The label Neorealism describes primarily movies and works of fiction produced in Italy between 1945 and 1955. It was originally used by critics in Italy in the 1930s in reference to literary works that approached everyday reality with renewed artistic energy. This label often included works of fiction that exposed the hardship of the everyday life of the lower classes, especially in the South, while conversely fascism was presenting a very rosy picture of Italian society. It must be noted that there was no official Neorealist manifesto, and no single writer or director ever started writing a novel or shooting a movie with the idea of producing a Neorealist work according to a codified set of rules. As such, Neorealism cannot be strictly considered a traditional artistic movement. Over the years, in fact, there has been a lot of discussion regarding which novels and movies should be considered Neorealist. When the term became more widely used in the mid-1940s, critics tended to include under the large umbrella of Neorealism works that shared common formal and thematic solutions. Prevalent among these were works that focused on events that brought the fall of fascism with the participation of large portions of the population. In the immediate aftermath of the war, these works also showed a strong political commitment, particularly toward the actions of the partigiani. In the following years, as the focus switched to Italy’s economic reconstruction, movies and novels showed more of a form of social support for the lower classes during hard times of poverty and unemployment. Since the presence of the lower classes was so prominent, filmmakers and writers also had to adjust the language used in their works. They abandoned the pompous, highly formal Italian inherited from the literary tradition of the XVII and XVIII centuries as well as the stiff and homogenized Italian imposed by the Fascist regime. Neorealism promoted instead a more colloquial form of language which often would be “tainted” by local dialects and accents. This represented the beginning of a radical transformation because it changed the way in which culture, and literature in particular, was perceived by the masses. An art form that for centuries had been out of reach for the lower classes was finally available because it was speaking their language.
It is evident, then, that the eruption of Neorealism was due to a specific historical and political moment that brought together intellectuals coming from diverse socio-economic experiences and with different styles. While the stimulating external factor of Neorealism is the end of World War II, it is interesting to notice that such an artistic outburst did not happen casually. The birth of Neorealism in cinema was possible because the infrastructures necessary for the renaissance of this medium had already been in place since the early 1930s. In fact, Mussolini believed in cinema as an effective tool of propaganda for his regime. In 1925 the Fascist government founded LUCE (L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa) whose main goal was to promote and distribute educational films for the masses. Most of the movies produced by LUCE were screened in movie theaters in-between shows in the format of newsreel or documentary. The LUCE shows became a vehicle for propaganda at a time when there was no television and cinema was acquiring the status of the most popular form of entertainment. During the early years of Fascism, the film industry was also encouraged through State financial aid for its projects of up to 100% funding. To help promote film production, the Fascist government also developed in 1937 the Cinecittà studios, founded the film school in Rome (Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, 1934), and established the Venice Film Festival (1932). It is quite remarkable that most of these infrastructures are still operational today. All this helped prepare a young generation of film directors who, soon after the fall of the dictatorship, became the frontrunners of Neorealism with movies like Roma città aperta [Rome, Open City, 1945] and Paisa’ [Paisan, 1945] by Roberto Rossellini, Sciuscia’ [Shoeshine, 1946] and Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves, 1948] by Vittorio de Sica, Ossessione [Obsession, 1942] and La Terra trema [The Earth Trembles, 1948] by Luchino Visconti, and Riso Amaro [Bitter Rice, 1949] by Giuseppe De Santis.
The origin of Neorealist literature, instead, can be traced back to the 1930s, when the term “neorealism” was loosely employed to indicate some new form of realism as a reaction to prevailing artistic movements, particularly Futurism, Expressionism, and Hermeticism. Ultimately, we can say that behind the literary birth of Neorealism there were at least two strong motivations: the artistic need for renovation and the political reaction to autarchic cultural imposition from Fascism. During that period, while the Fascist government was enacting extremely severe laws restricting civil liberties, many writers were searching to denounce the situation in Italy with stories that would depict the harsh living conditions of many Italians, especially in some remote areas of the South like Calabria and Sicily. At the same time, writers were expressing the strong desire to break away from literary movements like naturalism and verismo that had dominated literature since the late eighteenth century and to distance themselves from the kind of elegant and artificial prose (prosa d’arte, a short prose exhibiting the most refined use of the language) that developed in Italy in the 1920s. Two writers in particular, Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini, considered the fathers of Neorealism, felt that literature should not be a passive recording of reality but rather should try to create, through specific stylistic choices, a new sense of reality. They rejected the notion that realism meant a faithful transcription of reality in favor of a transposition in which there is always a personal form of creation and discovery. This would provide a new sense of reality that contained its essence but that also presented a sort of transfiguration of reality. Such an attitude would stimulate the individual not only to better understand reality, but also to question his or her own self within it. This is the reason why some of the protagonists of Neorealist novels suffer from a sort of existential crisis. See, for example, the leader of the partisans in Calvino’s Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno [The Path to the Spider’s Nest], Enne 2 in Elio Vittorini’s Uomini e no [Men and Not men] or Corrado in Cesare Pavese’s La casa in collina [The House on the Hill].
What many of these writers had in common was also a sort of cultural, rather than ideological, opposition to fascism. For many intellectuals at that time the rejection of fascism meant opposing the rhetoric of fascism through a literary community. While Mussolini tried to unify the country behind the glory of the Roman Empire, associating his regime with the core of the rural values that were still prevalent all over Italy, many writers were looking to the literary community of other countries, especially England and the United States. In this sense there is no doubt that the influence of American literature on Italian writers is fundamental. Writers like Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese admired the literary qualities of American fiction (particularly the presence of a style suitable to transpose everyday reality into fiction, such as the immediacy found in most of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogues). They also believed that American fiction expressed a fresh new look at life when it paid attention to the changes that modernity was bringing to American cities. Their involvement with American Literature was so strong that they not only wrote essays on American authors like Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Earnest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, et al., but they also made a living by translating authors like William Faulkner, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and others. Vittorini went so far as to publish right in the middle of World War II an anthology of writings he translated from American authors called Americana (1941), which was promptly censured by the Fascist authorities. Politically speaking, the contradictions present in American society at that time went almost ignored in favor of what the Italians saw as an energy totally absent in Italian society. There is no question that Italian intellectuals developed a view of America that at times might seem naive. Nevertheless, it shows how these writers were ready to conceive a literature that was able to break with the past and imagine a political context in which the dignity of the human condition was fundamentally respected.
The fascination of Italian writers for American authors is also a reflection of the fact that in the 1930s the Italian tradition of the novel had not reached the same level of development that it had in other European countries. This is due to multiple factors, among which the presence of a strong poetic tradition that dated back to the thirteenth century. The dominance of poetry over prose prevailed even in the eighteenth century when the modern novel was born in countries like England and France. This phenomenon had clear socio-economic reasons. On one the hand, the middle class that in countries like England had provided the core of the genesis of the English novel was totally absent in Italy, a country that had remained primarily based on agriculture and where the absence of an urban bourgeoisie allowed literature to maintain an elitist and aristocratic penchant for poetry. Even after the unification of the country (1871), Italy did not develop a form of written popular culture that could promote the spread of literary texts more accessible to the masses than poetry. This was also due to the high number of illiterates present all over the country (in 1871, at the time of unification, 62% of males and 75% of females were still illiterate). The socio-political environment was not conducive to the development of the novel (which traditionally relied on a simpler language than poetry and a plot more available to the masses). In the late 1920s and early 1930s a greater number of writers seemed interested in experimenting with the structure of the novel. Generally speaking, most of these younger authors tried to work with shorter forms like the novella or the short story. Good examples of these early attempts in prose are Elio Vittorini’s Piccola borghesia [Petite Bourgeoisie, 1931], Alessandro Bonsanti’s La serva amorosa [The Amorous Maid 1929] and I capricci di Adriana [Adriana’s Whims, 1931], Corrado Alvaro’s L’amata alla finestra [The Loved One at the Window, 1929] and La signora dell’isola [The Lady of the Island, 1930], and Romano Bilenchi’s Anna e Bruno e altri racconti [Anna and Bruno and Other Stories, 1938]. Many of these writers were collaborating with Solaria (1926-1936), a literary magazine that promoted European literature and wanted to break away from the narrow views of culture that Fascism was trying to impose. The so-called solariani wanted to distance themselves from any form of literature they considered stale because of its being dominated by pompous language and old nineteenth-century narrative structures. Although less politically oriented, there were other literary magazines that fought a battle in favor of the reevaluation of prose over poetry. A case in point is the literary magazine 900 (1926-1929) that paid particular attention to the changing relationship between the intellectual and the masses, an issue that after 1945 would become central to the development of Neorealism when reading became an activity more widely spread among the masses. It is in this renovated cultural milieu full of excitement for new artistic possibilities that the cinema and literature of Neorealism spread so quickly within a few months of the end of the war.
Although both cinema and literature shared literary models with verismo, Neorealism abandoned completely the fatalist approach that a verista writer like Giovanni Verga had toward his characters. Gone also is the moralistic representation of reality, in part because these stories are told through the eyes of their characters and not through the paternalistic view of an omniscient narrator. Italo Calvino, in his first novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947), chose to expose the events of a group of partisans through the eyes of a young boy named Pin. Without any preconceived notion of good and evil, the young protagonist engages indifferently with German soldiers and partisans, with common criminals and intellectuals. The result is a very fresh look at reality without any ideologically predetermined notion of right or wrong. Calvino was expressly trying to avoid what many critics saw as a flaw of Neorealism: propagandistic literature. In a preface added to the 1964 edition, Calvino provides a much-needed clarification of the ideological background of much of Neorealist literature. Some Neorealist fiction shows the presence of a positive hero ultimately educating the masses on the anti-fascist principles during World War II. Calvino explicitly attacks this kind of literature and asserts the notion that art can never be a vehicle to impose a specific ideology.
In an effort to provide a realistic background, many Neorealist novels emphasized regional and local landscapes. While cinema privileged the urban landscape (Rome, in particular), fiction focused on different rural areas of the central-northern part of Italy. Calvino set Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno in the mountains of Liguria (the area where he himself operated as a partisan), Renata Vigano set her novel L’agnese va a morire [Agnese Goes to her Death, 1949] in the area south of the Po delta, Beppe Fenoglio made the area south of Turin (the so-called Langhe) the location for the action of Il partigiano Johnny [Johnny the Partisan, 1968], and Elio Vittorini made the urban environment of Milan the location of his Uomini e no . In all these novels (as well as in movies like Paisa’ or Rome, Open City), the environment is strictly connected to the struggle and way of thinking of the people. Further examples of this kind of regional setting are Spaccanapoli [The Spaccanapoli Quarter, 1947] by Domenico Rea and Le terre del sacramento [The Estate in Abruzzo, 1950] by Francesco Jovine.
Again, it is very difficult to compile a comprehensive and satisfactory list of Neorealist works. Any list must be taken cautiously. Most of the critics agree that a work like Uomini e no (1945) by Elio Vittorini (the very first novel published after World War II and based on the author’s experience during the partisan’s war in Milan) can be at the top of the list. Similar real life experiences are shared by Beppe Fenoglio in I 23 giorni della città di Alba [The Twenty-three Days of the City of Alba, 1952], La malora [Ruin, 1954], and Primavera di bellezza [Spring of Beauty, 1959], as well as by Italo Calvino in I sentieri dei nidi di ragno and in his collection of short stories Ultimo viene il corvo [The Crow Comes Last, 1949]. Both Fenoglio and Calvino actively participated as partisans in the liberation of Italy. A more intellectual approach to the war and Fascism can be found in Cesare Pavese’s Il compagno [The Comrade, 1947] and La casa in collina (1948). In Pavese the war often serves as the background for the protagonist’s existential struggle. A more general description of Italian life at the end of the war can be found in Vasco Pratolini’s Il quartiere [The Naked Streets, 1945], Cronaca famigliare [Family Chronicle, 1947], and Cronaca di poveri amanti [A Tale of Two Poor Lovers, 1947], Francesco Jovine’s Le terre del Sacramento (1950), Armando Rea’s Spaccanapoli (1947), and Carlo Cassola’s collection of short stories Il taglio del bosco [Timber Cutting, 1949]. Although many Neorealist novels were written in the first person, the function of the protagonist is to present, observe, and reflect upon what’s happening to him/her with particular attention to the community to which the protagonist belongs. What is prevalent is a sense of choral participation of the community where the “I” of the protagonist is like the eye of the camera that records reality. These novels are crowded with many characters who are only briefly introduced and are presented because of either a peculiarity of their personality or their social status. This multitude of characters thus serves to represent variety within the human condition.
Besides the above-mentioned novels, all written by professional authors, we should remember a number of additional works, primary first-hand experiences from non-trained writers whose goal was mainly to provide their own perspective of the events that characterized Fascism and its demise. Il sergente nella neve [The Sergeant in the Snow, 1953] is an autobiographical novel written by Mario Rigoni Stern in which the author tells of his personal experience as a sergeant in the Italian army during the withdrawal from the Russian front in January of 1943. Primo Levi, a chemist by profession, recounts his deportation to Germany and his devastating experience inside a lager at Auschwitz for many years in Se questo è un uomo [Survival at Auschwitz, 1947]. His second book, La Tregua [The Truce, 1963], is a sort of continuation of his first novel because it describes the long journey back to Italy from Auschwitz. Carlo Levi wrote Cristo si è fermato a Eboli [Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1945], a hybrid between fiction and diary, that describes the personal experience of an intellectual from Northern Italy who is sent by the Fascists into political exile in a remote village of the South. It is a book with many of the characteristics of Neorealism (anti-fascism, autobiographical and documentarist style, etc.) that presents a mixture of genres (political essay, travel narrative, and anthropological analysis of the people of the South).
If the socio-political context was the catalyst for the beginning of Neorealism, it was also the reason for which it disappeared. There was no real dismantling or collapsing of Neorealism’s poetics, as we usually associate with any artistic movement. Neorealism simply slowly faded away when those very same conditions that made it possible changed. The euphoric political climate that was built around the Fronte Popolare, a coalition of center-left wing parties in 1947, was followed by a great sense of disappointment in many intellectuals when the coalition collapsed in 1948. The international political pressure that followed the implementation of the Marshall Plan derailed any idealistic projection of a government that would include all the forces that defeated Fascism. This opened the door to the country’s Cold War that brought to Italian culture a deep crisis of the relationship between politics and its intellectuals. At the end of World War II many intellectuals had joined the Communist Party, not necessarily as a form of ideological support of Marxism, but rather because these intellectuals shared a view of the world with a party that more than others represented a real cultural opposition to Fascism and offered future possibilities after World War II.
Notwithstanding the rapid disappearance of Neorealism after 1955, all the works that appeared in those ten years had a radical influence on the literature and cinema of the following years. Although, generally speaking, critics have not been very generous with Neorealism, either because some did not consider it political enough (as in the case of Vittorini’s Uomini e no) or because it was too much of a departure from traditional high standard literature, Neorealism revealed the incredible energy from parts of Italy that had been neglected by politicians and forgotten by writers for many years. With the “discovery” of the provinces came also the discovery of social classes rarely present in art. In cinema, the legacy of Neorealism was very strong because it had an incredible influence on European cinema (such as the French New Wave and the British Free Cinema) and beyond. In Italy Neorealism was the cradle for directors like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni and subsequently for another generation of filmmakers like Giuseppe Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Marco Bellocchio. The long-lasting innovation of Neorealism is proven by the fact that every once in a while when there is a director that tackles the problems of contemporary Italy, exposing, for example, the harsh reality of immigration, organized crime or drug smuggling in urban areas, the label Neo-neorealism emerges.
In literature the situation is much more complex because the many different styles presented during Neorealism continued after its demise. There is only one movement that explicitly broke away from Neorealism by signalling a cultural transition from traditional society to modernity. It is the so-called Gruppo ’63, a group of avant-garde writers that strongly rejected any attempt to imitate reality. The Gruppo ’63 was soon perceived as dead, however, as it was swallowed by the political activities that emerged in the spring of 1968. Since that time, the different individual interests of writers have prevailed over the dominance of a particular movement, offering a panorama of narratives that are as varied as they are difficult to define within a specific genre or trend.
Today’s production, in cinema as well as in literature, is challenged by a multifaceted and ever changing reality. Younger Italian filmmakers and writers, including an unprecedented number of women, are directing their attention to these changes. Many movies and novels reflecting upon the contemporary world still employ some of the features introduced by Neorealism while preserving their own individual style.
Citation: Mazzola, Claudio. "Italian Neorealism". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 March 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19591, accessed 27 October 2021.]