Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A series of acclaimed films by innovative directors—beginning with the neorealists of the 1940’s and continuing into more divergent trends in the 1950’s—brought Italy to the forefront of post-World War II international cinema.

Summary of Event

Together with the postwar French cinema, and in a manner which was at once more cohesive and more individualistic, the Italian New Wave created a landmark in the art of the cinema. What is generally known as the new wave of Italian film is a complex phenomenon, however, the terms of reference of which cover broad cultural and artistic territory and the time span of which is not easy to define. Thus, it may be historically correct to say that Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione Ossessione (Visconti) (1942; obsession) is the first film indicative of the new mode and outlook of the modern Italian cinema. This film was made, however, three years before the influential Roma, città aperta Rome, Open City (Rossellini) (1945; Rome, Open City) of Roberto Rossellini, which is widely regarded as the original exercise in neorealism, a film style that dictated much of the course and development of the Italian New Wave. Italian New Wave Italian neorealism Realism;cinema Cinema;stylistic innovation [kw]Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim (1942-1961) [kw]New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim, Italian (1942-1961) Italian New Wave Italian neorealism Realism;cinema Cinema;stylistic innovation [g]Europe;1942-1961: Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim[00420] [g]Italy;1942-1961: Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim[00420] [c]Motion pictures and video;1942-1961: Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim[00420] De Sica, Vittorio Rossellini, Roberto Fellini, Federico Visconti, Luchino Antonioni, Michelangelo

On the other hand, it is widely held that one of the major exponents of neorealism was Vittorio De Sica and that Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini Garden of the Finzi-Continis, The (De Sica)[Garden of the Finzi Continis, The] (1971; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) was De Sica’s swan song in that mode. To say, therefore, that the Italian New Wave was of artistic and cultural significance only between the years 1942 and 1961 begs as many questions as it embraces. Nevertheless, in the roughly twenty years of cinema bracketed by these two dates, most of the Italian New Wave had effectively declared itself.

Not only had the leading directors of their generation established their careers by 1961, but they had also already begun to articulate a critique of the original style and subject matter of postwar Italian cinema, demonstrating the evolution rather than stagnation of the Italian New Wave. In addition, 1961 saw the premieres of a number of films that may be regarded as distillations of the important emphases of postwar Italian cinema, and it may be regarded as the year of neorealism’s final eye-catching blooms. Among the films in question were Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone! (1961), Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961; The Sound of Trumpets), and De Sica’s explicit redaction of neorealist scenarios, La Ciociara (1960; Two Women).

The range and diversity of the Italian New Wave make it most convenient to survey the movement as a twofold phenomenon. At the outset, the New Wave was a cultural phenomenon of the immediate postwar period. As such, it reflected many of the social concerns of the day, many of which, not surprisingly, revolved around the status of Italy as an invaded and defeated country. The films that appeared during this first phase, which defined the period by embodying the neorealist aesthetic, included Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Paisà (1946; Paisan), De Sica’s masterpiece Ladri di biciclette Bicycle Thief, The (De Sica) (1948; Bicycle Thieves, better known as The Bicycle Thief), and Riso amaro (1949; Bitter Rice) by Giuseppe de Santis. In these films, the emphasis was on the characters’ social destinies. The transmission of their innate humanity, which was accomplished by the various means of social exchange proposed by society at large and the more limited means at the characters’ disposal, reached a point of crisis in each film within the humble context of everyday lives.

No sooner was this filmic idiom established than it began to be diversified. For various personal and artistic reasons, directors such as Rossellini and De Sica who had been most directly involved in neorealist film began to modify and develop their interest in it. This departure may be seen as early as De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano Miracle in Milan (De Sica) (1950; Miracle in Milan), in which a strong element of fantasy was introduced. The broadening of Italian cinema’s scope during this period may be economically illustrated by the evolving career of Federico Fellini, one of the leading figures in postwar European—and world—cinema.

Fellini began his career as an assistant to Rossellini on both Rome, Open City and Paisan, yet in Fellini’s La Strada Strada, La (Fellini) (1954), the emphasis was on the human condition rather than on its sociological manifestations. The international appeal of La Strada did much to create an audience for subsequent Italian films. The sense of diversity that assisted in the development of the Italian cinematic imagination may also be glimpsed in Il Gattopardo Leopard, The (Visconti) (1963; The Leopard) and Rocco e i suoi fratelli Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti) (1960; Rocco and His Brothers), both by Visconti. The former is a stately adaptation of one of the most celebrated Italian novels of the nineteenth century, with Burt Lancaster in the lead as the head of an aristocratic household. In contrast, Rocco and His Brothers deals with the black-and-white conflicts of characters who are very much at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The inner lives of some of the most accomplished films’ protagonists form a special area of interest—a radical departure from the early neorealist films, which were rigorously external in their focus. This emphasis on subjective interiority typically portrays the individual as free from society and already in some kind of critical relationship to it. However, the fluctuating nature of this critical relationship, the terms and expectations of which are not conditioned by institutional affiliation or traditional ties, creates a somewhat menacing type of freedom and detachment. Many of the best-known Italian films of the period are extravagant excursions into the semiotics of a hollow and evidently insubstantial world; what might be regarded as the culminating statement on this theme is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966).

The nature and quality of such interests and emphases, however, varies widely, from De Sica’s study of old age in Umberto D (1952) to the lavish representation of various inner states in Fellini’s best-known films, La dolce vita (1960; the sweet life) and Otto e mezzo (1963; 8 ½), to the existential romances of Antonioni such as L’Avventura (1960; the adventure), La Notte (1961; The Night), and L’Eclisse (1962; Eclipse). It was these films and the early films of Bernardo Bertolucci Bertolucci, Bernardo , in particular Prima della rivoluzione (1964; Before the Revolution) and Il conformista (1970; The Conformist), that had the greatest impact and received the most critical attention outside Italy. In many ways, Bertolucci can be seen as the artistic offspring of the first two phases of the Italian New Wave, combining the social conscience of De Sica with an equally intense interest in psychology and sexuality.

Despite the rich and even provocative nature of Italian New Wave cinema’s range, it was those films that expressed a frankly existential dimension that received the greatest attention. It would clearly be incorrect to suggest that such films’ reputation for portraying—in various guises and with a considerable variety of stylistic variation—isolated and alienated modern men is unjustified. At the same time, such a critical emphasis, while undoubtedly in keeping with the spirit of the times in which the films in question were released, tends to limit appreciation of their treatment of other, equally rich, thematic material. Regardless of the interpretation and transmission of such themes, however, there remains no doubt that, in terms of vitality, range, technical expertise, and imaginative daring, the golden age of Italian cinema remains one of the most impressive cultural phenomena of the postwar period.


The effect of World War II on European thought and culture may be perceived in terms of a number of disparate but, in hindsight, associated events. The establishment in Paris of the journal Les Temps modernes Temps modernes, Les (periodical) (modern times) under the editorship of Jean-Paul Sartre was one such event. Another was the organization of writers in West Germany that became known as Group 47 Group 47[Group Forty seven] Literary movements;Group 47[Group Forty seven] . The contribution of the Italian publishing house Einaudi to the renewal of Italian literature was also of related significance. It is in this context that the Italian New Wave must be approached.

On one level, the subject matter of Rome, Open City and the other neorealist films of the late 1940’s had, by design, an obvious impact. That design, though, was also a reflection of the historical circumstances in which the films came to be made. The use of a mass medium such as the cinema in order to dispel the cultural tone of Fascism received its inspiration from the generally mass character of social life in the immediate postwar period. This character was not confined to Italy; it was reflected in the widespread support received at the ballot box throughout most of liberated Europe for socialist political parties. After the oppressively institutional interwar reigns of the right-wing dictators, it was only to be expected that there would be a cultural and political backlash toward the Left. The early neorealist Italian cinema was fueled by that backlash’s energy.

Therefore, one of the mass medium’s most important tasks was to rehabilitate the image of the citizen, the lowest democratic denominator, in reaction against authoritarian leadership. It was for this reason, as well as for practical reasons connected with technical and material filmic resources, that the sets of New Wave films were bleak and sparsely furnished, that such films used a large number of exterior shots, and that the New Wave approach to filmmaking was reminiscent of that of the documentary. In keeping with this approach, the performances aimed for depth of expression rather than for breadth of gesture. The overall tendency was to avoid the operatic mode in favor of the limited, the impoverished, the marginal. The ethos of survival pervades these films, and the appeal of such a frankly populist perspective proved undeniable. The portrayal of the new subject, often coupled with the depiction of the hitherto cinematically unacknowledged worlds of rural Italy and the urban poor, was an important rehabilitative gesture.

In a more extended sense, however, the visibility of the peasant or proletarian raised questions about the very process of rehabilitation. Rather than sentimentalize the new figures, the films made them central to a sense of the inadequacy of society either productively to absorb such figures’ energy or, failing that, to provide means for that energy to be self-sufficient. The connotation of freedom that the rehabilitation of the image implied met with much ambivalence; it was on this note of ambivalence that the Italian cinema began to focus.

Personal experience was revealed not necessarily to be a source of authenticity. Fellini’s elaborate variations on the archetypes of the clown and the innocent, memorably inaugurated in La Strada, enacted a schematic but surpassingly fluid choreography of hauntings, each denoting the peculiar frailty of the individual. The resonances of Fellini’s work and of its darker counterparts in Antonioni’s films were central to the Western sensibility during the Cold War period, and they rendered that sensibility with as much conviction and often with rather more panache than the other notable artistic innovation of the day, the Theater of the Absurd. Fellini and Antonioni were not the first, even in the postwar period, to create a cinema of ideas. Their films are nonetheless notable for the rendering of ideas in primarily cinematic terms, providing a balance between image and word, or often insisting on an imbalance between them in such a way as to privilege image.

The work of both these directors with actresses was also a crucial feature of their achievement. The installation of the female protagonist, whether it be Antonioni’s Monica Vitti or Fellini’s Giulietta Masina, was both a gloss on the idea of the new citizen that neorealism emphasized and a reassessment of the function and imaginative possibilities of actresses. The concentration on the innovative place of actresses in the films of the Italian New Wave should not, however, overshadow the role of Marcello Mastroianni as a leading man in many of the productions.

These various innovations, together with the enthusiastic critical reception that they received in the English-speaking world, made a crucial contribution to the artistic liberation of Europe. This liberation was witnessed and its relevance absorbed by a large international film community. The Italian New Wave also extended the flexibility of the medium, both in thematic and technical terms and in the sense of the performer’s role in film. In these and other significant ways, such as the emergence of the director as the predominant artistic element in film, the Italian New Wave has proved to be a prototype of the means whereby an international artistic community comes into being and achieves its ends. The creation of such communities is a distinctive feature of postwar Western culture and is one of the continuing signs that the role of the arts remains historically relevant and socially necessary. Italian New Wave Italian neorealism Realism;cinema Cinema;stylistic innovation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armes, Roy. Patterns of Realism: A Study of Italian Neo-realist Cinema. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1971. A thorough overview of neorealism. Contains both a historical and an aesthetic introduction to the subject, followed by more detailed analyses of neorealism’s main works and themes. Concludes with a chronology and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Translated by Hugh Gray. 2 vols. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. One of the most important studies of cinema; includes one of the most influential readings of Italian neorealism and its significance for cinematic history, as well as readings of individual films such as The Bicycle Thief.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. An exemplary study of a path-breaking director. Comprehensive analyses of all Rossellini’s films is provided. A detailed filmography is included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gazetas, Aristides. An Introduction to World Cinema. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. Survey of world cinema that includes chapters on Italian neorealism, Fellini and Antonioni, and Pasolini and Bertolucci. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leprohon, Pierre. The Italian Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1972. A survey grounded in a chronological approach. Italian cinema from 1895 to 1969 is covered, with three chapters devoted to the twenty-five years prior to 1969. Contains a biographical dictionary and a select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A detailed study of Italian cinema from 1942 to 1982. All the main phases of filmmaking during the period are covered, with attention being valuably divided between the major works and lesser-known ones. Contains an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solmi, Angelo. Fellini. New York: Humanities Press, 1968. The approach to the subject is in two parts. The first takes an intellectual overview; the second examines the director’s output on a film-by-film basis. Contains a bibliography and a filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witcombe, R. T. The New Italian Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. The survey begins in 1960. Discussion of the later Fellini and Antonioni works is included, but the main emphasis is on the directors who came of age in the 1960’s. In particular, the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmuller, and the Taviani brothers receive close critical attention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zavattini, Cesare. Sequences from a Cinematic Life. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Zavattini scripted such classics as The Bicycle Thief and worked closely as a writer with Vittorio De Sica. The work in question is his quirky, informal, imaginative, informative autobiography.

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Categories: History