Italian Neorealism and National Cinema

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The question whether to consider a particular film part of national cinema is still unanswered. What is national cinema? What separates it from other forms of film genres? What makes it part of ones culture and how does it illuminate identity and patriotism? Films are often described as society’s reflections or representations. Because of films’ utilization and articulation of visual imageries, storytelling becomes more vivid and concretely presented. In addition to that, the presence of alive actors and actresses makes film more in touch with reality.

This is one advantage that films possess over other national art and treasures such as literature and music. The truth of the matter is, it is a combination of both literature, music, visual and performing arts. If the community renders such notions about national cinema, then the dictates of logic and reason readily show that each and every featured film shown in big screens are parts of a bigger picture known as national cinema. However, the problem is that members of the academe and scholars alike seem to be uncomfortable in settling to such an idea.

National Cinema

Keith Cameron noted that in discussing national cinema, there are “axis of reflections” that should be considered [1]. These are the manner in which films are “enunciated.” [2] The second one pertains to different texts and images that these films want to promote or imply.[3] The last but definitely not the least, is how to locate these films within the national context.[4] These three aspects are of great importance to this particular discussion. This would bring a better contextualization of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and how it fits in into the national cinema category.

According to Cameron, there are three ways to enunciate films and that is based on the actual structure and content of the film involved, the analyses and discussions that are given to it and the institutions in which these films are shown and made available to the public. [5]

With this regard, Cameron questions the differentiation of popular cinema from national cinema. First of all, Cameron seem to imply that although some films or productions are supported by the government or even if the country involve, such as France for example releases large numbers of film, these alone cannot really define national cinema’s true meaning. If such is the case, it seems that the term national cinema is too encompassing yet too specific. It is encompassing since, it basically involves films within the region and specific, since each of these cinematic productions goes through the scrutinizing eyes of various critics and members of the academic intelligentsia.

This brings us to the second mode of enunciation which has something to do with the discourses that are attributed to a particular film. More often than not, to determine whether a film would best fit under the national context is based on the studies that deconstruct every ingredient that embodies a locally produced film. On the other hand, Cameron seem to imply that certain organizations which are actively involved in preserving these films play an important role in film classification—so much so, that a local film cannot be considered as part of national cinema unless these institutions tells so.

Turning to the second axis, it is important to look at different symbols and imageries that are embedded in the film. National cinema tends to depict societal and systemic issues. Such readily promotes nationalism, identity, culture and history. But there are also occasions wherein the political structure of a country or state, that are often evident in censorship rules also affect the whole story. Political turmoil can either reinforce the inclusion of nationalistic advocacies and movements in film elements or it can silence these works of art and transform it into mere commodities.

As for the case of the third axis, Cameron noted that locating cinemas within the national context should be examined as a mixture of different film genres that are present within the country. Plurality seem to be an important factor in defining films as part of national cinema that are differentiated by six typologies such as the following: “narratives, genres, codes and conventions, gesturality and morphology, the star as the sign and the cinema of the centre and of the periphery.” [6]

Italian Neorealism and National Cinema

Given this situation at hand, there is no doubt that national cinema, most especially in Italy has taken the attention of many. Angelo Restivo explained that a comparison cinemas that are not produced in Hollywood readily shows that extensive studies and researches has been conducted towards Italian cinema.[7] Based from this argument, clearly, Italian films exemplify the second mode of enunciation wherein it concerns the discourses that revolve around the film per se.

One of the biggest contributions of Italy in the cinematic world is the rise of a genre more popularly known as Neorealism. [8] The defining characteristics of Neorealism are its strong emphasis on social and economic as well as political depiction of society. [9] Maria Prammaggiore and Tom Wallis elucidated that the rise of this film genre occurred during World War II’s aftermath. Roberto Rossellino, Vittorio De Sica and Luchnio Visconti are considered as the main proponents of the said film movement. [10] This has readily contributed into the growth and development of art films that are being offered in the public.

With this regard, there is a need to understand national cinema and its seemingly inevitable fusion with Neorealism. If Neorealism began during the time wherein  communities are torn with war and poverty, then the film genre is expected to be part of a much diverse category, which is of course national cinema.

An examination of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves seems to reflect the social dilemmas that are present in Italy. The Bicycle Thieves is a story of a struggling man who is desperate to land a good job in the city. He has a family to raise and everyday expenses are synonymous to everyday curses. Ricci, who is the main protagonist of the story, is in dire need of a bicycle since it is one of the job’s primary requirements. Job opportunities are scarce and there are also other applicants who are readily qualified for the position. In order to get the job, he and his wife pawned some of their precious possessions to get a bike.

The world literally crumbled during the war. Economies dropped down and more individuals were denied to have a decent means of living. This is well articulated in the film. Ricci’s undertakings represent the experiences of an individual that is in extreme poverty and desperation. Therefore, it has the tendency to reflect the sentiments of persons who are also engulfed in such situation. Italy is not spared from the war’s impact and De Sica showed that even a great city encounter severe problems.

Thus, the social and economic aspect of national cinema in this case is already manifested. Furthermore, since Neorealism, as the term realism depicts, emphasizes capturing reality on screen or at least being closed to reality in that manner. In order to accomplish this, conversational language and natural settings are readily utilized to imbue the “real” effect. [11]

In the first scene alone, Ricci’s environment already manifests extreme poverty. Natural sounds are basically not edited or polished in order to present the realities of the movie’s setting and thus its artificiality is readily reduced. The striking techniques of realism and at the same time, the claims of national cinema make a perfect combination. Perhaps it can be best explained that Neorealism falls under the category of national cinema.

Out of the need to live and survive, Ricci became a bicycle thief too. Apparently, this situation demonstrates war’s remnants. There is the struggle to live throughout the whole war per se. But the battle is even harder when on how to continue life after the incident. The use of close-up shots in the film further heightens the drama that is presented in the film. However, De Sica does not seem to place much importance on dramas that are filled romantic notions—but rather on what is evident in the world.

Linda Badley, Barton Palmer and Steven Schneider [12] explained that questions about Neorealism have something to do with insufficient funding. The raw and organic styles that it features are out of necessity rather than pure stylistic and aesthetically-related techniques, according to its critics. But then again, Badly, Palmet and Schneider discussed that “on-location” shoots are even more expensive since some factors such as the weather and lighting cannot be controlled and that it should go through a series of finishing touches for it to capture the desired effect. [13]

National cinema as previously discussed is a celebration of society’s everyday affairs. De Sica and his great interest and fervor desire in promoting Neorealism is a concrete example of a classic national cinema. Once and for all, the mere fact that Neorealism deals with reality simply purports that national values and experiences are highlighted. The visual imageries that are used in Bicycle Thieves connote a strong presentation of Italy’s previous political and social upheavals that has to be confronted. The aim to depict this reality goes hand in hand with the objective to readily champion a vital change that is essential in Italy’s community. Due to this, national cinema transforms into an art form worthy of praise and recognition.


  1. Badley, L, R Palmer& S Schneider. Traditions in World Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006
  2. Cameron, C,  National Identity. Intellect Books, Great Britain, 1991
  3. Prammagiore, M  & and T Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction. Laurence King Publishing,  London, 2005
  4. Restivo, A,  The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film, Duke University Press, USA, 2002
  5. K Cameron, National Identity. Intellect Books, Great Britain, 1991, p. 96
  6. A Restivo, The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film, Duke University Press, USA, 2002, p.3
  7. M Prammagiore  & and T Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction. Laurence King Publishing, London, 2005, p.310

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