15th March 04:01
italian neorealism vs the french new wave
italian neo-realism vs the french new wave?
okay, 'versus' is merely for hype sake but what were the respective
signficance, virtues, and shortcomings of the two great cinematic
movements? which was ultimately more important and influential?
what were their advantages and limitations? Etc. etc.
1. in terms of scope, the french new wave was broader, more
comprehensive and experimental, and revolutionary than italian
neo-realism. while there was something like a reasonably
well-defined credo within neo-realism, the new wave was really
hodge-podge of styles by markedly different artists. one may argue
that rohmer had more in common with rossellini than with godard, that
truffaut had more in common with french masters like renoir than with
rivette, etc. neo-realism was anchored to the world it was trying to
convey whereas the new wave shaped the means by which we intepreted
so, one could argue that 'nouvelle vague' is a useful coinage but
indeed vague, rather like 'generation x', more a media invention than
a set of principles, an approach, or a 'school'. granted, one can
make the same argument about italian neo-realism since there is a
great variance between rossellini and desica; even among desica's
movies, bicycles thieves and miracle in milan are significantly
different. however, there's no question that italian neo-realism was
rooted in reality whereas french new wave wasn't....
2. ... which brings us to the historical, cultural, economic,
generational differences between neo realism and neo wave.
neo-realists went from life to cinema; they wanted cinema to honestly
reflect life, and as humanists in immediate post war world filled with
poverty, desperation, and humiliation, 'life' and 'reality' meant the
basic needs for survival and human dignity. yet, unlike the hard
left, they didn't forgo the personal. soviet cinema celebrated the
collective spirit of the proletariat; its heroes were the iconic new
man or soviet hero. hollywood films gave us the mythic movie stars
who had money, glamour, beauty, etc. and fascist cinema glorified
man as defined by race and nation, or like soviet and hollywood
movies wanted to lull the audience away from reality.
in a europe devastated by war, hungry, and ashamed for its embrace of
or cowardice against fascism and also fearful of hardline fanaticism
of simplistic communist movements, neo-realists(often marxist leaning
but not stalinist) wanted to reconnect cinema with truth about society
and the individual. they confronted cinema defined as a dream factory
for the masses manipulated by capitalists, or as a propagandistic tool
of the right and left. neo-realists had had enough of the grandiose
but empty bombasm of italian cinema under mussolini. hollywood
fantasies seemed cruel and irrelevant when old folks and chillun were
going hungry in the streets, when italian women had turned to
prostitution to get by. also, since the 1920s italians had invested
their hopes and trust in mussolini and fascism who had brought nothing
but ruination to italy. so, it was imperative for neo-realists to be
engaged with reality first; cinema would reflect and flow out of
if neorealists went from life-to-movies, new wavers, in contrast,
went from movies-to-life. they grew up in a depressing world of
postwar europe and lost themselves in the dreamfactory of hollywood
movies. movies became their life, their hopes, their fantasies, their
passion. unlike the previous generation like rossellini and desica
who'd seen the rise and fall of europe and felt personally responsible
and obligated to do the right thing, the new wavers didn't feel any
burden of guilt. they were too young to have collaborated with or
committed political evil. they were born into a world they didn't
care for, they weren't exactly starving, and so they discovered their
own world in the movie theater(just as lennon and others find truth in
american rock n roll). for them, truth was cinema 24 hrs a day.
unlike the neorealists, their starting point was not life but movies;
they couldn't and didn't want to distinguish between the two.
however, as filmmakers with genuine artistic intentions, they weren't
content merely with movies as entertainment; it was their religion,
their faith, and such cinema was their tool toward understanding and
defining the truth, and in this respect, they met the neorealists
halfway; but whereas neorealists' starting point was reality, new
wavers' starting point was cinema(with the possible exception of the
but, starting point is just as crucial as the destination for it
colors the nature of the journey, which is why different religions and
philosophies while searching the same mystery arrive at fundamentally
in the 60s, it was said US and USSR would meet learn to coexist
peacefully with US relying more on social programs and soviets
liberalizing their economy and culture; it never happened as the
gravitational pull of their ideological origins proved too powerful.
still, as neorealists honed their skills, they moved away from realism
of the street to that of the soul, from the public to the private,
from the emotions of physical survival to the need for spiritual
sustenance; as their films became more refined, they began to take on
the shadings of genre--de sica's two women is a like a neo-realist
similarly, though new wavers began with the love of movie
movies(genre fare like noir, romance, gangster film, thriller, etc)
they used those genres to explore and unearth what was truthful and
the artist most frustrated and fascinated by the contradiction between
life and art was probably godard though one could make the case for
the more difficult and obtuse rivette.
godard is an interesting case because he illustrates the truism that
the formative yrs define one's lifelong character. godard's family
was clearly defined by the calvinist strain despite its secularism;
but scratch the surface of a hardline feminist and there's new england
puritanism underneath. in a world without faith, intellect became the
weapon that keeps one pure from the corruptions of the world, and
godard developed a calvinistic intellectualism. his immersion in
cinema and later women were passionate and genuine, but both made him
feel corrupted, compromised thru their irrational and seductive
sensuality. he didn't like losing selfcontrol to temptations nor
could he trust his passions beyond his intellect. it's hardly
surprising that he rejected both woman and cinema after exploring one
to examine the other and vice versa. indeed, just as cinema was *** to
kael, it was to godard, and this perhaps explains kael's admiration
for his earlier films. but unlike unabashedly sensual jewess kael,
godard the quasi-calvinist couldn't stand his emotional dependence on
and awe of women and cinema. so he chose maoism--the most
puritanical of leftist ideology--and reduced cinema down to signals
and reduced woman as a mere intellectual companion/collaborator; his
cinema became deconstructionist religious games, and karina was
replaced first by intellectual wiazemsky and even more intellectual
and dry anne marie melville. godard struck down cinema as dream,
woman as fantasy. he used the maoist concepts then in vogue and
explained cinema thru ideological jargons--bourgeois this, marxist
that, yabba dabba do--but, it was really about a deeply buried sense
of sin of being helpless before the false idolatrous god of cinema and
the pagan allure of goddess woman babe.
at any rate, the case of godard highlights the tension between life
and art that was crucial to both movements.
3. to ask which movement was more important would be like comparing
apples and oranges. both were important and essential in their own
ways in the expanding and advancing cinematic art and possibilities.
one could argue that neorealism was more important for its moral and
social commitment--the notion that art should be connected to life.
but, most critics, is asked at gunpoint, would probably choose the new
wave. there's no question that on the issue of exploring cinematic
possibilities--'art for art's sake'--the new wave went way beyond
neorealism while appropriating many of its elements.
however, one could make the case for the primacy of neorealism on the
basis that it preceded french new wave, laying down the groundwork
that made new wave and other developments possible; to an extent,
neorealism was the root and new wave was one of its flowers--though
new wave also has roots in other traditions in french, hollywood, and
world cinema(similarly, one can argue that though WWII was much
greater event than WWI, the latter was more important for the simple
reason that it came before, in its path destorying the old
aristocracy, bringing bolsheviks, fascists, and nazis into power and
thereby making WWII possible).
think of 'voyage to italy', considered as one of the most crucial
postwar movies by the cahier critics. and, also recall that bazin's
theories which proved so influential to new wavers were immeasurably
enriched, exercised, and proven thru the cinema of desica. though we
don't usually associate neo-realism with film theories, neorealist
films certainly inspired alot of fresh thinking about the meaning,
possibility, and mission of cinema.
considering that bazin's was truffaut's most important tutor and
considering bazin's theories were most fully realized in his essays on
desica, perhaps it's not so surprising that truffaut's first film '400
blows' possesses many of the neorealist virtues. 400 blows is
differerent than your average neo-realist film in its emphasis of the
personal over the social and the quirky over the universal, but there
is the acute awareness of the self trapped in a harsh world and of the
interactions between individual and society in contemporary setting.
other truffaut films informed by neorealist aesthetics would be 'wild
child', 'small change', and the films of the doinel series. but, even
his genre films--fahrenheit 451(sci-fi), shoot the piano
player(romance thriller), mississippie mermaid(suspense/crime)--have
one foot firmly set on realism.
as for godard, while he took many of the plot elements from hollywood
genre films, the stories were set in the grimy real world. his films
were 1/3 hollywood(plot and situations), 1/3 neorealism(setting,
location, milieu), and 1/3 intellectual gameplaying. the difference
between tarantino(at least post-reservoir) and godard is the latter
was concerned with reality apart from cinema and anxious about the
opiate powers of cinema to pull us away from the truth of life and
society whereas tarantino really only knows and cares about movies.
anyway, if we make the case for the greater importance of neorealism,
we must consider the following glories of cinema of the 50s. central
to neorealism was humanism, the idea that there was a common humanity
and universal decency unifying all mankind. neorealism/humanism made
us see beyond culture, races, languages, and told us that in the
postwar world of poverty, hardships, and struggle, all of mankind was
working toward the same essential things. while it could be argued
that japanese humanist cinema of the 50s developed parallel to and not
as a result of neorealism, there is something unmistakably neorealist
in spirit and style of kurosawa's ikiru. also think of 'i live in
fear'. think of mizoguchi's 50s--sansho the mastiff, ugetsu, street
of shame, geisha--films which were socially more committed than
anything he'd done before. and think of kon ichikawa's harp of burma.
also, kobayashi's 'human condition' which for a war movie focuses
more on the travails of the individual mired in daily toil and
frustrations than in thrill of combat--though there is some of that.
the films of bergman in the 50s might owe something to neorealism.
before bergman became an intensely personal artist, he made films like
'summer with monika'--one of his best--which paid close and honest
attention to life and its dreams limited by social reality.
and of course the great satyajit ray was a lifelong admirer of italian
neorealism. his apu trilogy is in many ways inconceivable without the
inspiration of 'bicycles thieves' and other classics for which ray
expressed boundless admiration.
and, neorealism probably has had a fair amount of impact on british
cinema to this very day. everything from 'angry young man' films of
the 60s to the works of ken loach, stephen frears, and mike leigh owe
something to the notion that cinema is a great and ennobling tool for
reflecting reality and that there is a set of rules, methods, and
guidelines--perhaps best articulated by bazin in his consideration of
'bicycle thieves'--that effectively accomodate this process.
even today all over the world, serious film artists with limited
budgets and a passionate need to express something about themselves
and the conflicts in their worlds turn to neorealist mode. hollywood
style production is beyond their reach, but even with just a camera,
small crew, and amateur actors, they can say something moving and
special thru neorealist aesthetics--just as rossellini worked with the
crudest means with 'open city'(indeed, one can argue the new wave was
hollywood done with neorealist means). personally, i'd rather watch a
neorealist film from some country of which i know nothing than its
imitation of artsy fartsy trendiness or crass commercialism. i'd
rather have some nepalese or colombian director try to be rossellini
or desica than spielberg or godard.
bollywood has made countless genre spectacles but the greatest indian
filmmaker is still satyajit ray.
i don't care to see a sci-fi, horror, or thriller from romania or
taiwan(it'd be just other people imitating and conforming to
hollywood), but i wouldn't mind learning something about those people
thru a neorealist film that captures the essential qualities of their
world. think of ousmeme sembene's 'guelwaar' which humanized the
reality of africa. or 'yellow asphalt' which prsented the jewish-arab
tensions more powerfully than any number of books or news programs.
and, think of the works of iranian masters who are no doubt deeply
indebted to the humanist strain in world cinema of which italian
neorealism has been an integral part.
and even hollywood cinema was deeply influenced by neorealism in the
50s. kazan injected elements of neorealism into films like streetcar
named desire and on the waterfront, introducing a sobering as well as
refreshing grit and grimness to american cinema. kazan and others who
took the cue from neorealism brought a starker and rougher reality to
the movie screen which had been the realm of fantasies. it's unlikely
that sam fuller was influenced by neorealism but his cinema certainly
developed in parallel to cultural shift inspired by neorealism. and,
though cassavettes is considered in parallel to the french new wave,
he was undoubtedly deeply inspired by the style and methods of
even very mainstream films like 'from here to eternity' probaby owe
something--even if indirectly--to the changes in american movie
culture as a result of european influences(and in the early 50s, it
was nearly all italian). and think of 'blackboard bungle'. and 'west
side story' was a musical--of all things--acutely aware of the social
malaise of the streets. there were bad developments as a result of
humanism--stanley kramer--but whaddya gonna do?
soviet films like 'ballad of a soldier' and 'cranes are flying'
probably owe something to neorealism as they moved away from stalinist
emphasis on the masses to the socio-poetry of the individual.
indeed, neorealism is one 'school' of cinema appreciated and welcomed
by all nations, all political ideologies, etc. while some nations
might object to bombastic propaganda of their enemies, hollywood glitz
and glitter, or intellectualized gobbledygook--as either indulgent,
subversive, or bourgeois decadent--of much of art cinema, who dare
reject neorealism? from iran to italy to senegal to america to latin
america to france to asia, its humanism and core universal values have
been as accessible and relevant and moving as charlie chaplin.
bicycle thieves is a movie that could be appreciated by a hardline
commie, free enterprise capitalist, devout catholic, fundamentalist
muslim, jiveass african, radical atheist, or lameass asiatic(with the
exception of a hardline libertarian).
and at film festivals around the world today, we often see
shoestringbudgeted indie films made in the neo-realist mold; they may
lack the committed or urgent humanism of rossellini or desica, but
they are highly aware of the individual's place in his environment and
grapple with economic and social realities.
and of course, of course, neorealism didn't expire in italy without
having thorougly changed its cinematic culture; even those who
eventually abandoned it digested its lessons, even if mostly in
rejection(rejection defines us as much as acceptance; what would
mccarthy have been without communism, moore without bush?).
visconti began as a neorealist--la terra trema--and though his later
films went for opulence and grandiosity, there was always a layer of
social critique at the heart of his films. and one of his finest
films--rocco and his brothers--drew its power from neorealist
elements(and probably later influenced the works of scorsese--raging
bull--and coppola--godfather, outsiders, rumblefish).
both rossellini and desica were to have illustrative careers up to the
70s. rossellini tuned his methods toward works for italian tv and
desica won accolades near the end of his career with garden of finzo
but, more importantly there were fellini and pasolini. fellini, who
couldn't stand being tied down to any aesthetic discipline--to
anything or anyone, inf fact--soared away from neorealism but even in
his most lavish and extravagant films, there is a guilt-ridden boy
longing for simpler times with simpler values and freedoms. some of
his best films--white sheik, i vitelloni, la strada, il bidone, nights
of cabiria--are freshly covered in neorealist placenta goo, and he
would return time and again to neorealist elements--out of mocking
mischief, nostalgic admiration, artistic burnout--in films like
amarcord, fellini roma, and ginger and fred.
pasolini got started in cinema in the heyday of neorealism and his
best works owe at least half their power to neorealism. his best
films--accatone, gospel according to matthew, hawks and sparrows, mama
roma, and arabian nights--are steeped in neorealism while his
worst--teorema and salo--strain to be otherwise(self-indulgent
in either case, even in rejection, neo-realism was the reference point
that defined italian directors as disparate as bertolucci, leone, and
antonioni, considered by some as italy's greatest director, began with
a certain degree of allegiance to neo-realism--consider the grim
details and drama of il grido; though he defined his own style that
centered on alienation, isolation, and neurosis of the priveleged
upper-middle class in italy of rapidly expanding economy of the 60s,
there is a sense in his films of longing for core values, urgency, and
meaning so abundant in neorealist films. the people of 'open city',
'paisan', 'bicycle thieves', and 'umberto d' have it pisspoor bad but
they believe in something, have some hope, or there may be a solution
to their problems. in open city and paisan, it's liberation from nazi
occupation. in bicycle thieves, it's a steady job and paycheck and
feeding the family. in umberto d, it's security for the dog and
affordable housing; none of these people aks for much. the people of
antonioni films don't suffer from want; they are priveleged and enjoy
many freedoms. yet, they are empty, as though life loses meaning once
removed from the elemental struggles of existence. in other words,
damned if you do, damned if you don't. if you struggle like people in
neorealist films, life is damn hard; but if you don't have it hard,
you grow decadent, neurotic, lazy, and confused. blow-up was
especially disturbing for it even questioned the validity of reality
itself. neorealism said there is a reality that film must record and
represent. antonioni said in his italian films that man had become
divorced from reality. in blowup and in the fantasy apocalyptic scene
in zabriskie(which is surreal throughout), antonioni questions
reality itself; is ANYTHING real? if reality itself is unstable, how
can art--one step removed from reality--ever hope to do reality
justice when reality doesn't do itself justice? at any rate, there is
an unmistakable link between neorealism and antonioni; his cinema may
be called neuroto-realism, or neurotic about reality.
neorealism also gave europeans and other non-americans a raisinedtart
for continuing, struggling, and surviving--like persistent ricci in
bicycle thieves--in the aftermath of war and disaster and with the
'culturally imperialistic' influx and domination of hollywood and
americanism all over the globe. americans couldn't be rivaled in
amu*****t and thrill but could be challenged on the level of truth,
integrity, and artistic seriousness. 'we can't compete with
hollywood' no longer need be a defeatist refrain but the vital reason
for doing something different and new. it's probably true that
without neorealism, there probably would have been no french new wave.
no satyajit ray. and the rise of humanist cinema of kurosawa,
ichikawa, and others in japan might not won the respect and support in
world cinema circuits. and, then think of the indirect influnce all
these films had on the future generations.
and even non-realist directors like bresson surely learned a thing or
two from neorealism
neorealism, though it emphasized amateur actors, also had a serious
impact on professional acting. brando in 'on the waterfront' wanted
to go beyond the archetype of the hoodlum punk and speak with a voice
that could have been off the street. of course, brando would have had
a great career, neorealism or no neorealism. but for many, his role
in 'on the waterfront' was his signature role and a landmark in
american cinema; and, 'on the waterfront' does owe much to neorealism.
one could argue that indirectly thru brando, neorealism also
influenced the works of nicholson, hackman(especially in french
connection, a kind of neorealist cop thriller), and stallone of rocky.
personally, i prefer the films of new wave but i have greater
admiration for the longterm influence of neorealism. ultimately,
bertrand tavernier is more important than new waveism in the long run
because it's applicable to all places and all times, forever truthful
and relevant. but new waveisms, while brilliant for its time and
though some new wave works will last forever, the lessons of new
waveism can't be applied to future cinema which must find its own
voice. when it refuses to do so, you end up with the rot of latter
day tarantino. neo-realism is always new because it grows out of
forever regenerating reality. but new wave was based on style and all
styles grow old.
of course, great artists know how to learn from all styles and methods
to find their own special voice. think of the great great 'y tu mama
tambien' and 'amores perros' which seamlessly combined the urgency of
neorealism with the brilliance of the new wave.
anyway, new wave has had greater appeal and obvious influence among
the later generation of filmmakers. there are still films of the
neorealist mold being made. think of motorcycle diaries, central
station, hour of the star, el norte, chalk, etc. and there have been
many films which are indebted to both: mean streets and other
masterworks by scorsese.
but, it appears that new wave has subsumed the elements of neorealism
in the same way that Rock has subsumed rock n roll. Rock owes its
being to rock n roll but it was much more, blending with elements of
folk, raga, classical, modern, jazz, etc. if new wave and Rock seem
more appealing to artists than neorealism or rock n roll, it's largely
because new wave and rock promise the freedom to make cinema or music
whatever they want it to be. neorealism had a narrower set of rules
than the new wave which comprised everything from 400 blows to
alphaville to my night at maud's to man and a woman to umbrellas of
churbug. but we mustn't forget the roots.
finally, could one argue bunuel is the real father of neorealism with
'los olvidados'? a kind of neo-surrealism?