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Italian Neorealism

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Italian Neorealism is a famous cinema movement that began in this country in the middle of the twentieth century. To be more precise, the first film that is attributed to neorealism (Visconti’s Ossessione) dates back to 1942 (Verburg 2). Italian Neorealism lasted about 30 years and finished approximately in 1970. The discussed cinema movement emerged in contrast to the reign of Benito Mussolini with the purpose to oppose his dictatorship and fascistic ideology (Verburg 2). The flourishing of Italian Neorealism takes place in the post Second World War period. Specifically, “Italian filmmakers in the immediate postwar period created their own cinematic language to capture the hardships of everyday life in a shattered nation” (Iannone 2014). To increase the knowledge about Italian Neorealism it is appropriate to discuss the following films: Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D (1952), and Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945).

Purpose of the Study

This research paper aims to detect and discuss the key features of Italian Neorealism by observing and linking political, economic, social and moral aspects of corresponding historical period to the cinematographic movement in question. In particular, the study will observe the approaches that were used by such famous filmmakers as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. Moreover, it is important to identify the characteristics of the films The Bicycle Thief (1948), Umberto D (1952) and Open City (1945) apart from other cinematographic masterpieces of neorealism. In other words, the purpose of this survey is to detect in what ways these movies fit into the discussed category and in what ways they are opposite to this movement.

Italian Neorealism as a Part of the New Philosophy

The main goal of neorealism was to highlight the real economic and social situation of the postwar Italians covering such issues such as poverty and unemployment. The fact is that these problems were under the censorship of Mussolini’s dictatorship; therefore, when he died (1944), Italian mass media and, in particular, film industry, were free to depict the truth regarding people’s lives. It is necessary to emphasize that neorealism became much more than a cinema movement. Cultural, social, moral and political philosophy of the postwar Italians was revealed and captured in time by a set of films that were united under the same denominator. Italian Neorealism is characterized with the increased sensitivity. In other words, the filmmakers made pathos appeals addressed to the emotions of their audience. This is the core feature of this cinema movement.

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Besides, given that neorealism strived to oppose Mussolini’s ideology, the political context of this movement was centered on socialist/Marxist concepts. Thus, in social aspect, this movement was meant to address the complex issues that were deteriorated with political oppression of common people. Thereafter, in terms of scenery, Italian Neorealism is characterized with the prevailing outdoor scenes (Verburg 3). In addition, for this period, it was typical to involve non-professional actors, which together with the truthfulness of the depicted socio-political conditions and external scenery, implied the new realism of Italy after World War the Second.

That is why, neorealist filmmakers endeavored to depict the stories that were relevant for that time. In other words, the time of the revealed events coincided with the current time of the audience (Fabe 100). Besides, keeping in mind the purpose of Italian Neorealism, to highlight the complex social issues, neorealist movie directors “focused on the lives of the lower rather than the upper classes” (Fabe 100). In particular, they addressed the problems of poverty and unemployment through concentrating “on workers, not professionals; on the poor, not the rich; on the ordinary man, not the superhero”(Fabe 100). What is more, the discussed cinematographic movement presumes that the conflicts of the main heroes stem from their social environment. Even the internal issues are stipulated with the unsafe and unhealthy social environment (Fabe 100). The next sections aim at illustrating the above-described peculiarities through the concrete examples from the identified neorealist films.

Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952)

In this film, De Sica highlights the issue of poverty that was especially topical in the postwar period. This economic and social problem is depicted though the life of a poor retired man, Umberto Ferrari, who struggles and fails to survive with his dog on his small government pension. Filmmaker makes an obvious pathos appeal revealing the great sensitivity towards the unmet basic needs of the protagonist. Undoubtedly, this assumption implies the reproach of the political system that does not function correctly and, thus, fails to protect its citizens.

As it is seen, Umberto D reveals the life of a lower class representative, who is a common man: not a hero, without supernatural physical or mental strength. For instance, comprehending the helpfulness of his situation, he decides to kill himself. Nevertheless, acknowledging the responsibility for his dog, he believes that it is correct to kill the pet as well. This peculiarity refers to the above-discussed characteristics of neorealism when a person’s conflict(s) stems not from his/her inner world, but from the external circumstances. It goes without saying that pathos appeal is quite strong in this case because it draws viewers’ attention towards important social problems emphasizing that people are the victims of the incorrect order in their state.

Identifying what feature(s) of this film sets it apart from other movies one should point to the man’s struggle to survive. In particular, despite the fact that Vittorio De Sica does not picture his protagonist as a hero, the film director makes an implicit assumption that Umberto is actually a hero. For instance, he struggles to resolve financial problems by trying to sell his personal stuff. Besides, he supports the demonstrations that are caused with the need of increasing pensions. Therefore, even being the victim of circumstances, the protagonist is depicted as a hero.

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945)

Open City “is a tense drama of partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation” (Fabe 101). The open city that is depicted in this film is Rome. Roberto Rossellini displays the uneasy life of the common city dwellers, in particular, the life of a pregnant woman, who struggles to survive and improve her life in spite of the hardships that her environment contains. Identifying the features that can help attribute this film to Italian Neorealism, it is appropriate to state that it displays political, economic, and social issues that the Italians were doomed to face because of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

Besides, at the individual level, there is a significant moral concern that depicts the life-choices of common, poor people. For instance, a pregnant woman, Pina, and her atheist husband-to-be are supposed to be married in a church. Moreover, this film is characterized with the realism of scenery, which is done by Rossellini purposefully to create the notion of real time events as they are presented by mass media (Fabe 101). The events take place outdoors; this peculiarity also coincides with the main principles of Italian Neorealism.

Detecting the particularity that is untypical for this cinematographic movement, it is possible to claim that Open City contains a lot of the indoor scenes. It is known that “the interiors were shot on constructed sets created in an abandoned warehouse” (Fabe 102). Apart from that, one can rightfully conclude that this film sets the standards of neorealism. In particular, the further movies applied to the same low-budget look and non-professional actors’ play even if it was possible to invest more money because this kind of picturing the events was realistic. Besides, it is highly saturated with pathos appeals. Later on, the described approach turned into a trademark of Italian Neorealism.

Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948)

This film is special because of conveying strong political and social notion. Specifically, as was identified above, Italian Neorealism was founded to oppose Mussolini’s reign by referring to Marxists theories. Keeping this idea in mind, one should accentuate that Vittorio De Sica made the assumption about the benevolence of the communist ideology (Verburg 3). For instance, robbers steal the bicycle of Antonio Ricci (the protagonist); together with his son he strives to get it back because bicycle is necessary for work. Nevertheless, having no trail of a thief, they do not have other options rather than to steal it back. This situation reveals the main idea that “in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive” (Verburg 3). The Bicycle Thiefis identified as the movie that complies with the principles of neorealism most closely through displaying economic decadence in postwar Italy that results in a great unemployment and poverty (Fabe 103). Therefore, it is difficult to detect if it has any features that conflict with this cinematographic movement.


Summing up the above-mentioned, one should accentuate that Italian Neorealism is the political, social, and cultural movement that started as the resistance towards Mussolini’s reign. It lasted about 30 years (from the 40th till 70th of the last century). In cinematography, it was represented with a number of films that were aimed to address the issues of poverty and unemployment. To succeed in achieving this goal the filmmakers applied the performance of non-professional actors. In addition, most scenes were shot outdoors. The main heroes of neorealist movies were common people, typically, the poor, who suffered from their hostile environment that did not welcome poverty, which it created. The above-mentioned conclusions were drawn from observing the famous neorealist movies: Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D (1952), and Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945).

Annotated Bibliography

Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film  Technique. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

The credentials of the author (she is PhD, who specializes in silent films) make her book a valuable source that contains thorough discussions of the movies of the 20th century. In particular, the sixth chapter, which was used as a reference, deals with the neorealist Italian films. Marilyn Fabe links the works of neorealist filmmakers with the realities in which they lived and worked. As a result, this book provides important insights regarding political, economic, social, cultural and moral aspects of Italian Neorealism. Besides, in the narrower view, it discusses the impact of this movement on that time cinematography revealing the typical and untypical features of neorealist films.

Iannone, Pasquale. The Roots of Neorealism, 2014. Web. 3 Sep. 2015.

This article was taken from the official site of the International Film Magazine Sight&Sound. Therefore, it can be considered as a credible source that contains recent and valid information about the nature of Italian Neorealism. It can be used to describe the core features of this movement.

Verburg, Larry. Italian Neo-Realism and The Bicycle Thief, 1988. Web. 3 Sep. 2015.

In this article, the author explains the principles and distinctive features of Italian Neorealism by thoroughly discussing the film The Bicycle Thief. Specifically, Verburg discusses the impact of this movie on audience, as well as the peculiarities of its directing and techniques. That is why this article is considered to be a valuable source that can be used to detect practical manifestations of the neorealist purposes and foundations.

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