Days of Glory: Masterworks of Italian Neo-Realism October 15 – November 16


One of the most influential national film movements to emerge in the post-World War II era, Italian neo-realism continues to hold sway over filmmakers and artists worldwide even as its exact definition continues to provoke debate. Most frequently positioned as a response to the propaganda of Italy’s fascist-controlled film industry, neo-realism rejected escapism in favor of politically and socially charged subjects, non-professional actors and a documentary style. This allegiance to material reality, however, was never total. Artifice and interpretation always crept in consciously at the edges. In 1953, after a decade of neo-realist classics, even leading neo-realist figure screenwriter Cesare Zavattini had to declare, “We have not yet reached the center of neo-realism.” That this center remains a moving target is one reason why the spirit of neo-realism continues to be readily adopted and adapted by filmmakers around the world. It’s a hopeful trend in a market dominated by a digitized industrial film output that gives new resonance to Zavattini’s next sentence “Neo-realism today is an army ready to start.”

Series programmed by Ian Birnie and Paul Malcolm. All films from Italy in Italian with English subtitles.

Additional screenings in this series are being held at the Bing Theater at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA): Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Accattone” (1961) on Thursday, October 27 and Luchino Visconti’s La “Terra Trema “(1948) on Thursday, November 3. Please visit the LACMA website for more information:

Made possible by: Cinecittà International, a division of Cinecittà Holding; Cinecittà Luce S.p.A.; the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Los Angeles (Alberto di Mauro, director and Massimo Sarti, deputy director). Special thanks to: Rosaria Folcarelli, Cinecittà Luce S.p.A.; Laura Argento, CSC-Cineteca Nazionale; Susan Oxtoby, Pacific Film Archive; Marian Luntz, The Musuem of Fine Arts Houston; James Quandt, Toronto International Film Festival; Margaret Parsons, National Gallery of Art.

The Neo-Realist Moment: Film Frames 1941—1952
“Days of Glory” is being presented in conjunction with “The Neo-Realist Moment: Film Frames 1941—1952,” an exquisite photography exhibition of cinema frames extrapolated from the most important films of the neo-realist movement.  The exhibit opens September 28 at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles.  For more information, please visit:

Like “The Nouvelle Vague”, which was created by Andre Bazin and a group of young film critics from Cahiers De Cinema (and others) Neo-Realism was the creation of a group of journalists and artists writing for Italian magazines Cinema and Bianca e Nero. Their work built on the Verismo (realist) work of 19th century Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. Internationally known for “Cavalleria Rusticana” Verga wrote in an almost clinical realist style about regional life.  Realist writers like Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini, Vasco Pratolini, called for a return to Verism. Most of these writers went on to screenwriting careers, or had their novels adapted for film.

Many filmmakers (Luigi Chiarini, Ferdinando Maria Poggioli, Mario Soldati, Rossellini and Visconti) had worked in the short-lived avant-garde “Calligraphist” movement of the late 30’s, producing films, which features stylized, claustrophic worlds awash with sleepwalkers, mad women, venal priests and decadent aristocrats.

The were also influenced by French poetic realism, In fact Italian critics used the term “neo-realist” in 1943 and 1945 to describe the French films of the 1930s. (French critics later returned the favor, as they championed the emerging Italian Populist movement.)

Directors like Jean Renoir, Pierre Chenal, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Jean Grémillon, Jacques Feyder and Marcel Carné used a sort of heightened estheticised “realism” recreated in the studio to tell stories of despair or doomed love amongst the marginalised or unemployed working class.  Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant” 1939  was the first version of James M Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

Both Antonioni and Visconti had worked closely with Jean Renoir (who gave a copy of Cain’s novel to Visconti.)

Italian precursors include the early films of Camerini (“Rotaie”, 1929) Alessandro Blasetti (“Sole”, 1928) and later “1860”, 1934) Augusto Genina, and the documentary-style films of Francesco De Robertis.  International precursors include Yasujiro Ozu’s “An Inn In Tokyo” (1935) one of Ozu’s last silent films, and Manoel de Oliveira’s “Aniki-Bóbó” (1942). The Portuguese master’s “portrait of street kids from his home town of Porto, was such a critical and commercial failure that De Oliviera didn’t shoot another short until 1956 nor a feature till 1972.

Alessandro Blasetti’s “Quattro passi fra le nuvole” (“Four Steps in the Clouds”,1942), has also been tagged the first Italian neorealist film.

Cinecittà, a “town” dedicated to producing cinema, was built under Mussolini’s administration. Both studio and school, Mussolini brought together notable writers directors and actors, even some political opponents, in a creative network, which became the underpinnings of the postwar industry.

The salon of Vittorio Mussolini (son of Benito Mussolini) morphed into the influential magazine Cinema, where film critics Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Gianni Puccini, Cesare Zavattini, Giuseppe De Santis and Pietro Ingrao, unable to write about politics, instead criticized the telefono bianco (White Phone) films that dominated the industry at the time.

By 1935, pro-Mussollini critic Leo Longanesi called on directors to “go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born.”

In 1936 Umberto Barbaro and Luigi Chiarini co-founded the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and became a teacher. They published the monthly film magazine Bianco e Nero, directly tied to the Centro Sperimentale. In 1943, they coined the phrase “neo realist” to describe their hopes for an emerging style.

Neo Realist films, as we now define them, share a use of location, over sets, (though not always), non professionals for most , if not the main characters, episodic structure filled with the small rituals of daily life, often amongst the marginalized, crowds versus individuals, ‘real time” passages between “important events” mirroring the life of the unemployed, and a documentary like blend of newsreel and narrative sequences. We also now expect an engagée moral code.

Rossellini, whose father owned the Corso Cinema, grew up watching films. After some well received documentary experiments he joined Vittorio Mussolini’s salon, and assisted Goffedo Alessandrini on “Luciano Serra pilota” (‘Luciano Serra, Pilot”-1938) Francesco De Robertis on “Uomini sul Fondo” (“S.O.S. Submarine” 1940) which used a cast of non-pros and Naval crew an officers.

It is arguable that many of the elements of Neo Realism were present In Rossellini’s first feature “La Nave Bianca” (1941) one of a trilogy produced by the Italian Navy’s Propaganda Unit (Centro Cinematografico del Ministero della Marina.) Critics and Rossellini disavowed these early films for ideological reasons, but in later years Rossellini pointed to the spiritual truth of his characters in those “Fascist films.”  

Manifestos by Felix A Morlion, Gianni Puccini, and later Zavattini called for a Christian humanism with a left slant and a working class agenda. Cesare Zavattini stated “This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist.”

Visconti’s “Ossessioni” (Obsession) is considered the first Neo Realist film. The script by Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, Gianni Puccini, Alberto Moravia and Antonio Pietrangeli is based on Renoirs “Toni” and “La Bete Humaine” and James Cain’s novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Screenwriter Antonio Pietrangeli dubbed “’Ossessioni” the first Neo-Realist film. Visconti’s unofficial adaptation of Cain’s novel was blocked from US distribution (under the Fascist ban) to protect MGM’s production of Tay Garnett’s official 1946 version.

Visconti, who adapted Giovanni Verga’s novel, I Malavoglia (The House of the Medlar Tree) for “La Terra Trema” (The Earth Trembles, 1948 dubbed his films ‘anthropomorphic cinema’. “I could make a film in front of a wall if I knew how to find the data of man’s true humanity and how to express it.”

It was the international success of Rossellini’s “Rome Open City” (Grand Prize, Cannes 1948) that put the movement on the map. Rossellini was in pre production before the Nazis abandoned Rome in 1943. The fictional doc style, based on a treatment by Sergio Amidei and journalist Alberto Consiglio, and an episodic script by Rossellini, Amidei and review sketch writer Federico Fellini set the stage for the episodic scripts of future Neo Realist classics,  

As shocking as “Rome, Open City” was to audiences, certain story telling conventions won them over. The final scripts drew on stock characters from popular stage melodrama and review (revista) comedy-the comic overweight priest and his servant, the bad woman and the tragic mother (Mata Dolorosa). The evil Nazi is a modern version of the comic melodrama villain. Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, the only professional actors in the film, were popular stars of the stage revistas.

Many elements, the gritty look (black market film stock), the largely non professional cast, the seemingly documentary intercuts, and the cost saving post-production dubbing became key marks of the emerging movement.

Cartoonist Fellini worked on the editorial staff of the humor magazine Marc’Aurelio, along with Ettore Scola, Cesare Zavattini, and future co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, He became the gag writer for Aldo Fabrizi, Italy’s most popular variety performer. Fabrizi helped in land his first screen writing job on Mario Mattoli’s “Il pirata sono io’ (“The Pirate’s Dream”). Rossellini hired Fellini and through him cast Aldo Fabrizi’s in the role of Father Giuseppe Morosini, the parish priest executed by the SS.

Fellini and Sergio Amidei received an Oscar nomination (1947) for the screenplay of Rome, Open City. Fellini worked as both screenwriter and assistant director on Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) in 1946 before making his own early neo-realist comedy “The White Sheik.” (“Lo sceicco bianco”).

De Sica’s exquisitely observed “Umberto D.”  (1952) Is considered the flowering of the movement and probably the last Neo Realist film.  By 1952, the socialist and liberal parties no longer dominated teh discourse as teh gradual economic improvements of Ricostruzione began. Scripted by Marxist Zavattini, De Sica’s understated masterpiece is still the most important films about the marginalization of the aged. Lonely pensioner Umberto Domenico Ferrari, played by linguistics professor Carlo Battisti, struggles in vain to protest his measly pension and avoid eviction.

His harridan landlady (Lina Gennari) rents out his room for illicit sex, when he’s away. Returning from a stay in hospital, Umberto finds his building destroyed and faces homelessness. His only friends are Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), the kindly pregnant maid
(facing her own dire problems) and his little dog, Flike, There’s a spiritual humanism at work in every frame. Too proud to beg, suicidal Umberto is saved by his dog, who he cannot leave alone.

De Sica said that it was “much easier to achieve a sense of authenticity and spontaneity with a nonprofessional than with a fully trained actor who must ‘forget his profession’ when working on a neorealist film.”

Vittorio De Seta’s astonishing “Bandits of Orgosolo” (Banditi a Orgosolo), which played recently in the “Il Cinema Ritrovato: Rediscovered Film” festival at LMU School of Film & TV, is a ravishing indictment of the encroachment of society and a proto-sustainabiilty polemic. The austere portrait of shepherd Michele, shows how a rural worker turns bandit as his age old tribal moral code comes up against the “Justice” of the modernizing world. DO NOT MISS.

Another highlight of the series is Ermano Olmi’s droll social comedy “Il Posto” (“The Sound Of Trumpets”). Olmi’s wry, fly on the wall approach, shares certain absurdist qualities with films by Czech directors  Milos Forman (“Fireman’s Ball”) and Jiri Menzel (“Closely Watched Trains.”)

A Satire in Italy’s “economic miracle” (Ricostruzione), the coming-of-age films, tracks shy, optimistic Domenico (non-prof Sandro Panseri) whose landed his first corporate job in MIlan. After a series of ridiculous tests, Domenico becomes an errand boy. A potential romance with fetching Antonietta (Loredana Detto) falls apart due to their work schedules. When a suicidal co-worker dies, Domenico lands a “prestigious seat’ in a back corner, where his job for life will wile away year after disappointing year.  In a different way than Antonioni, Olmi and cinematographer Lamberto Caimi use architecture as a character, framing Domenico in expressive for-shortened shots.

Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) (Italy, 1945); Days of Glory (Giorni di gloria) (Italy, 1945) October 15, 2011 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater

Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) (Italy, 1945)  New print!
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
A dramatically contemporary film—shot when Germans still occupied north Italy and released only three weeks after World War II—this searing narrative about the Italian Resistance is an explosive mixture of artifice and actuality. A fighter’s fiancée (Magnani) and a devoted priest (Fabrizi) become unlikely leaders in the fight against fascism; the bombed locations and weary faces offer ongoing testament to their struggle.
Producer: Chiara Politi, Peppino Amato, Aldo Venturini, Rod E. Geiger. Screenwriter: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini. Cinematographer: Ubaldo Arat. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno. 35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 101 min.

Days of Glory (Giorni di gloria) (Italy, 1945)
Directed by Luchino Visconti, Marcello Pagliero, Giuseppe De Santis and Mario Serandrei
Produced for the Allies’ Psychological Warfare Branch, this devastating documentary about the German occupation of Rome and the Italian Resistance movement between 1943 and 1945 provides graphic insight into the violence and turmoil of the period during which the neo-realist impulse emerged as it exemplifies the movement’s aesthetic and moral imperatives.
Producer: Fulvio Ricci. Screenwriter: Umberto Calosso, Umberto Barbaro. Editor: Mario Serandrei, Carlo Alberto Chiesa.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 70 min.

Obsession (Ossessione) (Italy, 1943)
October 16, 2011 – 7:00 pm Billy Wilder Theater
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Director Luchino Visconti employs the story of lust and greed at the pulpy heart of James M. Cain’s novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” as a framework to present the poverty and decay of the Po River Valley in the starkest terms. In so doing, he earned the ire of the fascist government, which banned the film, and set the terms for the neo-realist movement to follow.
Based on a novel by James M. Cain. Screenwriter: L. Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, Gianni Puccini. Cinematographer: Aldo Tonti, Domenic Scala. Editor: Mario Serandrei. Cast: Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Dhia Cristiani, Elio Marcuzzo, Vittorio Duse.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 139 min.

Bitter Rice (Riso amaro) (Italy, 1949); Without Pity (Senso Pietà) (Italy, 1947)
October 29, 2011 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater

Bitter Rice (Riso amaro) (Italy, 1949)
Directed by Giuseppe De Santis
On the run from the cops, a jewel thief’s moll hides out among the migrant women workers who journey to Northern Italy every year for the rice harvest. She builds a fragile bond with her fellow workers until her past catches up with her in director Giuseppe De Santis’ scorching crime drama set against a portrait of rural labor and exploitation.
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis. Screenwriter: Corrado Alvaro, Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli, Gianni Puccini. Cinematographer: Otello Martelli. Editor: Gabriele Varriale. Cast: Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, Doris Dowling, Raf Vallone, Checco Rissone.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 108 min

Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Italy, 1947)
Directed by Alberto Lattuada
Print courtesy of CSC-Cineteca Nazionale.
Co-written by Federico Fellini, Without Pity casts an unflinching eye on smuggling and prostitution in post-war Italy. A young Italian woman enmeshed in the seedy underworld of the port city Livorno turns for comfort to a sympathetic African American G.I., himself grappling with the U.S. Army’s racism. Together, they formulate a desperate plan of escape.
Producer: Clemente Fracassi. Based on a story by Ettore M. Margadonna. Screenwriter: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Alberto Lattuada. Cinematographer: Aldo Tonti. Cast: Carla Del Poggio, John Kitzmiller, Pierre Claude, Giulietta Masina, Lando Muzio, Daniel Jones.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 90 min.

Paisan (Paisà) (Italy, 1945)
October 30, 2011 – 7:00 pm Billy Wilder Theater
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Nitrate print! Print courtesy of the Pacific Film Archive
One of director Roberto Rossellini’s earliest narrative experiments is this six-episode account of Italy’s liberation that charts the horrors, ironies and poignancies of war stretching from Sicily to the northern Po Valley. Cultures and languages collide as Allied soldiers, street urchins, Franciscan monks and partisans intermingle. The deceptively offhanded production underscores the natural confusion; the moments of human clarity register as revelation.
Producer: Roberto Rossellini. Screenwriter: Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hayes, Marcello Pagliero, Roberto Rossellini, Rod E. Geiger. Cinematographer: Otello Martelli. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Benjamin Emmanuel.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 120 min.

Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) (Italy, 1951); Umberto D. (Italy, 1952) November 4, 2011 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater

Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) (Italy, 1951)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
An unusual injection of fantasy into the neo-realist vein, director Vittorio De Sica’s follow-up to Bicycle Thieves (based on a novel by Zavattini) presents a baby discovered in a cabbage patch who, with the help of a magic dove, grows up to lead a shantytown revolt against oil-driven industrialists. Tipping his hat to René Clair and Charlie Chaplin, De Sica offers a warm, delightful fairy tale.
Producer: Umberto Scarpelli. Based on a novel by Cesare Zavattini. Screenwriter: Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica. Cinematographer: G.R. Aldo. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Francesco Golisano, Brunella Bova, Emma Gramatica, Paolo Stoppa, Guglielmo Barnabò.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 101 min.

Umberto D. (1952)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
The heart-wrenching tragedy of De Sica’s Umberto D. emerges from the matter-of-factness with which he depicts the struggle of a retired pensioner to survive with dignity in a world that’s cast him aside. Working with a non-professional cast, De Sica confronts our conscience with images stripped of artificiality and sentiment in perhaps the most perfect example of the neo-realist ideal.
Producer: Giuseppe Amato. Screenwriter: Cesare Zavattini. Cinematographer: G.R. Aldo. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Memmo Carotenuto, Alberto Albani Barbieri. 35mm, b/w, 89 min.

Bandits of Orgosolo (Benditi a Orgosolo) (Italy, 1961) November 7, 2011 – 7:30 pm Billy Wilder Theater

Bandits of Orgosolo (Benditi a Orgosolo)
Directed by Vittorio De Seta
After bandits use his remote sheepfold as a hideout, a shepherd already underwater on his bank loans is forced to flee from corrupt police deep into the treacherous mountains with his flock. In his first fiction feature, documentarian  Vittorio De Seta grounds this rural thriller with rich ethnographic detail to craft a devastating masterpiece about fate and the fragility of life on the economic fringes.
Producer: Vittorio De Seta. Screenwriter: Vittorio De Seta, Vera Gherarducci. Cinematographer: Vittorio De Seta. Editor: Jolanda Benvenuti. Cast: Michele Cossu, Peppeddu Cucco, Vittorina Pisano.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 98 min.

Il Posto (Italy, 1961)  November 16, 2011 – 7:30 pm
Billy Wilder Theater
Directed by Ermanno Olmi
Under pressure from his nagging, working-class parents, the dutiful Domenico applies for a civil service job. Among the applicants, he encounters the fetching Antonietta and strikes up a charmingly awkward relationship. Whatever dewy-eyed nostalgia might  typically accompany such adolescent milestones is  dispelled by director Ermanno Olmi who frames Domenico’s entry into adulthood against the drudgery and resignation of his fellow office drones.
Producer: Alberto Soffientini. Screenwriter: Ermanno Olmi. Cinematographer: Lamberto Caimi. Editor: Carla Colombo. Cast: Loredana Detto, Sandro Panzeri, Tullio Kezich, Mara Revel, Guido Chiti.
35mm, b/w, in Italian with English subtitles, 120 min.

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About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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