I’ve been rewatching a lot of Italian neorealist films as of late, which in turn has led me to reassess some of the frameworks that Evan Calder Williams and I used six years ago as we worked on our Film Quarterly essay comparing and contrasting the post-war melodramas of Rafaello Matarazzo with contemporaneous examples of Italian neorealism. In that essay, we claimed that,
in preserving and focusing on the spaces of working-class culture, neorealist cinema tended to simultaneously sever the discursive structures and materiality of popolare culture. As such, neorealism’s much-vaunted access to social reality and its supplementary details also reveals itself as a potential falsification of mass experience and, in its own way, as a paradoxically conservative dismissal of the energies and contradictions embedded in the lived texts and historical details of the popolare. Matarazzo’s films, complexly conservative though they may be, nevertheless illuminate the shortcomings of neorealism by adumbrating a politics built not on the evacuation of the popolare but on a melodramatic elaboration of the messy and communal intersections of inherited discourses and historical rupture. At the very least, it is on such a basis that a new look at the Matarazzo debates proves instructive, pointing less toward the question critics then could not answer (are Matarazzo’s melodramas really instances of feuilleton neorealism?) than it does toward the one they did not even try to: and what kind of realism might that be?[i]
While there is nothing in this quote or in the essay as a whole that I think needs to be revised or qualified, and while I do not want to speak for Evan, I for one certainly took for granted some things that have been famously claimed on behalf of Italian neorealism that I don’t think I ought to have and that prevented me from drawing out some potentially useful implications of the overlaps between Italian neorealism and what we took to calling the “feuilleton neorealism” of Matarazzo’s melodramas.
First, so as to provide some context for the speculations that follow, here’s a part of the influential account of Italian neorealism given by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2 (1985):
The role of the child in neo-realism has been pointed out, notably in De Sica (and later in France with Truffaut); this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing. Similarly, if everyday banality is so important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and preestablished, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and response (as in the scene with the little maid in Umberto D), suddenly to free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare. There is, therefore, a necessary passage from the crisis of image-action to the pure optical-sound image.[ii]
So “the pure optical-sound image” famously exemplified in and by Italian neorealism is achieved by appropriating a child’s way of seeing and by establishing everyday ways of seeing that eventually get interrupted.
I want to bracket the interruption of the everyday (we’ll return to that some other day) and look a bit more closely at the claims being made here about the inability of children to do or act, which supposedly makes them “all the more capable of seeing and hearing” and thus all the more exemplary figures for calling forth “the pure optical-sound image,” what Deleuze calls ” a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent” (2). What he has in mind is presumably a sequence like this from I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us; dir. Vittorio De Sica; 1944):
Here to be a child is indeed to be a perennially thwarted agent: Pricò is unable to get the flavor ice cream he wants, to get to spend the day at the beach with his mother, to get a train ticket home to his father, to get home to his father by following the train track to Rome, to get home to his father by walking up the beach, or to get away from the scary men (first a drunkard, later the two cops) who chase him. In short, he is completely unable to do what he wants when what he wants to do it, which makes seeing and hearing what is given to be seen and heard as such (rather than what Pricò does in any given scene) all the more vivid, and so long as scenes like this are what we think of when we think of children in Italian neorealist films, Deleuze’s influential account remains unassailably useful.
Yet one cannot help but see that things get an awful lot trickier once you start to notice that children aren’t just mobilized in order to model for us greater visuo-auditory sensitivities. Note, for instance, the way in which Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City; dir. Roberto Rossellini; 1945) ends:
And, while we’re at it, it’s also worth considering the way that I bambini ci guardano wraps things up, which the overly zealous copyright enforcement of RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) prevents me from showing you here, so a hasty summary will have to do: with a lot of close-ups and medium shots of tears streaming down his pained face, Pricò refuses to acknowledge his mother at the boarding school when she comes following his father’s suicide.
Instead, he passes her by, goes to the family maid, and then again walks past his mother (whose expression passes quickly from mournful to shocked as the camera tracks in on her) and toward the door of a very long room in a shot that includes mother, maid, and a distant priest waiting for him.
These two films are quite strikingly similar in that they both use children as stop buttons, as ways of providing a sense of an ending to their respective narratives. In Roma città aperta, they are mute and tearful witnesses who are unable to intervene and prevent the execution of Don Pietro, but their sad silent march back into the city is not to be taken as thwarted action so much as the aggrieved promise of future partisan warfare and violence (not for nothing, we’ve already seen them cause a lot of mischief with explosives throughout the film, which should already start to cue us to be on the lookout for the ways in which children don’t always do what Deleuze describes them as doing, or rather as not doing, in these films). In I bambini ci guardano, the effect is to pass a judgment on the mother that is far worse than any likely to be doled out to her by either the state or the Church. That is to say, the boy uses his tears to strike at his mother for her inattentiveness and her philandering. He resorts to a form of violence that well exceeds his physical wherewithal and that importantly is countenanced by the authority figures that happen to be in the scene (affective violence is normative in a way that physical violence often isn’t).
A key (but often overlooked) takeaway from all of this: children aren’t just models for new levels of attentiveness in seeing and hearing in Italian neorealist films; they also provide occasions for the weaponization of affect, for demonstrating the ways in which motor helplessness makes children all the more capable of becoming lachrymal war engines aimed squarely at the adults in their life, whether those adults be Nazis, Nazi collaborators, or philandering mothers. There is no “pure” seeing and hearing in Italian neorealism without the ever-latent possibility of being caught up in this crossfire. Alternatively, there is perhaps no “pure optical-sound image” in these films without the mobilization of affective enmities.
Children do more than just see and hear in Italian neorealism. They also cry, which just might make someone wish that they were dead, something that Matarazzo’s films register time and time again:
Mere seeing and hearing make the excesses of affect all the more threatening. Matarazzo’s movies integrate that threat into their narratives. That is to say, it’s shown to be a proximate (if not ultimate) cause for the many fractures that form and don’t always heal in the family unit, and his films confront those fractures and healing processes head-on. Italian neorealism, however, tended to save it for endings, where our lives watching movies start to shade off into our everyday lived lives and we in turn begin to wonder: if children in Italian neorealist films are an example for spectators to follow (as Deleuze’s remarks above suggest), then this is not a cinema of seers without agency but rather of affective terrorists disguised as children, maybe even our own.
[i] Erik M. Bachman and Evan Calder Williams, “Reopening the Matarazzo Case,” Film Quarterly 65.3 (Spring 2012): 59-65, here 61, doi:10.1525/fq.2012.65.3.59.
[ii] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3.