Italian Neo-realism can be described as an intellectual, and predominantly cinematic milieu of the Italian Resistance, officially originating shortly after World War II with Roberto Rossellini’s brilliant film, Rome, Open City (1945). Neo-realism, although a very brief cinematic movement (ending in 1952), was a supremely important creative response to the violence of Fascism, and an influence on both other modes of cinema (French New Wave and New German Cinema) and within contemporary culture. Much critical debate has emerged following the neo-realist movement, documenting the changing modes of perception generated by the images of these films, and creating new potentials for the neo-realist image. Two of the most important critics were Andre Bazin and Gilles Deleuze. According to Bazin the neo-realist “fact image” is rather more stone-like than brick-like, arguing that this kind of shot awakens a more complex mode of perception of reality than shots with a ready-made shape. Deleuze reformulates Bazin’s idea by showing that the novelty of the neo-realist image is in its ability to create op and son signs, relating centrally to our mental processes. In this analysis I will be elaborating on both the idea of the “fact image” and the creation of op and son signs, strictly focusing on Roberto Rossellini’s films Paisa (1946) and Germania Anno Zero (1948) and briefly exploring Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) to demonstrate some examples of these ideas.
Neo-realism can be defined through a number of characteristics, in particular the shooting on location (which begun development of light-weight cameras) and the absence of studio lighting, instead utilising the available natural light of the location. Due to the poor quality of the film stock, neo-realist films often have a grainy, documentary appearance, almost acting as a witness to contemporary Italy as it unfolds – a natural place marked by the remnants of violence and destruction. The typical narrative consists of casual, everyday events featuring dramatisation and ‘dead time’ and lacks a conclusive resolution. Neo-realist filmmakers also often use non-professional actors, relying on improvisation; leaving the process open to chance forcing time to take on flexibility. Spatial and temporal wholeness is also created through the use of the long shot, the limited use of the close-up and minimal cutting.
In Rossellini’s Paisa (1946) many complex trains of action are often reduced to three or four brief fragments, which themselves remain already elliptical enough in comparison with the reality that is unfolding. It is ordinary for the filmmaker to withhold information from the viewer, but the images selected and those left out tend to form a logical pattern by way of which the mind establishes the process of cause and effect. It is in this sense Bazin saw something ‘new’ in neo-realism – the “fact image” – films made out of shots that are more like rocks (submerged, irregular and fundamentally opaque) rather than bricks (images with a pre-determined form). He describes neo-realist cinema through this image: “the mind having to leap from one event to the other as one leaps from stone to stone in crossing a river. It may happen that one’s foot hesitates between two rocks, or that one misses one’s footing and slips.” There is typically an absence of a linear narrative and the protagonists face obstacles that divert the circumstances into a new territory, significantly affecting the outcome, much like submerged rocks that shift, causing hesitation and a disturbance of the senses. Bazin argues that our mind acts in this way. “Facts are facts, and our imagination makes use of them. The fact becomes a subject of scrutiny by the camera and is divided up, analysed, put together again, without losing its factual nature within the image, while the latter idea has a pre-determined form and are enveloped in abstraction, as the clay of a brick is enveloped by the wall.” Although this film is made significantly after the neo-realist period, this idea can be realised in the town sequence in Saving Private Ryan (1998), where the soldiers, progressively moving forward through the town, stop and form a wall of bodies around Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) who occupies the left of the frame. The formation fills the entire frame and aesthetically acknowledges the power relations within the squad. Miller’s commands unite the men and they immediately continue forward with the mission. These characters all have pre-determined characteristics, have a specific role in the film, and specific relationships to one another. This is never altered during the film. Like bricks in a wall, they all have purpose and we never question their motives, which is very different to the aims of neo-realism. As the characters struggle to navigate the rubble of the ravaged buildings of post-Resistance Italy, the viewers are asked to navigate an array of signs or ‘facts’ (both optical and sonic situations) created through this style of ‘documentation’ that intercept the path of the protagonists and divert the narrative away from the pre-established wall-like structure (evident in the early Hollywood films of D.W Griffith and my example Saving Private Ryan).
Paisa situates the audience directly into the period of the resistance; in the Florentine episode, for example, an American nurse braves sniper gunfire in a bold attempt to cross the River Arno to rejoin a resistance leader whose whereabouts are unknown. The characters seemingly function as recorders or observers of the documented ‘fact-images’; found in the movement of the tracking camera and the use of the extended long shot, which position their bodies as virtually insignificant within both the ruins of the city and the liberation conflict overall. Paisa is a powerful work which comprises of six vignettes linked effectively by actual newsreel footage from the resistance, painting a harrowingly realistic picture of Italy during its period of liberation and showing a country shattered and divided. Unlike a conventional war film, crudity of the editing make the film appear more like a documentary of the war, reflecting in its images of real locations a country in ruins and still bearing the scars of war. Neo-realism functions like a historical document, disrupting the sensor-motor schema established in dramatic cinema, resonating this through the characters and complex relationships between the optical and the sonic signs. Following the action without any perspective, Rossellini takes the position of the invisible onlooker. For Rossellini in Paisa, ‘facts take on a meaning and follow one another’. The mind is forced to observe their resemblance; and thus, by recalling one another, they end by meaning something which was inherent in each and which is the moral of the story – a moral the mind cannot fail to grasp since it was drawn from a documented reality itself.
Bazin also uses the Florentine example demonstrate his argument: “the attention of the camera follows the two figures step by step, and though it will share all the difficulties they encounter, it will however be impartially divided between the heroes of the adventure and the conditions they must encounter. The camera makes no pretence at being psychologically subjective. Everything that happens in Florence in the throes of the Liberation is of a like importance and the personal adventures of the two individuals blend into the mass of the other adventures”. In the second vignette of Paisa, when the drunk American soldier takes the young boy back to his home and discovers the ruined circumstances of his living, he is touched and decides he doesn’t want the shoes back (which the boy had previously stolen and attempted to sell). What first appears to be a story from the view of the young boy, transforms into one of the American, as he reacts to the boy’s situation, and offers an understanding. The mistrust that ends the first vignette has disappeared, but we see the building of bonds between people of different cultures. This is Rosellini’s ‘cinematic aim’. People and society are shown as they are, along with the stresses that cause them to act the way they do. Beside the desperation of the Italians, and their temptation to abuse the power of the Americans, we see signs of genuine human warmth, of human sympathy for other human beings, and of the human ability to cross cultural barriers, which, especially in this sequence, is one of the most important themes of neo-realism. From the words of Bazin: “the neo-realist film has a meaning, a posteriori, to the extent that it permits our awareness to move from one fact to another, from one fragment of reality to the next, whereas in the classical artistic composition the meaning is established a priori: the house of images is already there in brick.”
Deleuze, in his article ‘Beyond the Movement Image’, begins by outlining Bazin’s earlier ideas on neo-realism: as “a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical or wavering, working in stones, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or reproduced, but ‘aimed at’ through an ambiguity that replaced the ‘montage of representations’ with a sequence shot to produce a formal or material additional reality.” As a result, neo-realism introduced what Bazin has called the ‘fact-image’. Deleuze’s counter-argument is that the audience’s link to reality is loosened in these films to allow for our alternating mental processes. The power of the image and its creativity reflects the image back towards the audience altering their perception of reality through a creation of optical and sonic signs. Deleuze argues that the primary definition of neo-realism “is this build-up of purely optical situations, which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image. The characters themselves reacted to situations, even when reduced to helplessness as a result of the ups and downs of the action. What the viewer perceived therefore was a sensory-motor image in which they had greater or lesser participation in identifying with the characters.” In neo-realist cinema there is an absence of linearity, and no direct line from one point to another to demonstrate this sensory-motor mode of perception. Instead, the image consists of a series of smaller ‘facts’ broken down into op and son signs, determined by the location and movement of the scene rather than the process of the action-image. This subtlety of movement within cluttered, yet banal spaces and the naturalness of behaviour of the actors allow a director such as Rossellini to ‘portray an action without separating it from its material context and without the loss of that uniquely human quality integral to neo-realist cinema.’ In this everyday banality the action image disappears in favour of pure optical situations, not connected to the sensory-motor perception. Paisa feels objective because Rossellini is rarely commenting on his material, attempting to include both a subjective point of view of the character and an objective within the same image. However, this subjective identification is actually inverted and the character becomes more of a viewer.
In Germania Anno Zero, for example, the situation of the young boy at the conclusion of the film outstrips his motor capacities on all sides and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He picks up rocks pretending they are grenades, and imagines the spaces in the walls to have windows. He is disillusioned and wanders from room to room without sensory-motor perception. The camera tracks him with a medium to long shot, using sparingly the affection image. Through a series of his reaction images, we don’t so much as receive a subjective response; we essentially get a documentary recording of the destruction of the city and its remaining scars. The role of the child has been significant in many neo-realist films because, in the adult world, “the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him more capable of seeing and hearing.” The final gesture of him placing his hands to his face before he jumps is so important. The young boy shows no emotion before making this ‘adult’ gesture, and while the heightening drama of the scene is pre-determined by the film’s harrowing score (lacking a diegetic soundtrack, this does not oscillate in the images), the young boy’s plunge to his death is an unexpected tragedy that transpires almost unnoticed.
Deleuze’s idea from Cinema 1 resonates strongly with this idea of emotion, he says: “Italian neo-realism contrasts with previous forms of film realism in its stripping away of all expressionism (the tendency of an artist to distort reality for an emotional effect) and in particular in the total absence of the effect of montage…[it] tends to give back to the cinema a sense of ambiguity of reality.” It is important to address the difference between traditional sensory-motor perception and the images in the aforementioned films. In the second vignette of Paisa when the drunk American soldier is recounting the fantasy of coming home a hero to the young street-urchin, we can understand him, but how much is understood by the boy? Is he simply mimicking his actions? In a sensory motor scenario, while there would be consistent crosscutting of the close-up of each character, the two would be engaged in a ‘conversation’. In a breaking of the semantic boundaries, the pair firstly fails to understand each other’s language, and secondly, is constantly talking over one another. The young boy, who reaches an understanding only through a sharing of noises and gestures, does not receive the ‘fact image’ of the American soldier’s fantasy ticket-tape celebration. To symbolise this, the pair are also sitting on a pile of rubble, demonstrating both the destruction of the city and the fracturing of their cultural boundaries. In a typical sensory-motor situation in Germania Anno Zero, the boy’s adventure would have purpose, his whereabouts would be known and someone would be coming for him, inevitably saving him from his death. Through a state of disillusionment at Germany’s destruction, the boy dies alone, falling to the gaze of one lone spectator, while the city continues to function in the background oblivious to the event. Deleuze outlines an attack on these films by Marxist critics, with criticism directed at the “characters being too passive and negative, and for replacing modifying action with a ‘confused’ state of action.” How does this collapse of the traditional sensory-motor situations (the action-image) allow only pure optical and sonic situations? In neo-realism, “the sensory-motor connections are now valid only by virtue of the upsets that affect, loosen, unbalance, or uncouple them.” These new signs refer to very varied images, sometimes everyday banality, sometimes exceptional circumstances, but above all, subjective images, memories of childhood, sound and visual dreams or fantasies, where the character does not act without seeing himself acting. In this sense, one of the finest examples is Fellini’s masterpiece, 8 ½, but I will examine these ideas further through a brief study of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St Matthew, and most specifically the early sequence of the film following the birth of Jesus, which I argue to be filmed almost like a subjective dream.
As the Three Wise Men and surrounding children walk down the mountain path to see Mary and Joseph and the new born Jesus, there is a cross-cutting between a medium to long shot of these approaching figures and Mary holding the child (adhering to all the common modern representation of the Virgin Mary, she is attractive and virginal and wrapped in a shawl that covers her head). At times the camera seems to float in one position, moving very slightly, but allowing the figures to first enter the frame and then exit again at the other side. A haunting vocal score repeating the words ‘sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ backs this montage sequence of paralleled images and optical sensations. It is a compelling intersection of signs, as we are drawn into Pasolini’s camera, but at the same time are seduced by what we hear. As the figures approach the position of Mary and Joseph, they slowly move toward the still camera, filling the entire frame and adopting positions of varying levels (some are standing, while others are crouching). In what has become a typical Pasolini shot, there is a ‘prolonged’ close-up of Joseph, then Mary. After handing the child over to the first Wise Man, the camera zooms into the faces of these men, and then lingers on the child. The montage that follows is of smiling children in the crowd united by this birth. By removing the diegetic sound from the image, Pasolini, working in the shadow of neo-realism in the 1960’s, expertly creates complication in our mode of sensory-perception by subordinating time from the movement-image to incur and paint a subjective, dream-like state. These pure optical and sound images, and the fixed shot and the montage-cut, imply a progression beyond the movement-image. Deleuze argues: “the movement-image has not disappeared, but exists only as the first dimension of an image that never stops growing.” While the movement-image and its sensory-motor signs were in a relationship only with an indirect image of time (dependent on montage), the pure optical and sound images are directly connected to a time-image, which has subordinated movement. Through this reversal, “time is no longer the measure of movement but movement has become the perspective of time.” Following the neo-realist directors, Pasolini is one of the masters of this style.
The period of neo-realism, and the observations of both Bazin and Deleuze have been extremely influential in the history of cinematic criticism, observations that have transformed how we mentally process contemporary cinema. Through Paisa and Germania Anno Zero we can identify Bazin’s idea of the ‘fact-image’ and Deleuze’s recognition of the breakdown of the sensory-motor perception, replaced by the more complex relationship between the optical and sonic situations as distinct from one another, but uniting to create powerful cinema.