Archive for February, 2012

Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings | Art and design | The Guardian.

As much-admired photographs of decayed Detroit go on show in London, Brian Dillon charts the history of a literary and artistic obsession with ruins, from Marlowe to The Waste Land to Tacita Dean

Photograph of dilapidated interior of Michigan Station in Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Waiting Hall Michigan Station, Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Early in May 1941, the novelist and essayist Rose Macaulay was staying at the Hampshire village of Liss, attending to family arrangements following the death of her sister Margaret. On the 13th she returned to London – since the start of the war she had lived in a flat at Luxborough House, Marylebone, and worked as a voluntary ambulance driver – and discovered that her home and all her possessions had been destroyed in the bombing a few nights before. In a letter to a friend and literary collaborator, Daniel George, she wrote: “I came up last night … to find Lux House no more – bombed and burned out of existence, and nothing saved. I am bookless, homeless, sans everything but my eyes to weep with … It would have been less trouble to have been bombed myself.”

The loss of her flat, and especially the destruction of her library, had a profound effect on Macaulay: it was a decade before she completed another novel. In 1949, she lamented: “I am still haunted and troubled by ghosts, and I can still smell those acrid drifts of smouldering ashes that once were live books.” But her memory of the blitz also nurtured a fascination with destruction, decay and the ambiguous emotions conjured by the sight of buildings and entire cities reduced to rubble. In 1953 Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, a lively and eccentric history of the “ruin lust” that gripped European art and literature in the 18th century, reached its height in the romantic period, and had apparently declined in the first half of the 20th century in the face of wreckage that could not be turned to aesthetic or nostalgic advantage.

The story that Macaulay tells in Pleasure of Ruins is essentially a modern one: it is still alive today in photographs of post-industrial Detroit and recent responses by the likes of Iain Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Ford to the demolitions wrought in the name of the London Olympics. The taste for heroic destruction or picturesque decay cannot thrive without a sense of progress for which it fulfils the role of brooding, sometimes gleeful, unconscious. There were few if any classical or medieval enthusiasts of ruination. Even in renaissance painting, which is littered with mouldered remnants of Greco-Roman statuary and architecture, ruins are ancillary to the main pictorial event, providing a fractured backdrop to a serene madonna, or a handy bit of broken column to support a wilting St Sebastian. But by the 16th and 17th centuries, Macaulay wrote, something like the later literary and artistic obsession with ruins is in the air: Shakespeare and Marlowe inhabit “a ruined and ruinous world” of blasted heaths and crumbling castles, and there are resonant examples in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi: “I do love these ancient ruins: / We never tread upon them but we set / Our foot upon some reverend history.”

It was in the 18th century, however, that the ruin arrived centre-stage in European art, poetry, fiction, garden design and architecture itself. A cult of melancholy collapse and picturesque rot took hold, especially of the English aristocracy, for whom no estate was complete without its mock-dilapidated classical temple, executed in stone, plastered brick or even (as the garden designer Batty Langley advised in 1728) cut-price painted canvas. The craze inspired some well-known architectural absurdities: in Westmeath in 1740 Lord Belvedere built a ruined abbey to block the view of a house where his ex-wife had taken up with his brother, and in 1796 William Beckford first contrived his fantastical Fonthill Abbey, “a sort of habitable ruin”, according to Macaulay – “sort of’” because the thing kept falling down.

Alongside such follies there flourished a literature of pleasing desuetude, encompassing aesthetic theory, romantic poetry’s rubble-strewn excursions and the dank precincts of the gothic novel. In his Elements of Criticism of 1762, Lord Kames had approved ruins, real or confected, for their embodying “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought”. And the English romantics took to ruination with a paradoxical energy, Wordsworth uncovering his poetic self among the remnants of Tintern Abbey, Coleridge in the unfinished “Kubla Khan” deriving a whole aesthetic of the literary fragment out of his botched architectural fantasia.

If all of this seems like so much picturesque maundering, it was also evidence of a fretful modernity. It was in painting that the vexing timescale of the ruin was most accurately broached – ruins, it seemed, spoke as much of the future as of the classical or more recent past. For sure, romantic art is dominated by the sublime vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, whose lone figures look dolefully on the vacant arches of medieval abbeys. But the gaze might as easily be turned on catastrophes to come: in 1830 Sir John Soane commissioned the painter Joseph Gandy to depict his recently completed Bank of England in ruins. In France, Hubert Robert had already painted the Louvre in a state of collapse, prompting Diderot to write: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

This sense of having lived on too late, of having survived the demolition of past dreams of the future, is what gives the ruin its specific frisson, and it still animates art and writing. But it’s historically bound up with more pressing worries about the fate of one’s own civilisation: nowhere more so than in the literary and artistic afterlife of a ruinous motif conjured by Rose Macaulay’s grand-uncle Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1840. Reviewing Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes in the Edinburgh Review, Macaulay speculates that in the distant future Catholicism “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s”. Macaulay’s New Zealander, gazing at the wreckage of the metropolis (and by extension on the fall of the British empire), was for decades a popular image of London’s future ruin – its most notable avatar is Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander.

Images of the modern city in ruins proliferated in the Victorian period – Richard Jefferies‘s 1885 novel After London is the best-known example, with its vision of a city reverting to nature following some unnamed calamity – but the following century had another perspective on the now venerable and even hackneyed trope of ruin: for modernism the city, even (or especially) as it pretended to progress or novelty, was already in ruins. The Waste Land is an obvious instance, with its fragmentary vision of the unreal city. But consider too the photographs of Eugène Atget, which capture a Paris being demolished and rebuilt at the same time, or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project: a critical-historical phantasmagoria conjured from the already decaying Parisian shopping arcades of just a few decades earlier. In architectural terms, the most thoroughgoing visions of the city of the future were haunted too by ruination: Le Corbusier’s projected Ville Radieuse depended on the wholesale ruin of the existing city, and the classical kitsch that Albert Speer planned for Hitler’s future Germania was designed with its potential “ruin value” in mind.

The second world war tested the taste for ruins to its limits – such wholesale destruction was surely unsuited to melancholy thoughts of an aesthetic cast. Rose Macaulay worries at the problem in the “Note on New Ruins” that she appended to Pleasure of Ruins: the bomb sites of London, she fears, are still too jagged and raw in the memory to qualify as ruins. And yet many of the most affecting images of the depredations of total war and, especially, of the bombing of cities are clearly indebted to romantic precursors. Macaulay herself was not immune to their pleasures: in 1949 her novel The World My Wilderness hymned the Eliotic wasteland that London had become, her feral teenage protagonists running wild among gaping cellars and ruderal meadows. One thinks, too, of Cecil Beaton’s blitz photographs, or Paul Nash’s 1941 painting Totes Meer and its rhyming of wrecked aircraft with Friedrich’s Sea of Ice. In the immediate postwar period, it was cinema that frankly embraced the visual allure and import of the ruin. In Germany, an entire genre of “ruin films” arose out of the devastation caused by Allied carpet-bombing, though the signature film in terms of capturing the plight of Berlin’s orphaned Trümmerkinder, or children of the ruins, was by an Italian director: Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero of 1948.

Postwar culture is littered with images of ruins past and potentially to come, the levelled cities of Europe becoming mixed up with photographs and footage of real or anticipated nuclear destruction, the whole apocalyptic imaginary hardly alleviated by a sense that urban reconstruction was in itself a form of ruin lust: cities rising into wreckage and the earth poisoned by new industries. Chris Marker‘s La Jetée (1962) begins with views of post-apocalyptic Paris that are clearly mocked-up from photographs of real cities in ruin in the 1940s; Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) shows the factory districts of Ravenna as a lurid, smoky hell that already looks post-industrial and decayed. And in the same decade JG Ballard began to formulate a view of ex-urban modernity — the concrete non-places of motorway flyovers and airport environs — as the landscape of a decidedly post-romantic sublime.

If Ballard is the English laureate of late-modern ruins, his influence still palpable in the writings of Iain Sinclair or the poetic dross-scape of Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley’s recent book Edgelands, the figure around whom the artistic fascination with ruins has crystallised in recent years is the artist Robert Smithson. In the years before his death in 1973 Smithson, who had certainly been reading Eliot and Ballard, combined ambitious land-art projects (his Spiral Jetty of 1970 is the best known) with a series of inventive and wry essays on the ruinous condition of the modern American landscape. Writing of his native New Jersey in 1967, in an essay titled “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic”, Smithson affected to have found, on the outskirts of a declining industrial town, the contemporary “eternal city”: an agglomeration of half-built highways and rusting factory relics to rival the architectural and artistic treasures of ancient Rome. New Jersey, writes Smithson memorably, is “a utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass”.

Smithson’s influence – and especially his notion of “ruins in reverse”, in which construction and dissolution cannot be told apart – is all over the ruinous turn that many artists and writers took in the last decade or so. Tacita Dean’s films are a case in point, with their frequent focus on defunct technology or architecture. Jane and Louise Wilson followed Ballard and the French urban theorist Paul Virilio in exploring the derelict remains of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall fortifications. Younger artists such as Cyprien Gaillard and collaborators Karin Kihlberg and Reuben Henry have continued to explore the idea of modern ruins, while Owen Hatherley’s 2011 book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain essayed a critique of the ruinous effects of recent urban planning in the UK. (Later this year Hatherley’s sequel, A New Kind of Bleak will show that process nearing its endgame, from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Croydon to Belfast.)

An obsession with ruins can risk a fall into mere sentiment or nostalgia: ruin lust was already a cliché in the 18th century, and its periodic revivals may put one in mind of Gilbert and Sullivan: “There’s a fascination frantic / In a ruin that’s romantic.” The great interest in the remarkable images of decayed Detroit – in the photographs, for example, of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, on show at the Wilmotte Gallery in London from this week – is easily understandable but seems oddly detached from analyses of the political forces that brought the city to its present sorry pass. It may be that as a cultural touchstone the idea of ruin needs to slump into the undergrowth again. But the history of ruin aesthetics tells us that it would likely resurface in time, charged again with artistic and political energy, and we’d find ourselves looking once more at blasted or burned cities with a visionary or melancholy eye, just as Rose Macaulay did in 1941, ambiguously lamenting a bombed-out house where “the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky”.

Italian Neo-Realism

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

GreenCine | Italian Neo-Realism.

Italian Neo-Realism
by Megan Ratner

Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946)


Before the indies and even before the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism staked out new cinematic territory. One of those blanket terms that mean all things to all people, neo-realism has few absolutes, though there are elements that set the Italian version distinctly apart. Screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini wrote an actual manifesto to guide these films, but their creation was just as much a result of timing, chance and fluke. Unquestionably, their greatest single influence was the anti-Fascism that marked World War II’s immediate postwar period. Key elements are an emphasis on real lives (close to but not quite documentary style), an entirely or largely non-professional cast, and a focus on collectivity rather than the individual. Solidarity is important, along with an implicit criticism of the status quo. Plot and story come about organically from these episodes and often turn on quite tiny moments. Cinematically, neo-realism pushed filmmakers out of the studio and on to the streets, the camera freed-up and more vernacular, the emphasis away from fantasy and towards reality. Despite the rather short run – 1943 to 1952 – the heavyweight films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and continue to shape contemporary global filmmaking.


A little history goes a long way toward understanding Italian neo-realism. By the outbreak of World War II, the country had been under Benito Mussolini’s hefty thumb since 1924. In the regime’s 1930s heydays, swank productions set in big hotels, tony nightclubs and ocean liners made up the “white telephone” movies, the shorthand term for their decadent Deco interiors. The protagonists always found a resolution to their insipid dilemmas, the prevailing Italian style as unchallenging as blowing bubbles. There were also plenty of American imports, equally unreflective of Italian realities. Describing this time, Federico Fellini said, “For my generation, born in the 20s, movies were essentially American. American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed a paradise on earth, a paradise in a country they called America.”

Whether they were being shown the glories of their Roman past, their fascist future or of l’America, a country unreal outside the movie-house, what Italians rarely saw were images that reflected their lives. As early as 1935, anti-Fascist journalist Leo Longanesi urged directors to “go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born.”

Aside from the political realities, it’s worth remembering that Italy was still in the first stages of a huge transition from agriculture to manufacturing. People struggled; the economic miracle was still more than a decade away. Yet few films showed this, the exceptions being Treno popolare (1933) by Rafaello Matarazzo and, paradoxically, in documentaries produced by LUCE institute, under complete control of the regime.

For many Italians, neo-realist films put images to the ideas of the Resistance. In the film journals Cinema and Bianco e Nero, writers called for a cinema that resembled the verismo (realism) of literature. This had begun as a 19th century literary movement which was expanded by Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Pier Paolo Pasolini, most of whom wrote for – or about – the movies as well. Although philosophical ideas informed Italian neo-realism, it is very much a cinematic creation. As Calvino pointed out, “neo-realists knew too well that what counted was the music and not the libretto.” The aim was not to record the social problems but to express them in an entirely new way.

Jean Renoir‘s Toni (1935) and Alessandro Blassetti‘s 1860 (1934) influenced neo-realism, but the movement was to a great extent a matter of 1940s practicalities: with Cinécittà (Rome’s studio complex) relegated to refugees, films had to be shot outside. Surrounded by the shambolic ruins of World War II, human and structural, filmmakers had ready-made drama even in their backdrop, the atmosphere anxiety-charged and utterly uncertain. After twenty-one years under Mussolini, all bets were off as to what direction Italy would take. In the war’s aftermath, members of the Resistance (including several of the neo-realist directors) had to come to terms those who collaborated. Though unstated, this almost civil war-like tension fuels neo-realist cinema.

So what is neo-realism? André Bazin called it a cinema of “fact” and “reconstituted reportage,” its antecedents in the anti-Fascist movement with which these directors identified. Although they owed a debt to Renoir (with whom both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni had worked), the neo-realists “respected” the entirety of the reality they filmed. This meant occasionally showing scenes in real-time and always resisting the temptation to manipulate by editing. Scenes are shot on location, with no professional extras and often a largely unprofessional cast. Set in rural areas or working-class neighborhoods, the stories focus on everyday people, often children, with an emphasis on the unexceptional routines of ordinary life.

Cesare Zavattini, who functions as a kind of godfather of the movement, stated: “This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist.” The aim, method and philosophy was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice. Breezy fare this is not, but it did significantly alter European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world. Neo-realism reflected a new freedom in Italy and the willingness to pose provocative questions about what movies could do. As director Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo‘s brother) noted: “The cinema was born with neo-realism.”

Unexpected American Influences

It’s no accident that Michael Tolkin chose neo-realism’s classic Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to rock his studio exec’s world in The Player. Though it’s in some ways anti-Hollywood, neo-realism drew a great deal from American noir writing and films. Luchino Visconti based Ossessione (Obsession, 1942) on James M. Cain‘s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti used long takes and complex shots to convey the dismal and ridiculous world of the three protagonists, the lovers (played by Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) and the husband they bump off (played by Juan De Landa). Visconti’s neo-realism heightens the interplay between characters and surroundings, the bleak, unforgiving interiors and street shots reflective of the lousy hand these no-hopers have been dealt.

Ossessione (Obsession, 1942)

Visconti described his own style as “anthropomorphic cinema,” declaring, “I could make a film in front of a wall if I knew how to find the data of man’s true humanity and how to express it.” Although Mussolini himself approved of the film, his son Vittorio (who ran the film journal Cinema) had a fit about its bleak Italian landscapes, the natural light, and all the shooting on location in the Po Valley.

Roberto Rossellini‘s Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946) shows most clearly neo-realism’s link with the Resistance movement. Set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, it mines the tensions of the foreign presence and the divisions among those who abetted and those who opposed. Made under duress (black market film stock, little studio shooting, rushes unexamined, sound synchronized in post-production, and, no surprise, a tiny budget), Open City has an eyewitness immediacy tempered with operatic emotion. Pragmatic realities drove the film as much as the script, co-written by Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini. The hybrid of melodrama and actual footage was the result of Rossellini’s populist, episodic approach, the story told in bursts, intense and unsparing details of ordinary lives undone by the trauma of occupation. Veracity rather than comfort informed the narrative. As the Gestapo search for and find a key member of the Resistance, Rossellini keeps his primary focus on Pina (Anna Magnani), engaged to marry an unassuming but Partisan typesetter by whom she is already pregnant. Open City may be most cited for two unforgettable scenes – a torture scene, to which Reservoir Dogs‘s lopped-ear scene bears a marked resemblance; and a sudden and dramatic death scene, a final posture evocative of painterly renditions of Christian martyrs. It also emphasizes the futility of war, its senselessness, a theme Rossellini struck throughout his war trilogy.

In Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Rossellini directly engaged the effects of the American presence in Italy, complicated by the Yankee shift from enemy to ally. In each of the six episodes, he examines the expectations and disappointments inherent in the crossing of two such different cultures and the inevitable – sometimes fatal – misapprehensions. Newsreel footage separates the vignettes and, throughout, Rossellini plays with the stereotypical images held by each side, his overall theme being that war is an equal-opportunity brutalizer.

Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947) has a more personal feeling, influenced, no doubt, by the death of Rossellini’s eldest son in 1946. Set in the rubble of Berlin, the film has a young protagonist (rare for Rossellini), a 15-year-old who lives with his father and sister, who falls under the spell of a pedophile, eeking cash from the sale of this scammer’s Third Reich memorabilia. Potent and unbearable images make the desperation of the city clear; early on, for example, a horse lies dead in the street, hit perhaps by a tram, as people matter-of-factly carve-and-carry its meat away. Corrupted on all sides, the boy eventually resorts to the most desperate of measures.

As in Obsession, the cityscape is here used to reflect the anomie and disconnection. Open City ends horribly but with a glimmer of hope as young chidren witness an execution yet, together, return to the city; in Germany Year Zero, life is as stony as the razed city. It completes Rossellini’s World War II trilogy, strikingly ending his work from the German perspective, the devastations occasioned by Third Reich policies no easier on its own people.

La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948)

Labor Intensive

La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) took Luchino Visconti to Aci Trezza on Sicily. Far more documentary in style than the other neo-realist films, The Earth Trembles relies on a completely nonprofessional cast. Visconti explained the day’s shooting to the villagers and used ambient sound, allowing the people to speak their dialect (necessitating subtitles even for the rest of Italy). The film is loosely based on Giovanni Verga‘s novel, I Malavoglia (The House of the Medlar Tree). When an island family risks their savings to buy a boat and fish for themselves, they struggle to pay it off, fishing in bad weather until a storm destroys their boat. Classically organized – Visconti was a veteran of opera – the film allowed him to linger on a cyclical life on the verge of disappearance (Orson Welles once noted that Visconti photographed fishermen as if they were Vogue models.) He used deep focus shots, lighting only the nighttime fishing scenes, showing their lives as an organic whole, with each aspect accorded value. The extremely spare soundtrack comprises few words, several silences, sometimes only the peal of bells and little music. And yet there’s a timeless and deeply mythic quality to the film, its emphasis on the honor and dignity that had been attached to a life earned from the unpredictable sea.

Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946)

Vittorio De Sica‘s Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) begins outside Rome, in a kind of idyll of the countryside. Two shoeshine boys set aside what they’ve earned to buy a horse. Back in the narrow and unforgiving streets of Rome, they’re roped into a blackmarket deal that goes sour. Nabbed by the authorities, they’re sent to a juvenile prison, their friendship strained nearly to breaking. After an escape, one of them accidentally dies, his death blamed on his friend. De Sica kept his exposition short, detailing the boys’ existences through carefully composed scenes such as their neighboring prison cells, each one headed for a different fate. Opening and closing with the horse, De Sica shows the freedom that’s denied these two boys. His use of nonprofessionals allowed him to draw natural, seemingly improvised performances from his actors and remain, in his term, “faithful to the character.”

This is especially true of his next feature, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), the leading roles of father and son occupied by two nonprofessionals. (David O. Selznick was willing to back the film, but only with Cary Grant as lead, an offer De Sica fortunately had the confidence to refuse.) When the bicycle he needs to do his job is stolen, the young father and son scour Rome to find it; the father is finally driven to steal a ride of his own.

De Sica orchestrated the film carefully, shooting some scenes with multiple cameras and drawing attention to its existence as fiction, not a documentary. Bazin termed it the “only valid Communist film of the whole past decade” and the film was often seen as simply a criticism of working conditions in Italy at the time, when unemployment stood at 25 percent. But unlike the clearcut moralizing of Rossellini’s films, De Sica’s works focus on a humanist sense of individual and mass. Bicycle Thieves has a mythic feel, the father ultimately forced into thievery, each moral quandary no sooner solved than De Sica poses yet another, the father sympathetic but flawed.

Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)

Italian audiences hardly embraced these new films. To be shown their country in such stark terms made the majority very unhappy. It even became part of the law: the Andreotti Law (1949), named for its author Giullio Andreotti, offered subsidies for those who followed the neo-realist style in a manner “suitable… to the best interests of Italy,” but with the proviso that they avoid the blemishes on Italian life.

Legislation had little immediate effect on what was made, though the stories began to reflect the scramble for work and stability that defined this period. Visconti’s terrific Bellissima (1951) centers on a daughter and fanatic stage-mamma, the inimitable Magnani, eager to get her modestly talented daughter a spot in a movie. To her husband’s dismay, she squeezes every extra penny into lessons and cosmetic improvements for the little girl. Ultimately, the mother all but puts herself on the market to get the recognition she’s convinced will make life worth living. Set in a working-class Roman neighborhood, Bellissima gives rare insight into how provincial big-city life could be, each neighborhood a virtual small town, the neighbors sometimes helpful, often petty and jealous of any advantage. Though not traditionally considered a neo-realist film, Bellissima did focus on people’s lives in the wake of war, the sense of wanting to better oneself and the struggle to find a way out of the grind of poverty. It becomes yet more poignant in this context.

Umberto D.

This sense of Rome as a small town is especially acute in Umberto D. (1951), which was De Sica’s favorite film and is in many ways the masterpiece of neo-realism, an overall superb piece of work. The crisis-filled days of a pensioner, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), and the complications of his relationship with his dog and a young maid in his apartment building become a study in the difficult drama that constitutes an ordinary life. As played by a dignified nonprofessional – a professor, who, in the event, was often subsequently taken for his character on the street – Umberto D. is stodgy, fussy, irritating and curiously sympathetic. Unlike other films of the era, this was shot nearly entirely in the Cinécittà studios. The indignities of the family-less and indigent old-age are laid out with sensitivity but not sentimentality. Umberto is vulnerable and all but invisible, barely distinguishing himself in a crowd of protesting pensioners, desperately trying to maintain his independence and self-respect. There is no real plot other than the minuscule and life-shaping crises of late-life impoverishment. Even the end strikes a melancholy note of ambiguity.

And Suddenly It Was Over

Giuseppe De Santis‘s Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) was described at the time as the “last gasp of the neo-realist movement.” Like Obsession, its strongest overt influences are American films – noir and westerns and even a hint of musicals). It introduced audiences to a smoldering Sylvana Mangano, who played a rice weeder. By the hundreds they descended on the Piemonte region in the postwar years and into the 1960s. The brutally exhausting work demanded precision, suited, as the voice-over states, to the delicate “hand that rocks the cradle or threads the needle.” Mangano’s characters long to go to America, where she’s sure “everything is electric.”

In Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), De Sica kept to neo-realism’s focus on the marginalized mass, but his approach marked a break with just about every other neo-realist premise. Miracle in Milan is a kind of neo-fantasy. He showed postwar conditions and real locations – in this case, the run-down outskirts of Milan – the dreariness leavened with make-believe. When his foster mother (Emma Grammatica) gives him a white dove, Toto (Francesco Golisano) can suddenly grant the wishes of his neighbors in the periferia or shantytown where they live. De Sica jettisoned chronological time, replacing logic with magic. And yet, this has some of the grittiest urban landscapes of any of its contemporaries, the long shots of the shantytowns conveying a sense of how imprisoned the characters are. De Sica termed it a “fairy story and only intended as such,” yet the film had the unintended effect of essentially signalling neo-realism’s official end.

A Long Shadow

In general, people look backwards when talking about neo-realism, acknowledging its roots, according it artifact status. But the films stand on their own even without the movement they’ve come to represent. More important, they pointed out new directions for filmmakers in Italy and elsewhere. Both Fellini and Antonioni worked on neo-realist films and even in Fellini’s later, extremely fanciful work and Antonioni’s brooding studies of men and women, there’s a similar urge to document Italy’s social realities.

Among the filmmakers influenced by Italian neo-realism are the French New Wave, Dogme 95 and, as Images writer Chris Norton points out, the Los Angeles School of Black Independent Filmmakers (known as the L.A. School). The latter include directors such as Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash, all of whom have at some level addressed the working-class experience in America with methods borrowed or inspired by neo-realism.

Even such apparent non neo-realists as Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ermanno Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Gianni Amelio and Lina Wertmüller carry over the ideas of neo-realism with their emphasis on class conflicts (the eternal north/south tension) and use of non-professional actors, particularly children, to great effect.

The last word on this goes to Fellini. He agreed in principle, he said, with the neo-realist idea of taking films from life but he redefined it for himself as “looking at reality with an honest eye – but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him.” Fellini taps into the essence of neo-realism, the reason the films of that particular era still appeal and the reason they continue to inspire: they address the human condition which, despite technological advances and special effects, remains very much what it was when these filmmakers took to the streets and captured what surrounded them.

Megan Ratner is an Associate Editor at Bright Lights Film Journal. Her work has appeared in Black Book, Filmmaker, The New York Times, Senses of Cinema, and Frieze.