Issue 10: Feature Article—What is Italian Neorealism?

While RSL‘s remit is to cover fact-based film, we like to push these boundaries on occasion to look at films and movements of particular significance to fans of cinema. As such, we present a short series on Italian neorealism, a movement focused on depicting post-World War II Italian society. It’s also known as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema…


In the aftermath of World War II, Italian society (as well as the country’s film industry) entered a period of turmoil. The resulting impact of these changes influenced a group of filmmakers and critics, including:

  • Luchino Visconti
  • Federico Fellini
  • Roberto Rossellini
  • Vittorio De Sica
  • Giuseppe De Santis
  • Gianni Puccini
  • Cesare Zavattini
  • Giuseppe De Santis
  • Pietro Ingrao

During the period from the early 40s to early 50s, the history of Italian cinema was dominated by the movement that emerged – neorealism. Filmmakers of this style produced a number of works that remain classics to this day.

What characterises a film as ‘neorealist’?

As the name suggests, these films were characterised by their depictions of real life. They usually feature poor, working class people struggling to make a living while fighting oppression and injustice during the German occupation.

The stories are often deceptively simple, such as this week’s analysis, I Vitelloni (1953), which is about the lives of a group of directionless young men in a provincial Italian town, or next issue’s analysis, The Bicycle Thieves (1948), which tells of a poor man’s fight to retrieve his stolen mode of transport so he can keep his new job.

Additionally, neorealist films often feature non-professional actors, or well-known names playing against type. Further, many of the films were shot on location in run-down cities or rural locations where the aftermath of war is evident. A further common aspect is the use of children as symbols of hope and the future, offering a positive message that things will change for the better.

How did the movement develop?

As with most movements, there is considerable variation within neorealism – from the gritty early examples, through to more ‘fantastical’ film, including Miracle in Milan (1951) and Senso (1954), adaptations, such as La Terra Trema (1948), and even ‘comedies’, including Umberto D (1952).

However, despite the wide variety in styles among neorealist filmmakers, the shared social roots and desire to highlight the plight of the working class place these films into one distinct movement.

What happened next?

Italian neorealism declined in the 1950s, as the country’s economy started to prosper and people were no longer interested in watching downbeat films about poverty and struggle. Audiences wanted to watch films with a more positive message, such as those coming out of Hollywood.

In addition, neorealist filmmakers faced resistance from the government of the day, which largely felt the movement promoted negative views of Italy to the wider world. However, the themes of neorealism lingered into the 1960s, such as can be found in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Blow-up (1966).

Outside of Italy, neorealism had a huge influence in countries such as France (French New Wave), Poland (Polish Film School) and India (Parallel Cinema movement). Even modern-day filmmakers (in particular, Martin Scorsese) continued to be influenced by the neorealist movement.

Next time, we offer a filmography of the key Italian neorealism titles.

Issue 11 of RSL is out on 26 October.