Cesare Zavattini, one of the key figures of Italian neo-realism, wrote a series of articles in the early 1950s explaining the significance of this movement for himself and for cinema. (These articles would later be combined into one essay, “A Thesis on Neo-Realism.”) In this article he writes, “The most important characteristic of neo-realism, i.e., its essential innovation is, for me, the discovery that this need to use a story was just an unconscious means of masking human defeat in the face of reality; imagination, in its own manner of functioning, merely superimposes death schemes onto living events and situations”
Narrative, the will to fiction, is imagination’s weapon against the senseless nature of existence. It is what allows us to perceive the world as intelligible and interesting – as meaningful. Neo-realism, according to Zavattini, rejects this need to escape our boredom in the face of the everyday. Instead of facilitating our aversion, and evasion, of life, neorealism discovers, allows us to discover, the “radiance” “in things, events and in men.” This is why neo-realism begins with the world itself, with the people and things that populate the world. Instead of imposing our imagination on the world, instead of imposing our petty “death schemes” on existence, we are asked to discover the beauty of the everyday, the beauty of the ordinary. In so doing, we discover that reality is in fact “extremely rich”, complex, involving – but the trick is to “learn how to look at it” without impatience, without fear. (This makes it the opposite of Hollywood, which promises not to bore us by eliminating all traces of our world from its deathly empire.)
This changes the nature of cinematic narrative. Now the story is left open to chance, is left open to life. Neo-realism moves away from the causal form of narrative that typifies classical mainstream film. In this type of work, each situation is only relevant in terms of the chain it forms with what precedes it and what is to follow. The narrative is organized as a “centrifugal force”. In neo-realism, to the contrary, a situation may develop its own “centripetal force”. As Zavattini says, “when we imagine a scene, we feel the need to ‘stay’ there inside it […] it has within itself all the potential of being reborn and of having different effects. We can calmly say: give us an ordinary situation and from it we will make a spectacle.” This is because, he adds, every moment of our lives has infinite potential: “everything is full of infinite potentiality.”
Zavattini proposes a “cinema of encounter” in which the director, working outside of the studio, places himself in “direct contact with reality." In this future cinema, the act of filming and the act of telling a story are one and the same event, “there will be no scenario written beforehand, and no dialogue to adopt.” The filmmaker will capture the event as it occurs, and the film will itself become a document of this immanent practice in which documentary and fiction, life and art merge, become one.
This is the legacy of neo-realism, and this is its infinite potential.