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Photo: ‘The Bicycle Thief’

There are several reasons why the 1920-1960 period is widely considered the golden age of Hollywood. The transformation that American cinema went through in those years set the foundation for the industry as we know it today. The ‘Big Five’ and the ‘Little Three’ studios integrated the whole process of movie-making, promotion, and distribution in their work process and that gave way to the American ‘production line’ approach to cinema ‒ only between 1930 and 1945, the studio system produced more than 7,500 features, of which every stage from conception through exhibition was carefully controlled. 

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The Birth of Sound and Color

However, the most important change was the development and fine-tuning of the actual language of filmmaking ‒ the birth of sound and color. The onset of US involvement in World War II (that brought about a proliferation of war-themed films with strong patriotism and anti-Nazi motifs like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’), the early Cold War period, and the subsequent blacklisting era manifested in themes of invasion, aliens, warfare, and paranoia (with films like ‘Invasion of The Bodysnatchers’ & ‘The Manchurian Candidate’), and that was shortly followed by the tide of the first ‘Colossals’ ‒ historical and biblical blockbusters like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Spartacus’

Outside Hollywood, the 1920-1960 period was even more influential and played a crucial role in shaping modern world cinema. The infamous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was one such landmark in the history of film and, in the words of Andrew O’Hehir, ‘marked a global shift in mass consciousness’. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking ‘Metropolis’ and ‘M’ set the standard for film noir. Dziga Vertov’s experimental ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ introduced new ways of thinking about perspective and POV. Expressionist classics ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ demonstrated a new approach to lighting and set design – discovering ways in which the ambience of a film can be used to create a certain emotional response. 

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Italian Neorealist Cinema

Naturally, most of the early experiments and innovations of that period helped cinema shift away from realism. So, once the war was over in 1945 and post-World War Italian culture entered a new era, world cinema had already had a good 20 years of fiction, the escapism and fantasy-like style of which was often used as propaganda by the Mussolini government in order to conceal Italy’s grim reality. The artistic backlash that followed as a response to that disfiguration of reality through cinema is what is known today as Italian Neorealism ‒ probably the most influential movement in the history of film. 

To this day, the greatest directors of modern times pay their respects to works from that single decade and the role of Neorealism in setting off a completely new period of film in different parts of the world ‒ the French Nouvelle Vague, the Polish New Wave, British Social Realism, and the Iranian New Wave. Neorealism also left a mark on American cinema that we can still see today, with ‘Winter’s Bone’ and the oscar-nominated ‘Nebraska’ being direct examples of that.

The Neorealist movement formally began in 1945 with Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ ‒ the first film in his war trilogy ‒ which depicted the struggles of German-occupied Rome and its inhabitants but also responded to the ailments of the hundreds of millions on the continent that had been torn apart by the war for years. This was one of the first films to depict the woeful state Italy and most European countries found themselves in at the end of WW2, as well as the courage and resistance people had to find in themselves to resist and overcome whatever was forced upon them in an economically and emotionally ruined state. 

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‘Bicycle Thieves’

But Neorealism was much more than a blue collar reaction to the old escapist ways ‒ it introduced the absolute humanism that earlier films lacked, and used it as the main lens through which the audience watched reality take shape. Without any doubt, the most powerful incarnation of that human aspect is Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ ‒ probably the most famous and influential of the Neorealist movies and one that has been honored by directors from Martin Scorsese to Bong Joon-ho as one of the greatest influences on their career. 

The sheer complexity of the simplest story of a good man in bad times and the desperate, hopeless situation he and his son find themselves in is presented to the viewer through the omnipresent culture of poverty of those times and the story somehow manages to accomplish the impossible ‒ deliver the unsmoothed merciless reality, the randomness and desperation of the period, and crown all that with a catharsis of humanity and emotional salvation. 

Very few films have ever managed that, and ‘Bicycle Thieves’ pulls it off with a mostly non-professional cast ‒ the use of non-actors, or at least actors who were very good at being natural, was part of the aesthetic of the neorealist movement (as opposed to glossy studio productions), and the leading man, Lamberto Maggiorani, was a factory worker who didn’t really want to be an actor and tried to get back to his factory job even after the movie’s acclaim. That tendency alone had a huge influence on the indie film production of the 20th century, as hiring non-professional actors became a trend and a justified way to save lots of money. 

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Neo-Realism Captured the World

The way that Neorealism touched on the real world, depicted real problems of real people, and mixed all that with an innately humane point of view proved to have been an explosive cocktail, the recipe of which has been copied in every subsequent decade of film history. In the words of Vittorio De Sica himself, ‘Passions were so strong right after the War that they really pushed us, they forced us towards this kind of film truth. And this truth was transfigured by poetry, and lyricism. 

It was because of its lyricism that Neo-Realism so captured the world. Because there was poetry in our reality.’ De Sica himself practically ended the classic Neorealism with his ‘Umberto D’, a 1952 movie that marked the end of the classic era and paved the way for post-neorealist giants like Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had their roots in Neorealism but continued to lead the golden age of Italian cinema on their own terms. By 1954, after the success of his first feature film, ‘I Vitelloni,’ Fellini moved on from the neorealist movement in its final hours, to come forth with masterpieces such as ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘8 ½’

So, the Neorealism movement is to be credited with launching the career of one of the greatest film directors of all time, and despite its short duration of just a single decade, you can still recognize its influence on the most prominent works of the most notable directors of the modern age.  

By David Tsintsadze

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Black Lives Matter, in which he tackles more than just police reform, press freedom and more – click here.

An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “The Hollywood Insider fully supports the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement. We are actively, physically and digitally a part of this global movement. We will continue reporting on this major issue of police brutality and legal murders of Black people to hold the system accountable. We will continue reporting on this major issue with kindness and respect to all Black people, as each and every one of them are seen and heard.

Just a reminder, that the Black Lives Matter movement is about more than just police brutality and extends into banking, housing, education, medical, infrastructure, etc. We have the space and time for all your stories. We believe in peaceful/non-violent protests and I would like to request the rest of media to focus on 95% of the protests that are peaceful and working effectively with positive changes happening daily. Media has a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so.”

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