Nov 5, 2008

Italian Neo-Realism: Cesare Zavattini - Andre Bazin

Nov 5, 2008
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The period between 1927 and 1950 was the times which Hollywood Studio System has reached its highest popularity throughout U.S.A and Europe. The date 1927 was very important for film history; this is the year when sound was introduced into cinema. On the other hand, Italian Neo-Realism is a phenomenon that occurred during a highly Hollywood influenced cinematographic environment. This was crucial, and not a coincidence; Italian neo-realist theory has in fact positioned itself in opposition to Hollywood cinematic language. We'll see how. Well, what was the difference, and was it successful? There are many debates on this. Before talking about the arguments of two important film theorists on Italian neo-realism or realism in cinema in general, Cesare Zavattini and Andre Bazin, let's have a look at the background of this phenomenon.
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Italian neo-realism has come out as a cinematic term in the mid 1940's, and lasted till early 1950's. Well, it definitely lasted not long. But its impact was powerful and striking. Its main function was to represent a society which came out of the Second World War. Thus it was intending to visualize the post war trauma of Italy in particular. Through the end of war, ally forces invaded Italy which has been a breakdown of Mussolini regime. In this sense, Italian neo-realism was a reaction against fascism and it demonstrated a kind of oppositional, left-wing tendency. I should note that there was a very powerful film industry in Italy during 1930's. The concept of National Cinema was actually functioning in all over Europe at this period. In Italy, motion pictures were filmed in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The films made during this time period were mostly melodramas. Additionally, there was a specific sub-genre called white telephone movies. These films were about family affairs of bourgeoisie, and relations between themselves. The image of white telephone was associated with bourgeoisie, as a symbol for it. These movies were apolitical in general, mostly representing the society as to have a kind of prosperous unity. This was the reason that Italian cinema was appreciated by the fascist regime during 1930's. After fascism, the studio was closed. Later, allies in Italy began to import Hollywood films, rather than helping to rebuild Italian national cinema. During this period, Italian filmmakers had no financial support, studio, professional actors and actresses to produce big-budget films. That's why they tended to create a radical film language, which is called as Italian neo-realist cinematography. Neo-realist films were produced with little amounts of money and unprofessional actors. Besides, they were non-commercial cinematic productions. However, these films interestingly became popular among audiences. It is important to know that, during 1940's, there is no established studio system in Italy, which would hire directors, scriptwriters, actors, actresses to produce films and distribute and exhibit them throughout the country. It was 1950's when studio system has re-emerged in Italy. Supposedly, this establishment has signaled the very end of Italian neo-realist cinema. During the reign of neo-realist cinema in Italy, major directors were Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rosselini and Luchino Visconti. I should also note that by 1960's and 70's, Italian neo-realism has revived with a more poetic language, with directors Michelangelo Antonioni and Paolo Passolini. Their works were characterized as Poetic Realism.
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Italian neo-realism in principal is concerned with the immediate reality of social life. In simple terms, it used to depict the characters and events without over-dramatization and in dept psychological analysis. The camera functions like a person observing things from outside. It is not crafted sophisticatedly but with scenes that represent striking consequences of social sphere. Major ideal is the commitment to human reality. It is interested not in dealing with issues of history, but present; in which ordinary people, events, situations take place. Aesthetically, there are no rigid principles. Only, the emphasis of visual authenticity was crucial. Italian neo-realist films are not interested in constructing sophisticated settings. Therefore they preserve kind of a documentary value within themselves. Most of the shootings take place on locations outside. They usually use unprofessional or professional but unknown actors in the films. There are no stars in movies, unlike Hollywood. In theory, there is an emphasis on deep-focus shots, on which the foreground, middleground and the background can be seen by the audience while they watch the scenes. The shots are supposed to be long-held shots, in which the audience can see the same scene for minutes. This notion of long held, deep focus shots are suggested in theory, however in practice, not all scenes in a movie is long held or deep focused. The idea of long held, deep focus shots is to represent an entirety of a situation to the audience. By his way, audience can observe the relations between figures on both foreground and background. This idea functions in creating an illusion of reality. Additionally, there occurs a temporal and spatial continuity. A piece of life, a portion of time entirely unfolds in front of the eyes of audience. However, there is a gap between manifestation and practice in Italian neo-realism. For example, I recommend you to see De Sica's Ladri di Biciclette, regarded as one of the most prominent films of Italian neo-realism, which is in fact crafted with similar techniques compared to a classical Hollywood film. Like in any other Hollywood film at that period, Ladri di Biciclette by means of cinematic technique, resembled classical Hollywood linear continuity style. Rather than long held and deep focus shots, there were mostly close-ups, medium-shots and the use of over shoulder camera technique. Another gap between theory and practice in Italian neo-realism was about the sound. Dialogues in films are generally dubbed with sound; while you see a lower-class worker (unprofessional actor) talking, you hear a theatrical voice, because the voices were dubbed by professional actors afterwards. A poor worker then becomes the Hamlet kind of thing.
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Now I would like to mention two different ideas related to Italian neo-realism and the issue of realism in cinema in general. First one is Cesare Zavattini, the scriptwriter of nearly one hundred films during his whole career, including Ladri di Biciclette and Umbeto D. which are the two most prominent products of Italian neo-realism. Throughout his whole cinema career, Zavattini worked with many important directors such like Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alessandro Blasetti, Mauro Bolognini, Frederico Fellini, Roberto Rosellini and Luchino Visconti. Zavattini was an important theorist who formulated the character of Italian neo-realist cinema, and the function of realism in cinema. First of all, according to Zavattini, Italian cinema should oppose classical Hollywood movie-making principles and should be the anti-thesis of Hollywood cinematic ideals. To do this, it should emphasize and depict social problems such as inequalities, injustices, unemployment. It also had to film daily life stories of ordinary, under-privileged groups in the society. Secondly, Zavattini has been critical to the distance between art and life. He was not interested in resembling reality, but turning reality into a story. There should be no attempts to make the story spectacular; instead actuality of life had to be depicted. Tendency to represent the story in details or in several artistic techniques would have hurt the reality itself. This would also be a distortion of actual richness of ongoing daily life. The film had to represent reality as it totally was. It has to visualize how ordinary people reacted, talked to each other. There should be no heroes with extraordinary personalities in the film. The most crucial aspect of Zavattini's theories is that he seeks to attain a certain morality in cinema. To be more specific; cinema should not function as a serving medium between art and life; on the contrary the film should possess a moral responsibility in order to transform what's invisible to visible. Zavattini claims that in daily life, social problems are not clearly perceived by people; for example, middle-class is unaware of the problems of under-classes. Therefore cinema had to establish a communication with the segments of society. Cinema, by making the problems visible and communicating those to different classes, would mobilize them as a better society. It is not about creating a fantasy world, but making reality accessible to people. At this point Zavattini's call is political and even provocative.
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On the other hand, there is Andre Bazin, a really important film theorist. Bazin founded the film journal, Cahiers Du Cinema in France at 1951, and was its editor. He was the first person in film studies to develop kind of intellectual tendency towards film criticism. His theories absolutely are more sophisticated then Zavattini's. First of all, Bazin draws attention to the relation between literature and film. In this respect, his main argument is that film is superior to literature by means of attaining realism. For him, literature imposes a kind of form, constructs an artificial structure on reality. On the contrary in cinema, the camera enables us to directly contact with reality. In this sense unlike literature, the very nature of cinema has the advantage in depicting reality with minimum amount of distortion. While in literature words mediate between the author and the external world, cinema enables direct access to immediate reality, which he describes as immediacy of things themselves. Zavattini had argued that cinema can and has to capture the entire reality. For Bazin, this is not possible; cinema is all about capturing a moment, a duration in its own presence as it happens. Bazin centers his arguments on the basis of his suggestion regarding the cinematic sign as to possess indexical quality like photographic signs. At this point his thoughts are highly inspired by Saussurean semiology. Additionally, the indexical signs have ontological bond with reality.
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Let us not go into semiology, that's a whole other branch of deep thought, and be focused clearly on what Bazin suggests in particular. Indexical quality which Bazin proposes refers actually to the filming itself; the physical nature of film apparatus. How those images on the screen are made up? By the help of light. What we see on a screen, the composition of image is the traces of light. This is true for both photography and cinema. According to Bazin, this quality turns films into a form which could capture actual traces of life. On the unedited, recorded raw footage, there are reflections of actual life. The film footage consists of traces of light which have the lives of their own. I think it now makes sense why Bazin proposes the idea of ontological bond with reality. There is an organic relation between reality and film. As a consequence, the film has a realistic nature. And this is what Bazin calls as intrinsic realism of cinema. This theory of Bazin is only about classical film medium. It is not about digital film technology for sure.
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Lastly, Bazin opposes to Zavattini at one more important issue. For him, the function of cinema is neither about realistic representations nor turning reality into the cinematic story. Bazin suggests that the function of cinema is all about mummification of time. What cinema could do is to mummify a particular duration; preserving the events that happened at a time period, and this is what reality in cinema is all about. What we should expect from a realist film for Bazin is some striking realist moments, sequences together with which time is captured. Additionally, Bazin's principals of realism differ from Zavattini, in the way that he acknowledges cinema not as an ambitious project but as an apparatus which is able to capture a particular duration of time. Cinema's relation to time, ability to capture duration is very important for later realism theories in film studies, like Gilles Deleuze's.
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Italian neo-realism is contradictory, I should say. In fact, the phenomenon, realist cinema is self-contradictory and self-destructive; a film can never be fully realist, as it is a construction, a representation of reality. It is an illusion of reality no matter what. In later posts, I would like to write about French New Wave and Deleuze, their approaches to realism in cinema. Besides for me, among the contemporary film directors, Michael Haneke's position is noteworthy by means of capturing reality together with acknowledging the cinematic representative sphere.
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As a note: One may wonder why Italian neo-realism is called "neo" realism; it was for which they considered Dziga Vertov as the first realist director of film history, and his films as the first modernist, realist and avant-garde products; although Vertov's film language was very different than De Sica's, or than the other neo-realists in general. Let this be mentioned in details in another comparative article on some other occasion.
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