Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism in Film [Beginner’s Guide]

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Table of contents

Are you looking for a breakdown of Italian neorealism? Below, you will learn everything about it including a detailed breakdown of the definition, recurring elements, and popular neorealist films. 

Throughout cinema, artists have influenced how filmmakers create films. In the 1920s, films made in Germany focused on dream like worlds through German Expressionism. In contrast, 1940s Italian filmmakers told stories through film realism. This movement had a big impact on how filmmakers make films and tell stories on the screen today.

What is Italian Neorealism?

Italian Neorealism was a film movement in the 1940s and 1950s. It all started in 1937 when Mussolini created a film studio that aimed to make films for the Italian public. Throughout World War II, Italy made many war films. However, during the war, bombs destroyed the studio.  

After the war, filmmakers had to find a new way to make films. So, they decided to shoot on location, with low budgets and non actors. Their films also focused on the working class and post war life struggles. 

These films gained attention when Roberto Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1946) won first prize at the Canne Film Festival. In the late 40s, Italian Neorealism films had increased in popularity. This time of success is also called the golden age of Italian cinema.

Italian Neorealism Elements

These films were mainly made in the 1940s and 1950s in Italy. There are a series of elements that you can find across all Italian films at the time. Let’s explore these elements in detail and include examples of each of them.

Subject Matter

One important factor of Italian neorealism films is the subject matter. The films explore poor people and the lower working class. The character’s main goal is survival, and the scenes are ordinary, following people going about their lives.

Italian filmmakers wanted to show the effect of World War II and the reality of how people live. The simple subject matter made it easy to shoot on a low budget. One good example is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which captures the suffering of post-war Italy.


The Italian filmmakers also often worked with non actors. This helped to show film realism in contrast to Hollywood cinema at the time. However, in later years, it was common to cast well-known actors in leading roles to help market the films.  

Italian neorealism films also typically feature children in the leading roles. One example is another film from director Vittorio De Sica, Miracle in Milan (1951). The lead actors were found by approaching real people and children from the streets. 


Another key part of Italian neorealism films is the films were shot entirely on location. The filmmakers often filmed in streets, run down cities and villages. This approach differed from Italian cinema before and during the war, which shot in large studio sets.

These films were also low-budget and had no studio backing. So, shooting on location also kept the film budgets low. One example of this is Germany, Year Zero (1948) by Roberto Rossellini which was shot on location in Berlin, showing the real aftermath of the war.  

Italian Realism Examples

There are many films that follow the codes of Italian neorealism. The popularity of these films only lasted 20 years. However, they helped to create film realism, which inspired many other filmmakers. Let’s look at some of the key examples of this movement.

1. The Bicycle Thieves (1948)

One of the most famous Italian neorealism films on this list is Victorrio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves. The story follows a poor man who searches for his stolen bicycle with his son. The cast are non actors, the locations are post-war streets and the subject matter is about the struggles of regular people.

Bicycle Thieves is one of the most influential films paving the way for film realism. In the 1950s, Film magazine Sight and Sound said it was the greatest film of all time. Many film directors say it inspired them to make films including Ken Loach and Francais Truffet.  

2. Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Robert Rossellini shot his war trilogy in allied occupied Germany right after the war. By doing this, he could use damaged streets, ruins, and broken buildings as locations. The film follows twelve year old Edmund and his family fighting to survive after World War II.

Rossellini chose children from the streets to act in the film. The film also features documentary scenes where actors interact with regular people. In an interview, he explained his ideas about realism, saying ‘Realism is nothing other than the artistic form of truth’.

3. Miracle In Milan (1951)

In this Italian fantasy film, we follow a group of poor people in post-war Italy. The film, directed by Vittorio De Sica is a strange mix of magic and realism. The cast is all non actors and its main location was waste ground, near Milan’s railway station.

Vittorio De Sica said that he made the film in order to show ‘the common man, the struggles of survival and his realities of life’. The film was a commercial success and it premiered at the Canne film festival and had a worldwide realization.

4. Umberto D (1952)

Another film by Vittorio De Sica tells the story of Umberto Domenico, a poor elderly man in Rome. All the characters, including the leading role, were played by non actors. It was De Sica’s favorite film, however, on its release realism began to become unpopular in Italy.

Film critic Roger Ebert said it may be the best of the Italian neorealism films and ‘one that is most simply itself and does not reach for its effects or strain to make its message clear’.

5. La Strada (1954)

Federico Fellini’s La Strada (The Road) follows a simple minded young woman making a living on the road as a street performer. The film used a mix of professional and non actors and shot on location in Italy. The lead actress, Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s wife and a former theatre actress.

Many critics see La Strada as the last realism film. Fellini wanted to move away from realism and create his own brand of cinema. As such, La Strada is a mix of dream like scenes and realism with Fellini saying, ‘neorealism was not only to show one kind of reality’.

Neorealism Impact

Italian neorealism in film took over Italian cinema between 1943 and 1950. It had a big impact kick starting the French New Wave as well as Brazil’s realism movement, Cinema Nova. Most of all, it changed the classical way of shooting cinema in a studio.

This movement also influenced many famous filmmakers. For example, Bicycle Thieves heavily inspired Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955). The director shot the entire film on location and worked with non actors. In Modern filmmaking, you can find many film examples, such as Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) and Andre Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009)

Italian neorealism ended in the mid 1950s as the public wished for more uplifting films. In addition, the films had to compete with Hollywood movies, which were in their own golden age. Even so, this short lived movement inspired many filmmakers and had a positive impact on storytelling which previously didn’t give a voice to working class people. 

Wrapping Up – Italian Neorealism Films

To sum up, Italian neorealism is one of the many film events that changed cinema. The filmmakers had few resources to make films, so they relied on what they had available. By doing this, they showed the resilience of artists despite hardship after the war.

This era was also known as the Golden Age of Italian cinema. The Italian filmmakers were the first to make films focusing on the struggles of regular people. As a result, they influenced the French New Wave and inspired many filmmakers today.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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