Ever wondered what it was like on one of our evening courses? Marie O’Sullivan shares her experience…
I’ve attended several Cornerhouse courses in the past, and they’ve always been good fun and packed full of information. They also introduce me to films which I’ve not only never seen, but sometimes never heard of – and I was ready for the Introduction to Neorealism course to do the same. It didn’t disappoint!
The blurb (sorry, course notes) describes Italian Neorealism as “one of the most revolutionary cinematic styles of the twentieth century” and that is has “continued to influence contemporary film directors”. So what was so revolutionary, and what remains so influential? The first few weeks were set to look at the revolution, and so the course leader, Adalgisa Serio, started with the film considered to have laid down the characteristics of Neorealism – Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).
Filmed in the ruins of Rome as opposed to using a film set, director Roberto Rossellini set out to show the harsh reality of Italy during the war. He put the hardships of wartime Rome centre-screen – populist leaders fleeing the Germans via the rooftops, women struggling to feed their families, children as go-betweens. This was in stark opposition to the Hollywood films of the time, which provided an escape from real life and was referred to in Italy with some disdain as ‘white telephone’ films – because the glamorous female protagonists were often seen in sumptuous apartments talking on white telephones. The heroes of this film are the ordinary, working class characters, played for the most part by non-professional actors, chosen for the way they looked rather than any acting ability.
Films in the next few weeks also shared these characteristics. We discussed the 1948 films Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves ) and La terra trema (The Earth Trembles). I had seen Ladri di Biciclette before and have to admit I was irritated by the main character’s selfishness – but discussing the film as part of the course did allow me to view the events depicted in a different light. I still haven’t changed my mind about the film, though!
Fortunately, La terra trema more than made up for it. Originally commissioned as a documentary about Sicilian fisherman by the Communist party, and loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia, Visconti decided to make the film on location in Sicily, using the locals as ‘actors’ so that the reality of life would be evident from the actual community itself. The opening scene, in which the camera (and therefore the viewer) is right in the centre of village life, shows so much about the people whose lives we have entered. I loved the section where the camera walked through the fishermen on the harbour, eavesdropping on their conversations and business dealings. The noise of the voices was almost overwhelming and incredibly energising.
At this point in the course, as is customary, there is a full screening of a film and so we were treated to the 1946 film Paisà. I had never even heard of this film let alone seen it, so I went in to the cinema with no idea of what to expect. What I saw was a fascinating series of individual episodes which tracks the Allies (or more specifically, the Americans) as they sweep north from Sicily to free Italy from the control of the Germans between 1943 and 1944. The characteristics of Neorealism that we had explored in the previous weeks were there to an extent. To begin with, it was filmed in the streets and among the ruins of post-war Italy. The section in Florence stood out for me – was that actually the Uffizi Gallery they were filming in? It certainly looked like it! Each episode showed a different slice of Italian war-time life, with relationships framed by miscommunications due to either language issues or cultural differences. I’m not sure I would ever have watched this film if it were not for the course, and I’m really glad that it was selected.
Following the screening, our tutor Adalgisa moved us forward in time to 1966 for The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, and with a wonderful musical score by Ennio Morricone. We watched the opening scenes of the film, and considered this in the light of what we had already learned about Neorealism. The obvious connections were there, even 20 years after the origins of Neorealism: shooting on location, with hand-held cameras and non-professional actors all put the viewer right in the centre of ‘real-life’, but interestingly the setting is not Italy, but Algeria during its fight for independence from France.
I suppose if I was reminded of anything with this film, it’s that in the intervening 20 years, the ordinary ‘everyman’ is still struggling against oppression of some kind or other. This reappeared in the next selection, Lamerica. Set in Albania in 1991 during the country’s attempts to rebuild itself after the fall of Communism, this film explores a very interesting side of the ordinary citizen’s struggle to deal with everyday life after war and political upheaval, and also raises issues of national identity and immigration. Italians sought to improve their families’ life-chances by migrating to America in the early part of the 20th century; at the other end of the century have to adapt to an influx of Albanian migrants desperately searching for their own America, giving the play on words in the title. It poses the question “What does being an Italian actually mean?” and by searching for the answers in a country other than Italy, brings an added dimension to the debate.
Gomorrah was the second course screening. The film is based on the book by Roberto Saviano, which describes the activities of the mafia in Naples. As a result of the publication of the book, Saviano now lives in a secret location with a personal body guard after receiving death threats from the Camorra – presumably his account was too close to reality, so a good choice of film for this course! The director went to live in the suburb of Naples where he subsequently shot the film, and used a mix of mainly unknown actors and young men from the streets of Naples, bringing a documentary-type feel to the film without actually commenting on what’s happening. Events unfold before the viewer and we are left to make up our own minds on the balance of right and wrong in the different groups of people depicted.
And so the final film under discussion was L’Albero degli Zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs). At the start of the course, we set out to explore whether the early neo-realist films in the 1940’s maintained their influence on filmmakers, and I think we can safely say that they did when looking at this film. Filmed on location in the countryside of northern Italy near Bergamo, the story follows the lives of peasants (played by local non-professional actors) and their daily lives as they struggle to put food on the table, whilst the mostly absentee landlord appears only rarely to collect what the peasants owe him.
I really enjoyed this course – I’ve come away with a new list of DVDs to get hold of, and an appreciation of a genre of filmmaking about which I knew nothing 8 weeks ago. Hats off to our course tutor Adalgisa too – I have no idea where she got her energy to lead and manage our discussions, but she did it with humour, enthusiasm, and a depth of knowledge which she was happy to share.
Now, what shall I book for next year?…