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Neorealism and New Realisms Retrospective

The relevance of this retrospective might be explained through a statement by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, justifying the neorealist drift of Brazilian cinema: “The post-war is permanent in Brazil”. As movement and cinematic proposition neo-realism emerged in an Italy ravaged by the war and by a Fascist regime that ruled for two decades. But it is also true that, in different eras and teritories, we have seen the birth of other cinematographies that update most part of the fundamental features of this movement.
“In many ways, neo-realism was the first of the ‘new waves’ that – through the innovation of the films’ formal and narrative levels – led films to its modernisation and moving away from directing dogmas, production guidelines, show-off cannon, and traditional language habits”.1 This is the incipit of the definition of neo-realism in the Encyclopaedia Treccani by Lino Micciché.
Neorealism emerges in a country going through an intense passage, between the mourning for war atrocities and Liberation euphoria, as one can see in Giorni di Gloria [Days of Glory]. Italian cinema reacts quite affirmatively to that moment in time, either from a theoretical point of view – analysing a possible different relationship with reality – or through a concrete point of view – directing films that somehow subvert the film canons that were legitimised by the previous regimes.
Taking advantage of technical conditions allowing mobility and smaller production teams, cinema takes on a role as critic, witness, and researcher, in the pursuit of those who had been so far invisible: a sort of “portable cinema” that is able to create poetry from the popular imaginary, its codes, and the ability common people have to self-reflection, thus searching for a possible portrait of the people, and reveal and create a popular common imaginary. Therefore cinema develops an “ethic of aesthetis”, a strongly political vision of the role of cinematic language: to tell, by including elements of a criticism, as a part of a will to change reality. Such aspects are quite clear in La Terra trema [The Earth will tremble], Umberto D. [Umberto D] and Europa 51.
According to neorealist filmmakers the goal of art is not the “wonder”. It is the zavattinian “to know to provide” or the rossellinian “realism”, the “artistic form of truth […] the [realistic] film [such as that] which questions” or the desichian “to discover drama in daily events” (as Micciché once again recalls).
The road map this retrospective tries to describe and create is the journey of the seeds planted by the neorealist experiment, introducing works that question the concept of documentary as privileged film genre considering its relationship with reality, and in order to do so focusing on the representation of such reality. This is a partial selection – in both time and space – whose goal is to suggest other relationships between other filmographies.
Let us then consider Jia Zangke’s statement in a text about the 6th Generation of Chinese Cinema: “Learning to marry the outstanding power of life and reality is what will allow us to go on.” As far as the other different cinematics from this festival are concerned, this statement on the new Chinese realism is absolutely right. These new realisms – within their different times and places – are both a manifesto against traditional film production form and structure, and ideas on what realism may be: far from social realism or from a closed and homogenous idea of truth, refusing to be reduced to specific social subjects, it is the very perception of reality, combining subjectivity and authenticity, that contributes to the reinvention of cinematic realism. Wang Xiaoshuai was one of the major filmmakers in the link renewal between Chinese filmmakers and his country’s oppressed classes. He began producing Bian dan gu Niang [So close to Paradise] while he was still in the black list of the filmmakers forbidden from filming.
It’s in this sense that we can read one of the postulates by Lindsay Anderson and Lorenza Mazzetti (Together), about the short but intense English Free Cinema: “An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude”. Standing for freedom in films with the middle and working classes against the establishment and the post-war English society domination by the bourgeoisie. Using cinema’s inevitable ideological content as subject, these filmmakers gathered their amateur equipment and tried to create personal films about ordinary events. If at the beginning this Free Cinema was a sort of appeal to get rid of the traditional industry’s heavy burden, in the end it turned out to be the seed for the subsequent British Social Realism as well.
Between the 1940’s and the 1960’s the New Indian Cinema –
also known as Parallel Cinema – emerged in India. It was mainly connected to Bengali’s film industry, and its goal was to search for an alliance between aesthetic sensibility, involvement with political and social reality, pursuit of new forms and styles for cinema away from Bollywood’s over-the-top industry and star system, and under the direct influence of the Italian neorealism and the French poetic realism. In 1925 in V. Shantaram’s Sawkari Pash, the first signs of an Indian realism were already there. However, the beginning of this film movement in India is usually attributed to the first part of the renowned Apu’s Trilogy, Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road] (1955), by Satyajit Ray. Satyajit Ray always said his major influences were Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] and Jean Renoir’s The River. In 1952 however, Ritwik Ghatak had already directed Nagarik, which was released in 1977. Subarnarekha, featured in this programme, is the third part of a trilogy dedicated to the refugees. The director himself was also a refugee, among millions of others living under the same circumstances, during East Bengali’s (currently Bangladesh) great crisis in 1947.
From the Philippines we shall feature the 1975 Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag [Manila in the Claws of Light] by Lino Brocka. It was directed during Ferdinando Marcos’ dictatorship, and it is a sharp and precise portrait of Manila in the 1970’s and – above all – a complex crossing between the pathos of the poorer classes who build a city with their own hands with their own hands and the dream of a different future. A “proletarian melodrama” on the struggle for life and the comradeship between those who are exploited and oppressed on a daily basis, which tries to rescue the remains of humanity from those characters and make them the core of its cinema, of its struggle against the superficial political games and of its goal to turn cinema into a place for the real fight the affirmation f the people. Lino Brocka had a major influence upon the younger generations of filmmakers.
In 2008 Adolfo Alix Jr. films Anita Linda, the major Philippine star, in the slums of Manila in Adela (in 2009 Brillante Mendoza directs Lola, also starring Anita Linda). With this touching portrait of an old woman, former radio diva, Adolfo Alix Jr. also gives us an analysis of the Philippine’s violent and corrupt class system. In between the personal elements (Adela, her anniversary, those who live around her, portraying a day in her life) and the social and political criticism, this film resumes some of the original assumptions of the Italian neorealism, including the fading of boundaries between fiction and reality, through a game of self-fiction by those who are being filmed.
The Iranian New Wage cinema, mainly the post-revolution one, also stands upon this crossing between documentary and fiction, in a cinematic that somehow manages to erase boundaries and emerge as a poetic creation on popular reality and the poor working classes. Amir Naderi, along with Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, among others, is a filmmaker who recruits non-actors to join his small production team to film a sort of poetic day-to-day, thus renewing a certain cinematic realism within the scope of neorealism and its issues. Davandeh [The Runner], from 1984, encompasses one of the major traits of this new Iranian cinema – children as points of view and genesis of an imaginary on the country’s social and political reality.
Along with Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes and Lionel Rogosin, Kent Mackenzie was involved in the starting point of an American independent filmmakers movement. Also working with amateurs, in 1961 Mackenzie directed The Exiles, with the Native American community living in Bunker Hill, in the outskirts of Los Angeles. The lives of these outcast Americans who do not belong to neither the society nor the place where they live thus emerge in long takes that somehow separate the film from a possible agenda pertaining to their place in the American society, in what Robert Koehler called “realism of duration”. The film is built like a device in which the mutual analysis and co-existence results in the characters’ poetic construction through the real lives of the individuals in the film.
Let us go back to Nelson Pereira dos Santos and to Rio Zona Norte [Rio, Northern Zone], a cornerstone in Brazilian New Cinema. And it is precisely this passage that intensifies the intertwining between cinema and the popular cultural codes from the country’s various regions. In this movement, in which Nelson Pereira dos Santos (and this film of his, in particular) plays a major role – along with Glauber Rocha or Paulo César Sarraceni, the representation of popular classes has to do with building a different imaginary, time, and plural and multiracial society.
Marfa si Banii [Stuff & Dough], the film by Cristi Puiu featured in this retrospective is one of the keys to understanding the Romanian New Wage Cinema, which appeared during the final stage of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship by the hands of Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, and others. Once again the confirmation of the signature gesture, the link between artistic and cinematic practices and reality appear as a critic body tackling the dominant structures. It is also the issue of the author and of the camera’s point of view as alternative to using cinema as a tool to creating a totalitarian state imaginary. Cristi Puiu states there is no Romanian cinema, “only cinema, which is a country by itself”. In this “aesthetics of economy”, in this minimalistic principle of a pictorial and narrative point of view, Cristi Puiu reflects about a possible realism in cinema. To depict small daily stories in a simple way is the artistic challenge that clashes against life’s great dramatic performances. Against the substantial realism of the major dominant narratives, a space open to the multiplicity of interpretations based on the author’s confirmation as having a biased view over reality, and assuming its share of power on the construction of an imaginary.
From Portugal we shall feature Ossos [Bones], by Pedro Costa, and Os Mutantes [The Mutants], by Teresa Villaverde. These filmmakers from the 90’s have a close relationship with the previous generations and their especially interested in shooting the traces of thir own time gone by in a country disappointed by an unfulfilled revolution that was replaced by the overall numbing of the European dream. Pedro Costa shoots in a community of immigrants from the former Portuguese colonies who are excluded from the creation of this “new European country”. They build with their own hands the city they are not allowed to live in, a unique and outermost place, in which cinema is forced to re-think itself. Almost at the same time Teresa Villaverde films outcast institutionalised teenagers who wander around the city in a sort of limbo, a parallel reality to the Lisbon of the end of the 1990’s – teenagers and the construction of their subjectivity, far from the issues of creation of national culture and identity. Inspired by the political strength of films by Paulo Rocha or by Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis, these two filmmakers – among others from the same generation – propose a kind of cinema that – assuming its commitment to reality – refuses the aesthetic and political constraints in force those days as far as traditional documentary practices were concerned, and engaged in a pact with the people, with life, and with cinema itself.

Cíntia Gil, Davide Oberto

1 “Il Neorealismo è stato, sotto molti aspetti, la prima delle ‘nuove ondate’ che, innovando gli aspetti formali e narrativi del cinema, hanno puntato alla sua modernizzazione, sottraendolo alle formule realizzative, ai modi di produzione, ai canoni spettacolari, alle consuetudini linguistiche tradizionali.”