When Two Italian Masters Rejected Neorealism


‘Love in the City’

Love in the City is a 1953 feature made at the height of the Italian Neorealist movement, when a new generation of Italian filmmakers sought to take more direct inspiration from everyday life. It’s made of six segments, each with its own writer or director, and each with its own distinct take on what neorealism is. The directors of two of the segments, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, went on to become supreme artists of their generation, and their respective films reflect their personal fascinations—and frustrations—with neorealism.

Fellini’s segment, “Marriage Agency,” follows a journalist investigating an office that matches prospective husbands and wives. The narration starts with an assertion of fact, that this story actually happened, but for Fellini, reality is a myth that people want to believe in. Fellini was a magician of cinema, and he treats neorealism as a magic spell: watch what he does with this neorealist setting, turning a run-down apartment complex into a kind of carnival funhouse.

In Fellini’s world, reality is belied by the magic of fiction. To pursue his undercover investigation, the journalist lies to the marriage agency, inventing a story that he is trying to find a wife for his client, a rich man who has a disease that turns him into a werewolf at night. The agency doesn’t even flinch—for them, it’s just another job to do. And when the journalist meets the prospective bride and tells her the same story, she too accepts it as fact. What choice does she have, when her own reality is unbearable? In just sixteen minutes, Fellini develops a rich argument that points out his problems with neorealism. What is reality when people live everyday in a world of lies, fictions and fantasies? And when movies, even neorealist movies, help to perpetuate these lies, what good can they really do to address the genuine problems of people in the real world? The moment that the journalist drives away from the poor woman is when Fellini literally leaves neorealism behind him.

Watch When Two Italian Masters Rejected Neorealism

Antonioni’s segment, “Attempted Suicide,” investigates five women who tried to kill themselves and are now looking back on their experiences. Antonioni employs different techniques to explore the mystery of these women and their suicide attempts. On a giant sound stage with a simple white backdrop, he interviews them. He also recreates scenes of their life to give their suicide attempts some biographical context. And then he restages the suicide attempts, using an impressive variety of techniques. One suicide attempt is depicted remotely off screen. Another switches suddenly from the moment of the attempt to the woman showing her scars, so that we can imagine what it was like for the blood to flow from her wrists. It’s as if Antonioni is saying the reality of these scars is more powerful than any movie depiction of a suicide. Another shifts from interviewing a woman at the site of her attempt to a shot where the camera tries to enter the water, as if trying to get as close as possible to the woman’s suicidal experience. But even here, there’s a sense of distance between the actual event and our ability to experience it; even for the women, it feels like something beyond themselves.

Antonioni’s direction makes us think more than feel. He strips these scenes of emotion, portraying them clinically, more like scientific case studies than melodramatic stories. And the results are even more chilling than melodrama, because these disturbed human beings seem so normal, and blend so easily into everyday life. The normal appearances of reality are deceiving and cannot be trusted. Antonioni’s film doesn’t solve the mystery of what drives people into suicide and madness. But he shows how that mystery permeates the reality of our everyday lives, how it’s hidden in plain sight.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.

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