15 Essential Italian Neorealism Films You Need To Watch

italian neorealism films

“Everyone could play one role perfectly: himself.” – Vittorio De Sica

In Italy, fascism and cinema had always been in a strange relationship. After millions of deaths, years of war and violence; fascism left only two positive things behind: Venice Film Festival and Cinecitta. Fascism, as a consequence of WWII, left thousands of people homeless in Italy; and of course, filmmakers studioless. Great Italian Studio Cinecitta, established by Benito Mussolini in 1937, was damaged significantly during the battles and bombings. This led the filmmakers to go into streets, to experience live action.

Although coined by British painters, Neorealism concept was made famous by Italian filmmakers and screenwriters who brought a complete new aspect of filmmaking to not only Italian cinema but also whole history of cinema. Italian Neorealism, or Neorealismo in Italian language, was made real by a bright young generation of artists who were not able to realize their dreams under the reign of Mussolini and during the war.

From humanism to communism, from liberal to socialist, this new generation searched for new ways to tell stories of post-war Italy (even, Europe), to formulate a story by keeping the budget low and to hold Zeitgeist in palms of their hands.

The neorealist generation consisted of writers, directors and producers including Roberto Rosselini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giuseppe de Santis, Federico Fellini, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico etc…

Like French New Wave, which is a significant influence on Neorealism, Neorealism movement was gathered around a critics’ circle, a magazine called Cinema. Even though under the control of the fascist regime, left tendency critics of the magazine started to run down the famous films of the era which were known as Telefoni Bianchi (White Telephone Movies) – white telephones were used as the signifiers of bourgeoisie – and the only allowed movies in then Italy.

After the war, these theoreticians, critics and writers got their hands on to create a new approach of cinema to show what was going on in the streets, to reveal the unveiled. They used non-professional actors, thinking that the best acting performance was given when a person plays himself/herself. They use ruins, ran down cities as their studio. They wanted to show the morally declined Europe through destroyed buildings and streets.

What was hidden in the real life during Mussolini’s reign was revealed with Neorealism movies. Everyday life activities, pain, suffering, struggle, poverty, joy of life, lower classes were reflected to the silver screen and people who watched the movies tried to capture moments of life they were living in.

Italian Neorealism was a short but creative kindle. After a social devastation brought to country by fascism was overcome, cinema of Italy tend to shift from social subjects of neorealism to existentialist, individual focused ones. This shift was carried onward and at the same time defied by different members of Neorealism movement.

Most of the important filmmakers of the era had been grown by and inside the movement; however, they sailed on to find their own quests and became most important filmmakers in the history of cinema. Directors like Fellini and Antonioni became the pioneers of more personal and unique approach; however, Visconti and Pasolini continued their search of revealing the social structures from a genuine point of view.


15. Gente del Po / People of the Po Valley (1943-1947)

People of the Po Valley

This short and earlier work of great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni is actually a documentary that depicts the lives of a fisher family living in the Po Valley. Its resemblance of cinema vérité and its choice of subject as a simple family doing everyday work which average filmgoers are not used to makes it an important – and early – example of neorealism. Shot in 1943, this movie could only be released after the war, in 1947.


14. Miracolo a Milano / Miracle in Milan (1951)

Miracle in Milan

This tale a la neorealism tells the story of a boy who was found in a cabbage patch by an old woman. After the woman dies and boy becomes a man, he was given a magical dove for realizing the wishes of the poor he lives with. Leading character Toto becomes a Jesus-like figure for slums in Milan. However, his powers were taken away by the angels; yet, dove refuses to leave Toto since it saw the inequity of the earth and Toto’s sincere demand of justice.

Miracle in Milan is an internationally acclaimed film which won Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize in 1951. It is a search by director and writer De Sica with the co-writer Zavattini to combine children’s tales with the realities of early 50s Italy. The film was so successful that it went on to be screened in USA and UK; and won several awards including BAFTAs.


13. Stromboli (1950)

Stromboli (1950)

This drama of Roberto Rosselini is his first collaboration with his to-be-wife Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, Rosselini tries to tell a story of a man and woman against the society with the setting of a volcanic island of Stromboli where people make a living by fishing. Bergman’s character is a Lithuanian immigrant who was trapped in an internment camp, she chooses the only way for salvation: marrying a complete stranger.

In his movie, Rosselini chooses to show the lives of island dwellers. While watching the tragedy of a lonely woman and her disputes with the natives of the Island; Rosselini makes us think about how living on an island with a volcano threat and fishing for a living evolve a group of people and their relations towards strangers. Rosselini casts island dwellers and makes it like a docu-drama, the film depicts the fishing life and evacuation of the island after a real eruption.


12. Riso Amaro / Bitter Rice (1949)

Bitter Rice (1949)

A great pun in Italian language and a great film from the underrated director of the Neorealism. Giuseppe de Santis’s early movie, Riso Amaro, bases on a double entendre, riso which means both rice and laughter. Telling the story of rice planters in the northern part of Italy on the background, this film follows two thieves trying to escape the police, one of which is played by the young and great Vittorio Gassman,

Set in the after-war Italy, de Santis’ camera ingenuously follows the pastoral, newly industrialized life of the Northern Italy. De Santis, in this beautifully shot picture, depicts two thieves, a man and a woman, and their shattering “professional” life and the choices they need to make when they encounter a woman, who, like the most of them, is a poor rice planter. De Santis’ movie is like an elegy to the women of the post-war Italy.


11. Sciuscia / Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine (1946)

Despite being an established socialist, De Sica never chose to show class struggle, factory workers or farmers. Rather, he turned his camera to slums, classless people, those who had nothing to win and nothing to lose. In this movie, De Sica shows us two shoeshine boys whose dream is to own a horse.

Being members of the post-war society of Italy where trickery, fraud and theft rule, these two lost generation boys, in a rather short time, experience lots of problems after they get involved in an illegal business.

De Sica’s calm direction tells the fall of the childhood in Italy materialized in a bitter story of shoeshine boys. Children with bigger-than-life dreams tangled in the illegal network of chaos of 1945 Rome.

De Sica, other than crime networks and people who are forced to be part of it, shows the prison system and confinement conditions of Italy. He establishes a distance between viewer and the boys, however, it is impossible not to sympathize with them. At the end, it is understood that De Sica warned us about the ill fate waiting for the boys, maybe for the future of Europe.


10. Paisa / Paisan (1946)

Paisan (1946)

Roberto Rosselini, prominent figure of Neorealism, is best known for his post-war trilogy, so-called the Neorealist Trilogy. Paisan is the second link of this trilogy. Paisan actually consists of six different short stories set in the Italian Campaign of Allies during the war. It tells the story of ordinary Italians in the war. In the movie, cultural clash between Anglo-Saxon world and Europe is presented as language-barriers.

Although fictional, Paisan shows the reality of the end of the war. The film was made only one year after the war, the memory of the war was still strolling through the streets of Italy. Therefore, Rosselini’s camera works like somewhat a native eye look directs at the reality of the war in Italy. It searches for beyond what is visible to the eye by directly showing it. It’s a shocking “compilation” and one of the most sincere dramas about war ever.


9. I Vitelloni (1953)

I Vitelloni (1953)

Fellini, generally, is not considered within Neorealism movement. As a director may be not, but Fellini is the writer of three movies in this list, including I Vitelloni. Fellini is a director nourished by the backstage of Neorealism. This is where Fellini became a director, a filmmaker. La Strada marks his disengagement with the genre/movement; however, I Vitelloni is the movie where he, not truly but in a sense at least, came close to the Neorealism approach.

I Vitelloni tells the story of five young Italian men, whose childhood must have been stigmatized by the war. It is set in Italy, where middle class was established again and people started to worry about ordinary anxieties of the life. The film is about the ordinary relationships and adventures of men of a certain class, yet, Fellini’s movie stands against Telefoni Bianchi movies.

Basically, Fellini extends Neorealism in accordance with the social change of his soil. Therefore, this film links his neorealist apprenticeship to what we know would be his unique style.