September 7, 2014

Are You a Rebellious Filmmaker? Then Join Scorsese in Examining the Work of Roberto Rossellini

Journey to Italy
Martin Scorsese talks often about the films that inspired him as a director during his formative years, many of which are the work of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. In this interview with Vice and The Criterion Collection, Scorsese discusses how the director took modern cinema to the next level with his films StromboliJourney to Italy, and Europe '51 by rebelling against the neorealist movement. 

The interesting things about writing about Rossellini rebelling against the neorealist movement is that 1. Rossellini was a neorealist filmmaker, and 2. neorealism was a direct rebellion against Italy's government-funded Telefoni Bianchi films of the 30s, which featured glamorous sets and stories about the bourgeois. 

Italian neorealism marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Italian Cinema and was characterized by it's realistic cinematic approach: narratives about the lower class, long takes, on-location shooting, small budgets, and the use of non-actors. Like the French New Wave film movement in the '50s and '60s, Neorealism was film critic-born. It was in response to the ways in which WWII changed the social and economical aspects of Italy, and Rossellini was very much a part of the movement, however, as Scorsese points out, he pushed it further, experimented with it, and the result were the three films listed above. Though these films were considered complete rejections of the neorealist movement, and weren't received as well then as they are today, they influenced countless filmmakers' work, including that of Scorsese.

If you're not a cinema history junky like myself and need a more practical application for Scorsese's interview, his points on Rossellini's attention to intimacy are important for the sheer fact that films in Italy at the time were differently intimate. We got to see the private lives of the poor in a very real way in De Sica's archetypal neorealist film Bicycle Thievesbut Rossellini managed to take the Classic Hollywood film style and apply the authenticity that was characteristic of neorealism -- a feat that isn't easy. Essentially, he rebelled and made a different kind of neorealist film.

Though these films are technically considered neorealist, we can see where Rossellini experimented with the archetypes. If you compare Stromboli to Bicycle Thieves for example, Stromboli had 7 times the budget of Bicycle Thieves, used a famous Hollywood star as a lead, Ingrid Bergman (Bicycle Thieves used non-actors), and features a character that wasn't a direct product of the unrest in war-torn Italy, rather a Lithuanian expatriate. Rossellini continued with his experimentation with form and content despite these films being panned, adding to his filmography works that would make him a legendary director.

We know that cinema, like anything, has a way of creating rigid grooves, homogenizing, and sticking to trends, but so many of the greatest films ever made we done so out of rebellion -- out of a filmmaker just trying something new. The lesson: continue pushing the boundaries of not only the medium, but of your own sensibilities. Experiment with structure, content, and form. Grow from what you discover.  Rebel against the norm. Rebel against yourself.

What are some of your favorite filmmaking rebels? Let us know in the comments.     

Your Comment


One important thing about neorealism is that in the early years (just after the end of the war) it wasn't ment as a moviment. Neither quite it was in the end ( "Umberto D" 1955 movie is considered as the last neorelist movie).
The critics started call it "Neorealismo" and start associating some directors and movies to what the theorists said about the new way to do movies.
In Italy the nerealist movies was not so popular and liked as they was in the US, because these movies talked about what the people was living every day and it was very sad to see it also in the theaters.

The movies was shoot in the streets because the stages at Cinecittà were either distroyed or used as storage capacity during the war; the actors died in the conflict; money went gone because of the war; film stock were reused from previous film stock (the movies look so grainy and dirty alsto because of that).

Maybe it was a rebellion, but directors didn't have much other choice.

September 8, 2014 at 6:17AM

Andrea Cassina

It is interesting that you do not mention Rossellini's pre-neorealist career as a fascist filmmaker - that is "fascism" as in "Benito Mussolini" and "Adolf Hitler". Signore Rossellini was a close friend of fascist dictator Mussolini's son Vittorio and it was due to these connections that he found entry into the film industry which at that time was a state-run business. Between 1941 and 1943 Rossellini made three movies which are referred to as his "fascist trilogy". These propaganda movies were made with the close co-operation of the Italian military as well as fascist ideologues. They celebrated the militaristic policies of the Italian state which at that time was allied with the "axis" powers Germany and Japan - as in "Nazis" and "Japs". Rossellini's "Un pilota ritorna" which praises the heroic acts of Italian fighter pilots during their air war on Greece was even co-written by Vittorio Mussolini. In other words, Rossellini before turning "neorealist" and then, as you claim, a "rebel" was very much an Italian equivalent of Leni Riefenstahl (though his movies were visually less refined than "Triumph of the Will" or "Olympia"). Rossellini's first "rebellion", if you will, happened in 1943 right after the collapse of Mussolini's regime: The director jump-started his anti-fascist, later to be called "neorealist", trilogy with "Rome, Open City": Just as his previous three movies had extolled the virtues of fascism, the following three films seemed to be "anti-fascist" - in fact they were anti-German, since Italy had dropped out of the "axis" with their former allies. In other words, Rossellini jumped ship once the war went badly for Italy. Now you may call this a "rebellion" - but this implies a serious corrosion of the meaning of that word. A much more appropriate term for Rossellini's career strategy may be: He was an opportunist who aligned himself with the powers that be.

September 11, 2014 at 7:35AM