Author: David Forgacs
Bicycle Thieves (1947) is often cited as the definitive neo-realist film of post-war Italy. However, many would argue that Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City was the first. I, however, would argue that that credit should go to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, made shortly after the liberation of Italy. Forgacs treads water tentatively with the subject of neo-realism, although does attempt some theories behind its meaning but refuses to labour over this label. What is neo-realist or what isn’t to him is irrelevant. Forgacs does, though go into great detail about the making of this film, its locale and puts it within a clear historical context. The origins of the film are extraordinary. Previous to this Rossellini had only made a couple of films, propaganda films that were made in Fascist Italy and are inferior to his better known, dare I say it neo-realist films. Set in Rome during the dying days of Nazi occupation in the early spring of 1944 (Rome was liberated on 4th June 1944, two days before D-Day), the screenplay and funding for the film began in September and October of the same year, shooting began in January 1945 and was premiered in Italy in September 1945. Quite a remarkable achievement considering the problems of filming straight after the war and dealing with a subject that was still raw to audiences all over the world, but particularly with this film in Italy. It was shot on location and is a document of the lives of the people and spirit of the people who live in the city of Rome. There are very few shots of the city’s famous landmarks, bar the opening shot does show St. Peter’s in the distance, but focuses instead on the lives and struggles of the people: a priest, some small rebel boys, a pregnant woman and a communist who is tortured for his troubles. Bar the boys, who are generic, the other aforementioned characters are based on real life people and incidents, or at least are an amalgamation on real life people and events which Forgacs is at pains to break down. This is where the book benefits: Forgacs is a professor of Italian studies at UCL and his knowledge of Italian history and the films context within that history comes to the fore and is well placed as is his geographical knowledge of Rome, locales where the film was shot and even includes some detailed maps of where it was shot.
Forgacs also gives a good impression of the difficulties and struggles Rossellini went to in filming and the relative ease in getting a distributor, particularly internationally. He also dispels many of the myths about the films poor reception on its release, although it was snubbed at the Cannes Film Festival. What is without doubt is how this film launched the career of Rossellini who went on to make the similar Paisa (set in different parts of Italy at the end of the war) made in 1946 and the bleak Germany: Year Zero (1947) shot in the ruins of Berlin in what were undoubtedly his best films. Forgacs also attempts to read into the political complexities of Rossellini who had made three blatant propaganda films under Mussolini’s rule and later denied this, later retracting this and claiming that this was the only way for him to make a film. What is clear, however, is the empathy with the people of Rome Rossellini has and this also comes into the fore in some of his following films making the director something of a political enigma: a fair weather political mind? What is disappointing about the book, as it is with many books on Italian neo-realism is how Rossellini’s influence with these films stretched to Poland and the trilogy of films Andrzej Wajda made beginning with A Generation (1954) and followed through with Kanal (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1956), although this would be nit picking as Forgacs book is a very entertaining and easy to follow read, especially for someone like myself who is both a film and modern history buff.