The first time I put an eye behind a camera (a 16mm Bell & Howell), it was in a lunatic asylum. The head of the institution was a great big hulk of a man with a face so ravaged by time that it resembled those of his patients. I was still living then in the quiet old town of Ferrara where I was born, a wonderful little town in the Po Valley. A number of my friends and myself had decided to make a documentary on the insane. The director of the asylum was most anxious to be of service; he even went so far as to roll himself over the floor to show us how his patients reacted under certain provocations. But I was determined to make a documentary that would include the inmates themselves. I was so insistent on this point that he finally said, “Okay, let’s try it.”
So we set up the camera, got the lights ready, and placed the inmates around the room in preparation for the first shot. I must say that they were very cooperative in following our instructions and extremely careful not to make any mistakes. They helped us move things around, and I was really quite surprised by their efficiency and good will.
Finally, I have the order to turn on the lights. I was a bit nervous and anxious. Suddenly, the room was flooded with light, and for an instant the inmates remained absolutely stationary, as though they were petrified. I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors. The scene that followed is indescribable. The inmates started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor—just as the head of the asylum had demonstrated earlier. In no time at all, the room became an inferno. The inmates tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster. The same faces that had kept madness within human bounds in the preceding calm were now crumpled and devastated. And this time we were the ones who stood petrified at the sight. The cameraman didn’t even have the strength to turn on the motor, nor I to give an order. It was the head of the asylum who yelled, “Stop, turn off the lights!” And as the room became silent and subdued, we saw a slow and feeble movement of bodies that seemed to be in their final stages of agony.
I have never forgotten that scene. And it was around this scene that we unconsciously started talking about neorealism.
This all happened before the war. Then came the war, and we were witnesses to many scenes of violence, not to say madness; so the habit became fixed. But that documentary, which was never completed, always remained in my mind, during our postwar discussions on filmmaking in Italy, as a classic representation of neorealism. It seemed that Italian cinema would remain chained to one standard: reality, the Real, always more real. The camera was camouflaged in the streets or placed against a keyhole to capture the most hidden aspects of reality. All the aesthetic concepts learned in school were swept away in the rush, in the need to overcome theory with facts and with films. Needless to say, many of those films achieved success, for the truth is that the reality around us was exceptional and controversial. How could it be ignored?
Making a film is not like writing a novel. Flaubert once said that living was not his profession; his profession was writing. Making a film, on the contrary, is living—at least it is for me. While I am shooting a film, my personal life is not interrupted; in fact, it is intensified. This total commitment, this pouring of all our energies into the making of a film—what is it if not a way of life, a way of contributing to our personal heritage something of value whose worth can be judged by others? Obviously, when a film is shown to the public, one’s own personal concerns, which are reflected in the film, also become public. And in the immediate postwar years, which were so full of dire events, so full of anxieties and fears for the world’s future, it was impossible to talk of anything else. There are such times when to ignore certain events would be dishonest for a man of intelligence, because an intelligence that absents itself at a crucial moment is a contradiction in terms.
I think filmmakers should always try to reflect the times in which they live; not so much to express and interpret events in their most direct and tragic form (we can also laugh at them, and why not? I love comedies, even though I haven’t made any myself yet, and among the comic actors I like most are Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness), but rather to capture their effect upon us, and to be sincere and conscientious with ourselves, to be honest and courageous with others. In my opinion, it is a singular way of living. However, I do feel that the standard of the real, which is the basis of Italian neorealism, must now be met in a wider and deeper sense. In today’s return to normal conditions (for better or worse), the relationship between an individual and his environment is less important than the individual himself in all his complex and disquieting reality and in his equally complex relations with others.
What is it that torments and motivates modern man? Of all that has happened and is now happening in the world, what are the repercussions inside a man, what are the consequences in his most intimate relationships and dealings with others? Today, more than ever, these are the questions we should keep in mind when we prepare ourselves to make a film.
In discussing my film Il grido, the French critics referred to it as a new form of filmmaking, which they called “internal neorealism.” Ever since those early days of that documentary about the insane, I have never thought of labeling what for me was always considered a necessity, i.e., to observe and describe the thoughts and feelings that motivate a man in his march to happiness or death. Nor do I ever concern myself with introducing “themes” into my films; I detest films that have a “message.” I simply try to tell, or, more precisely, show, certain vicissitudes that take place, then hope they will hold the viewer’s interest no matter how much bitterness they may reveal. Life is not always happy, and one must have the courage to look at it from all sides. However, the finished film itself should contain the meaning. If we are sincere in our narration, the ideas we have will sooner or later always get across. The important thing is that the story should be told with a firm and impassioned conscience. The films I like best are those in which the images convey a sense of reality without losing their force of persuasion. Films that are made without affectation, without indulging in romantic extravagance or intellectual excess, films that look at things exactly as they are: not backward or forward, or from the side, but face-to-face.
This excerpt originally appeared in the spring 1962 issue of Film Culture.