By Jan Baetens
Neorealist Film Culture, 1945-1954. Rome, Open Cinema
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (Film Culture in Transition series), 2019
Since the scholarly production on Neorealism continues to be superabundant (and this in more than one language), the new book by Francesco Pitassio may not immediately be distinguished by all those interested in the field, but one can be sure that the outstanding qualities of this book will soon turn it into a real classic, both in the specific domain of Neorealist cinema and in the broader domain of film and cultural studies in general. Pitassio’s study is indeed much more than a new take on Neorealism; it is also a landmark reflection on the theoretical and methodological questions that define film history. In this regard, its stakes and insights are of interest to all those working on film as cultural form, just as, for instance, the book by Antoine de Baecque on cinephilia as a form of film culture, which partially covers similar ground (cf. La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968, Fayard, 2013).
Pitassio’s book is neither a story of Neorealism as a specific style of filmmaking nor a close-reading of some of its well-known masterpieces (by De Sica, Rosselini or Visconti). Instead, the author focuses on a much wider approach that examines Neorealism in light of a large set of cultural-historical traditions, practices, and constraints, that deeply affect a type of cinema often described in terms of absolute novelty and lack of antecedents. Pitassio challenges this narrow (narrowly aesthetic as well as narrowly ideological) and traditionally auteurist notion of Neorealism in order to ask completely new questions and open new windows to overlooked historical contexts and productions. At the same time, this broader contextualization of Neorealism is also a way of reopening a certain number of questions that are too easily, that is, uncritically taken for granted in film studies.
The starting point is Pittasio’s refusal to limit Neorealism to a set of themes, stylistic features, works, and directors, and the decision to consider it a way of reinventing new forms of culture in a period of crisis, when the classic distinctions between old and new, center and periphery, established and innovative are no longer valid and where all those involved in cinema at all possible levels (funding, production, distribution, but also reviewing and actual moviegoing) can no longer rely on existing structures and habits.
After the introduction on Neorealism as “transitional culture”, Pitassio develops his study along four axes: first that of the tension between national, international and transnational culture (Neorealism still has the reputation of being “typically Italian”, but a closer look at this filmic culture displays a permanent interaction between Italian and non-Italian elements); second that of the clash between a very realistic representation of the present (which starts in 1943, when Italy breaks the pact with Germany and the country is occupied by the Nazis) and the complete absence of the twenty years of Fascism that precede the mythical rebirth of the nation; third, the overwhelming presence of non-Neorealist visual styles and images within Neorealism (as shown for instance by the permanent interaction with the photonovel, allegedly very different from all things Neorealist); and fourth the generally ignored copresence of amateurs and professionals in Neorealist films (a way of filmmaking often pitched as voluntarily antiprofessional as a guarantee of supreme authenticity).
On all these points, which Pitassio describes as crossroads, the book radically challenges our traditional ways of thinking on Neorealism. At the same time, the author also returns to a large number of general concepts, such as for instance “realism”, “popular culture” or “nationalism”, in order to give a critical survey of the existing scholarship as well as its usefulness or not for the study of this type of cinema and cinema and culture in general. The advantages of this approach are exceptional: on the one hand, it helps bring to the fore numerous works and authors whose importance has never been acknowledged; on the other hand, it progressively builds a more complex, more nuanced and above all more open reading of Neorealism, which ceases to be the absolute novelty it still is for many of us but which at the same time also appears an extremely fascinating way of dealing with already existing styles and practices, as demonstrated by the brilliant analyses of, among many other discoveries one can make in this book, the role of Modernist documentary styles or the influence of 19th century visual and literary melodrama in the mass-media marketing of these movies with the help of decidedly non-Neorealist posters.