That the Vesuvius-like eruption of Italian neo-realism altered the landscape of film history is widely agreed upon. It's less easy to come to a consensus on what "Italian neo-realism" actually was. The gist is this: In the period after liberation, a group of already established filmmakers began making movies that showed snapshot verities of previously unrecorded moments of Italian life, usually set among the poor, frequently shot out in city streets with nonprofessional actors.
The sweeping rejection of existing modes of film-drama artifice that neo-realism represented was so significant that successive generations, in Italy and beyond, have ever since had to situate themselves in regards to it. (In this, it resembles punk's place in rock history.) Neo-realism's newsreel immediacy, domestic detail and flaneur's approach to the city — themselves combined to represent a new artifice of verisimilitude — profoundly affected the French new wave and its successive international ripples. At home, Antonioni, Pasolini and Fellini would have to work through neo-realism's orthodoxies before finding their own syntax. Fellini was himself a scriptwriter for important neo-realist films, including Alberto Lattuada's 1948 Without Pity, a star-crossed love story between an Italian woman and a black American GI.
"Days of Glory," UCLA's 12-film series beginning Saturday, surveys neo-realism from its embryonic beginnings to its second generation. The earliest film on the program is Luchino Visconti's 1943 Ossessione, a proto-neo-realist picture that transposes the sordid murder and adultery of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice to impoverished, rural Italy. Set in a contemporary lower-depths milieu, Ossessione was as gritty a picture of Italian life as one could give with the fascists still in charge — indeed, it was banned.
The real watershed came with the liberation: In 1945, Roberto Rossellini brought a new element of reportage to the screen with Rome, Open City, the film that put the urgent "neo" in "neo-realism," filming in still bullet-pocked streets, re-enacting the trials of the resistance during the previous year's occupation. In the following year's Paisan, Rossellini followed the Allied campaign's progress through Italy in 1943-44. Where Open City gave big, undeniably moving martyrdom scenes to music-hall stars Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, Paisan was conspicuously free of known faces. The final section of this six-chapter film, observing American OSS agents and Italian partisans in covert operations in the foggy Po Delta, is marked by its taciturn gravity, elegantly amphibious camera work and downbeat portrayal of wartime heroism as, over the summary execution of partisans by the Germans, the film's narrator reads a detached concluding statement: "This was the winter of 1944. At the beginning of spring, the war was over."
Other neo-realist entries were far more fortissimo, tending toward melodrama. Giuseppe di Santis' 1949 Bitter Rice has the social-issue documentary-style backdrop of a back-breaking planting season in northern rice fields, tended to by hordes of migrant worker women — but also features a jewelry heist, musical numbers, a gleefully sadistic Vittorio Gassman and mud wrestling among the paddies.
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Two entries in UCLA's program show the neo-realist standard advancing into the 1960s. Vittorio de Seta picked up Rossellini's emotional feel for landscape and his ethnographic impulse for the 1961 Bandits of Orgosolo, set in mountainous Sardinia. From the same year comes Ermanno Olmi's first feature, Il Posto. As would be Olmi's standard practice, it's shot handheld and instinctually, cast with found amateurs: Sandro Panseri is a 19-year-old from the suburbs of Milan, who comes into the city for a job interview and finds a position at an anonymous corporation while pining after another new hire.
In the years since neo-realism, an entire industry of research has been devoted to analyzing its style, debating how much of the movement's smudgy, rough-edged early years were determined by economic imperatives and how much by a conscious choice to co-opt the language of documentary, precursor to today's shaky-camera "immediacy."
Neo-realism's most important legacy, though, may be its elevation of the banal to the dignity of narrative: Il Posto, through its alert subjectivity, gives nonevents the dimension of tragic art. Cesare Zavattini, Bicycle Thieves screenwriter and neo-realism's chief theoretician, said it best: "A woman is buying a pair of shoes. Upon this elementary situation it is possible to build a film."
DAYS OF GLORY: MASTERWORKS OF ITALIAN NEO-REALISM | Oct. 15-Nov. 16 | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | cinema.ucla.edu