In 1945 Roberto Rossellini’s Neo-realist Rome, Open City set in motion an approach to cinema and its representation of real life – and by extension real spaces – that was to have international significance in film theory and practice.1 However, the re-use of the real spaces of the city, and elsewhere, as film sets in Neo-realist film offered (and offers) more than an influential aesthetic and set of cinematic theories.2 Through Neo-realism, it can be argued that we gain access to a cinematic relational and multi-dimensional space that is not made from built sets, but by filming the built environment. On the one hand, this space allows us to “notice” the contradictions around us in our cities and, by extension, the societies that have produced those cities, while on the other, allows us to see the spatial practices operative in the production and maintenance of those contradictions.
In setting out a template for understanding the spatial practices of Neo-realism through the work of Henri Lefèbvre, this paper opens its films, and those produced today in its wake, to a spatio-political reading of contemporary relevance. We will suggest that the rupturing of divisions between real spaces and the spaces of film locations, as well the blurring of the difference between real life and performed actions for the camera that underlies much of the central importance of Neo-realism, echoes the arguments of Lefèbvre with regard the social production of space. In doing so, we will suggest that film potentially had, and still has, a vital role to play in a critique of contemporary capitalist spatial practices.
Rome, Open City (1945) can be defined as the inaugural feature film about a city which attempted to historicize the contemporary moment, and namely, a specific time in post-war Italy.3 Despite its inconsistencies, Rome, Open City marks an historical break, because it established a new problematic within mainstream cinema, bringing the contemporary event into filmmaking.4 In the immediate post-war period of Europe, the film presented an urban landscape of destruction which meant that , unsurprisingly, ruins became a metaphor for suffering, poverty and war – a metaphor repeated in Rossellini’s masterly Germany Year Zero (1948).5 Until recently, this metaphor of ruins tended to define Neo-realism, detracting from its ground-breaking film practice and exploration of cinematic space.6 As David Forgacs has subsequently shown, the film was also a demonstration in how to represent the complexities of urban space.7
One such complexity was the very architecture of the city of Rome itself. Fascism had exploited imperial Classicism to validate its own totalitarian regime and, as Mark Shiel has shown, the Neo-realist city countered this. It no longer celebrated the city’s iconic architectural past, that the Fascists had appropriated for their own totalitarian ends, as scenic spectacle, but rather, it rejected this neo-classical architecture.8 In Neo-realism, the old choreography of symbols of the past became a floating signifier haunting contemporary space and, at most, appeared in dialectical opposition to the contradictions of capitalist development. Another such complexity is, of course, our understanding of ‘realism’ itself. In most debates about the realism of Neo-realism since the 1960s, the concept of ‘the real’ has been reduced to an adequation of the screen image to the material world.9 Such critique tends to point out inconsistencies in doing away with sets, studios and professional actors; on criticising its re-enactments, on making distinctions based on this narrow understanding of its form of realism.10 As Forgacs underlines, the complexities of representing urban space are clearly manifold.
Cesare Zavattini – Neo-realism’s principal theorist and the screenwriter of film classics such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) Miracle in Milan (1951) and Umberto D (1952) – contended in this regard that Neo-realism was also a “working hypothesis”, “a tendency”, “a development of a certain kind of cinema”. Sharing Antonio Gramsci’s idea of a new culture with a new art to match it, where “new” is a code word for political, anti-fascist and openly committed to social change, Zavattini’s arguments are central to the arguments put forward here.11 If, in examining these issues around Neo-realism, we broaden our view from Italy to the rest of Europe and beyond, as some scholars are doing today, a new set of theories can be called upon and a new pattern emerges. We can begin to see, for example, that Neo-realism’s operating principle is nothing less than a cinematic spatial practice that echoes Henri Lefèbvre’s ideas in The Production of Space (1991). We can also see the continued adoption of key aspects of Neo-realism, within different cinematic and cultural spatial practices.12 Ultimately, Neorealism’s aesthetic has outlived both the post-war era, the French New Wave and even Dogme 95 and the social issues it raises through its use of real actions and real spaces, remains relevant in the twenty-first century.13
In recent years the Neo-realist “tendency” can be found in films in which the dialectics of documentary and fiction combine to sharpen the image. Examples include Gianni Amelio’s Ladro di bambini (1992), Mario Martone’s Terra di Mezzo (1997) and Giorgio Diritti’s L’Uomo che Verrà (2009).14 In Vittorio De Seta’s Lettere dal Sahara (2004) the boundaries of the European city are challenged outright. De Seta does this by establishing a dialogue with Senegalese culture uprooted into the adoptive city, and learning to see familiar urban spaces through the eyes of “clandestine” immigrants. The European city is rejected in favour of home, when the protagonist returns by choice to his more civilised Senegalese village or our view of it is expanded by the ways in which uneven geographical development intrudes into its spaces, producing a new cinematic urban space that corresponds to the contemporary world.15
Another example is Jafir Panahi’s Offside (2006) which challenges the religiously motivated segregation of women fans from football matches through enactment, making rebellion into a physical space, almost in real time, through the experience of a girl who acts as a witness and whose body is denied access and confined. The entire film revolves around her confinement and the solidarity she generates with other female fans. Wang Xiao Shai’s Beijing Bicycle (2002) defines two Beijings in the one city which comes across as two-faced, depending on which class you belong to in a supposedly classless society. Finally, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2005) combines the reality of urban everyday life with scripting, based on direct observation. Set in Teheran, the city becomes a synecdoche: the inside of a car travelling through it, driven by a young woman and mother whose conversation with the people to whom she gives a lift, producing an urban relational space in such a cooped up space.16 All of these films employ spatial practices recognisable from the neo-realist tradition to relate acutely important contemporary issues.
Kracauer and Lefèvbre – linking life and the environment
Reducing Neo-realism to a national phenomenon or a post-war episode, soon overtaken by events, results in the failure to consider the importance and continued significance of the shift it achieved: “the decision to go out into the street”.17 On the reductivist account, historical Neo-realist location shooting has been seen as just an expedient, forced by material post-war shortages.18 Even André Bazin, who was no reductivist, minimised the significance of rejecting the artificial studio in favour of outdoor filming, by suggesting it was a question of the aesthetic suitability of the Italian cityscape in which space was conceived more like a theatrical stage.19
In contrast to this, Siegfried Kracauer places much emphasis on how Neo-realist films captured street life and what that achieved, ie. the conveying of the continuum of the real:20
“Sensitivity to this flow seems to be an inherent feature of Italian neorealism. To Rossellini, De Sica, and Fellini life that concerns us is essentially the kind of life which only the camera is capable of revealing.
Their films time and again probe into significant aspects of it.”21
The street is:
“That province of reality where transient life manifests itself most conspicuously;” the place of “fleeting impressions”, where “the accidental prevails over the providential, and happenings in the nature of unexpected incidents are all but the rule.”22
Kracauer departs from Bazin then, by emphasising time and space and in linking time to space in a comparison with story-based films of American classic cinema. Kracauer compared the Neo-realist space-time continuum to the structure of tragedy given that tragedy, he argued, presupposes an ordered cosmos.23 Kracauer singles out Zavattini in particular, for championing a direct approach to the dramatic sequences of “environmental life”24 and in doing so, suggests an importance that would outlast the national phenomenon of a specific post-war episode.
Although Kracauer clearly underlines the significance of Neo-realism in spatial terms, it is Henri Lefèbvre’s ground-breaking The Production of Space that makes it possible to reconsider Neo-realism in terms of a mostly urban cinematic spatial practice, and most significantly, a political one, rather than as a mere representation of space.25 Lefèbvre’s crucial move was to take an abstract concept and ground it in practice by relating space to time, and thus historicizing it [space]. He overturns Hegel’s renewed idealisation of space as an abstract entity and restores Marx’s insistence on historical time as revolutionary time. Consequently, he links self to environment, on the grounds that lived space involves an ingrained politics of space.26
Lefèbvre’s attack on the very idea that space is an a priori category, to be considered in isolation as an abstract entity, is essential here.27 In alienating self from environment, Lefèbvre argues that the Descartesian dichotomy28 had effectively excluded the real space of social practice from philosophy and aesthetics29 and that, consequently, space has become understood as an “empty container” in which “people, actions, situations” have been separated from what they do within it and with it.30 Lefèbvre shows that such a notion of a neutral space is flawed, and that far from being neutral within a capitalist society, space is divided.31
In his seminal text, Lefèbvre rejects the notion of these ideal spaces, cities or buildings being conceived, designed and built by an architect as pure artistic creations without any interference from external material forces.32 Lefèbvre defines all spaces as “social practices”.33 This, the alienated and idealist spaces (divorced from the urban fabric of lives and activities) of Haussmann’s Paris under Napoleon III, or any number of the Imperial and later Fascist projects across Italy are rethought as “social practices” actively responding to underlying conditions: attempts to repress urban class struggle in the case of Haussmann or town planning designed to incorporate or replicate symbolic features of antiquity to validate Fascist Rome and dictatorial rule.
Lefèbvre’s critique however, was not focused on the ancient city, but rather the contemporary capitalist city in development throughout the period of Neo-realist film, up until the student and worker revolt in Paris in 1968.34 The underlying forces of mass production in every major aspect of capitalism was seen as underlying the emergence of the modernist city – consequently read as little more than the inevitable manifestation of the socioproductive forces at work under state capitalism. Such schemes are thus seen as the large scale application of cost effective manufacturing and construction techniques designed to facilitate economic growth and profit; their status as a response to the need to house large numbers of people being just another coincidental component of their social practice.
Crucially, Lefèbvre argued that there is a human potential to subvert and overcome the imposing restrictions and formulations of capitalism and its particular spatial forms. As Michael Gardiner shows, Lefèbvre’s rejection of philosophical idealism extended beyond spatial conceptualisations to notions of everyday life.35 In Gardiner’s reading of Lefèbvre, his view of the subdivided modern city of CIAM and its isolated zones for play, living and working etc, reflected capitalism’s separation of all human activities.36 Central to the resistance of capitalism then is not only a new conceptualisation of space, but also a view of the everyday as a site for breaking down barriers between work, play and other aspects of our daily activities. Therefore, it is only when the link between space and the material world is made that the contradictions of social space can emerge.37But it is only when the concomitant divisions in life are broken down that we can begin to resist. Seen in the context of Lefèbvre then, by going out into the city, Neo-realism helps discover and exposes what Lefèbvre calls “the relations of inclusion and exclusion” within space and, by extension, life itself.38
Neo-realism as spatial practice
The film screen has been theorised as an autonomous world in itself which divides the unrepresentable real from the imaginary.39 In the context of the ideas of Kracauer and Lefèbvre however, it can also be understood and theorised as a threshold. In this this screen-as-threshold conceptualisation, to break out of the screen frame is to cross that threshold and the Neo-realist combining of documentary with fiction can be seen as one aspect of it.40 The barrier between screen and real (or between space as it appears on the screen and space off the screen) need not be so rigid. It can be broken down after all; Neo-realism can be seen as doing so in pioneering two kinds of interrelated spatial practice, one on screen, the other off screen as we shall see.
To elaborate, this reaching out from fictional city to lived city constitutes a form of political intervention in filmic and spatial practice. On screen, the dialectic of fiction and documentary is there from the beginning. Thus the major filmmakers Visconti, Rossellini, Antonioni, Lizzani, Maselli, De Santis (and later Fellini) all made documentaries, as well as fiction.41 Indeed, the inaugural fictional feature film of the new Italian cinema (Rome, Open City) was shown in Rome in October 1945, at the same festival in which the documentary Days of Glory was premiered on the last day. This was about the Italian Resistance with mostly indexical shots of that time and of the actual dramatic events that occurred immediately after the end of the war (for example the exhuming of bodies in a massacre of civilians in caves just outside Rome).42 The two films have in common Marcello Pagliero, a main character (Manfredi) in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, and one of the filmmakers who made Days of Glory. In both films, but in different ways, cinema embraces the real world of contemporary Italian society. As is known, Rome, Open City includes characters standing in for historic figures and events around which the film was built: the priest Don Morosini (Aldo Fabrizi) and Teresa Gullace (Anna Magnani). Despite the myth-making aspect, probably inevitable and certainly desirable after the war, the film includes documentary evidence of the city after the war, and in this respect, is no different from Rossellini’s Paisà (1946) or his Germany Year Zero (1948).
Whereas post-war Italian documentaries were soon to be censored out of existence, by depriving filmmakers seeking to make serious films about the contemporary of any funding, to some extent, films such as Rome, Open City subsumed from the documentary tradition the inclusion of the real and the real city which meant that the presentation of the contradictions of the modern city and, in these cases, its internal divisions between affluence and extreme poverty are brought to the fore. In doing so, it can be argued that Neo-realist spatial practice reveals the complex reality of the dialectical city and works through a new kind of fiction, inscribed within and confronting itself with everyday life.43 It describes and surveys, maps and measures, determines and defines space, thereby bringing it to visibility through the camera. The backdrop city comes to life when it is met and traversed by Neo-realist characters, an ideal example of which is Antonio and Bruno in Bicycle Thieves (1948)44 or Dot Johnson and Pasquale in the Naples episode of Rossellini’s Paisà.45
By contrast, in Luigi Zampa’s L’onorevole Angelina (1947) the vague concept of what a built environment is becomes tangible not through wandering, but human agency, when a neighbourhood strengthened by solidarity and sense of community rejects the status quo of shortages and double standards. The screen frames the real Pietralata, a crumbling working-class suburb built under Fascism, and re-enacts a contemporary event – the occupation led by a local woman of apartment blocks still under construction after the flood of February 1947, and the failure to distribute food supplies to the district.46
Spatial and political praxis in the films of Cesare Zavattini
Nowhere is this new approach to the city more visible than in a cluster of films scripted or coordinated by Zavattini and made between 1951 and 1963. They develop the enquiry aspect of Neo-realism in a different direction to Bicycle Thieves (1948) but, on the whole, are entirely consistent with his version of Neo-realism, as theorised in “Some Ideas about Cinema” and earlier writings. For example, from Rome’s current events, Zavattini takes the news story of Termini, Ore Undici (1951) in which 200 women, waiting in a building for a job interview fall from the stairs, and some to their deaths. The off screen research for the film involved producing an in-depth dossier which included interviews of the surviving women, interviews about working conditions and how it was the norm for them to be at the receiving end of sexual harassment, not to mention door-to-door interviews with local residents.47 The attempt to reflect reality, no matter how harsh, underlay not only the preparation, but also the filming and direction. It was directed by Peppe De Santis, a member of the Italian Communist Party who fought with the anti-German Resistance in Rome in the Second World War.
Made the same year, Miracle in Milan (1951), based on Zavattini’s book Totò il Buono (1943), presents the city very differently. 48 Although cloaked in the form of a fable, the book and the film point to a divided city, dealt with people living rough in the periphery of Milan and, in the making of the film, the director employed nonprofessionals (genuine homeless people) to add to the realism of the portrayal. The aimless wandering of the protagonist Totò in search of somewhere to stay soon comes to an end when he meets the shambolic individuals living near the railway line. He takes the lead to organise a new, entirely self-reliant community and, as a result, the deserted land by the railway becomes a functional squat; a communal living space with its amenities, public spaces and streets named as multiplication tables so children could learn to count - for example, STREET 8 x 9 =72.
Through its observations of everyday life, combined with flights of fancy, its spatial practice demonstrated an alternative model to competitive and individualist capitalism based on solidarity. “Above all, there’s the kind of solidarity that springs from sharing suffering and deprivation; and intelligence has made up for the lack of means”, reads Zavattini’s film treatment.49 The social objectives underlying the presentation of life and the spaces of life in this film then, are clear. It was only due its fable-like character that the story survived censorship under the Fascist regime, and the film later managed to survive the censorship of the Christian Democrats’ in the years after its release.
The key to the interviews, background research, in-depth location visits, both in Zavattini’s fiction and documentary films, is his theorised spatial practice, rooted in urban space, of “shadowing”. Replacing wandering as an operative principle, it is also foundational in cinema history and represents a dialogical approach to people’s lives and their spaces. It can be seen at work in Love in The City (1953); We Women (1953); The Roof (1956); Mysteries of Rome (1963) and The Newsreel of Peace (1963). This materialist embracing of the real, in all its manifestations, was according to Zavattini, more than humanism. In “Some Ideas on Cinema” and “Thesis on Neo-realism” he describes it thus:
“What interests me is the drama of the situations you actually meet, not the ones you imagine. Make poetry out of the real: exercise your poetic sensibility in situ; you need to leave your room and take your body out to meet other people and make an effort to understand them.” […] “In this [analytical] approach, there is a powerful dynamic of attention to things: a desire for understanding, empathy, participation, co-habitation.” “This is what I call a cinema of encounter”.50
In Love in The City (1953) Rome’s cityscape becomes a cinematic map and an embodied site of Zavattini’s “shadowing” (pedinamento). It encapsulates a Neo-realist approach to the city, as a lived space in which to intervene and its attention is focussed on what lies beyond its closed doors and façades.51 This pioneering six-episode inquiry film is prefaced by tiny sketches which take place across the city at different times and serve to map out the city in time and different locations.52 All the specific references to time of day and location in Rome are treated as the fact-based coordinates of the chosen theme and generate a map in the flash-film sequence that determines spatio-temporal markers for the city – a form of “cognitive map”.53 For example, Via Gallia and Via Trasimeno 19, are mapped at 4.30pm and 7.30pm, respectively. The six episodes directed by major Neo-realist filmmakers deal with real people and their real lives: prostitution, suicide and a single mother who abandons her baby, amongst other things. In each one, the camera breaks the separation between the public and the private, bringing the real and the fictional expectations of the medium.
The Roof (1956), based on Zavattini’s scenario and screenplay, features the true story of newly-weds seeking a place to live. Made long after L’onorevole Angelina (1947), it highlighted the fact that the problem of housing shortages had not gone away.54 The couple find out that it is possible to squat on communal land and succeed in doing so, by constructing a small dwelling overnight which would be legalized, provided the roof was erected by the morning. In a telling sequence, a builders’ lorry takes the couple past the Colosseum and up the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a deliberate cinematic journey, combining in one travelling shot the icon of Imperial Rome with the symbol of Fascist neo-imperialism, an avenue that was built during Mussolini’s dictatorship, in a reminder of Fascist urban planning (an entire district was demolished to make way for it). This is how the regime justified through the scale of spectacle its colonial expansionism and through mapping, by creating a presumed continuity of empire.55 By juxtaposing the ideal Fascist city with the real city of cramped living conditions and poverty, and setting the slum dwellings in juxtaposition to new construction for the middle and upper class, The Roof’s social argument was clear.
The city of Mysteries of Rome (1963) could not be more specific, mapping a day in the life of the city through its contradictions at the height of the economic boom, by filming and interviewing those excluded from the new affluence of the period.56 Mysteries of Rome takes Zavattini’s shadowing of people and places from Love in The City which had been made years before cinéma vérité. Cinematic space develops outwards into a mosaic structure, by accretion, replacing the abstract, aerial city with the city as lived space, with an opening shot, from a plane flying over the city that cuts to the lived spaces of children playing football in an orphanage, mutilated by wartime bombs; to the sounds and fear of giving birth; to a locum visit to a poor household; to the notorious Via Tasso, remembered for having once been the Gestapo HQ in occupied Rome, accompanied by voice-over recalling how neighbours remembered the sounds of torture leaking out of the holes in the walls; to blood donors selling their blood for cash out of sheer poverty; to the tales of woe of exploited copyists; to casual road construction workers waiting to be hired on the street corner and showing the interviewer their injuries caused by lack of health and safety measures on site; to the developing world through photos of destitution at the United Nations’ offices in Rome. Taken as a whole, these interviews and sorties into real everyday situations, occurring in the very sites and buildings, produce a network of interrelated spaces of the lived city that populate or embody the mapping of spaces made by the opening aerial sequence. The closing aerial shot produces a cinematic allegory, by travelling over the same spaces which the viewer sees in a layered way, as prospect or aerial perspective, but also remembered by the viewer as the actual space produced by the people who live there, with a final voice-over singling out each time with the word “here” (qui) the lived spaces obscured by such a distant view.
In all these films the presentation of real life is set in very real spaces that not only follow the spatio-temporal and thematic traits of Neo-realism, but which also set a template that remains in evidence today; films such as Ladro di bambini (1992), Terra di Mezzo (1997), Offside (2006), L’Uomo che Verrà (2009) and Lettere dal Sahara (2004), to cite just a few contemporary examples. Beyond this however, what this paper has attempted to underline is that each of these films, in its fusion of real space with the setting of filmic action; in its correlation of real lives with on screen depiction; and in its conflation of the represented filmic protagonist and the real life protagonist, almost unavoidably invites parallels with the ideas and arguments of Henri Lefèbvre. There is the same refusal to portray space as isolated from its use: whether it be the employment of the homeless to depict the homeless in Miracle in Milan (1951); the shadowing techniques used in the investigative Love in The City (1953); the replication of a real life experience in The Roof (1956), populating the abstract city with the lived city and its events in Mysteries of Rome (1963); or the spatial practice of real locations in all of them. Luxurious spaces are not isolated from poorer locations, but placed in dialectical contradiction; the mediatic or artistic representation of a city local is not seen as isolated from the forces that produced it – either economically or materially; and people’s real lives blur with their filmic representation and/or presentation.
As a result, it is possible to see in Neo-realism, a filmic enactment and a cinematic practice, in line with Lefèbvre’s ideas on space as social practice rooted in everyday life. There is the same rejection of what Lefèbvre defined as abstract space – the supposedly isolated artistic creations of the artist-architect. There is also the same reaction against the artificial divisions in everyday life that separate work, from leisure, and everyday actions from supposedly isolated important ones. In the wake of Lefèbvre, David Harvey distinguishes between relative space and the absolute space and going as far as to “name” relational space, one charting the relationship between the object and the influences bearing upon it. Even in a fiction about the real and confronting the real, individuals are seen not to exist in a vacuum, but in a relation with the urban reality surrounding them, by engaging with it, changing it, mapping it by wandering through it, escaping it, showing it up by their witnessing, enacting its constraints.57 This is how the legacy and ‘afterlife’ (the Warburghian nachleben) of Neo-realism then, obliges us to confront the social, political and economic forces that shape our lives and the spatial conditions and containers of those lives in well-established, if perhaps, under-examined ways, through film. Consequently, these films and the more recent ones discussed earlier, sharing their same characteristics, demonstrate the potential of cinema as a medium and a realm of possibility, only partially realised then, as Zavattini often pointed out, in feature films (as well as documentaries), to play a vital role in a critique of contemporary capitalist spatial practices.58