10 Best Italian Neorealist Movies You Should Add to Your Watchlist

Ever since Roberto Rossellini‘s Rome, Open City — the first big film produced in Italy after the war — earned great acclaim back in 1946 after it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Italian neorealism became famous globally. The film movement stands the test of time today, remaining a very remarkable and memorable genre that mark a poignant moment in time.

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Neorealism movies are known for depicting stories set amongst the poor and working class, usually filmed in long takes featuring nonprofessional actors. Showcasing the difficult economic and moral conditions of the postwar, these films explore the aftermath of tragedy and despair, analyzing the Italian psyche and the low conditions of everyday life.

10 ‘La Terra Trema’ (1948)

Nelluccia Giammona in La Terra Trema
Image via Compagnia Edizioni Internazionali Artistiche Distribuzione

A loose adaptation of the 1881 novel “I Malavoglia” by Giovanni Verga, Luchino Visconti‘s La Terra Trema centers around a group of fishermen in rural Sicily who are exploited by fish wholesalers. One of the families attempts to escape them by buying a boat and being their own boss.

Although the touching 1948 film is somewhat flawed, it successfully manages to convey emotion like many other movies of the genre by depicting the economic and personal struggles of a group of people in its most helpless state. In addition to this, the film also offers viewers staggering visuals throughout.

9 ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948)

Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola looking at each other in Bicycle Thieves
Image via Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche

An unemployed, desperate, working-class man’s bicycle is stolen in postwar Italy, which ends up affecting his efforts to find work and be the salvation of his wife and two children in an era of despair and poverty.

Directed by Vittorio De Sica, the 1949 film is a very beloved one in the genre. Through its simple but compelling plot, Bicycle Thieves attempts to send out the message that possessions and money are not on the same level as familial duty and love, highlighting the struggle and desperation of some people during dark times.

8 Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

A girl running in Rome, Open City
Image via Minerva Film

Roberto Rossellini was one of the most influential directors both worldwide and in Italy, and his War Trilogy films (Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany, Year Zero), made at the very end of WWll, are highly regarded even today. The first film of the trilogy, Rome, Open City, follows a diverse group of Romans attempting to cope under the Nazi occupation.

Serving as an intimate look outlook into the extremely devastated postwar Europe, the War Trilogy by the Italian filmmaker left a very transcending mark on worldwide cinema. Rossellini’s work came to define the neorealist movement with its stripped-down aesthetic and accurate depictions of the brutal, permanent consequences of war.

7 ‘The Flowers of St. Francis’ (1950)

The Flowers of St. Francis
Image via Carlotta Films

One of beloved filmmaker Martin Scorsese‘s favorite films, The Flowers of St. Francis by the prized director Roberto Rossellini based on two books, the 14th-century novel “Fioretti Di San Francesco” and “La Vita di Frate Ginepro” — chronicles the lives of St. Francis and his early followers through nine different chapters.

Much like other movies of the neorealist movement, The Flowers of St. Francis casts unknown faces and illustrates the concern for the poor and social justice. With astounding cinematography (and the graininess of neorealism), the intriguing movie remains a captivating watch.

6 ‘Bitter Rice’ (1949)

Doris Dowling and Silvina Mangano in Bitter Rice
Image via Lux Film

Directed by Giuseppe De Santis, Bitter Rice centers around Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Walter (Vittorio Gassman), two-bit criminals on the run in Northern Italy who end up working in a rice field and eventually enlist other workers for their next big robbery.

A very well-executed product of the Italian neorealism movement, the 1949 social commentary, often described as a romantic crime noir, counts on great acting, a minimalistic yet captivating narrative, explores class conflict and shines a light on the exploitation of female rice pickers in the Italian countryside.

5 ‘La Strada’ (1954)

Giulietta Masina with a clown face paint in La Strada
Image via Paramount Films of Italy

Federico Fellini was another remarkable mind in the film industry, and La Strada was just one of his many outstanding pieces of work. The 1954 film tells the story of a waif named Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), sold by her mother to a showman (Anthony Quinn) for 10,000 lire and food.

Although the film isn’t as political as many of the genre, it still features a very neorealist set and directing style. La Strada is a gripping but moving watch that focuses on cruelty and finding hope and positivism amidst extremely dark times.

4 ‘Rome 11:00’ (1952)

Paola Borboni, Eva Vanicek, and Elena Varzi in Rome 11:00
Image via Titanus

The second Giuseppe De Santis film in this list, Rome 11:00 is based on true events that happened on 15 January 1951 on Via Savoia in Rome. The film centers around five girls who attempted to land a secretarial position when a staircase collapsed because of the weight of 200 women waiting for a job interview.

This real-life tragedy, which happened just one year before the film’s release, endures a very unforgettable moment in time for all the wrong reasons. The heartbreaking Italian neorealism movie has managed to vividly capture the despair and mass misfortune of many women who have dealt with personal and economic pressures from the Italian postwar.

3 ‘Shoeshine’ (1946)

Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni in Shoeshine
Image via Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche

Two boys (Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni) who work as shoeshiners for American soldiers in postwar Rome save up to buy a horse but end up in a juvenile prison after their involvement as dupes in a burglary. The experience ends up inevitably driving the two friends apart.

Vittorio De Sica’s thoughtful second movie — and his first big success — reflects on human solidarity whilst depicting children making their way into adulthood way before their time. Featuring recurring neorealist themes like poverty and politics, Shoeshiners is essential viewing.

2 ‘Umberto D.’ (1952)

Carlo Battisti holding a dog in Umberto D.
Image via Cinecittà

Centering around a retired civil servant and his dog, Umberto D. (also masterfully directed by Vittorio De Sica), showcases postwar poverty by depicting an elderly man who can barely eke out a living on his government pension in Rome.

Umberto D. is considered one of the best of the Italian neorealist films, and for good reason. Compassionate and moving but resentful at its core, the 1952 movie is gloomy and sorrowful, strongly illustrating an era of economic despair, huge pain, and tremendous anguish.

1 ‘Nights of Cabiria’ (1957)

Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria
Image via Paramount Pictures

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria stars Giulietta Masina once again, but this time as a streetwalker wandering the streets of Rome in hopes of finding true love. Although Maria comes across nothing but heartbreak through time, the optimist still finds it hard to lose faith.

Although it also showcases elements of neorealism, Fellini’s film feels like a breath of fresh air in the sense that it doesn’t solely rely on the dread and tension of the postwar. With stunning visuals and impeccable performances, the movie is undoubtedly an unforgettable watch.

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