism was born. By drawing modern parallels to classics of the genre with recent films such as Roma, The Florida Project, Tangerine, Support the Girls, Cold War, American Honey, and Winter's Bone, the sociopolitical and stylistic similarities between Italian Neorealism's "reboot" and its cinematic predecessor succinctly emerge.In the early 1940s, the emergence of Italian cinema essentially represented the complete opposite of the glamorous dramatizations of American cinema in the form of Italian Neorealism. Italian citizens lived in fear under Benito Mussolini's oppressive, fascist regime during World War II. Italy was a stomping ground during Hitler's Third Reich. While American films became more propagated on escapism in the 1940s, Italian cinema carried the tradition of the Lumière Brothers' actualités. Italian filmmakers that emerged during the war and post-war were not profit-driven, but rather, emerged from a humanist necessity to expose the harsh truths around them. The Italian Neorealism genre lasted until the early 1950s. Since its themes were specifically related to war-torn, poverty stricken Italy and the ill-effects of an authoritarian-leaning government during WWII, the genre dissolved after the war. Italian Neorealism is regarded as the beginning of the Golden Era of Italian cinema. The film genre was inspired by the Verismo (literally translating to "realism") literary movement a generation prior in the late 1800s and early 1900s, legitimatized by Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. Capuana's manifesto, "Giacinta," is widely regarded as the fundamental structural integrity of the Neorealist movement. Other prominent voices of the Verismo movement included Federico de Roberto ("I Viceré," a novelistic "docudrama" exploring the blind pursuance of power at the expense of a just and equal society), Salvatore di Giacomo, and Grazia Deledda. Verismo would experience a literary revival during WWII, the prolific voice of which was novelist Italo Calvino ("Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno," "The Path to the Nest of Spiders," 1947). Taking after its literary predecessors, Italian Neorealism was a grassroots, guerrilla cinematic movement that sought to place its censored audiences as flies on the walls of uncompromisingly unfiltered situations that accurately reflected the unpalatable truths that its various artistic contributors observed around them. It was founded by a close band of comrades that consisted primarily of film critics, the leader of which was Luchino Visconti, a gay communist who was said to have smoked upwards of 120 cigarettes on a given day. Visconti and his posse of writers and filmmakers began expressing their malcontent with society in the publication Cinema, whose editor-in-chief was none other than Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito Mussolini.In any authoritarian regime, it is common for the government to oppress the media (Trump's repeated attacks on the media and accusations of fake news are eerily reflective of WWII fascism). After these artists were censored (reminiscent of the DoD's Philip Strub's extensive censorship in film regarding any critique about the U.S. government and its institutions in modern U.S. history), they looked to film to give their honest observations a deeper impact. In order to accomplish this unadulterated window into the jarring realities around them, Neorealist filmmakers would often hire untrained, nonprofessional actors (off the street, working in the same vocations as the characters in their script) in secondary, sometimes leading roles, make it a point to never use sets (owning the concept after their film production studio was accidentally bombed by the Allies), instead using real settings with real people to further the actualités effect, and receive funding by the Communist Party (the political left), making them a potential "threat" to American values, particularly when these these films didn't portray communism in a negative light. Visconti's most essential Neorealist film was 1948's La terra trema (The Earth Trembles). The film's sociopolitical commentary about the negative impact of aggressive consumerism on the working class fishermen in Sicilia earned it the International Award at the La Biennale di Venezia (Venice International Film Festival). La terra trema's nonprofessional cast of genuine Pescatori Siciliani (Sicilian fishermen), struggling to support their families as the wholesale fishing industry emerges, is a snapshot of unlivable wages and living conditions with an underlying theme of the importance of collective action in addressing socioeconomic ills. Visconti, like many prominent artistic figures in Neorealism, was willing to suffer in order to spread his truth to the masses, even pawning both his mother's jewelry and his home in Rome to complete funding for the remainder of the film, barely finishing the final cut in time. The fascists wouldn't let Visconti write a film about impoverished people at odds against a fascists state to begin with, but he did it anyways, they banned it, then tried to destroy the film. However, Visconti, kept a duplicate negative. It's because of his brave efforts to stand up against the violent suppression of media and press that we have this seminal piece of film history safely archived. 

American Honey and La terra trema 

Both Andrea Arnold's American Honey and La terra trema address what can occur when an abandoned part of society is ignored, largely due to the fact that they either refuse to subscribe to or can't viably keep up with the competition that a rapidly changing economy surrounding them demands in each respective time period. The impoverished children find a home as traveling magazine salespeople, not working for anyone but themselves. One gets the notion that they don't have the economic means to obtain a job that would require a more "traditional life." Similarly, the Sicilian fishing community, as much of a family as the group of abandoned young salespeople, are pit against each other by a new form of competition as capitalism infiltrates their lives; both films are reflective of a societal shift in each, respective time period. Much like La terra trema, American Honey features a non-actor, in this case, Sasha Lane (now a prolific film presence with an abundance of natural acting talent), in a leading role. Many historians, film critics, and filmmakers alike consider Visconti's 1943 film, Ossessione (Obsession), the first film adaption of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice to be the first Neorealism film. However, I consider Roberto Rossellini's Roma città aperta (Rome Open City) to be the first fully-realized vision of the genre. Rossellini is endearingly regarded as the father of Italian cinema. His film won the Cannes' Grand Prize, and his mentee, Federico Fellini, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 19th Academy Awards; Roma città aperta introduced Italian Neorealism to world. It wasn't what audiences were used to seeing in Hollywood: visceral scenes of torture, perverse abuse of authority, shocking violence, and an uncompromising execution scene to underscore the brutality of Nazi-occupied Rome. In Roma città aperta, Nazi-occupied Rome is countered by the communist-led partigiani (partisans, the hardcore anti-fascist resistance), but the SS uses a Catholic priest and partigiano's faith to attempt to turn the resistance against each other. Martin Scorsese refers to it as "the most precious moment in film history." 

Cold War and Roma città aperta 

Both films actively reject the artistic Socialist realism that dominated the Soviet Union for half a century. Socialist realism is a form of propagandistic art passed as realism that lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall, prevalent in the Soviet Union and beyond after World War II. Socialist realism is characterized by the idealized portrayal of communist values in artistic expression, particularly the working class commons as willful heroes for the cause. Instead, these depict them as political prisoners, punished for fighting for the cause. It's a reminder that doing the right thing in the midst of oppression doesn't always mean following the direction of the complicit populace. As in Roma città aperta, Pawe? Pawlikowski's Cold War doesn't shy away from depicting a time period's positive and negative aspects through honest observation, similarly ending on a somber note. Taking advantage of his newfound acclaim, Rossellini followed Roma città aperta with Paisà (Paisan) in 1946, for which he and Fellini were nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards. Rossellini and Fellini's "Maestro e' Studente" relationship flourished during these two collaborations. Paisà features a series of six vignettes covering the Allied invasion of Italy, spanning July 1943 in Sicilia to winter 1944 in Venezia, geographically covering most of Italy. In the fourth vignette, there's a leader of the partigiani named Lupo, partly whom I named my dog after. Paisà shows the unflattering side of the American military mindset. Rossellini wasn't trying to be ungrateful for Americans trying to fight the Nazis, but rather, he was merely exposing what he saw, the behavior, and the amoral recklessness war can devolve into. 

Roma and Paisà 

El Halconazo, or The Corpus Christi Massacre, is featured in true Verismo fashion in Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. Similarly, Paisà features a scene in Episode 6 where two partigiani are executed instead of being taken in as POWs, as they are not protected under the Geneva Convention due to their rogue status, despite working with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Both films analyze the absurdity of not being accepted in one's own country for standing against oppression. Roma stars non-actor Yalitza Aparicio, who went from preschool teacher to Oscar nominee in less than a year. In Stromboli, terra Dio, released in 1950, a Lithuanian immigrant (Ingrid Bergman) is freed from an Italian internment camp by marrying an Italian ex-POW and fisherman (another display of working class characters), only to enter an abusive relationship within a community that ostracizes her. Although featuring a decidedly more famous actor to play his lead (rumors of extramarital affairs aside), Rossellini uses both documentary clips and actual footage of the town evacuating during the island of Stromboli's volcanic eruption, accentuating the film's climax. It marked his final purely Neorealist directorial effort. 

Tangerine and Stromboli, terra Dio 

In Stromboli, Bergman's Karin escapes an abusive marriage, with the volcanic eruption symbolizing both the courage and release of emotion that her decision begets. Tangerine's plot is not dissimilar in that the main character Sin-Dee Rella (untrained actor Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), endures an abusive pimp/boyfriend relationship. Written, edited, and directed by Sean Baker on three iPhone 5s phones, featuring non actors, it is one of the most stylistically married films to the Italian Neorealism movement. The film was lauded for its accurate depiction of the unsettling epidemic of transphobia throughout the U.S. Sciuscià (Shoeshine), released in 1946, is a simple film about the messy, anarchic, merciless nature of reality and circumstance. Receiving an Honorary Academy Award, an early iteration of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the Academy Awards, it depicts a group of impoverished young, male shoeshiners that is forced into crime to make ends meet. It offered the world a preview of Vittorio De Sica's singular eye for portraying working class realism. 

Support the Girls and Sciuscià 

Two slices of life. One about children struggling to navigate the social stratosphere of an economically wounded Italy. The other about the everyday trials and tribulations of working class woman struggling to stay afloat, dealing with abuse and ignorance amidst an economy that has systematically reduced itself to transactional interactions within the service industry. One about young boys. The other about grown women. Both about societies detached from the citizens who appear to need their support the most. Directed by Andrew Bujalski, Support the Girls is an exposé that provides an uncompromising glance into an oppressive workplace in which its abused employees don't have basic union rights. De Sica and Bujalski are interested in displaying the lengths people will go to in order to break free of the confines of corrupt capitalism. Perhaps the most famous Italian Neorealist film is De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), also released in 1948. The film received the Honorary Academy Award at the 22nd Academy Awards. Cesare Zavattini narrowly missed winning the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay, and won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. Ranked 95 on IMDb's list of the 250 best films of all time, Ladri di biciclette tells the story of a bicycle delivery man and his son on a quest to find his stolen bicycle. The simplistic story explored complex issues of classism and the uneven distribution of wealth between the upper and working class in the post-WWII era. Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola as the father and relinquish, arguably, the most memorable performances of the Neorealist movement. 

Winter’s Bone and Ladri di biciclette 

Jennifer Lawrence, an untrained actor at the time of her casting in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, portrays Ree, a 17-year-old girl and the matriarch of her family, rounded out by her mentally ill mother, and significantly younger siblings whom she raises, all while attempting to financially make ends meet against the shady, remote backdrop of the meth-stricken, poverty-ridden, crime-riddled Ozarks. In order to survive, Ree will endure anything to prove her father's death so as to avoid forfeiting her house to pay for his bail bond. No matter how grizzly circumstances get, she tries her hardest to maintain her siblings' dwindling innocence. Similarly, the father in Ladri di biciclette needs his bike, his only means of obtaining a steady income, to provide for his family, all while attempting to preserve a façade of normalcy for his child. Giuseppe de Santis, one of Visconti's former Cinema comrades who had graduated to directing since lending a helping hand in adapting Cain's novel for his mentor's Ossessione, crafted one of the final Italian Neorealist films with Roma, ore 11 (Rome 11:00) in 1952, shedding light on the lack of public programs, jobs for women, and the social unrest of the working class in post-war Italy. 

The Florida Project and Roma, ore 11 

Both films are about the decay of a society at a specific time during its reincarnating life cycle. Unemployment, the elusiveness of the American Dream, the lack of social programs for the underprivileged, society's willingness to turn a blind eye on its own; they are capitalism "beginning" and "ending" stories. One is a warning. The other is a reflection of the damage already inflicted after said warning. Also directed by Sean Baker, The Florida Project stars non-actor Bria Vinaite in a leading role. The parallels through some of the aforementioned socially conscious modern examples, which observe the chaotic, contentious, divisive state in which our society has been suffocating over the past two decades since 9/11, may seem obvious. The commonality throughout the Neorealism films and their reboots is that they both center on the struggling proletariat. Many films in the industry are still funded by what Trump and the GOP like to call the "Hollywood Left," (this traces back to a clash between extremist evangelicals and the successful Jewish entrepreneurs who ran most of the major films studios in the 1920s; it was a battle of which religion could "transmit" their "ideals" to the masses through a new medium, a mode of thinking that mostly the evangelical leaders partook in – the evangelicals "won" by obtaining the monopoly on film censorship via the MPAA and beyond) which might as well be code for the DNC (which doesn't indeed provide any funding for the arts) in their minds. In reality, he thinks every major studio, by default, is liberal. If the Hollywood of today were truly "apples to apples," if you will, in comparison to Italian Neorealism during WWII and post-war Italy, then the films in theaters that the American people frequent would be funded predominantly by a Democratic Socialist Party or another left political entity/entities. In reality, Trump simply detests any film that aims to critique him or his base (his backlash on The Hunt being a prime example). In the 1990s, the French New Wave cinematic movement echoed that of Italian Neorealism's, stylistically and thematically, as well as that of the American independent filmmaking movement, revived in the 1990s by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, and continued by Jim Jarmusch (who flirted with Neorealism in Down by Law in 1986). Through their narrative structure and marked pacing, Linklater's Slacker and the Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), Smith's Clerks and Mallrats, and Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai are important additions to the first American revival of, for lack of a better term, in the context of the "reboot" today, faux-Italian Neorealism. However, it is important to note that the sociopolitical landscape out of which this Americanized version of Neorealism was built was considerably different than that of Italian Neorealism's.. Italian Neorealism was far more politically motivated, whereas Linklater and Smith's work, especially, highlighted the vapid, existential dread that characterized 1990s America suburbia. Italian Neorealism was based upon a mindset of political and class awareness. Contrarily, the American Neorealist iterations over the past 30 years carry a collective mindset of introspection and a more selfish focus on personal fulfillment; that is until the past decade following heightened global socioeconomic turmoil. Italian filmmakers had to battle poverty, censorship, and an authoritarian regime, fueling the liberal communist support shared by Italian filmmakers over the next several decades. American filmmakers in the 1990s had the luxury of living among the suburban middle-class in a society obsessed with consumerism, where they had the privilege to choose their own subject. It is also important that these movements did not use non-professional actors in majors rolls, if any, because of the need for ROI in the age of consumerism (something that didn't exist under Italian Neorealism's conditions), and did use formal film sets. It has to take a specific set of circumstances for a genre like this to have to be born again. And although it could never identically be replicated throughout its recurring historical reiterations, it has never so distinctly returned so thematically and stylistically close to its genre roots than in the past decade. And despite its short-lived presence in film history, because of the fact that real-life history is doomed to repeat itself, it remains the single most influential film genre in the history of cinema. After 9/11, the brief, American faux-Neorealist revitalization in the 1990s eroded. That inward expression appeared obsolete in the context of such a drastic change across our country and its values. However, during the past decade, the Italian Neorealism movement has resurfaced again on an international stage, this time more authentically and true to form. The examples set forth in the beginning of this piece not only embrace the thematic elements of the Italian Neorealism movement, but they begin to use some of the technical characteristics of the genre as well such as non-professional actors, minimal to non-existent sets, and the very fact that they were born out of a desperation to observe and express themselves in order to incite change. A necessary, positive change in the face of direness. For many filmmakers like Cuarón, this direness seems more severe than others. If providing nothing else but new unadulterated windows into the ill affects of a new oppressive government taking after those of old, these latest films express a plea for compassion in a time where commodity takes precedence over compassion. Indeed, we are presently seeing the genre "rebooted" with shades of the genre traits of old, but also with new characteristics to reflect the particular circumstances in which our society currently finds itself. The new wave of leftism in the form of democratic socialism undoubtedly parallels the subject matter explored throughout this impassioned "reboot." Sure, these filmmakers align with the liberal left, and although they may not be leftists, per se, the themes and issues they choose to cover range from democratic socialist to Marxist-Leninist. Other, less politically-immediate but wholly stylistically connected films tied to the "reboot" include The Lighthouse, Paterson, The Rider, Eighth Grade, Sword of Trust, Moonlight, and If Beale Street Could Talk (although it could be argued that the latter two deserve to be more fully embraced as Neorealism "reboot" role models). Even for people on the right side of the political spectrum who don't buy that Trump aspires to be a dictator, any logical human being can connect the glaring dots of similarities between the conditions we are seeing today in the supposed "land of the free" in 2019 and those of Nazi- occupied fascist Italy during WWII: Mexican human beings in concentration camps, inhumane border patrol, the increasing presence of a militant police state willfully ignorant toward minorities and regard for law, foreign government collusion, overt racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of human prejudice, election fraud, deep state censorship and political and artistic suppression, systematic oppression of the freedom of press, the rising threat of war, the imminent eventuality of climate change. It appears that the sociopolitical context of today has fundamentally changed, leaving little room for Linklater, Smith, and Jarmusch's classic, acclaimed, but now-untimely obsolete meditations of existential middle-class banality and the miasma of mumblecore films that they inspired. Boredom has turned into a palpable social unrest. A call to action. And we can expect more from this immortal cinematic style until structural societal changes are put into place.