Italian neorealism



Beirut, July 6, 2003




The city connects through characters that normally would not be together, hence who would not connect. Being separated under normal circumstances, they connect under unusual circumstances: resistance to the enemy, a foreign occupation-cum-liberation that triggers a latent civil war, a political upheaval, etc. But where does that lead them to? If fascism and nazism become the target of the groups that resisted their coercive hegemony, it is because they provided an occasion for individuals to be together, to act for a purpose, to feel a oneness that they ordinarily lack, if not a disgust for one another. That is why narratives of resistance have something tragic about them, not necessarily because of the action that they manage to deploy, but because hostile characters mix, unite in a single multi-faced action, and the feeling is that the socio-economic and political divisions are forgotten for a while. Then, one assumes, that life goes back to normal.


It was part of Rossellini’s genius, beginning with Roma città aperta, not to limit individuals to either sociological or ideological components, and to go for their dark obscure sides. Thus, Roma’s communist is portrayed side-by-side to patriots, fascists, nazis, and Catholics, but it’s not his communism that constitutes his essence: he rarely, if at all, discusses it. His dark side—what Barthes would call his punctum—is his attraction to a much younger artist-cum-prostitute-cum-agent who will betray him to the Gestapo. In a similar way, the young artist has something into her that makes her restless, always suffering—like a typical Antonioni character. Thus, beginning with Roma città aperta, which seems on the surface Rossellini’s most conventional and patriotic film, the tone is already set: there’s more into a character than what s/he appears to be, or what traditional plotting provides.


Neo-realism is thus obviously a fiction, meaning a narrative device to fictionalize historical or non-historical events and dramatize them. One could even speak of an over-dramatization, in the sense that the historical nature of the events (including real persona and characters) is not always accurately portrayed. But does that matter, and could we detect herein the main difference between a genuinely historical narrative and one based on pure fiction? Actually, the borderline is not all too clear as I’ll attempt to show later. Narratives are historical constructs which serve to portray events (and people are also events) that are meaningful to a group of people and society. They could thus powerfully act on the imagination in that they catalyze, compress, and make meaningful a cluster of events that would otherwise remain scattered, but by doing so, they also re-organize such events by providing them with new impetus and meaning.


The transformation between Roma città aperta and Paisà consists in a lessening of dramatic narration, one that moves from a set of heroic characters to ones tainted by unsolvable misfortunes. In Roma redemption is all over, and the characters, whether communists, fascists, nazis, or Catholics are happy to meet their fate—and one another face-to-face. Indeed, their whole action is planned for that process of redemption, which comes through their torturers. It is the action of the evil other that renders redemption possible, and one knows for certain the meaning of that action. Thus, the communist would never give anything to his torturers, because that would betray everything he has worked for, while the Catholic priest boasts that it’s harder to die well than live well. The final act of death at the hands of the other is what makes redemption possible. Redemption is also what seals off the film into a traditional narrative, and bring all kinds of popular and populist images and representations together. What primarily helps in that kind of narrative is the shortness of the time framework: had it been stretched over a long period of time, the redemptive side of the characters would have been obscured and uncertain. But by compressing the time framework to five consecutive days, Rossellini creates a narrative that fosters current mythologies and representations. Neo-realism has therefore nothing realistic about it, and in combining longer improvised shots and durations in his following films, beginning with Paisà, Rossellini will act more and more realistically. It is indeed by becoming more and more abstract and removed from reality that Rossellini will finally contribute towards a style closer to reality, one that will look at psyches and emotions in terms of their dissociation from their natural and urban surroundings, which, in turn, will act as protagonists on their own. He will also convey the difficulty behind knowing the nature of such emotions. Their hidden nature, however, is perceived in conjunction with their surroundings, or more accurately, through the framing and camera movements, not to mention the characters’ blank point when it comes to expressing their emotions.


The structural changes in Paisà seem like a radical departure. For one, the six parts are only abstractly and thematically linked, and none of them comes to a satisfying conclusion. Indeed, they all seem only descriptive of a certain reality, that of Italy from south to north during its liberation by the Anglo-Americans. But that ambiguity, which translates into a series of non-endings—or with no end in sight—probably points to an ambiguity towards fascism. After all, Italy had embraced fascism for twenty-one full years (1922-1943) under Mussolini, and that embracement was, indeed, popular—an essential characteristic of fascism, it should be added. So that the sudden upsurge of anti-fascism in the last years towards liberation between 1943-45 is not all too clear, in particular considering the variously “isolated” factions that led it, as could be witnessed in Roma città aperta. In effect, as Hobsbawm noted, anti-fascism came from various isolated intellectual milieus, such as the communists, the Jews, and few artists, and probably few Catholics who were appalled at the gravity of the situation. The short period of liberation, however, when the Italians finally cleared their conscience of any wrongdoing, remains obscure, something manifest in the structure of Paisà, an ambiguity reflected in Rossellini’s own handling of the various six narratives. Was the attitude of the Franciscan monks in the fifth episode one of intolerance? And was the response of the American Catholic chaplain naïve at best? or did it reflect Rossellini’s (and his co-author Fellini) own idiosyncrasy towards Catholicism, as something that was non-politicized and remote, like the space of the monastery where the episode was shot? Considering that in the next few decades Italy will politically survive thanks to the historical entente between Christian democrats and communists—what in effect became the two dominating blocks in society—was the intolerance of Catholics and their narrow-mindedness denaturalized and aborted through the final comments of the chaplain? Or was Rossellini attempting to move to an observational style, one that was not dramatizing as much as describing fragments? Even though the historical thread of events naturally pushed for a south to north narration, the mini-narratives could in fact have been rearranged in any order and the film as a whole would have still remained equally plausible, an indication of the abstract nature of those narratives. Since the formal organization does not contribute towards a better understanding, one is left with an abstract theme as confusing as communication, or the lack of it.


More important than communication, however, is the overall shooting style, close in some respects to documentary artistic photography, which often pushes Rossellini towards improvisation, and which has now become, since the late 1970s, besieged and witnessed by only few survivors (Kubrick, Kizlowski, Kiarostami, and all the other K.’s, etc.). To be sure, the postwar Italian nouvelle vague has been labeled “neorealism” for all the wrong reasons. True, the Italians created that unique style that combined on-location settings, non-professional actors, and improvisation, but its contribution to western art, however, lies elsewhere. In effect, the fundamental contributions of Italian neorealism can be located at three interrelated levels: (i) the shift from a narration based on character and action to one that does not link frames, plot, and montage causally; (ii) framing (cadrage) and montage become the essential tools through which the filmmaker relates to the world and to the audience; hence, plot and characters are subordinated to framing and montage; (iii) the presence of the filmmaker is thus visible throughout the film (hence the dubious notion of auteur): it is as if a particular style of framing and montage creates a self-awareness both for the filmmaker and the spectator. No longer do various scenes flow in a semblance of a natural order and connected through a solidly constructed plot. There is a film within the film, or a critical insecure eye that watches the film flowing, and to which the spectator might or might not identify. The illusion of a free-floating plot is no longer there, and replaced by a framing and montage that push both filmmaker and spectator towards a self-reflexive mode.


Nothing happens, and the plot has vanished. In Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which has become the quintessential non-action film, the plot vanishes as soon as the young lady that we see with her lover and father from the very beginning vanishes. We soon realize that her vanishing neither creates action nor plot, and instead provides an opportunity for the filmmaker to frame his scenes with no apparent (causal) link in between. The protagonists come in and out the frame for no specific reason, and each frame is linked to the following one through a notion of “void.” There is a nauseating fragility to the human gaze: it keeps framing objects and individuals, but fails to connect them in any way meaningful. Traditionally, in the western heritage, and ever since Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the “voidness” in the human gaze has been dealt with through densely packed plots and characters. The fragility of the gaze, and its inability to discern any meaning within the multitude of possible perceptions, has thus been subjugated to teleological plots and becomings. The voidness of the gaze—or the frame in photography, cinema and video—has thus been tainted by plot and action. Cinematic montage—the equivalent to a photographic portfolio—absorbs that voidness through its association of movement to images. The spectator thus becomes aware of an author’s style through cadrage, collage, and montage—the divine trinity of modernity and postmodernity. To begin, the filmmaker is self-reflecting upon the movement of his own work—the self-critical and distanced eye within the film—thus allowing the spectator-as-subject to identify or not with such an approach. In any case, such an approach constantly aggresses the spectator, and forces him or her—in a way reminiscent of a Greek chorus—to perceive the construction of a film as equally important—if not more so—than plot and character. In other words, construction—the “how”—is probably what matters most.


It was of course no coincidence that Italian neorealism developed right after the Second World War. The experience of fascism and the war itself have cast doubts even on the most certain souls. Neorealism, however, would not have been possible without a parallel evolution within cinema and imagery. It is that evolution from the certainty of silent movies to that of sophisticated montage that marks neorealism most: the perception that there is more than one meaning within a frame. The perception that the frame could have different meanings, associations, values, and hence not be limited to plot and action. The filmmaker-author might just suggest a meaning, but he won’t be able to hold the spectator hostage to a single framework. The importance of Italian neorealism lies precisely in the awareness of its various authors, from Rossellini to Pasolini, that the frame is the most important element in the long process of filmmaking: what should be included in a frame, how to describe reality, how to provide depth to each frame. The sheer ability and joy to frame and describe rather than create plots is the essence of neorealism. In that respect, Italian neorealism, in its stubborn attachment to reality, is even more honest than the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and later: the importance of framing and montage, the thick description of reality, the fact that such descriptions outweigh all kinds of abstract narrative devices that the western avant-garde has been accustomed to.


Does Iranian neorealism receive its inspiration from Italian neorealism? In one way, both are concerned in depicting reality and in bringing forth the imagery for that purpose. But Iranian neorealism, by dumping all kinds of cinematic and narrative artifices, proves to be even more radical. In effect, with Kiarostami and company it’s the ontological status of (western?) representation that is at stake. In a famous essay going back to 1938, Die Zeit des Weltbildes, Heidegger interprets the ontological status of images in the modern world. The world is becoming representational through the proliferation of images composed by means of all kinds of technological gadgets. The subject finds itself immersed in a world of images whose power of representation supersedes the subject. But the subject expresses itself and lives through those representations. Representation is therefore an essential aspect of modernity and forces the subject to be beyond itself. If, as Heidegger says, the “most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are not thinking,” on the other hand, the shock of the modern image, says Deleuze, “reveals this inability to think (impuissance à penser) at the heart of thought.” What the modern cinema forces thought to think is the outside, that dispersive, spacing force that passes through the interstice. Thought experiences the outside as “a fissure, a crack,” both in the external world and within.


It is possible that both Italian neorealism and Iranian neorealism have attempted to transcend that dichotomy between a subject-spectator and subject-author-filmmaker, on the one, and an objective world of representations, on the other. Kiarostami does it best. By eliminating plot and narrative in a way even more radical than Italian neorealism, Kiarostami places himself and his non-professional actors in a situation where the world of representations has been abolished. The protagonists thus find themselves in unexpected situations no different from ones in “real” encounters—outside the world of representations. In his most recent films (ABC Africa, Ten), Kiarostami’s miniDV camera slips into the back or front of a car, recording mundane conversations between passengers in an atmosphere closer to cinéma vérité than an invisible camera. Kiarostami exploits well those modern digital cameras that place the spectator in a voyeuristic situation of a home movie. (The Russian Ark, the 90-minute single digital shot, refuses collage and montage, i.e. artificiality and the revisionist (constructed) Russian history of the Marxists-Leninists (or liberals and nationalists). The camera thus plays a tactile role: it sees and touches its pre-revolutionary objects in this single long shot inside St Petersburg’s museum. Thus, by refusing traditional editing and the short cuts, Russian Ark revises Russian history by going back to the nineteenth-century Tsarist period and representing it in a non-edited one-shot fashion—still another way of avoiding “representation” by rolling the camera in a single digital take.) The spectator thus finds himself or herself in a situation of involuntary participation à son insu, without his/her own consent, and that pushes him/her to revise the relationship of the spectator to image (photo), film, and video.


Simplicity could therefore be the motto to all such works. But what kind of simplicity and for what purpose? As human beings, and at the most basic level, we see, feel, touch, and imitate. The prime function of art is therefore mimesis, the imitation that is generated by perception and touching. From the renaissance up to the modernism of impressionism and cubism, art has evolved from direct modes of representation to others that are more conceptual and abstract. It is therefore no coincidence that a “return to basics” has first been triggered at the margins of Europe—in Italy, which generated the Renaissance but then slipped into the decline of its city-states, civil wars, internal feuds, all of which culminated into Mussolini’s fascism. In the wake of the Second World War and the liberation of Italy from fascism by the Anglo-Americans, Italy had by that time lost its intellectual prestige and a brain-drain towards Europe. For a couple of decades, and before the Italian cinema was swallowed by Hollywood’s mass appeal, the Italians neorealists, beginning with Rossellini and his collaborators, began a revision of the fundamentals of cinematic art. Their solution to their artistic and political dilemmas, however, was not to be thought along the lines of a Godardian synthesis and a revision of the western heritage through abstract criticism. Going back to the basics implied giving preference to real settings, non-professional actors, and more importantly, the awareness that plot and action lock narration and the spectator into an illusionary reality. To transcend fiction and artificiality, the neorealists had to ask themselves what were the best artistic tools to capture social reality. Rossellini’s genius was to realize, right from the beginning, that the fascist heritage and Italy’s latent civil war in the wake of the Anglo-American liberation, had to be purged. But Rossellini inadvertently became hostage to his own cathartic success in Roma, and even though much of what he completed later proved more subtle and provocative, he was nonetheless caught in Roma’s tempo: the tragic nature of the narrative and its classic, if not traditional, nature. But when later, and beginning with Paisà, he opted for a dismantling of that one-way tragic narrative by injecting each one of his frames with the multi-faced thick ambiguity of reality, audiences were less enthusiastic—an enthusiasm that will fade with Fellini’s last films and Pasolini’s brutal death.


The point is probably this. Most societies have not experimented yet with modernity and modern art—modernity as defined by Heidegger as an era of proliferation of image representation. A problem emerges, however, as soon as the artistic élites in the third world embrace fashionable western trends, some of which are highly abstract and inappropriate for the societies in question. The problem is less how to import various artistic forms, but how to absorb them for cultures that have not witnessed the slow evolution of modernity, and whose “feudal” heritage survived until the First World War. Like the Italians to which they are often (wrongly or rightly) associated, the Iranians neorealists have manifested a great deal of maturity when they opted for a style that frames reality outside the codified forms of representation that have become predominant in the west. In other words, priority is accorded to the wonders of seeing, touching, listening, and imitating—all of which constitute thinking. Artistic mimesis thus finds its roots in the classical art of the Renaissance, the Persian miniatures, or the African masks.


Our daily lebenswelt therefore provides us with a host of situations, which either traditional narratives fail to account for, or to take into consideration in a way that would render them relevant. Daily life thus becomes the biggest residue in contemporary art, and its reconstruction through narrative only rips it off from its immediacy and voidness while placing into a narrative whole. It has been the challenge of the likes of Kiarostami to bring that immediacy back into the picture—a mixture of cinéma vérité, a voyeuristic invisible camera, and a home-movie improvised style. The long shots are then edited and brought together into a coherent whole. But doesn’t the final editing bring us into a quasi-narrative of the traditional type? In some respects, it does. But on the whole by departing from plot the framing of each scene on its own and for its own sake becomes of primordial importance. By letting those frames freely float outside a constricted narrative, they are kept within their ambiguity of the moment, and their fragile situation as self-contained monads that hold to the outside world through a void. There is therefore nothing that reminds thought of its impassive weakness more than the void—or the abyss—that frames each frame and separates one frame from another.


Can such principles be applied to the humanities, and the social and natural sciences? Science and technology have fractured the world into areas of expertise, rendering it incomprehensible, and more importantly, hindering thought in its aim for totality. Yet, the photographic frame does precisely this: to capture a micro-reality in all its uniqueness in its relation to the void. What the sciences have therefore bracketed from their experience—direct observation, the frame and its voidness, the multiplicities of meanings, montage and collage, and the multi-faced approach to reality—should ideally all return and find their home within the sciences.




copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal