Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave Movies


Italian neorealism is a movement in the Italian cinema which was typical for the postwar period in Italy and which took hold in Europe, namely, it affected the movement of the New Wave in the French cinema. The techniques of the Italian neorealism can be traced in the movie Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica. The most peculiar features of the Italian neorealism are the period (years after the Second World War); the techniques (ambiguous meaning, location shooting, natural light and absence of booster light, non-actors in mass scenes, likelihood, dialogues and sounds are post-dubbed); the themes(working class, realism of social situation, poverty and insufficient standards of living). Most of these features can be found in the postwar movies directed by the brightest representatives of the French New Wave movement, suchlike Jean-Luc Godard, though the movie Breathless was shot in two decades after the end of the Second World War when the economic situation in the country was different from that in Italy when the Bicycle Thieves (1948) was shot.

Italian neorealism in the moviemaking is claimed to have influenced greatly the New Wave movement in the French cinematography. André Bazin can be considered one of the major and most authoritative critics in the sphere of the cinematographic history and techniques; he explains the importance of the films and basic characteristics of the Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica. The melodramatic features can be traced throughout the movie. As melodramas are considered to be sensitive movies for women, they naturally contain some scenes that can be regarded as those evoking the feeling of compassion, anxiety, sentimentality, and others that may be provoked by genuinely realistic emotions performed by actors. In this respect, actors play important role in the perception of the movie in terms of emotions and realism of feelings that are aimed at evoking the response in the audience.

André Bazin introduced his idea of the Italian cinema of that period with regard to the influence of different movements and techniques: “What seems to me most astonishing about the Italian cinema is that it appears to feel it should escape from the aesthetic impasse to which neorealism is said to have led” (Bazin 47). It is natural that the world saw changes after the Second World War and the changes influenced every area of the human life and activities. The importance of historical impact of international conflicts can scarcely be overestimated because of the global scale of such events as wars and epidemics. Italian neorealism and the French New Wave can be considered contemporary movements with specific techniques which faced influence of the economic, social, and political situation in the countries that overcame the hardships of war. As cinema can be considered one of the human activities which are aimed at entertaining the audience, it was natural that the realistic themes immediately after the war were replaced with more appropriate ones several decades after the war.

Comparison of Two Movies

The most appropriate for comparison are two movies; the representative of the Italian neorealism is the Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica and the second one is the work of the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless (1960). Richard John Neupert in the book A History of the French New Wave Cinema presents the history of the French cinematography from the period of the postwar years including reasons for development of the New Wave trend in the French cinematography. The author argues about different techniques used while shooting the movies of the same decade and trends, films by different directors of the New Wave period in France. The film Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard is one of the movies discussed by Richard John Neupert for this movie is claimed to have been influenced by Italian neorealism in cinema, though it obviously preserves numerous features of the native national French cinema.

Neupert explains the reasons for development of the New Wave movement in cinema: “The New Wave was first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, resulting from economic, political, aesthetic, and social trends that developed in the 1950s” (Neupert 3). Though the changes have touched upon every sphere of life including cinematography, this area produced a specific way to show the changes and its attitude towards the events in the world. The French cinema techniques were influenced greatly by Italian neorealism, however, French filmmakers managed to keep the fundamental peculiarities of French cinema as it is known in the world. Realistic scenes and post-dubbing were borrowed from the Italian movement, though the male hero full of energy, enthusiasm, and charm typical for French movies of all times was presented in the film Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard where a young actor Jean-Paul Belmondo was performing the role of the main character, an energetic adventurous young man that is involved into challenging matters.

Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica seems to posses all distinctive features of the Italian neorealism, while the Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard differs from neorealism in its Italian perspective. The latter movie can be characterized only with some features of the Italian neorealism because a decade separates these two films and affects changes in the movement. The audience could see the life of the ordinary worker and his position in the society; the bicycle was chosen as the basic element of drama because it can be considered both an integral part of the urban life (as the action of the movie takes place in Italian city) and the simplest mechanism that could be used in order to show the differences between classes in the postwar period. The French movie does not seem to be as simple as the Italian one; its plot contains bright adventures of a man and can be easily called a fiction film because it is not likely that ordinary people experienced such events in the everyday life.

As the features of Italian neorealism can be clearly traced in French movies of the New Wave movement, it is necessary to thoroughly consider the Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica and the Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The most distinctive features of both movies are techniques and themes; the Italian movie can be characterized as one that is based on the story from real life and shot in the same realistic way which persuades the audience in the emotions performed by actors. As both movies use location shooting (the street in the first scene of Bicycle Thieves when Antonio Ricci, the main character is said to have found a municipal work does not look like a film studio as well as the scene in Breathless when two main characters are driving round the city and talking cannot be considered a stage shooting because one can clearly see the parts when image changes rapidly instead of a smooth transition, besides, we can hear the male character’s reply only in the beginning of the scene when he gets into the driving seat and in the end of it when we can see him getting out of the car).

Post-dubbing of dialogues and sounds is another distinctive feature of both movies because the audience can clearly trace the music in the background of all scenes, regardless the characters talk or keep silent. Moreover, the scene in the Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard when two characters were talking in the car was obviously post-dubbed because it seems to have more than one take, that is why long-takes can be considered another distinctive feature of Italian neorealism and New Wave in French cinema. Some scenes in the Breathless seem to be labored after many takes; the same can be observed in the scene in the car when the female character was talking a lot and her every phrase was accompanied with different setting in terms of other cars driving along the street and buildings. Thus, the setting was changing rapidly, while the female character was producing her part of the dialogue.

As mise-en-scène is one of the most important aspects that should be considered while comparing and contrasting films of different periods, it is necessary to analyze similarities and differences of scenes in two different movies. Jill Nelmes suggested the idea of the concept of mise-en-scène as it can be commonly understood: “Probably the richest source of mise-en-scène is the performance of actors” (Nelmes 99). The author does not describe the process of shooting or dubbing for here Nelmes argues about the importance of the actors’ performance for the overall effect of a certain shot. Lights, setting, and actors’ performance make the scenes realistic and persuade the audience in the realism of their emotions experienced because of some events in lives of their characters. Some scenes in the Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Breathless (1960) can be considered similar in terms of the meaning; though the meaning is not always clear that is one of the most important features of Italian neorealism in cinema.

The integrity of the actor and his/her character is very important because some actors can be considered inappropriate for certain type of roles, though the movement of Italian neorealism in cinema had proved that even non-actors can be successfully engaged into the shooting process. Italian neorealism in cinema is known for use of non-actors, though this tendency cannot be traced in the French New Wave movies influenced by Italian neorealism. What we can see in the movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard Breathless (1960) are well-known faces of young actors, suchlike Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Moreover, young Jean-Paul Belmondo was not an unknown actor unlike the main character of the Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica. However, even professional actors sometimes fail to produce the emotions which are required by the screenplay. Besides, long-takes are very challenging in terms of efforts to remember the text and to reproduce it properly without any difficulties; this was done because of the location shooting as well.

The French New Wave was influenced by the techniques and themes of Italian neorealism, though it had national features of the cinema which preserve the native national filmmaking traditions. This means that the plot of the Breathless (1960) can be considered purely French in terms of national features and themes disclosed in the French cinema. This happened due to the change in the perception of the essence of contemporary movies by the audience. The audience did not want to live in the postwar period; it wanted to move further and to forget about the poverty and hardships of the Second World War. People wanted to live better and to see positive changes described in movies. The living level increased as well as the demands of population towards the ways of entertainment and the themes people wanted to see on the screen. As the poverty was not appropriate to be displayed in movies, adventures and charming characters were used instead of working-class society and ordinary people.

Rene Bonnell argues the role of spectators in the changes taking place in the themes disclosed in French movies of the middle of the 20th century: “Cinema is no longer the art of the masses or the popular entertainment it was. The social profile of the film audience is nearly that of live theater. The young well-educated ‘enlightened fanatic’ is replacing the average spectator” (Neupert 11). When the Italian neorealism in cinema was presented through the realistic scenes which lacked theatrics and artificiality, the movies of the French New Wave were shot preserving all features of the national themes typical of French movies. Thus, a male character was implied to be a hero, and adventurer, a passionate lover, and be able to cope with all difficulties encountered on his way to success including armed people that can damage his health. As a rule, such hero fights well, probably, shoots well, and has an attractive female companion who does not seem to be a calm lady.

Another distinctive feature of Italian neorealism in the French movies of the New Wave movement is ambiguity of the meaning with regard to separate phrases, words, or the context of the movie as a whole. For example, the movie Breathless (1960) contains a scene when the character of Jean- Paul Belmondo says: “Tu es vraiment degueulasse” which can be interpreted in many ways that makes this scene the most ambiguous one in the movie. Another ambiguous moment is when the female character asks about this ‘degueulasse’ and makes a movement with her finger around her mouth. What should this movement mean? It is an unclear meaning that makes this movie to be considered the one influenced by Italian neorealism. On the contrary, the Italian movie does not seem to contain ambiguous scenes that can be misunderstood.

The bed is depicted in both movies, though it appears as the methods (furnishing) to collect some money and buy a bicycle which is necessary to get a job in the Bicycle Thieves (1948) where the main character should do everything to maintain his family. The French movie contains an image of a bed with regard to the relationships between two characters; while the male character is depicted in the dressing gown, his female companion is presented in the image of a business woman. The feelings evoked by two movies are different in terms of the themes disclosed. The Italian movie makes the audience empathize with the characters when they experience difficulties. It is obvious that the economic situation in the postwar period was almost the same in all countries and the themes covered by the postwar movies like the Bicycle Thieves (1948) were similar as well. Two decades divide these two movies, though both are influenced by the Italian movement of neorealism in terms of the shooting techniques.

The light and location used while shooting the Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica and the Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard are typical for movies influenced by Italian neorealism. The light is as natural as it can be in the everyday life; no booster light is used. However, some scenes appear to be too dark in the context of the whole movie because they should have been additionally lighted. The location shooting is used in both movies, though it seems to be unrealistic. For example, when the male character in the Breathless (1960) tries to find out what his female companion is doing by spying upon her, he walks up the stairs, while the camera is aimed at the Elysian Fields and the traffic, we can see a car in front of the camera which is standing as a barrier for a cameraman.

The aesthetics of the Hollywood is rejected by the Italian movie for it discloses themes of poverty and life of ordinary people belonging to the working class. It is natural that people in the Bicycle Thieves (1948) are not presented as professional actors that know how to perform roles of poor people with regard to glamorous style of Hollywood. However, the Breathless (1960) can be considered a movie which does not reject the aesthetics of Hollywood, though combine it with the French charm. For example, the conversation between two main characters which happens in the room of the female character is very French in terms of the attitude of a man towards a woman.


The movies of different decades can be added to the range of works of cinematography characterized by the same movement and its peculiar techniques. The Italian neorealism is claimed to be one of the most influential characteristics of the French New Wave movies. The brightest features of the Italian neorealism are non-actors, post-dubbing, and location shooting. The French New Wave lacks neorealistic themes, suchlike poverty, and does not reject aesthetics of Hollywood. The differences and similarities of the Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Breathless (1960) can be easily traced.

There are themes of poverty in the Italian movie influenced by Italian neorealism as the postwar period did not offer alternative themes in the economically weak society which experienced all hardships of the war conflict. The French film appears to be realistic in terms of the location shooting and post-dubbing of dialogues and sounds. The main similarities of these two movies consist in the techniques, suchlike location shooting, ambiguous meaning, natural light and absence of booster light, non-actors in mass scenes, likelihood, dialogues and sounds are post-dubbed. The brightest differences are the themes because the Bicycle Thieves (1948) describes the life of ordinary people and their poverty, while the Breathless (1960) contains scenes of adventures, love, and other themes typical for detective stories with elements of romantic movie and a thriller.

Works Cited

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. What is cinema? University of California Press, 2004

Nelmes. Jill. Introduction to Film Studies. New York: Routledge, 1996

Neupert, Richard John. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. University of Wisconsin Press, 2007