8. Man Push Cart (2005)
In his review of Independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, Roger Egbert states that the film, “Embodies the very soul of Italian Neo-realism.” The story about a Pakistani immigrant who operates a coffee and doughnut cart in Manhattan is told in a simple no-frills style without heavy emphasis on slick storytelling, fancy cinematography, or overly dramatic acting. Bahrani lets the story tell itself relying on simple human elements of sadness, hope, love and regret create its magic.
The image of the push cart operator hero of the film struggling in cold, pre-dawn Manhattan to get his cart out to his corner becomes an allegory for all who push back against difficulty. The character, once a rock star in his home country, simply wants to survive in his new one. His dreams are simple, to perhaps get a little store of his own, so he can reunite whit his son. Life is not fair, but this wonderful film teach the lesson that our existence, like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, is defined by pushing against the stone, no matter how many times it rolls back on top of us.
9. The Visitor (2007)
The Visitor tells the story of lonely college professor who inadvertently becomes involved in the lives of illegal immigrants. Returning to his New York apartment after lengthy absence, he finds that two illegal immigrants have moved in. They have been duped into thinking it was a vacant apartment for rent and now they must leave. The professor, who has lost much of his passion for life and career after losing his wife, allows them to stay out of pity for their predicament. Little by little, the professor’s life begins to intertwine with that of the two immigrants and he begins to sympathize with their tenuous existence.
The story here is told in human terms tapping into a post-9/11 sense of loss. The professor played by Richard Jenkins does a admirable job as he slowly comes to understand the basic unfairness of people who are forced to live under the radar of society or risk being sent back to a their home country. The film’s quite neo-realist elements are used to shed light on the plight of the immigrants as well as the professor’s reclusive and insular life.
10. Frozen River (2008)
Frozen River is a film about woman forced to fend for herself and her children without male assistance. Despite what self-riotous political rhetoric might profess about American family values the reality is far different for many singly mother desperately trying to preserve some sense of family structure.
Two women form a shaky relationship based on mutual desperate financial need. Melissa Leo and the late Native American actress Misty Upham, desperate for money, began smuggling illegal immigrants across a frozen St. Lawrence River between the Mohawk reservation Canada and the United States. The irony here is that there are people desperate to enter the same country that has not provided bare subsistence for the two women smuggling them in.
Director Courtney Hunt’s thoughtful direction does not shy away from details of the smuggling and its suspense, but does not let this film dwell on it for mere entertainment value. Instead, it is a thoughtful examination of two desperate women driven to desperate acts. In neo-realist style, the film’s characters operate from a basic human level.
Director Hunt has commented that she thinks the films are about the basic universal human instinct of mothers to protect and care for their children. Even the woman’s nemesis, a New York state trooper, is conflicted and portrayed with shades of human sympathies for the lawbreakers. Much of the film takes place in the dark of night, but images of the frozen river and landscape are at once beautiful and desperately sad.
11. Ballast (2008)
Ballast takes place in the Mississippi delta and depicts the lives of two African-American families who deal with the suicide of a person who links them. Film critic David Gramer car points out that there is not much of a narrative in this film instead, “It picks through a triangle of angry and resentful silences, despondency, and inchoate emotions, asking us to feel our way towards a deeper understanding of what we’re seeing.”
Directed by Lance Hammer the film is at once poetic and somber. The non-professional actors in Ballast deliver naturalistic performances and, once again remind us, that powerful performances come from the heart. Just like the Italian neo-realist performance of average people in the films of De Sica and Visconti. Such acting makes a strong connection between an untrained actor and audience. This element can explain some the power to communicate which neo-realism can provide.
12. Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Director Kelly Reinhardt’s highly regarded Wendy and Lucy is perhaps the most successful of recent neo-realist influenced films. Winning film festivals and appearing on many “ten best” list the year of its release, Wendy and Lucy embodies an emotionally consciously lacking in some films on this list. Neo-realist Italian directors being Italians, even Marxist Italians, were not afraid to tug at heart strings.
Michelle Williams as Wendy with her short, cropped hair and waifish appearance resembles, in both looks and vulnerability, Giulietta Masina in La Strada. Alone in the world little except for her beloved dog Lucy, with few possessions, short on money and a broke down car. Wendy’s situation will stir sympathy just as Fellini’s sad little clown. The audience cannot help but identify with her on an emotional level.
As with all neo-realist cinema, plot here is of secondary importance, and character development is everything. Wendy’s desires are modest: simply get up to Alaska for job at a cannery. Fate chooses to deny her wish, and forces her to cope with a lack of good options. She is stranded and hungry with little money so she shoplifts at a grocery store, is caught, and both she and Lucy end up incarcerated.
The rules are made up by people, unlike Wendy, who will never be put in to a position to break them. The rules may not have a heart and she encounters some jerks, but most people with whom she interacts are good and help as best they can. In the end, we find ourselves rooting for her and wishing we could help.
13. Winter’s Bone (2010)
Set in the Missouri Ozarks, the socially backward, economically deprived equivalent to neo-realist Sicily, Winter’s Bone proves to be a worthy successor to to the Italian Neo-realist vision. Winter’s Bone tells the story of a teenage girl’s brave struggle to provide for her family in the face of an indifferent and hostile world. The girl played by teen-aged Jennifer Lawrence must get public assistance for her family because her mother’s mental breakdown and her father’s disappearance and presumed death.
The unsympathetic social service bureaucracy, however, requires proof of the father’s death, for the family to produce his body before they can get the needed assistance. Everyone knows her father is not coming back. He has conflicted with the local meth kingpin and is dead. The quest of the young Ozark girl is reminiscent of the search for the stolen bicycle in the Bicycle Thief: everything depends on it. It is social injustices that force people into these desperate situations, whether in postwar Italy or southern Missouri.
Jennifer Lawrence’s character navigates the dangerous hillbilly meth trade with skill and courage. She knows its ways well because it is an insular, small town world where everyone knows your business, because everyone is related. Winter’s Bone was a noteworthy debut for Jennifer Lawrence as well as its directors Debra Granik. The film was well received and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, among other accolades.
14. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
While at first, it would seem that making a non-contemporary film would be at odds with neo-realism, Meek’s Cutoff proves that notion wrong. Kelly Reinhardt’s film documents a wagon train of Oregon pioneers making their way across a harsh and unforgiving western desert. The contemplative pace is in line with its post-war Italian antecedents as the story eventuality takes the settlers from full of promise for a new life to the despair and confusion of being lost and in jeopardy. Their faith in their leader, Mr. Meeks, who at first seems competent, begins to erode as it becomes evident that their trust has been misplaced.
The women are forced to stand by while the men impotently deal with the problem even as the true seriousness of their predicament becomes apparent. The pioneers’ situation mirrors society’s erosion of confidence in institutions, once revered and depended on. Adherence to authority, gender roles, even the naive belief that a better fate waits for them just over the hill comes into question as water and supplies begin to run out, civilized institutions begin to fail the wagon train and more primitive human emotions begin to emerge as survival mode takes over.
Meek’s Cutoff is not the first neo-realist film to forgo a contemporary setting. Roberto Rossellini neo-realist period piece the Rise of Louis the XIV uses the same neo-realist construct with great success. Rossellini, this time, shows how authority and power are put into place instead of being dismantled. Rossellini portrays the king’s rivals as believing that he is just a pudgy dimwitted fop instead of a calculating and intelligent foe. These films express neo-realist sensibilities can be used effectively to tell any story from any time or place with human and thoughtful elements.
15. Nebraska (2013)
As Betty Davis once said, ”Getting old is not for cowards,” Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece Umberto D depicts the sad end of some of our lives, as does Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” The old man in Nebraska played by Bruce Dern is in the early stages of dementia and near in the end of a not so successful life. The character retreats into a hopeless non-reality, instead of facing the bleak past and future. Convinced he has won a fake lottery, he pesters his son to take him Omaha to collect his non-existent winnings. On the journey, they stop off at his small Nebraska hometown.
Bleak, semi-boarded up, and populated by living ghosts waiting out the inevitable, as well as the ghost of Dern’s character’s past. He and his son find some closure in their relationship, but the sadness and feeling of a misplaced life still lingers. The film’s black and white images capture the despair of the austere winter prairie landscape, a perfect choice of film stock for the bleak images, as were the grainy black and white cinematography of all Italian neo-realist film. Just as De Sica did in Umberto D, the film adequately points out modern society’s willingness to discard its members who are no longer useful.
Author Bio: Larry Salvato is a filmmaker and film journalist. He co-authored Masters Of Light: Interviews With Cinematographers which has been re-issued. by UC Press. He lives in Santa Fe New Mexico.