Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave in The 400 Blows and Rome, Open City
European films in the 20th century paved the way for many innovations in form, style and genre in the world of cinema. Two of the most prominent schools of filmmaking during this time were Italian neorealism and French New Wave; the former was pioneered by artists like Roberto Rossellini, the latter by French artists like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Italian neorealism was recognized for its ability to capture the plight of the working class, its tendency to shoot outside the studio and introducing more naturalistic actors (who were often non-professionals) to the screen. The French New Wave, meanwhile, featured stylized editing, a free-wheeling, frenetic energy and a kineticism that borrowed from Hollywood cinema, while still being inspired by Italian neorealism. These two schools of thought are exemplified by the films Rome, Open City and The 400 Blows, both films that captured the essence of their creators and shine as perfect examples of their respective filmmaking styles.
Italian neorealism came first, and is illustrated clearly in the seminal 1945 Roberto Rossellini film Rome, Open City. Up to that point, films were often shot in studio, were filmed with professional actors, and had a heightened sense of fantasy that allowed people to escape their normal lives and enjoy a rich piece of entertainment (as was thought to be needed in the days after the grittiness of World War II). However, Rossellini chose to buck that trend and make Rome, Open City, a grimy, dirty and real picture about the struggles of the working class in the middle of Rome’s occupation in 1943. Following the travails of several people who attempt to help a communist engineer named Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), including the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), Rossellini’s film is stark and sparse, with very little to relieve the viewer from the oppression contained within the film. Shots are filmed with a directness and lack of flair that plays up the intensity of the events being displayed on screen. Scenes are filmed on location, many scenes taking place on city streets instead of unrealistic locations. Non-professional actors were used instead of glamorous, theatrical stage presences, lending an authenticity to the performances that made the events seem even more ‘real’.
In Rome, Open City, these elements are very clearly represented in the film itself. Magnani’s rough and natural acting was a refreshing change from the starlets of classical Hollywood; she represented a real working-class woman, and her plight and passion felt natural. Aldo Fabrizi’s Don Pietro is a haunted, yet darkly comic figure, with his expressionistic face and depth of emotion that permeates every scene. Shots alternate between distancing wide shots that show the depth of the streets of Rome, and intense close-ups of a pleading Don Pietro, or the horribly tortured face of Giorgio. There is little to no camera movement, and what is there is perfunctory; simple two-shots and symmetrical camera angles seek to capture the action of the film as-is, without providing much stylistic commentary. The goal of Italian neorealism is to simply shine a light on events, and make them seem immediate and real. With Rossellini’s stark yet intense grittiness, Rome, Open City becomes a film that defines a new way of filmmaking that does not shy away from murder, torture or intrigue – when Pina picks up the coat off a dead body standing in the doorway and nonchalantly places it over her shoulder, we are meant to see the coldness of the world she lives in, something closely tied to Italian neorealism.
The 400 Blows, directed by Francois Truffaut, symbolizes the next great film movement that followed – the French New Wave. Taking a lot of inspiration from Italian neorealism (namely the change in focus to real locations, naturalistic acting and working-class stories), the French New Wave also borrowed liberally from classic Hollywood and their own inspirations having been well-versed in film school criticism and grown up watching films. The 400 Blows follows the troubled life of a young boy named Antoine Doinel, as he plays hooky, steals typewriters and wrestles with his bickering, distant parents. Unlike Rome, Open City, The 400 Blows depicts its world in a much more whimsical light; while Antoine has his problems, to be sure, Truffaut’s style seems to indicate that he is deserving of freedom, and that there is quite a lot to enjoy by running around Paris during the day. Shots are elegantly and stylishly composed, playing with frenetic movement (such as the scene in the spinning carnival ride, where the camera follows the children as they ride in the machine) and elegant glee (such as the opening credits montage, as romantic music plays over sweeping shots of the streets of Paris).
Both Rome Open City and 400 Blows feature highly naturalistic acting, often from people not used to film acting; 400 Blows, after all, was Jean-Pierre Leaud’s film debut, and he offers a sprightly rebelliousness and world-weariness to his role of Antoine. Despite this trend towards naturalism, French New Wave films tend to revel in their style much more than in Italian neorealism, taking things much less seriously; the meandering, episodic plot of 400 Blows simply acts as a character study for Antoine, instead of a trenchant, widely-sweeping suspense plot with high stakes like Rome Open City. By simplifying its focus and lightening its tone, 400 Blows set itself apart from Rome Open City by being much more stylized and energetic.
The final shot of The 400 Blows is a significant one in the school of French New Wave films, and combines its desire to break free from the traditional forms of filmmaking and its free-wheeling energy. Having escaped from a boy’s home he has been sent to, Antoine runs into the shoreline of the sea, running to and along the shore in a single, uninterrupted shot lasting minutes at a time. This bold, unabashed focus on a single image showed Truffaut’s rebelliousness to the forms of cinema, just as Antoine’s running was a rebellion against social forces that wanted to pin him down and behave correctly.
Comparing The 400 Blows to Rome Open City, one can clearly see the differences between Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. Rome Open City is a stark, dramatic and tense portrayal of a city under siege, civilians doing whatever they can to fight tyranny, and bad things happening to good people. The 400 Blows, on the other hand, shows the romanticism inherent in a troubled youth who wishes to fight the social expectations that have been placed on him and enjoy life as it is. While Rome Open City exemplifies neorealism’s dedication to depicting the truth in a stripped-down way, 400 Blows shows that the French New Wave was much more dynamic and energetic, willing to experiment with mise-en-scene and filmmaking style in a way heretofore unseen.
Rossellini, Roberto (dir.). Rome, Open City. Joseph Burstyn & Arthur Mayer, 1945.
Truffaut, Francois (dir.) The 400 Blows. Janus Films, 1959.