The roots of neorealism: vintage poster art

The films? Gritty, humanist, passionate about portraying the stark realities of ordinary people’s lives. The original posters? Bold, brash adventures in colour and visual drama. As our The Roots of Neorealism season gets underway, tracing the origins of Italian filmmakers’ turn towards social realism after the war, we share some of the glories of this vintage poster art.


The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927)

Director Vsevolod Pudovkin

While neorealist directors are usually seen to depart considerably from the formalism of Soviet montage, figures such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and in particular, Vsevolod Pudovkin were undoubted influences on the Italian postwar generation. Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg – like the director’s earlier film, Mother (1926) – focuses on the intense personal drama of a character (here a peasant boy) caught up in the vicissitudes of the Bolshevik Revolution.

1860 (1933)

Director Alessandro Blasetti

Alessandro Blasetti was a key filmmaker during the Fascist era in Italy. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he continued to inspire the younger generation of directors after the war. His patriotic, realist epic 1860 is a ‘history-from-below’ chronicle of the unification of Italy as seen through the eyes of a Sicilian shepherd who leaves his family to join Garibaldi’s Mille.

Man of Aran (1934)

Director Robert Flaherty

In 1934, Michigan-born documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty was invited by British producer Michael Balcon to make a film about life on the islands of Aran. Like previous Flaherty works such as Nanook of the North (1922) or Moana (1926), Man of Aran concerns itself with the struggle of man versus nature as well as the onset of modernity. Hugely influential, its mark can be felt in Luchino Visconti’s second neorealist picture, La terra trema (1948).

Aniki Bóbó (1942)

Director Manoel de Oliveira

The debut feature by the Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira is a story of friendship, guilt and fear among a group of street children as well as of their relationship with an often hostile adult world. Shot on location in Porto and featuring a cast of non-professional young actors, Aniki Bóbó anticipates by several years Vittorio De Sica’s more celebrated Shoeshine (1946).

Ossessione (1942)

Director Luchino Visconti

Generally considered to be the first Italian neorealist film, Ossessione brought together a group of young anti-fascist intellectuals, headed by director Luchino Visconti, in an (unauthorised) adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti, a Milanese aristocrat, was able to draw on his time spent working with Jean Renoir in the 1930s to craft an earthy, subversive drama of adultery and murder.

Le ciel est à vous (The Woman Who Dared, 1944)

Director Jean Grémillon

Unusual for both its location shooting and proto-feminist perspective, Le ciel est à vous tells of Thérèse (Madeleine Renaud), the wife of a former fighter pilot, who becomes obsessed with the idea of flying in her own right and sets out to break the long-distance aviation record. The last of three major features made by Jean Grémillon during the Occupation, it’s an uplifting tale of female courage and determination.

Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945)

Director Roberto Rossellini

Rome, Open City was the first film in Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated war trilogy and was inspired by the true story of an Italian priest who was executed for his resistance activities. The director wanted, above all, to faithfully represent the atmosphere of terror he himself had experienced living under Nazi occupation. The film features career-defining performances from Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in a key work of the neorealist canon.

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948)

Director Vittorio De Sica

Perhaps the most famous of all the neorealist productions, Bicycle Thieves’ deceptively simple narrative of a father and son’s search for a stolen bicycle was fruit of De Sica and (screenwriter) Cesare Zavattini’s desire to connect with the drama in the everyday. ‘Why go looking for extraordinary adventures,’ said the director, ‘when what is happening right before our eyes to the most unfortunate in society is filled with such real anxiety’.

Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, 1949)

Director Giuseppe De Santis

Nowhere near as well-known outside of Italy as he should be, Giuseppe De Santis was one of the most important figures of the neorealist period, first as a critic, then as a filmmaker. Bitter Rice was his breakthrough second feature and an unusual (though not necessarily unique) combination of crime melodrama and neorealism. The film is also famous for marking the smouldering feature debut of 19-year-old beauty Silvana Mangano.

Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954)

Director Roberto Rossellini

Arguably the very greatest of Rossellini’s films, this piercing study of a marriage on the rocks is also one of the cinema’s most miraculous love stories. Its magic lies partly in the pitch-perfect casting of George Sanders as cynical, supercilious English businessman Alex Joyce and Ingrid Bergman as his restless wife Katherine. Already bored by the time they reach a property they’re selling, the troubled couple allow differences in taste and temperament to drive them towards divorce, even as Naples, Capri and Pompeii also take their toll… While Rossellini’s customary interest in documentary realism enhances the depiction of the region’s influence on the disenchanted pair, he here moves far beyond social realities to focus on the kind of deeper emotional and psychological truths one finds in the work of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. (Geoff Andrew)

Film notes by Pasquale Iannone

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