Commercial Italian filmmakers of the early post-war era didn’t put much stock in the few crews shooting movies in the streets of Rome and Naples, casting local plumbers, masons, and slum children in plum roles. These “neorealists” made gritty, scaled-down films that took the problems of contemporary life head-on, but what profit could there be in airing Italy’s dirty secrets when it seemed (rightly) that prosperity was just around the corner?
But Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Roberto Rossellini sought a cinema of conscience and eschewed the gaudy costume dramas, historical epics, and propaganda films that constituted the bulk of Italy’s production. Their mission was best described by one of neorealism’s lesser-known practitioners, Alberto Lattuada, who wrote in 1945: “So we’re in rags? Then let us show our rags to the world. So we’re defeated? Then let us contemplate our disasters. So we owe them to the Mafia? To hypocrisy? To conformism? Then let us pay our debts with a fierce love of honesty, and the world will be moved to participate in this great combat with truth. The confession will throw light on our hidden virtues, our faith in life, our immense Christian brotherhood. We will at last meet with comprehension and esteem. The cinema is unequaled for revealing all the basic truths about a nation.”
De Sica’s Umberto D. is widely considered a masterwork of this principled movement, an elegant if bleak film that stands with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries as one of the great portraits of old age and loneliness ever brought to the screen. But there is a tenderness in De Sica’s film that the colder Bergman cannot manage. De Sica hoped to give “the story of the old retired office worker, his tragic solitude, his boundless sadness, and his pathetic awkward attempts at warming his heart, a kind of universality that would be understood by everyone.” Unfortunately the film was greeted with critical indifference, disastrous box-office returns, and hostility from the Italian government, which subsequently banned the export of films deemed unflattering to Italian society. It was in the foreign market that the neorealists made their name. De Sica’s early masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (1948), which defined the aims and ideals of the movement, using non-professional actors and actual locations, had been met with enormous critical enthusiasm both in the U.S. and in Europe; it still stands as a hallmark of Western cinema. And when Umberto D. was released in the U.S., it won the 1955 New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film as well as an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s story.
Zavattini was a literary jack-of-all-trades: a journalist, editor, writer for children’s magazines, and novelist. In the thirties he wrote his first film scripts, including a pleasant comedy called I’d Give a Million (1935), which starred a young comic actor named Vittorio De Sica as a millionaire who dreams of giving away all his money. While the film was a modest success, its true claim to honor is that it brought Zavattini and De Sica together for the first time.
In film lore the two have become virtually inseparable. Their collaborations comprise The Children are Watching Us (1943), Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1952), Miracle in Milan (1951), Umberto D. (1952), and Terminal Station (1953)—every one but the last a keystone of neorealism. Their work on Umberto D. moved the French critic André Bazin to call the film “a masterpiece which film history is certainly going to grant a place of honor.” His prediction has indubitably been borne out.
Since its initial release, the film has roused critics, particularly for its use of real-time sequences. The long, patient takes cinematographer Aldo Graziati (a.k.a. G. R. Aldo) lavishes on the maid’s morning ritual or Umberto’s hopeless effort at getting to sleep are practical lessons in the neorealist vision: scrupulously untheatrical moments in which real life is being lived, for better or worse, by real people.
Graziati is little known, but his work is extraordinary. After an outstanding career as a studio cameraman in Paris, shooting films for Carné and Cocteau, director Michelangelo Antonioni introduced him to Visconti and De Sica. From 1948 until 1953, when he was killed in a car crash on the Padua-Venice autostrada while working on Visconti’s Senso, Graziati’s camera became the eye of neorealism.
De Sica, Zavattini, and Graziati all hold places of distinction in this unique cinematic brotherhood that forever changed the way films would be made. “We sought to redeem our guilt,” De Sica said, looking back on the movement he helped to begin. “We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation.” Like poor Umberto.