Cinema has always been kind to the fantastical. Whether it be sci-fi or superheroes, there will always be a space for the otherworldly on the big screen, be it another Spielberg classic or the next instalment in the Marvel cinematic universe. But amidst all the CGI madness these films provide, I want to instead focus upon the Italian Neo-Realist school of filmmaking, a movement that originated in post-World War Two Italy.
The movement is the complete antithesis to the blockbusters we see today, with a distinctively humanistic and realistic style that sought to represent the ordinary lives of everyday people. Established in the 1950s, one of its pioneers was a young director called Vittorio De Sica. Originally an actor, De Sica came to define the Italian Neo-realist movement through his depiction of poverty, desperation and injustice in war-torn Italy.
War had crippled Italian cinema, forcing the filmmakers of the time to devise new approaches to filmmaking which were cheap and achievable. Neo-realism was the answer to this. De Sica, like many others began to take to the streets, shooting on location and frequently using first-time actors.
Shoeshine is a brilliant example of this. One of De Sica’s first films, it traces two boys who earn their money shining shoes while dreaming of buying a horse. However, after unknowingly getting involved in a shady deal involving stolen blankets, the pair are sent to a juvenile detention centre.
Very quickly Shoeshine becomes a story of two kids imprisoned in an adult world, where their word means nothing. And yet Giuseppe faces this injustice, remaining loyal to his brother who is the true culprit. Vindication is not an option for these two boys as they are forced to face the realities of imprisonment, with gang loyalty and betrayal running rife. The tragic end to the film cements how De Sica is striving to brutally critique the kill-or-be-killed atmosphere of post-war Italy.
While Shoeshine focuses on the relationship between boys, De Sica’s next prolific film, Bicycle Thieves, centres around the relationship between a father and son. Struggling for money, Antonio manages to get a job plastering posters across Rome, relying upon his newly bought bicycle to do so. However, while plastering a poster, his bike is stolen, and so Antonio is forced to parade desperately around Rome with his son in search of his bike.
This is probably De Sica’s most well-known film and for good reason. It explores the sheer desperation of a father who endeavours to financially support his family while maintaining a façade of positivity. The moment when Antonio’s spirit finally breaks as he slaps his son is truly heart-breaking. In many respects, Bicycle Thieves may be one of the most realistic depictions of poverty and desperation which is what makes it such an emotional watch, but an equally great one too.
Later still, De Sica continues the trend of gradually focusing on older generations with Umberto d – a film about an old man who struggles to pay his rent. Umberto is a mild man who is forced to search around for money after his merciless tenant delivers him an ultimatum; pay a large sum or get evicted. Watching Umberto helplessly try to stay afloat is often dejecting but his relationship with his dog Flike keeps both Umberto and the viewer afloat.
Umberto d is not a flashy film, but that makes it all the more appealing and a needed cleanse from today’s movie culture where action is often a necessity. Admittedly, of the three De Sica’s films mentioned, Umberto d is the most positive but that is not to say it shies away from depicting the harsh realty of economic depravity.
It is also worth mentioning the influence of Cesare Zavattini who incidentally wrote the screenplays for all the films mentioned already. He worked closely with De Sica to create films that were not driven by plot but rather everyday experiences. Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto d all celebrate human spirit and are necessary viewing for anyone looking for an alternative to CGI cinema.