The emerging aesthetic of Neorealism in Italian postwar film
According to Andre Bazin's essay "An aesthetic of reality: Neorealism," Paisan as directed by Roberto Rossellini brought forth a new aesthetic in the discourse of film, that of neorealism. The 1946 film was created not long after the end of World War II and fascist Italy's defeat at the hands of the Allies. The film is told in a series of overlapping narratives in a style that recalls that of a novel with interwoven stories rather than a singular, linear storyline. The storylines would have been relatively recent for the contemporary audience, taking place from 1943-1944 during the first Allied invasion. It has been called the first Italian film to "unquestionably" resemble a "collection of short stories" (Bazin 34). Through this juxtaposition of realistic tales in a narrative technique, "Bazin suggests that we are given sense data which by ourselves we could not gather and latent meanings which could be brought out for us only by the film director. While such cinema does not provide an easy handle by which to grasp experience, it attempts to foster an intuitive understanding of its material through sheer selection" (Andrew 1973).
In other words, the neorealist argument is that, because of the miscommunications and misunderstandings inherent in human discourse, film that attempts a 'realistic' texture can be more illuminating than 'real life' itself. The film creates a realistic texture so it can show the miscommunications that take place between different characters. These miscommunications give us clues about the origins of war -- that of religious and ethnic divides, and divides due to romantic love -- that must ultimately broached for there to be an end to the tragedy of war and a realization of the universal brotherhood of all humankind.
Of course, no film is completely an approximation of reality, but by virtue of this selection, the neorealist filmmaker "chooses an aspect of reality and keeps on choosing it. He thus concentrates on the screen what is diffused in life. This surely is an abstraction, but it does no disservice to the subject, for it seeks only to discover and set up the conditions under which that subject can best be viewed and grasped in all its mystery" (Andrew 1973). While the whole of reality cannot be rendered into cinema, through the elliptical 'snapshots' presented of the same theme, namely that of occupied Italy, the director hopes to give the viewer a sense of what life was 'really like' to experience the liberation from both the American and Italian perspectives.
Regarding this cutting-edge technique, Bazin attributes the innovation of the Rossellini film and the generally swift revitalization of the Italian film industry to the greater artistic pluralism allowed under Italian fascism vs. Nazism (Bazin 17). Two aesthetic extremes were manifest in Italian cinema, the most famous of which was the spectacle, as manifested in films like Quo Vadis. The realist trend which combined satire with 'slice of life' reporting was still in its infancy. This trend, after the Liberation, began to fully flower. When Rossellini made Paisan, he was concerned with what was actually transpiring at the time. With "humor, satire, or poetry," the post-liberation films like Paisan rejected existing norms and attempted to create new ones that transcended narrow partisanship and the Italian nationalism that had existed before the war (Bazin 18).
Both irony and compassion can be seen throughout the work. Of course, such notions are inherently crafted and it must be remembered at all times that Rossellini created his film and was not a documentary filmmaker. In fact, "reduced to plot" some of the incidents seem absurdly melodramatic but when viewed in context, in terms of the attitude they suggest, they have great importance in terms of the emotions they project, regarding the despair with which they regard reality (Bazin 25). In Paisan in one storyline, an Italian woman is killed protecting an American soldier, and then is condemned posthumously. This idea of a pure young woman misread by soldiers is the stuff of melodrama but through the lack of linear storytelling it takes on a symbolic weight and the viewer gains a sense of being a 'witness to history' by the seemingly raw nature of the film.
Rossellini was quite deliberate in his selection of specific vignettes. Paisan was always a film, and there are no unstaged scenes. But given the recent nature of events, history served to inspire the filmmaker and using the parts of Italy that had actually been occupied by allied troops enabled viewers to identify with what they saw on the screen, even while the film's texture gives viewers a certain deliberate distance with which to evaluate the actions of the characters.
In terms of the lighting of Paisan and other neorealist films of its ilk, such techniques are of little importance because so much of them take place 'out in the open.' Instead, the close-up is of great value, to give a documentarian's sense of verisimilitude in its style. Much as information is revealed during wartime, the story is presented in a series of fragmented gasps, or bursts of information as the characters struggle to communicate. "The terrible tragedy of the individual murder of the young girl Carmela in the first episode, set in Sicily, and the wholesale massacre of partisans in the final episode, in the Po Valley, might seem to sit uneasily with the comedy of the second episode, in which a drunk military policeman has his shoes stolen by a street urchin in Naples, or with the fifth episode, in which a Franciscan monastery in the north of Italy is shaken to its foundations when it finds itself entertaining a Protestant and a Jew" (McCabe 2010). These series of contrasts, of high tragedy and low comedy, are deliberate to create a sense of the reality of wartime. Colin McCabe's essay on the film calls it "More real than real" (McCabe 2010).
Rossellini's actual crafting of the film was thus intensively 'scripted' to create a sense of reality, just as a novel is a carefully-orchestrated rendition of reality. "Rossellini's realism, that is, should not be understood as some simple transcription of reality but as a juxtaposition of elements that become real as the camera captures them. This is very obvious in the way he sets his fictional material in real locations. A great deal of the power of the final shot, in the third episode, of the American soldier Fred leaving Rome, without having sought out the girl he loved some six months earlier, derives from the fact that he waits for the lorry to pick him up outside the Coliseum" (McCabe 2010). Evidence from the actual making of the film supports this interpretation of neorealism as something 'not quite real' even while it strives to approximate the real. For example, the actress playing Carmela was not Sicilian Neapolitan. Although she was not an actress and in that sense was from 'real life,' her voice still had to be dubbed (McCabe 2010).
The method of assembling Paisan was somewhat idiosyncratic for its time. There was no fixed script, and Rossellini entered the 'real world' which was to be his state, effectively looking for inspiration amongst the people and the places he saw (Brunette 91). Neorealism is based upon a 'dialectic' with reality or an engagement with the unformed authorial vision and reality. The actions of the director, however, shape the reality of the film just as much as he is shaped by it. "What distinguishes neo-realism from previous cinematic novelties is that its practitioners and their supporters like Bazin felt that somehow this particular method or 'moral position,' as Rossellini called it, brought them closer to reality itself" (Brunette 31).
The reoccurring 'reality' of Paisan is the extent to which reality is misinterpreted. Carmela is viewed as a "dirty" Italian based upon the misapprehension of the soldiers when they encounter her (Brunette 94). An African-American soldier gets drunk and is robbed by a young street urchin after stumbling into a street Punch-and-Judy style show, as the 'real life' being photographed enters into an artificial scene of high art. Not only is art imitating life as the African-American 'takes the side' of his supposed race in the pageant, but his very drunkenness points to the need to soldiers to escape the horrific realities of wartime. Later, when the soldier, now sober, returns for the stolen boots which the boy 'promised' to steal when he was drunk, he finds that the child is orphaned.
The Americans 'misread' the Italians based upon barriers of language and this lack of communication is often directly linked to the nature of the individual's family. Carmela thinks the picture of a GI's soldier is his lover, not his sister, as she actually is, and the black GI thinks the little boy is a cunning thief rather than the bereft, orphaned creature he is. In another incident, a drunken GI has an encounter with an Italian woman whom…