Author Topic: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews  (Read 3576 times)

Najemikon

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Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« on: October 08, 2011, 04:32:01 PM »
While making sure my reviews were up to date, I came across three I'd long forgotten to post, which are all from Italy in the 1960s and demonstrate how far Neo-Realism had developed. Don't be put off thinking these are all full-tilt film nerd, pretentious waffle, jacket-with-patches-on-the-elbows needed, bore-ism material! They are powerful, passionate and emotional. Great fun to watch.

I'll start with one of the original examples though, a re-post from one of the alphabet marathons. Bicycle Thieves from 1948 is one of the greatest films ever made and might be Realism at its most pure, almost documentary like...

Najemikon

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Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) *****
« Reply #1 on: October 08, 2011, 04:34:49 PM »
Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) *****

Year: 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Length: 89 Min.

Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, Vittorio De Sica's Academy Award-winning Bicycle Thieves defined an era in cinema. In postwar, poverty-stricken Rome, a man hoping to support his desperate family with a new job loses his bicycle, his main means of transportation for work. With his wide-eyed young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and dazzlingly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodied all the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social righteousness, and brutal honesty.

Bicycle Thieves should be required viewing by any modern film-maker. Without money, without hype you can still make something genuine and powerful, in fact, more so. When you think about the story, there is no escaping the misery. Antonio finally has a job, but his bicycle is essential and it’s in the pawn shop. His wife, Maria, pawns her linen, which was part of her dowry, to get the bike back. And then on Antonio’s first day, it gets nicked! The following day, he and his son Bruno traipse around the city trying to track it down, while a sense builds that this is part of a cycle (no pun intended) and the people who stole it are not malicious, but suffer the same daily problems. How long can a good man survive? And that is it so far as a plot is concerned.

Barrel of laughs that one, eh? But there is a point to Italian Neo-Realism, which is easiest thought of as the opposite of German Expressionism, which uses visual storytelling to wring potential out of every scene, usually via a set or even a scale model of a set, so every angle can be controlled. Mise en Scene becomes essential as everything is carefully tailored to express the meaning behind the story. Neo-Realism never uses manipulation like that. Locations are real and everything is stripped back to bare essentials, to reveal a social conscience with absolute honesty. Casts are often made up of normal people and dialogue is succinct and real. Small moments normally dismissed as superfluous become huge, while a sense of mood and the tiniest gestures take on paramount importance.

In this story, while chasing that bike, you see what’s really important for Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). You might hardly notice on a first viewing the way his relationship with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is drip-fed in with the most delicate touches and it is the same for the character who in a sense is losing focus of what’s important. Not to downplay the importance of that bicycle, it really is essential, but the longer he spends running around after it, the more likely things will get worse. So a story that on paper is sorrowful becomes magical. The key to this is in no small part to the natural charisma of Staiola as Bruno and his expressions in the pivotal cafe scene are wonderful. If you want an emotional connection to characters, there are none better than Bicycle Thieves and you will be rewarded with a sublime ending.
 
It’s a technique I’d love to see used more full-blooded these days too. I suppose it’s a technique that offers nowhere to hide so if the film is rubbish, you can’t rescue it in editing. It will always be crap! Bicycle Thieves is one of the reasons I get frustrated by “greatest films” lists. I love Citizen Kane, but this film, which came eight years later or so, is just as important for an entirely different approach. How can one be “better” than the other? Hitchcock, steeped in German Expressionism, nevertheless would be quicker to thank the Italians for elements of I Confess or especially The Wrong Man.
« Last Edit: October 08, 2011, 04:39:26 PM by Jon »

Najemikon

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Re: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« Reply #2 on: October 08, 2011, 04:38:49 PM »
I'd written that before I saw how the genre changed by the 1960s. Realism directors seemed to be recognising how aware their audience were of the techniques...

Najemikon

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Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets) *****
« Reply #3 on: October 08, 2011, 04:42:49 PM »
Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets) *****

Year: 1961
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Length: 93 Min.


Director Ermanno Olmi’s apparently auto-biographical film is charming, precise and ultimately melancholic. It isn’t as attacking as some other examples of Neo-Realism, as it tackles the inevitable resignation to work that none of us can do much about, but does so with humour and can be oddly uplifting. The story follows a young man from a relatively poor rural background as he visits the fast developing city to take a series of tests before getting a job in a large corporation, where he will have “a job for life” as his father has told him. The films message subtly balances the pride of getting such a job and the promise of what it could bring, with the awful banality of the work and the daunting prospect of “for life” that most of us face! The themes in that sense are as relevant now as they ever were, despite lacking a more pointed agenda that might have aged the film. Putting aside Neo-Realism for the moment, Il Posto shares some DNA with films as diverse as Ikuru, The Apartment, Billy Liar and even Brazil or Office Space!

Olmi directs with a graceful style, long shots and fairly neutral lighting, somewhat typical of Neo-Realism. Such restrain in some cases can cause a film to appear unfocused, but Olmni has all sorts of character moments to give it substance. The relationship between the boy and his parents is particularly wonderful.

Sandro Panseri is excellent in the lead role as Domenico. He has an awkward Buster Keaton quality about him, as we see a range of emotions despite a fairly impassive face and an ever present air of bewilderment. The only thing he seems absolutely sure of is his attraction to Loredana Detto as Antonietta, a girl going through the same process that he can’t take his eyes off.

There is a wonderful sequence during their lunch break on that first day, as he tentatively plucks up courage to speak to her and they get a coffee together, which seems like an adventure on its own! Before reaching the café, they have passed by all sorts of materialistic attractions that they may be able to afford sometime and a psychologist could have a field day with the quiet character moments between them. No pointed dialogue, no exposition, yet it is as rich and captivating as any Hollywood romance you might care to mention, even though there is no plot to speak of that will allow for a contrived relationship between them. In fact, when they are assigned departments, Domenico struggles to find her again.

This indistinct plot allows Olmi to explore other employees at the corporation and the narrative steps away from Domenico in the middle act for brief vignettes, including a lady who keeps arriving late because of her irresponsible children, a talented man who sings at a bar in the evenings and an aspiring writer. As we catch up with Domenico, these other workers colour the scenes. Note for instance the key moment at a company dance where Domenico is desperately hoping Antonietta will turn up. The man who can sing asks to join in with the band, but they make apologetic excuses so he can’t. Even when they’re supposed to be having fun, the company manages to dull the things that make them individual.

The final scene is a superb culmination of the themes, with a touch of sentimentality setting up a sharply ironic conclusion. Olmi closes on Domenico’s bemused expression and despite this fantastic film being 50 years old, you might ask how much of yourself you see in those eyes!

A wonderful film that is occasionally funny and profound, with a critically sharp observation on society that doesn’t feel dated at all. This is highly recommended and if you are looking to explore Neo-Realism for the first time, this is as good a point as any.


Full technical review available at DVD Compare

Najemikon

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Re: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« Reply #4 on: October 08, 2011, 04:46:58 PM »
So between the first two, there is more of a narrative to Il Posto and a kind of invitation to the viewer to be complicit in what they are seeing and how they react. It's important to say at this point though that if you completely put aside the notions of Realism, Il Posto is simply a bloody wonderful film. It makes me smile, just to think about it. It's worth watching simply because it exists and requires no further analysis.

Najemikon

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La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) ****
« Reply #5 on: October 08, 2011, 04:50:05 PM »
La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) ****

Year: 1962
Director:Bernardo Bertolucci
Length: 88 Min.


Based on a book by Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) was Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut. He would go on to more sexually charged work with Last Tango In Paris and the more recent The Dreamers, but there is still an undercurrent of strong passion within this film.

It is essentially a crime thriller in a Neo-Realistic style, structured in a very similar manner to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. Though the comparison can be distracting, La Commare Secca is still a consummate and often beautiful piece of work. The opening scene is quite stunning, especially with the music score, as Bertolucci’s roving camera finally settles on the body of a murdered prostitute near the banks of the river Tiber. The story reveals she was last seen alive in a park and the plot unfolds in flashback as the police interview each suspect who was there that night as well.

As in Citizen Kane, we never see the policeman asking the questions which may imply it is us, the viewer. That idea was explicit in Citizen Kane, but much looser here. What the suspect says in the interview is never the full story, which we see in more detail. Each sequence pauses during a rainstorm to show us the prostitute preparing herself in her apartment, before briefly returning to the current flashback.

The sequences feature a youngster who robs people in the woods with his friends; a chancer working with a woman to demand money from her clients; an aimless soldier; a loner; and a kid who gets in trouble for robbing a homosexual, the same man who reported the body and will eventually identify which of these people was the murderer. The common theme of each suspect and the victim being that they are on the edge of society and there is some irony in them all being suddenly so important.

I found it to be a rather uneven film. The second sequence with the guy dealing with his girlfriends and turning out to be driver for one of them was the best, while the kid who robs the man in the park was very annoying. He and his friends had an incessant habit of giggling between bouts of overacting. Italy's answer to Beavis and Butthead? Not liking that so much!

The brilliance of the film is in Bertolucci’s directing. He successfully builds a whodunit drama through the film, regardless of the shifting tones between the flashbacks, while each of those is a substantial development in the plot, with a sombre atmosphere each time it returns to the doomed prostitutes apartment. While each sequence is a perfect example of Neo-Realism in itself, what you don’t see between them, you form in your own mind and so a typical crime thriller is unfolding into the spaces.

A good film lessened by its similarity to Rashomon and uneven acting, but still worth seeing for how smoothly Bertolucci weaves the different parts into a cohesive whole.


Full technical review available at DVD Compare

Najemikon

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Re: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« Reply #6 on: October 08, 2011, 05:01:15 PM »
In La Commare Secca you can possibly see the influences from other world cinema and it is in the comparisons that we find the Realism. For instance, I referred to Citizen Kane's device of making the viewer feel like the interrogator and how Bertolucci does a similar thing. However, in Kane you could argue it was purely a narrative decision -the audience are tied to one viewpoint until the childhood sequence- whereas in La Commare Secca it isn't so focused. Perhaps it is there to remind us we are watching a film and make us aware of the other sources which seem to be involving us directly.

This is what fascinates me about this period of film. Although this was an example of Realism, it has matured enough to involve the audience and create a kind of whodunnit plot. So creating a plot by not slavishly adhering to a plot!  :stars: Whoa, dude. Where are the drugs?  :laugh: You can start to see the seeds of Dario Argento's movies too. His approach is often compared to Hitchcock, because of how the narrative is aware of an audience and plays up to them, but that's starting to creep through here as well.

What's also nice about this period is how closely some of the film-makers were working together, specifically exploring the limits (or not) of their Genre. So La Commare Secca was written by Pasolini, who also directed the next film.

Najemikon

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Mamma Roma *****
« Reply #7 on: October 08, 2011, 05:04:18 PM »
Mamma Roma *****

Year: 1962
Director:Pier Paolo Pasolini
Length: 102 Min.


I was somewhat reluctant to see Mamma Roma, as I am not a fan of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s more famous and controversial work, such as Salò. Thankfully it is a glorious film with a fascinating story that epitomises the potential of Neo-Realism without losing entertainment value, largely thanks to Anna Magnani’s incredible starring role. It was written in some ways to be a challenge to other Neo-Realist themes of the time and certainly when you consider the style of Il Posto and La Commare Secca, Mamma Roma is definitely angrier.

Mamma Roma is a prostitute who has managed to save enough money to almost escape the trade. She has a new apartment and a market stall, and feels she can now bring her son to live with her in Rome. Ettore is 16 and has been living in a village, but his mother worries about who he mixes with and thinks she can help him live a respectable life with her in the city. Unfortunately, he definitely mixes with the wrong types there, resorts to stealing to buy gifts for his prostitute (ironic!) girlfriend and can’t hold onto a normal job. Mamma Roma does everything she can to keep him safe, but it’s a struggle, not helped when her pimp returns and blackmails her into returning to the streets. It is clear that despite her efforts, Ettore would fare better without her. It is a sombre thought that is never spoken, but there nonetheless.

So she is still trapped and can only rely on others like her. In the last act, there is a reference to The Divine Comedy, reflecting that these characters inhabit a tormented circle of hell they can’t escape. All of the main characters are outsiders of society, such as prostitutes and thieves and there is a damning indictment of the role of religion in society. There is a lot of religious imagery in the film, and note how the Priest is unable to help her son find work because he has not studied and seems to chastise Mamma for wanting a quick answer. In truth, Ettore needs the job to earn self-respect and she is forced to use underhand methods to secure him one. She cannot even rely on the church.

It may sound like a tough story, and it is, but despite their unhealthy lives, Pasolini’s characters are passionate and vivacious, with fruity dialogue (see the opening wedding scene) none more so than Mamma who has a filthy laugh she uses often! The narrative unfolds in a poetic manner, bridged by two sequences when she is walking the streets. She relates a story as she walks, alone in almost complete darkness, but for companions who listen for a time and are then replaced. It makes for a striking effect. While this is firmly a Neo-Realism film, there is still a theatrical staging to the scenes.

Anna Magnani is wonderful as Mamma. She fills the screen with her personality, but can be soft enough to break your heart when she is quieter and lets the intelligence of her character come through. After the exciting wedding scene that opens the film, Pasolini cuts to her years later, just watching her son at a fairground before explaining her plans to him. At this point, Ettore is in full control, but she unwittingly brings him into Rome as an outsider. He is played by Ettore Garofolo and he is very affecting, with a natural screen charisma, very laid back to reflect his character. With some effort, he comes to life with Mamma, first in a funny dance sequence and when he takes her for an exhilarating ride on the new motorbike she has bought him.

But is it all for nothing? His frustration continually gives way to temptation, yet she will not give up on him. The final scene will keep you thinking for some time. The film overall is stunning and I haven’t begun to scratch the surface with this review. It shows Neo-Realism taken to a breaking point, full of metaphor and imagery. The dark plot is not exactly uplifting, but it is very watchable and satisfying.

Najemikon

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Re: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« Reply #8 on: October 08, 2011, 05:23:48 PM »
Mamma Roma was a revelation for me as it vindicated something I'd been trying to explain before, sometimes causing trouble on this very forum!

Just because it looks or feels wrong, it doesn't mean that it is wrong. An artist can break a rule to create another reaction. A mistake may not actually be a mistake, blooper hunters.

It's easy to get wrapped up in film education and learn all the different rules about editing, narrative and composition. But most of what we perceive those rules to be are dictated by a habit of us needing to be right. So for example, a recent discussion about The Dark Knight's action sequence was based on a critic spotting a 'bad' edit (the Reverse Angle rule was broken). He spotted this because it felt wrong. It jarred with him.

What if it was supposed to jar and cause us to double-take? Editing is about making the viewer feel a particular way and even if we feel ourselves stop and think "that was wrong", we should take a moment to consider if that's what the director wanted us to do, and then why.

Obviously this is not an excuse for a basically bad film! Transformers 2 is not a hidden masterpiece, people! The Matrix Revolutions wasn't being clever. They're just shit.  :P

But this is certainly worth bearing in mind when you're watching a highly respected film. For instance, Scorcese has a habit of using loose editing and it's not impossible to spot 'rules' being broken. He isn't being lazy, because it all contributes to a central vision. I always think of the International Cut of Dawn of The Dead. The sequence in the mall, when the survivors are actually safe and quiet, is long, boring and monotonous. I believe Romero was making a point rather than losing focus. He wanted to say that people settle into long boring monotonous lives and effectively become zombies.

Maybe I'm wrong of course, but Mamma Roma is one of the reasons I consider it a possibility because Pasolini had reached a point where he wanted to break the barrier down between the story and the audience so much, he didn't correct the scene where Etore stumbles and looks directly at the camera. In Hollywood, this would be breaking the fourth wall, but Pasolini was determined that you would never forget this was a film. It's not to say it's full of mistakes, of course not, but the narrative does have an openness that is unusual to typical storytelling. There is a feeling that the storyteller is making himself and his opinions on the story known. It works, beautifully.

And to complete the point, I'll end for now with another repost...

« Last Edit: October 08, 2011, 05:27:34 PM by Jon »

Najemikon

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8½ (Otto e mezzo) *****
« Reply #9 on: October 08, 2011, 05:28:31 PM »
8½ (Otto e mezzo) *****

Year: 1962
Director: Federico Fellini
Rating: 15
Length: 133 Min.

A film director (Mastroianni) is struggling to find the creativity required to deliver his next movie and consequently is being hassled by industry figures as well as his wife and his mistress. In order to escape his tormentors, the director retreats into a world of memories, dreams and fantasies. The result is a dazzling array of themes and images which make 8 1/2 the quintessential Fellini movie. It also closely mirrors his own problems prior to getting the project off the ground.

Reviewing a film like is quite tough. Easy to recommend, hard to say why, and impossible to say whether you’ll like it, regardless of how much you appreciate it. Suffice to say it is an intensely personal film for the director, Federico Fellini, and it might just be one for you to. Its beauty is intoxicating whatever your conclusion, so dive in, embrace it and let it simmer on your mind.

It has such a varied and playful structure, that scenes can differ wildly, verging on a collection of set-pieces, yet they flow effortlessly together between Guido’s (Mastroianni) present, his fantasies, and his past. His memory of the exotic Saraghina is a stunning moment in particular. There would be a tendency these days to make the memories and dreams overly romantic and strange to emphasise their place in the story, but here the moments in Guido’s reality can be just as theatrical. There is no signposting between them either, challenging your own perception of the events. What I’m trying to say is that there appears to be no design, when of course there is. In fact, it is astonishingly clever as the self-referential dialogue relates to us the difficulty Fellini is having while making his eighth and a half film, within the film we are watching! Phew… I’m reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay. He had been asked to adapt a novel and the film is about his attempt and failure to do so. While it bends your mind, it boils down to the writer having a block and working it out on screen. Fellini is doing a similar thing.

Mastroianni is marvellous as Guido and he has a great cast to support him, especially the women. The wonderful Anouk Aimée is his long suffering wife, and may be his and the films anchor, while he is teased in his own mind at least by Claudia Cardinale. Barbara Steele also pops up and her entrance is a real wow moment! I’ve often said I think Hitchcock gave Grace Kelly the best entrance of any actress in Rear Window. I’m tempted to put Barbara’s introduction a close second!

Here in these elements is where the film can easily divide an audience. Guido is exhausted, as much from his affairs as from a previous film, but because we are so focused on him and he is suffering from essentially being too successful, it is easy to see it as pretentious self-pity, which he is suffering at his own convenience, you might say. And the film is clearly so personal to Fellini that it may be auto-biographical, so you can’t help but wonder if he is coming to terms with his own addictions and shortfalls by making . So at the end, he feels better and self-satisfied because he shared it with us? If the film wasn’t so bloody good, its self-serving nature and cheap treatment of women could be offensive.

It does have a light and cheeky sense of humour throughout from the first moment to the end and in truth, you are not forced into sympathising with anyone, things just move along as they would naturally. You see his dreams and fantasies, but it is not some sentimental inner voice relating them to us in retrospect, dictated by a narrative. Indeed it entirely avoids committing to having some sort of focused resolution. We see them as they happen and all his neuroses, faults and ambitions are laid bare. Guido is a hard character to dislike, regardless of your perspective (oddly the same problem his wife has!) and it is possibly the most honest and pure film ever made.

I have recently watched three Italian films from the early 60s that demonstrated how Neo-Realism had evolved. Il Posto, La Commare Secca and Mamma Roma (also 1962). That last one, an early film from Pier Paolo Pasolini, demonstrated how the director was seeking such realism in his work that he didn’t want the audience to entirely forget they were watching a film. As such, there is a brief moment where a young actor stumbles during a dance scene and, embarrassed, his eyes look straight at the camera. Passolini left this ‘mistake’ in as part of the experience. The barriers between the film-makers and their audience were being broken down, even while the film still had a poetic and important story to tell.

Fellini took this to a natural end-point in. There is no story as such to tell as it is merely a snapshot within the film-making process. So it’s an enigma because while it could be the purest expression of realism, but there’s surely nowhere else for it to go. And does it even have a point? Well, it is at least a fascinating demonstration of what film can achieve and should be required viewing for everyone. So I suppose it makes its own point, which just sums up the whole, wonderful, infuriating genius of the thing!

Najemikon

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Re: Get Real! Italian cinema and Neo-Realism Reviews
« Reply #10 on: October 08, 2011, 05:39:45 PM »
I'd tried to watch 8½ before but couldn't get into it. But after seeing how Neo-Realism had developed, it suddenly clicked and made sense. Fellini had gone further than anyone in the idea of breaking down that wall between the film and the audience, so much so, that we were somehow now watching a completed film... while it was still being made. This is brilliant and pretentious to the point of being infuriating!

In a way this was surely the limit. There was nowhere to go. Except, I wonder how much these techniques influenced Sergio Leone? His Westerns are very exuberant and exaggerated. He was breaking the conventional rules of how to compose and edit a shot, especially in a Western, to create a sense of theatre and performance. Is Once Upon A Time In The West one of the greatest films ever made, precisely because it is enjoying being a film? There is no effort to hide the style, but instead Leone embraces it. Food for thought.

And if OUATITW, one of the most popular and entertaining films you could hope to see, could be considered in terms of dry boring film-nerd terms like "Neo-Realism", doesn't that prove just how much fucking fun cinema is in any form?  ;)