The Italian neo-realist film movement only lasted for a brief ten-year period directly following World War II. Twenty years of fascist rule in Italy which strictly controlled what was permissible subject matter for the Italian film industry, as well as the other arts, stifled an entire generation of Italian artists.
At the end of World War II, when fascist control was finally broken, Italian filmmakers De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini, along with writers like Cesare Zavattini and others, were eager to express themselves after years of repression. Italy found itself devastated by the war, as was the infrastructure of the Italian film industry. Perhaps these two elements combined to create a cinema movement immediately recognizable as something special and would be labeled neo-realism.
Elements of neo-realism characterized by the use of actual locations, nonprofessional actors, and a visual look that employed realistic, rough edged black and white cinematography were all dictated by the lack of resources to make studio films. Intellectually, many of the neo-realist filmmakers held political views that could be labeled as left leaning, even Marxist.
The stories they were interested in telling were influenced by these views. The poor, the social disadvantaged elements of post-war Italian society were the subjects of their screenplays and films, shedding light on the hardships of the working class and other social inequities, in hopes of bringing about change, were paramount in the mind of the these film makers.
Neo-realism in its purest form, only handed down a small pantheon of films. Still the movement’s influenced ranged far beyond its post-war Italian time and place. Many neo-realist elements would continue to evolve and influence filmmakers around the world. Limited resources throughout cinema history consistently plague filmmakers, and social ills always need to be exposed.
This list covers some of the American films over the last seventy years that have been influenced by Italian neo-realist cinema. Not all of these films give pure adherence to the strict constructs of what a neo-realist film is. There is debate if even Federico Fellini’s films are neo-realist, although he was one of founding fathers of the movement and had a hand in many of its masterpieces. Neo-realist themes are universal. The story for Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema is taken from a nineteenth century Italian novel and transposed to a poor Sicilian fishing village.
Contemporary American filmmakers like Kelly Reinhardt and Ramin Bahrani’s films in many ways are effectively neo-realist films. To one degree or another, these films, as well as others made around the world since the end of World War II, owe a debt of gratitude to Italian filmmakers who created the movement.
1. Body and Soul (1947)
At the same time the Italian neo-realist movement was dealing with social ills in post-war Italy, American films were dealing with the same themes. Body and Soul starring John Garfield and written by blacklisted writer Abraham Polanski, explores the quest for money by a working class boxer and its eventual corrupting influence.
The film is a sly allegorical indictment of an economic system while ironically remaining well within the same system. A sometimes overlooked and underrated director Robert Rossen directed Body and Soul. Exploring some of the same territory of his latter hit The Hustler, Rossen directs a well-paced, entertaining film that sends home his anti-capitalist message without beating you over the head with it.
Body and Soul is rearguard is one of the best sport films ever made. A major influence on Raging Bull and famous for cinematographer James Wong Howe’s use of roller skates and hand held camera cinematography in the boxing scenes, Body and Soul is worth seeing.
2. Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Jules Dassin was another Hollywood director who ran afoul of the McCarthy era blacklisting. It was probably his work in films like Thieves’ Highway about economic racketeering and the inequities of the California trucking industry that got him labeled as Red. Thieves Highway’ stars Richard Conte as a war veteran seeking revenge from a ruthless produce boss played by Lee J. Cobb.
The film’s slant on how ruthless the powerful become once they get a lock on things, and how powerless the oppressed are, is in full display here. The produce boss has the power to decide which trucker brings produce to the market and under what terms. The system is clearly stacked against the common man and cheats those who actually produce the goods.
The film’s neo-realist influence is clear from Dassin opting to shoot in actual locations at the Oakland produce warehouse market, instead of a soundstage back in Hollywood, as well as using many non-actors. Like other neo-realist influenced films for this era, Thieves’ Highway veers into film noir in some of its stylistic structure, but retains enough neo-realism to keep it on a higher, politically aware plane. Dassin left Hollywood and escaped to Europe. Luckily, unlike other blacklisted filmmakers, Dassin had long and productive career overseas directing many noteworthy films, but never returned to work in his home country.
3. Salt of the Earth (1954)
This film made in New Mexico in 1954 tells the true story of a Mexican-American miner striking for better working conditions and parity with Anglo miners. The left-leaning film, shot in black and white, with many non-professional actors, on actual locations, depicting social problems, owes much to the Italian neo-realist. Salt of the Earth was directed by blacklisted filmmaker Michael Biberman, who was one of the Hollywood Ten, is fearless in its examination of racial inequality and corporate exploitation. Even today, Salt Of The Earth is stunningly progressive and ahead of its time as it examines some of America stickiest economic and social issues.
Ironically, The Salt of the Earth was released the same year as another film about organized laborers’ struggle, On the Water Front. The two films could have not had more divergent receptions. One film won an Academy Award and the director would go on to become successful and honored. The other would find that the anti-communist projection union would refuse to run is film in theaters and it would go unseen and largely forgotten.
Sometimes however, history does not forget. Years later, many of Elias Kazan’s peers would refuse to rise and applaud for the director of On the Waterfront when he received the lifetime achievement award, remembering that his success came at the price of ratting out his friends at the House Un-American Activities witch-hunt. Mr. Biberman refused to testify, chose to remain silent, and went to jail. Michael Biberman would not be honored by the Academy but would leave behind Salt of the Earth and be remembered as a right thinking, ballsy optimist who never sold out.
4. Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971)
In the alternative world of 1970s, Hollywood director Floyd Matrix got the green light for a film about young drug addicts. Eager to tap into the youth market, and without a clue of how to do it, studio head honchos signed off on this hip film despite it having no viable script. It was instead based on some interviews with actual drug addicts.
It would be a mix of professional actors, as well as the actual drug addicts playing themselves, and if all this were not enough, it would be Matrix’s first film. Dusty and Sweets McGee follows the two young addicts of the title as they idly spend their days in early 1970s Los Angeles. The camera rolls as the addicts roam the streets of LA from downtown to the beach. Car radios play the hits of the day as they aimlessly go about their drug-addicted lives. Eating hot dogs at Pink’s, committing petty crime, scoring drugs, and cruising the sunset strip are lovingly documented by Matrix.
There is no plot, but what evolves is a portrait of lost, young souls adrift in failed consumer society. Affluent America is all around them, shiny and sun-drenched like a beautiful California orange, but there is something rotten at the core of this fruit. Vietnam rages on, the Watts riots were still smoldering in people’s minds to the South as the big, shiny convertibles rolled majestically down the endless freeways.
Many neo-realist films indict society for failing to provide for its citizens economically; Dusty and Sweets McGee seems to point a finger at spiritual deficit. Cinematographer Billy Fraker’s documentary style camera captures a languid Los Angeles, muted and sun washed. Life might be a waste, but it is a pleasant drive down to the beach to meet your dealer.
5. Killer of Sheep (1981)
Roberto Rossellini was desperate to make a film. After twenty years of fascist control of which films he could make and a devastating war that left his great city in ruins, he could wait no longer. Nothing would stand in his way, not the war, not the lack of studios and fancy equipment. Lack of actors and good film stock didn’t matter; he would make his film. Overcoming each problem helped give birth to the Italian neo-realist movement.
Thirty years later, another director would be desperate to make his film, and he also would face obstacles. Charles Burnett, in 1977, wanted to make a film about his black neighborhood in South Central LA for his master thesis at UCLA. The film was made with only a 10,000 dollar budget, The Killer of Sheep was shot on 16mm film using the streets as sets and non-professional actors to capture the struggles of one black family.
As true to is subject as any film about poverty and the breakdown of the human spirit, Killer of Sheep overcame it to become what is considered a masterpiece of independent filmmaking. Not widely seen until 2007, because of music copyright issues, Burnett’s film is a poetic document depicting the life of an African-American slaughterhouse worker and his family.
Loosely structured as a series of episodic vignettes, the film’s grainy black and white images capture truth at what Godard called “twenty four frames a second”. Of the many films on this list, the Killer of Sheep encompasses neo-realism in its most complete and truest form. It is a neo-realist film in both its style, subject matter, and the obstacles it took to create it.
6. American Me (1992)
American Me, directed by Hispanic actor Edward James Olmos, takes us into the world of the Los Angeles Barrio. Filmed mostly on location in East LA and a California state prison, the film traces the lives of Mexican gang members as they make the transition from children to hardened leaders of gangs. The film also serves an indictment of the American prison system showing that it does nothing to deter crime, but serves as a place for young men to learn to be criminals.
The film opens with a history lesson comparing the roots of gang life in LA with the Zoot Suit riots of the forties, and then goes on to expose us to what life is like in Hispanic gang subculture, as well as the East LA itself. Olmos, as director and star, moves the film along at a deliberate and contemplative pace, not wanting to glamorize the crime and violence associated with the film. The neo-realist elements of this pacing, location shooting, and sense of history help raise this film-form gang drama to a more meaningful examination of the Mexican-American experience.
7. Friday (1995)
If Federico Fellini’s early films seem to run along a thin line between neo-realism and something else, then the same can be said for F. Gary Gray’s Friday. The story takes place during one day on a street in South Central Los Angles. Two unemployed young men sit on a porch with not much to do, not unlike the young men in Fellini I Vitelloni. It is a confusing and difficult time for young men especially if they are black and live in the hood or a small backward village in post war Italy.
The possibilities are not endless, and the way ahead is not marked. Craig and Smokey played by Ice Cube and Chris Tucker have trouble getting a job and spend day dealing with life’s problems in their community. There is no examination of the roots of the socio-economic disenfranchisement that landed them in the hood. The reality is that they are black, that they have never had positive male role models, are probably poorly educated, and live in a crime and drug infested ghetto. This exclusion from American economic success lies just below the surface. No wonder they sit on the porch and get high.
Friday is not a Marxist tome. Friday is a comedy. Life in the ghetto is not portrayed as hell. It’s just a place where people live and deal with their lot in life. The problems may not be familiar to mainstream America life, owing drug dealers, crack heads, murderous Chicano gangs, but they deal with it all the same. In the end, it turns out to be not such a bad day, debts are paid, no one is killed, and there are girls with whom to hook-up. As the sun sets on South Central, the boys find themselves still unemployed, though.