You are on page 1of 9

Non-Professional Actors in Neorealism

Italian neorealism is a film movement that emerged in Italy towards the end of World War II. The first Neorealist film is often said to be Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943). However, it only achieved international attention with Roberto Rossellini's Roma, citt aperta (1945). Important neorealist directors include Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Giuseppe De Santis.

Italian Neorealist films are a product of the economic and social crisis that Italy was undergoing at the end of World War II. They focus on everyday life against the backdrop of political and social issues in post-war Italy.

Italian Neorealism can be contrasted stylistically both with the Classic Hollywood Narrative as well as contemporary Italian genres such as the 'White Telephone' melodramas and romantic films. In technical areas, Neorealism tried to reduce the role of editing. Shooting usually took place on location, rather than in a studio as was common. Long and medium shots were used extensively, with fewer close-ups. Natural lighting was preferred. While some of these were stylistic choices, they were sometimes forced upon directors by budgetary constraints, studios damaged during the war and the lack of film stock.

In terms of plots, Neorealism films focused on contemporary social issues. They focused on the poor, working class in Italy, rather than the rich, as was common in White Telephone films. They often had strong political undertones that were highlighted in the plot. Instead of contrived, 'Hollywood' endings that were so prevalent, Neorealist films had realistic endings that did not present facile solutions to deeper issues.

At the same time, Neorealism does not imply an absolute dedication to replicating the real world.

Instead, it seeks to represent the essence of life, without overemphasizing the mundane. Complete realism is sacrificed so that the essential details can be focused upon.

The Classic Hollywood Narrative is based on the actions of the (usually male) protagonist. In general, the plot structure is as follows: there is an initial state of equilibrium, which is disturbed. The male protagonist confronts the world to solve this problem and save his community, family or loved ones. At the end of the film, the initial state of equilibrium is restored. (Bordwell et al. 18-19)

We are meant to strongly identify with this male protagonist. He is the 'hero' of our film and all other characters are merely 'supporting roles'. He is usually a model of virtue, capable of no wrong and a symbol of the patriarchy. The entire focus of the film is on this hero.

Italian Neorealism goes completely against this. It focuses on community, rather than an individual. In other words, traditional Italy, rather than the 'American Dream'. Central to this is the lack of a 'hero' and the use of non-professional actors throughout neorealist films.

It should be noted that neorealism was a term given to a group of films with similar characteristics after they were made. As De Sica says It is not that one day we sat down at a a table on Via Veneto, Rossellini, Visconti, myself and the others and said: 'now let's create neorealism.' (qutd. in Marcus 22). As a result no single neorealist film will have every characteristic mentioned. For example, Piasan makes use of professional actors, although they act against type. Bicycle Thieves has intricate editing patterns mixed in with neorealist long-takes. In fact, most neorealist films borrow heavily from Hollywood genre films such as the melodrama, the action film, Film Noir, and even musicals.

It may be argued that a more defining character of neorealism might be the common moral statement to

promote a true objectivity one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the 'others,' be they persons or things, with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails. (Marcus 23).

One of the key contrasts between Neorealism and the Classic Hollywood Narative is the importance of actors, between the Star system of Hollywood and and the non-professional actors so prevalent in Neorealism.

The Hollywood Star system was at the very heart of the Classic Hollywood Narrative. It involved big studios taking young actors and turning them into 'stars'. These young actors would be given new names, backgrounds, personalities etc. In short, they were given a character and would constantly be playing this character, both in films and in public. Publicity was the main tool of the studios. No detail of a stars life was too unimportant or too private, unless it might negatively impact the public's perception. This allowed audiences to be able to relate to the stars, almost as if they knew them personally. Movies would be marketed, and funding gained based on the stars in the film. The stars would often play a similar type of character in most of their movies. This gave audiences a sense of continuity from film to film.

The Hollywood Star System started in the early 1920s, with actors such as Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, when producer Carl Laemmle realized that audiencees went to films mainly based on the actors in them, rather than based upon the plot or anything else. The star system thrived for the next few decades and said to have died only with the end of the studio system in the early 1960s. (Cook 36-40)

The Star system was often quite limiting to actors, who were never allowed to play roles outside their

designated character. It also hampered directors who were often forced to adjust plots of films based on the star that was performing in it. Producers or even the actors themselves might demand that changes be made so that audiences would not feel alienated. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock' Supsicion (1941), Cary Grant's character was originally the villain the unfaithful husband who finally poisons his wife. However RKO, the studio, intervened for fear that audiences would not accept Grant in such a negative role and the ending of the film was altered (Spoto 243-44). Thus the star system could force directors to alter their vision, based upon the whims of audiences.

Neorealist films, on the other hand went in the completely opposite direction. Instead of building movies around stars, they removed any trace of stars from the films by casting non-professional actors or by casting against type. There are many different reason for this, as will be seen.

Protagonists in noerealist films often have many faults. There is no place for a Hollywood style hero in the world of neorealism. One important aspect of these films is that they allow us to sympathize with characters that are neither heroic nor honorable. We can identify with their ordinariness, and the harshness of the world around them. Thus the use of non-professional actors in neorealism allowed character to be well rounded, multifaceted and morally ambiguous human beings, rather than crude stereotypes.

Characters often represent not extraordinary individuals but everyday humans. Paradoxically, this means that characters often represented entire social groups or classes. For example, in Rome, Open City, Don Pietro Pellegrini represents the church, Pina the ordinary woman and Marina the collaborator. The focus is taken away from the problems of an individual and is placed on the broader social issues of an entire class class. Hollywood or Italian stars would be a distraction in Neorealist films.

The use of non-professional actors is quite common in neorealist films. However, the importance of non-professional actors to neorealism is best illustrated in Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) and La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles).

Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) is a story of Antonio Ricci, who needs his bicycle for his job. When his bicycle is stolen, he spends the day wandering around Rome with his son Bruno, on an ultimately fruitless search for the stolen bicycle. Politically, Bicycle Thieves is best described as antiestablishment. De Sica shows how Ricci is not helped by any figure of authority the police, the labor unions, the church .

Bicycle Thieves made extensive use of non-professional actors. The protagonist Antonio Ricci is played by a Lamberto Maggiorani, a steel mill worker who De Sica found when the former's son was auditioning for the role of Bruno. (Bertellini 43-44). His wife, Maria, was played by a journalist, Lianella Carell.

Because of the lack of acting experience from most of the cast, De Sica had to sometimes use unusual methods to get the desired response from an actor. This is especially the case of Enzo Staiola, the actor who played Bruno. To make him cry in a particular scene, De Sica hid cigarette stubs in the boys jacket and then accused him of smoking (Bertellini 44).

While seeking a producer for the film, De Sica received an offer from David O. Selznick. Selznick's only condition was that Cary Grant should play the role of Ricci (Bertellini 43). In the end, De Sica turned down the offer and produced the film himself. Although Cary Grant had excelled at playing roles similar to that of Ricci, he would not have been able to portray the character as effectively as Lamberto Maggiorani for a number of reasons.

Antonio Ricci behaves in many ways that we would not accept from a 'heroic' character. For example, early on in the film he allows his wife to struggle, as she tries to carry water back to their house, instead of helping her. He later hits his son, Bruno, for no reason. He is an irresponsible father, who gives his son alcohol instead of apologizing. He generally bullies every character who does not hold power over him. Audiences would have struggled to reconcile Ricci's anti-heroic behavior with the kind of character that Cary Grant usually plays.

Furthermore, Bicycle Thieves is an ordinary story about ordinary people. According to De Sica, he wished to find the element of drama in daily situations (Marcus p 55). Cary Grant, by his very presence, would not allow Bicycle Thieves to achieve this, regardless of his performance. Maggiorani's obscure background and his common look allowed him to be Ricci, rather than just play him as a character. Even more than this, he is able to represent an entire class of ordinary, working-class men, neither heroic nor villainous, that truly represent Italy of that time because he is one of them. Cary Grant, as an outsider, could never have done this.

Luchino Visconti's The Earth Trembles (1948) tells the story of a poor community of fishermen in a town called Aci Trezza, who are exploited by wholesalers. Antonio Valastro is a young but ambitious fisherman who decides to buy his own boat and sell his fish directly in the markets. He has to mortgage his family house in order to finance this. His venture fails when his boat is sunk in a storm. The film chronicles the breaking up of the family and Antonio's eventual return to the wholesalers. The film has strong communist undertones, showing the exploitation of the working class at the hands of the boat owners.

Luchino Visconti uses the inhabitants of the real Aci Trezza throughout the movie. Antonio is played

by a real fisherman, Antonio Arcidiacono. The rest of the cast too, are natives of Aci Trezza. Unlike Bicycle Thieves, however, in The Earth Trembles, their role is not limited to acting. The story too, was often written based on the suggestions of the locals about the next logical step. Visconti also based much of the script on interviews with the locals, about their hopes and dreams. Thus non-professional actors play an active part in creating the film (Visconti 36-38).

The inhabitants of Aci Trezza did not speak Italian, but a local dialect, as was common in poor Sicilian towns. This dialect was nearly incomprehensible to anyone outside the town. The entire town could not be taught to speak in standard Italian, so the dialogue in the movie is exclusively in the local dialect. The audience understands the plot through a narrative voice-over and subtitles (Nowell-Smith 40).

The entire film takes place in Aci Trezza. The camera never leaves this small town. For the duration of the film, Aci Trezza is reality. The only way this was achievable was to show the town as it really was, as if The Earth Trembles was a documentary.

Neorealism is at it's heart the film of the common man, the working class. The exact political principles may vary depending on the political affiliation of the director, but the sympathy for the working class is a common theme. In Bicycle Thieves, De Sica's anti-establishment stance is highlighted by the use of non-professional actors. In The Earth Trembles, Visonti's pro-communism stance is clear. The use of a real community, with real problems and poverty help Visconti advance his political stance. In both films, the hard-working poor were not treated fairly by those in power. More generally, Neorealism was against Americanization of Italy. The individualist 'hero' of Hollywood ties in with the 'American Dream'. The use of non-professional actors is in direct contrast with this.

In conclusion, we can see that Italian neorealist movies made extensive use of non-professional actors

in a variety of different ways. This is a stark contrast from the Hollywood films of the time, where the 'star' was one of the main parts of a film. In Bicycle Thieves it is a stylistic device, which adds a sense of realism to the film. In The Earth Trembles, this is taken to almost a documentary level, with a large portion of the film actively created by the inhabitants of Aci Trezza. As we have seen, these actors can also have significance politically. Thus non-professional actors were an essential and defining part of Italian Neorealism.

Works Cited Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge, 2006. Print. Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print. Marcus, Millicent Joy. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986. Print. Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Luchino Visconti. New York: Viking, 1973. Print. Tonetti, Claretta. Luchino Visconti. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Print. Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. 1999. Print Bertellini, Giorgio. The Cinema of Italy. London: Wallflower, 2004. Print.

Related Interests