Neorealism and the Ethics of Cinema

Tree of Life; Terrence Malick.

Tree of Life; Terrence Malick.

Amidst the sunny charm of Southern California, a novel form of storytelling emerged in the early twentieth century. Unlike preceding popular art forms, the advent of moving pictures produced an entertainment machine unlike the world had ever seen. Within a few short decades, Hollywood had mastered the ability to captivate viewers with intensely entertaining motion pictures. But in the nineteen-forties, filmmakers from Italy began experimenting with a different kind of cinema. Rather than simply wishing to entertain, they endeavored to authentically depict the lives of Italy’s ordinary citizens. A movement known as Neorealism was born, and a set of common characteristics soon emerged. Everyday life was often emphasized, and emotions were subtle and genuine. While critics praise the artistic and dramatic value of neorealism, the movement’s emphasis on the everyday may also serve as a model for an ethically superior cinema.

The 1953 film Terminal Station provides a unique visualization of what artistic and dramatic styles define neorealism. Following the indecent love story between a vacationing American housewife and an Italian academic, the film’s plot was simple; production, however, was not. The film’s Italian director, Vittorio De Sica, was a leading figure in the neorealist movement. Producer David O. Selznick was a mainstream Hollywood executive deeply accustomed to the orthodox methods of storytelling that pervaded the 1950s studio system. This powerful clash of creative conventions became the ultimate illustration of the fundamental differences between neorealism and traditional Hollywood storytelling.

In the end, two entirely different cuts of the film were released; one by De Sica, the other by Selznick. When viewed side by side, the artistic and dramatic differences between the two cuts become pronounced. Both films commence with an establishing shot of a city, but Selznick, through the use of a title plate, not only tells the audience which city, but connects the city to the central theme of love. While De Sica’s opening shot plays on, Selznick cuts to a letter which comprehensively spells out the dominate tension of the film. Within the first two minutes, De Sica has used half the shots that Selznick rapidly cuts between. Additionally, De Sica has communicated far more subtly, preferring to gradually communicate location and theme through nuance rather than words.

Perhaps the most obvious difference lies not in the shots selected, but in the subtle variance of cuts. Selznick consistently preferred a shorter cut than De Sica, often eliminating everyday moments that did not serve to intensify the plot. Kogonada, a filmmaker and cinema theorist from South Korea, commented on this dramatic distinction of sensibilities. He writes “What Selznick sees as waste and excess becomes the essence of a different kind of cinema, in which shots linger and veer off to include others, in which in-between moments seem to be essential. In which time and place seem more critical than plot or story” (What Is Neorealism). Neorealism’s emphasis on everydayness may be considered the defining characteristic of the movement; a quality from which each subsequent characteristic is established.

Characteristics of Neorealism

Centering a film’s plot around seemingly unextraordinary people, places, and events can create a heightened sense of reality to an audience accustomed to ordinary life. Regardless of the attention a filmmaker may put into realistically reproducing life in front of a lens, the film will be precisely that: a reproduction. Any enacted motion picture, weather fictional or historical, is intrinsically unreal. Neorealism suggests that a filmmaker will need to go further in their pursuit of realism than simply creating realistic set dressings, lighting, and performances; the story must be an accurate representation of everyday life. In his book Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach, Christopher Wagstaff explores this concept:

Imagined events acquire their factual credentials by possessing attributes like everyday, unexceptional, and typical…reduction brings you closer to the real. The smaller the facts, the more everyday they are, the humbler the protagonists, the fewer the events, the simpler the apparatus used for recording them, the quicker they are reproduced, the closer you are to reality.

This notion of expressing the familiar over the fantastic enables filmmakers to present an honest interpretation of life to an audience.

In a further pursual of authenticity, the conventions of neorealism dictate that non-professional actors must be cast in such films. Notable actors are accustomed to an extremely exclusive lifestyle, and therefore may not be capable of honestly portraying an ordinary character. Vittorio De Sica, director of Terminal Station and Bicycle Thieves, was an unreserved proponent of casting nonprofessionals. As quoted by Wagstaff, De Sica stated “I like above all faces that are…as yet unseen: actors who are not actors, who have not yet been corrupted by the profession and by constant practice, in whom everything is genuine and fresh. If I could, I would choose my performers form the streets, from among the crowd” (Wagstaff 314). And De Sica often did just that. In what may be considered the most iconic neorealist film of all time, the 1948 drama Bicycle Thieves, De Sica cast ordinary Italians for nearly every role. Bert Cardullo, in his book Soundings on Cinema, writes that De Sica cast eight-year-old Enzo Staiola in the prominent role of Bruno Ricci after noticing him in a crowd that had gathered to watch the shooting of a street scene. The young Staiola was the son of a impoverished flower vender. Casting ordinary townsfolk from the streets of Rome added a remarkable sense of authenticity that may well have played a role in garnering the film’s honorary Oscar.

Bicycle Thieves; De Sica's legendary neorealist film that is often considered to define the movement.

Bicycle Thieves; De Sica’s legendary neorealist film that is often considered to define the movement.

An additional characteristic of neorealism is the use of longer takes, or sequence shots, to communicate a story. Mainstream Hollywood directors traditionally attempt to remove empty time within a scene, such as walking, thinking, or the simple act of being. Kogonada, in his commentary on Terminal Station, writes, “For Selznick and most of Hollywood, the act of walking needs only to be implied, not endured…yet it is these in between moments that De Sica seems to be valuing” (What Is Neorealism). Kogonada suggests that these moments, moments that some consider empty or even distracting, have enormous potential for subtly communicating information about character, sentiment, and setting. Body language has the ability to contribute invaluable information that could easily be disregarded. Rather than rapidly cutting between major plot points within a scene, neorealist cinema values what is communicated in the seemingly empty moments of a story.

When combined as a whole, the characteristics of neorealism often lead to a general aesthetic resembling documentary filmmaking. In some extreme cases of neorealism, the pursuit of reality seems to have obscured the line between documentary and narrative fiction, producing a hybrid genre where improvised dialogue, guerrilla style camera set-ups, and ordinary events form a narrative tapestry that seems closer to reality than reverie. Such characteristics are not exclusive to neorealism; according to Jim Hillier’s comprehensive volume on mid-century cinema entitled, Cahiers Du Cinéma, they have been the inspiration for numerous other film movements, including the French New Wave, Cinema Novo, and ultimately much of arthouse cinema today. Christian filmmakers may also find inspiration within the movement, as certain neorealist characteristics are considered morally and ethically superior to those of mainstream cinema.

Realism as an Ethical Approach to Cinema

Some sectors of Christianity feel uncomfortable with the enacted reproduction of life on the sliver screen, believing it to exist only within the confines of fantasy. In his book Outside Hollywood, Christian filmmaker and author Isaac Botkin writes, “Many responsible theologians criticize Christian involvement in any kind of fantasy” (13). He goes on to argue, however, that any moving picture, weather documentary or narrative fiction, falls under the category of fantasy:

“According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the root meaning of “fantasy” suggests the causing to appear at pleasure, or shooting forth. This is what filmmakers do, even when they bring documentaries to the screen. The image projected on the screen (the organization of the ideas, sounds and impressions) is “fantasy,” something the filmmaker caused to appear from his own imagination and design. This he does when producing biographies, comedies, war movies, westerns, documentaries, thrillers and magical fantasies” (14).

If indeed any form of imaginative art can be classified as fantasy, than perhaps the moral integrity of art lies within the truth conveyed by the fantasy. Although an enacted motion picture may fall within the category of creative fabrication, a filmmaker may choose to reproduce life before the lens with honest realism, and therefore communicate truth to the viewer.

The Scent of Green Papaya; a film by Tran Anh Hung, featuring the everyday life of a young servant girl.

The Scent of Green Papaya; a film by Tran Anh Hung, featuring the everyday life of a young servant girl.

The desire to authentically reveal the lives of Italy’s ordinary citizens was the driving motivation behind the neorealist movement. Commenting on this assessment, Millicent Marcus, professor of Italian cinema at Yale University, writes, “Neorealism is first and foremost a moral statement, “una nuova poesia morale” whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity. This shared moral commitment united filmmakers “from above,” dissolving there petty stylistic differences into basic agreement on the larger issues of human concerns and general world view. Such a moral consensus among stylistically separate practitioners of neorealism leads one critic to the conclusion that it was never an aesthetic code at all, but strictly an ethical one” (23). Marcus seems to suggest that objectively presenting the human condition is a moral necessity. Christian filmmakers should have a leading awareness of the truth conveyed within their works, not only in regards to space and environment, but also plot and emotion.

Mainstream cinema has come to offer escape to many who frequent its entrance. The often exaggerated storylines and melodramatic emotions can seem to provide a diversion from the mundane. However, this habit of escapism may not be without harmful ramifications. South Korean film theorist Kogonada explores this relationship in his Sight & Sound article entitled “The World According to Koreeda.” He writes, “For moviegoers, everydayness is the enemy. Movies not only offer escape, but in doing so, they alter our taste for everyday life. Jean Mitry asked, “Why is it that life seems so dreary after we leave the cinema?” Is it possible that our regular consumption of the extraordinary makes the ordinary taste even more bland in comparison?” Kogonada suggests that viewing certain films may affect one’s psychological well being, adding an additional layer of complexity to the discourse on the ethics of cinema.

This phenomena of post-movie depression is not simply the product of a theorist’s overly sensitive imagination. Following the 2009 release of Avatar, the most financially successful movie in history, CNN published an article entitled “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues.”  According to the report, numerous viewers experienced varying degrees of depression as a result of the fantastic environment and exceedingly dramatic emotions expressed within the film (Piazza). One viewer stated, “I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the [sic] everything is the same as in Avatar.” Although these types of negative effects seem reasonably documented, they appear to only be associated with certain styles of movies.

While films such as Avatar offer escape from everyday life, some motion pictures seem to offer a deeper entrance into it. At a later point in his article, Kogonada writes,

I grew up on a steady diet of movies that made everyday life seem less and less interesting. But along the way, I encountered films that offered a different sensibility. I found that when I left the cinema after watching these films, everyday life didn’t seem more dreary or bland, but more meaningful and savory. In a way, these films helped restore my taste for the everyday.

While some filmgoers leave the cinema feeling discontent, Kogonada came away with a deeper appreciation for everyday life. And the difference, he claims, is based upon principles of neorealist cinema. He writes, “It turns out that the everyday is a lot like tofu. It may seem bland in comparison to the spectacle of other dishes and desserts being offered, but if we happen to stumble upon a master chef capable of bringing out its subtle flavors, it will change the way we experience tofu forever.” It is the job of the filmmaker to emphasize the beautiful flavors of everyday people, places, and emotions as an ode to the ordinary.

Communicating realistic levels of emotion should be of primary interest to filmmakers, particularly those inclined to Adventist beliefs and principles. On several occasions, Ellen White cautioned readers against reading stories that contained heightened levels of drama; tales that create an unnatural excitement within the reader. In her book Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, White writes, “There is another class of books — love stories and frivolous, exciting tales — which are a curse to everyone who reads them, even though the author may attach a good moral. The practice of story reading is one of the means employed by Satan to destroy souls. It produces a false, unhealthy excitement, fevers the imagination, unfits the mind for usefulness, and disqualifies it for any spiritual exercise. It weans the soul from prayer and from the love of spiritual things” (134).

In many respects, White seems to be describing the average Hollywood storyline, permeated with exhilarating action and debauchery that often lacks any semblance of their real-world counterparts. She condemns such unrealistically dramatic narratives as detrimental to one’s spirituality and emotional well being.

Beasts of the Southern Wild revolved around the everyday life of a poverty stricken Louisiana family. Locals were cast in primary roles.

Beasts of the Southern Wild revolved around the everyday life of a poverty stricken Louisiana family.

It should be noted, however, that White was not entirely against the reading of stories. Dr. Charles Tidwell, Dean Emeritus of Andrews University, wrote of White’s use of narrative literature: “Throughout her life, Ellen White read widely. It became her practice to clip out stories she read in many of the magazines of her day, stories that she found useful or interesting. She made at least nine scrapbooks of stories and articles…Dr. (John) Waller examined these scrapbooks and found that most of the stories were anonymous, that many of them were fiction, and that a few of them were by recognized and well-known fiction writers of her time, including Hans Christian Andersen, who is noted for his fairy tales, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

According to Dr. Tidwell, White regularly read and preserved stories, among which were works of moralistic fiction. Readers may recall, however, that White is often recognized as a candid critic of such literature. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, Dr. Tidwell continues, “If we go back to Ellen White’s actual comments against fiction, we can recognize that she was condemning a particular type of fiction that was incredibly prevalent in her day and one that rightfully deserves condemnation. A careful study of her comments brings out certain recurring adjectives and phrases — “sentimental,” “trash,” “sensational,” “worthless,” “love stories,” “frivolous,” “exciting tales.”

As noted previously, it appears that the morality of a story is not a direct function of its relation to factual events. Rather, White appears to condemn certain melodramatic characteristics of popular literature. Of exceptional interest to those concerned with cinema is that nearly all of these characteristics would be avoided if a filmmaker where to adhere to the dramatic conventions of neorealism. Neorealists’ obsession with the ordinary is fundamentally incompatible with the sensational; subdued emotion and sentimentality are mutually exclusive. The defining neorealist attribute of everydayness could be considered the principal antonym of exciting tales. It would seem, from the perspective of Ellen White, that realist cinema is a considerably superior storytelling convention in terms of ethics and morality.

The Successful Implementation of Neorealism

Regardless of neorealism’s ethical superiority, mainstream audiences have shown little interest in the genre. The majority of realist arthouse films briefly sputter at the box office before inevitably plunging towards an ever growing list of cinematic failures.

Among these are many of the films by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung. His debut 1993 feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, follows the ordinary life of a young Vietnamese servant girl. Much of the film’s nearly two hour runtime consists of the girl walking about a village, cleaning her master’s sprawling manor, or simply catching crickets at night. Although the film became a critical sensation and promptly scored an Oscar nomination, it grossed a measly two million dollars against its nearly nineteen million dollar budget (IMDb). Hung’s poetic portrait film simply could not compete with Hollywood’s riveting entertainment.

If the principles of neorealism are ever to become a feasible model for Christian cinema, the genre must reach some level of commercial viability. This pursuit may require a responsible compromise of traditional neorealist characteristics for the sake of an emotionally relevant storyline. Fundamentally, neorealism is a method of storytelling, not a specific type of story. A compelling plot, told with subtle emotions and delicate drama, may form a superior hybrid method of cinematic storytelling. Genuine emotions, communicated through understated metaphor and nuance, can be far more emotionally engaging than Hollywood’s melodramatic interpretation of life.

The world is thirsting for authenticity, and cinema, to a great extent, can be blamed for the lack of it. Written long before neorealism every graced the english vocabulary, Virginia Woolf described the fundamental struggle behind cinematic storytelling:

While all the other arts were born naked, cinema, the youngest, has been born fully clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found, scattering the seashore, fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard  and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.

If cinema were like music, Hollywood’s emotional thrill rides would be akin to Woolf’s description of the savage orchestra. Perhaps mainstream audiences are not truly desirous of viewing the dramatic madness that so often assaults the filmgoer. They may be longing for something simpler; an authentic representation of life that adds meaning and savor to the everyday.


Works Cited

Botkin, Isaac. Outside Hollywood: The Young Christian’s Guide to Vocational Filmmaking. San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum Ministries, 2007. Print.

Cardullo, Bert. Soundings on Cinema: Speaking to Film and Film Artists. Albany: State U of New York, 2008. Print.

Hillier, Jim. Cahiers Du Cinéma: The 1950s, Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Harvard: Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

IMDb. “The Scent of Green Papaya.” Web.

Kogonada. “Video: What Is Neorealism?” British Film Institute. Sight & Sound, 8 Aug. 2014. Web.

— “The World According to Koreeda.” British Film Institute. Sight and Sound, 8 Aug. 2014. Web.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Martin Scorsese: A Biography. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.

Marcus, Millicent Joy. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986. Print.

Piazza, Jo. “Audiences Experience ‘Avatar’ Blues.” CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Jan. 2010. Web.

Tidwell, Charles H., PhD. “Ellen White and Fiction.” Andrews University. N.p. Web.

Wagstaff, Christopher. Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2007. Print.

Woolf, Virginia, and Harry M. Geduld. Authors on Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1972. Print.


  • Richard, you have successfully communicated my thoughts on the topic so well, thank you so much for sharing. The intellectual quality of this post is incredibly accurate so thank you for sharing. Keep up the beautiful work, it is tremendous. :)

  • Cosmin says:

    Hello my friend, I’m trying to remember our conversations about this topic, but I did want to bring out the use of fantasy in the Bible (particularly the book of Revelation) and in Pilgrim’s Progress. In both of these cases there is a clear break with reality, and God supplies the fantasy to a prophet (John). I am not using “fantasy” as it is associated with a lack of truth, but rather as a genre that utilizes blatantly imaginative pictures to convey truth. Looking at the genres present in the Bible it seems pure fantasy is somewhat scarce (Daniel and Revelation), followed by philosophy (Ecclesiastes and Proverbs), then realistic biography (e.g. Gospels), letters (Romans, Eph. etc), law (Leviticus, Deut.) and history (Kings, Chronicles) loom larger. But the largest of all is poetry because almost all prophecy comes in the form of poetry (think long books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and longest of all Psalms). So Neorealism seems to have poetry mixed into biography and history, and perhaps that should receive more attention than it has.

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