Academic journal article Italica

Cinematic Traces of Participatory Democracy in Early Postwar Italy: Italian Neorealism in the Light of Greek Tragedy

Academic journal article Italica

Cinematic Traces of Participatory Democracy in Early Postwar Italy: Italian Neorealism in the Light of Greek Tragedy

Article excerpt

Verra il momento, credo, molto presto, in cui andremo a vedere cosa fa un uomo nelle sue piu minute azioni quotidiane, con lo stesso interesse che una volta ponevano nell'andare a vedere i drammi greci.

Cesare Zavattini (1979b: 82)

Few national cinemas can claim the breadth and depth of international influence once claimed by the Italian cinema (Liehm: 129-131). This oversized influence was largely based on the legacy of the neorealist period of film production, which has conventionally been dated from the end (or near end) of fascist rule until the mid-1950s. For many critics, neorealist films were distinguished by their apparent commitment to depict everyday life and ordinary people through use of techniques more characteristic of documentary film (e.g., natural sets and lighting, loosely scripted scenes, and nonprofessional actors) and for their narrative focus on the burdensome conditions of wartime and early postwar Italy (e.g., the violence of war, the oppression of fascist rule and German military occupation, postwar scarcity and mass unemployment). To be sure, over the years and decades of critical discussion of neorealism, the applicability of even these simple criteria has been contested (Shiel: 1-16). However, settling on a narrative or morphological definition of neorealism is not the only way to understand the wide circulation, large public role, and lasting resonance of neorealist films. This article highlights the importance of an environment of authoritarian collapse and democratic aspiration in the wake of which "neorealism," as a label for particular films, as a point of theoretical dispute and historical reference, and as a creative inspiration for future filmmaking, came to take on relatively large cultural significance. Neorealism is treated as a tragic cinema or cinematic form of tragic theater, arising, as Greek tragedy did, in an era of major political rupture, when democracy replaced dictatorship and novel challenges were posed to a newly empowered citizenry.

Classical scholars have made much of the fact that Greek tragedy (tragoidia) and Athenian democracy developed at the same time. They have speculated that tragoidia supported democracy by fostering citizens' capacities to reflect on the challenges of exercising power without benefit of specialized knowledge, to make considered judgments about important issues in the absence of precedents, and to maintain a viable and vital sense of civic solidarity in the face of the inevitable strains and tensions between classes, factions, and individuals. As was the case with their ancient Greek predecessor, modern democracies have, by and large, emerged out of periods of struggle against monarchical or oligarchical regimes, in which restrictions on who could share power were usually and to a large degree legitimated by tradition and custom. Under such conditions, establishing a democracy meant breaking with a non-democratic past and facing serious deficits of political experience and authority. Newly empowered citizens of a democracy have additionally faced the challenges of generating viable forms of identity and solidarity. Tragoidia helped Athenian democrats make up those deficits and meet those challenges. The pervasive use of tragic rhetoric by film critics and historians of neorealism, the presence of mythic, choral and spectatorial elements in neorealist films reminiscent of tragoidia, and strategic invocations of Greek tragedy by major neorealist figures (film critic Andre Bazin, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, and director Roberto Rossellini) suggest that similar political deficits and civic challenges existing in wartime and postwar Italy conditioned the creation and reception of neorealist films.

To say that neorealism was a tragic cinema is not to argue for the primary importance of narrative conventions in analyzing neorealist films. To characterize neorealism in terms of the genre of tragedy is to risk falsely imposing unity where it does not necessarily exist. …

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