Roberto Rossellini is one of the most important filmmakers of the twentieth century. His work in the genre of Italian Neo-Realism as well as his affiliation with the French New Wave as a pseudo patriarch established not only his global influence in the cinema, but also indicates his essential contribution to the evolution of the cinematic language. Along with Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, Rossellini helped popularize the Italian Neo-Realist movement around the world. The movement itself had been distinctly Italian upon its conception. The very nature of production undertaken by these filmmakers is a direct result of the physical and economical devastation of Italy in the years after WWII. The narratives of the Italian Neo-Realist films concern the working class, often set in poor urban areas and pastoral villages. These preferred locales differ significantly from the bourgeoisie dominated Italian Cinema of the thirties, as did the Neo-Realists choice of casting. With few exceptions, the films of Italian Neo-Realism are cast with non-actors, using instead local people whose lives parallel the artificial lives of the invented characters in the films. It was from these components that the Neo-Realists got their name.
To further avoid the artifice of narrative filmmaking popular at the time, the Neo-Realists employed deep focus wide angled lenses, freeing themselves from the flat surfaces of commercial filmmaking and their inherent sense of spectacle and fantasy. Using this specific equipment, the audience is given the choice of where to direct their attention in the frame, a concept outlined by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in 1939. Italian Neo-Realism was very much a rebellion, designed to return the cinema to the “every man”, and negate the popular penchant for escapism with confrontational social messages.
However, the idealized rebellion that Rossellini originated would do very little to subvert the international mainstream of the cinema. In fact, all of the trappings that defined Italian Neo-Realism would be adapted into the Hollywood mainstream of the fifties. With its overblown studio system Hollywood could not implement the technique of Neo-Realism literally. Instead, the studios set about utilizing their old techniques of fantasy and spectacle to achieve the illusion of Neo-Realism. It was in this way that the styles of Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica entered the American consciousness.
But there would be exceptions to this rule of cinematic stylistic diffusion. In 1953, Morris Engel adopted the Neo-Realist technique verbatim to create his film about American youth Little Fugitive. Like Rossellini and the Neo-Realists, Engel’s film made use of light weight camera equipment and deep focus wide angled lenses, as well as non-actors to construct a reality so close to our own that it remains startling. The primary difference between Little Fugitive and the Neo-Realist films of the forties is sociological. Engel’s film was not shot in a country decimated by war and occupation, but on a then thriving Coney Island, the epitome of American capitalism and commercial excess. But the techniques of the Italian Neo-Realists allow Engel’s film to function as a national portrait, just as their films had succeeded a decade earlier.
Engel’s production value had been considerably less than that of the Italian filmmakers, and thus inspired a generation of American movie directors to create very personal films that were also distinctly regional. This effect that Little Fugitive had can still be felt today, most recently in Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1996) and David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000). The documentarian feel of Little Fugitive, its ability to capture intimacy between its players, would go on to influence John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1958).
Yet, Engel was unique in America’s assimilation of Italian Neo-Realism. The Hollywood studios, in their desperation to find a critical international foothold and a working class audience, sought to recreate the illusion of Neo-Realism in their dramas. The dramas that took upon this task were predominantly based upon successful Broadway plays or one-hour television plays. If one were to compare Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City (1957) with Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) the distinction between actual Neo-Realism and the pretense of Neo-Realism would become painfully evident. However, the adaptation of the Neo-Realist illusion by Hollywood is essential to the development of the New American Cinema of the late sixties and the early seventies, from John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) to Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky (1976).
The question of validity pertaining to realism between all of the aforementioned films is essentially ludicrous. Because the narratives of these films, or the presentation of these narratives on film are scripted, directed, and planned out well in advanced, their actual allegiance to reality is minimal. Again we must return to the concept of illusion. In Italy during the forties, the illusion of reality could afford to be more honest and gritty in the wake of a war. Engel’s film is a noted exception, an experiment on Engel’s part designed to make use of his photographic style with practical application to narrative filmmaking. The Hollywood answer to the Italians is far more glossy, protective of the star system and the reputation of the movies as a form of escapism.