('Neo Realisme et Phenomenologie', Cahiers du Cinema 17, November 1952)
'Realism' is one of those words which should never be used without a determining correlative. Does 'neo-', as applied to post-war Italian realist cinema, fit the bill? Judged in terms of the more or less universal usage it has acquired, the answer would have to be yes. But if, on the contrary, we sift through the innumerable critiques to which it has been subjected, even by artists themselves, and if we note that all those who use it do so with some reservation in the form of brackets or circumlocutions (in short, with a bad conscience), the temptation is to look for something to replace it.
But does that 'something' have to be sought retrospectively, through a process of elimination, in one of the movements classified by the 'history of aesthetics', or in the future 'in the depths of the unknown where, alone, the new is to be found'? Did neo-realism re-chart worlds already mapped in detail, or did it strike out along its own path? In other words, should the accent be on the 'realism' or on the 'ned?
Reality and the cinema
There is no doubt that film realism has its beginnings with Lumiere, a man who never imagined his invention could be anything but an instrument for reproducing the real world. But from the outset, the mere fact that he positioned his camera in a particular spot, started or stopped filming at a particular moment and recorded the world in black and white on a flat surface was enough to establish an inevitable gap between the representation and the real.
The impossibility of bridging that gap is brought out again by the strange phenomenon of Dziga Vertov. He realized that the high point of realism in film was the documentary; hence the need to shoot outside the studio, without actors or script. The ideal would have been to set a camera rolling at some crossroads. But the question then is, would what emerged from such extreme limits of realism have been a film, an oeuvre? Or would it have been a collection of moving photographs which constituted a document of primary importance to the town planner or the sociologist, but of no great interest for those concerned with art? Vertov realized that if photographs of this kind were to be transformed into film, a particular rhythm had to be imparted to them by the editing. Thereafter, his concern with that aspect assumed such a role that he progressively lost interest in the individual elements at his disposal, retaining merely a kind of finished symphonic movement with a highly calculated tempo where the initial subject was no longer important. Thus from the starting point of the rawest kind of realism we are thrown back into abstract art. The dialectic is significant and illustrative of the inevitable dead-end to which documentary film, with its claim to passivity and its belief in its own impersonal objectivity, leads.
To avoid this dead-end, the verist movement in cinema rejected from the first any naive direct route to the real in favour of a digression via truth, i.e. via art and reason. The artist takes an event and deliberately reconstitutes it in order to give it verisimilitude. And because he knows I that the 'forms' of his art must always pare down the real content, he takes care to heighten its features, either by making shadows darker still black, intellectual verism, with all its play on the various shades of grey or by intensifying light, which gives all the rose-tinted shades, from deepest red to palest pink, from Gremillon to Cloche, via socialist realism.
Neo-realism and phenomenology
How should 'neo-realism' be put into perspective? Should it be seen as simply a transformation of verism, or has it found an alternative way out of the documentary's dialectical impasse? To avoid arguing in the abstract, let us base the discussion on an extract which seems to all intents and purposes specifically neo-realist - the final sequence of Germany, Year Zero.
This film has a number of dimensions: first, documentary, the state of Germany after the war; then, psychological, social psychology that charts the ill-effects of a Nazi education, plus the individual psychology of the child. But this is where the originality begins, for the concern is in no sense with child or adolescent psychology (the cinema has plenty of that already). It is quite different, very precisely the concrete, all-embracing depiction of the human attitude of a child in a given situation. No introspection, no internal, nor very often even external dialogue, no play with facial expression. Nor, however, is there any concern with psychology in the behaviourist sense. We are well beyond psychology here and this has nothing to do with a sequence of reflexes. Rather, the issue is a human attitude in its totality, captured in a 'neutral' way by the camera. To understand the completely original element in this process, it is necessary only to grasp that at no point does the child give the impression of 'acting', or of being an actor. It is impossible to say that he 'acts' his role well or badly. He is not part of the game in that sense, just as the viewer is not involved in degrees of sympathy or antipathy. The child simply lives and exists there before us, captured in his 'existence' by the camera. For contrast, look at little Kucci in Quelque part en Europe, or the adolescent in Les Dernieres Vacances, or Le Garson sauvage; more often than not, they all 'act well', i.e. they give a superlative rendering of the feelings the filmmaker imagines they ought to experience. In the present instance, what are the sentiments to which the child's attitude could correspond? Regret, remorse, despair, stupor? None of the labels are satisfactory, any more than their combinations, because here we are faced with the question of all-embracing human attitudes or, let us say, an existential attitude. What is at stake is the child's being as an entity; hence the child is not' acting' .
If the foregoing is accurate, we have passed beyond psychology and, not surprisingly, ended somewhere in the area of ethics or metaphysics. We do not have to turn Rossellini into a philosopher to get there. All he has to be is a human being, depicting in its totality a human attitude. What emerges is of necessity a total sense of existence, not in the form of a thesis which the film is intended to demonstrate, or at least to illustrate and which was therefore a necessary preliminary to the conceptualization of the film, i.e. where essence preceded existence, to use a phrase which is now commonplace. On the contrary, the 'meaning' here is an integral part of the concrete attitude. Hence its ambiguity. Some see the economic disorder of a decadent society crystallizing in a child and killing him; others, the polarization of the absurd as a whole, everything 'rotten' in a world where people are superfluous. Still others see evidence of a world where God's great love can find no way through the sad and bloody play of human passions, except in the shape of a figure kneeling over a dead child. Rossellini makes no decisions. He puts the question. In the face of an existential attitude, he proposes the mystery of existence.
It is clear what distinguishes this attitude from the verist and documentary movements. This film's documentary element lays no claim to any special passive 'objectivity'; its 'neutral' presentation is never cold or impersonal. If reason and thesis play no part, there are always awareness and involvement. Social polemic there is, but not propaganda. But above all, the objective, subjective, social, etc., are never analysed as such; they are taken as a factual whole in all its inchoate fullness, a bloc in time as well as volume, and we are not spared a single second or gesture. Faced with this entity, the attitude of the viewer has to change radically. To look becomes an act because everything is called in question, answers are demanded, action required. This is a summons to freedom. It is striking to note how the film-maker places us face to face with a human event taken in its totality, but refrains from fragmentation or analysis, simply surveying it, describing it concretely and working in such a way that in the midst of watching we lose the sense of spectacle and the awareness of acting in the actors disappears. In other words, by giving primacy to existence over essence in all things, the method comes oddly close to what the philosophers call phenomenological description. This method has undoubtedly been interpreted with a range of nuances, depending on the doctrines associated with it, but given that the artist, who is not a professional thinker, may legitimately take a little distance on things, there is no denying that Rossellini and a few others have tried, like Husserl, to go zu den Sachen selbst, to things themselves, to ask what they manifest through themselves.
There is, above all, their way of running an opposing course to that of analysis, of putting an end to any compartmentalized view of man and the world, ceasing to delve subtly into 'characters' and 'milieux', putting all that between brackets and in a sense attempting a total apprehension which is sequentially complete like existence in time, or like human events in which the whole mystery of the Universe is co-present. In other words, the mystery of being replaces clarity of construction.
Such a reversal of perspective, perhaps new for the cinema, was experienced by other fields of art, and the novel in particular, well before philosophers adopted the mode of expression and turned it into theory. Could it not be argued that both involve 'essays in a direct description of experience as it is, without regard to its psychological genesis or the causal explanations which the scientist, historian or sociologist may provide', a kind of 'descriptive study of a set of phenomena as they manifest themselves in time or space, as opposed to the fixed, abstract laws governing such phenomena, the transcendental realities of which they are a manifestation, or normative criticism of their legitimacy'? Now this is precisely the definition given to phenomenology by Merleau-Ponty on the one hand and, on the other, by Lalande's Vocabulaire de la philosophie. Obviously, the applicability of the word 'study' is open to challenge. At best, withdrawing it is basis enough for denying the works of Rossellini or Dos Passos the character of research or philosophy, something they never claimed; but perhaps it does not justify denying the aesthetic movement they represent a more accurate title than that of 'neo-realism'. Phenomenological realism, for instance.
Art in phenomenological realism
Always supposing that what we are talking about is an aesthetic movement. The rejection of 'style' inherent in phenomenological realism is surely the expression of a determination to find a place outside the field of art. But to avoid arguing in a vacuum, let us look at a particular work, De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Here we have a man in search of his bike who is not just a man who loves his son, a worker desperately engaged in trying to steal another bike, a man who, finally, represents the distress of the proletariat reduced to stealing the tools of its trade. He is all that and a ho.st of other things besides, indefinable, unanalysable, precisely because pnmarily he is, and not in isolation, but surrounded by a bloc of reality which carries traces of the world - friends, church, German seminarians, Rita Hayworth on a poster. And this is in no sense merely decor, it 'exists' almost on the same level as he does.
A rejection of choice, therefore, but isn't choice what art is about? It is, but the choice is essentially one of means. In this instance the means are quite rigorous. The important thing is that the very realism of this work can only come through the use of devices much more subtle and conscious than anything attributed to the fullest kind of spontaneity. Phenomenological realism, like the method which inspires it but in a rather different sense, is also the result of a kind of parenthesis, an 'encapsulation'. Between brackets is the work, that fragment of the world which gives the viewer precisely that sense of not being present at a spectacle, even a realist spectacle. But outside the brackets there is the transcendent I which is the auteur, the one who knows the full cost of the artistic effort required to achieve the impression of reality and to give the audience the sense that he, the auteur, has never set foot inside the brackets. Surely infinite art is required to organize a narrative, construct a mise en scene, direct actors, while giving the final impression that there are neither narrative, mise en scene, nor actors involved. In other words, we are dealing again with a second-stage realism, a synthesis of the documentary and verist movements. With verism came the realization that the ideal of primary realism could not be achieved by reproducing the real directly; now came the rejection of the belief that the indirect approach had to take the form of a stylization of the event. The perfect aesthetic illusion of reality can only result from ascesis of the means in which there is ultimately more art than in any of the various forms of expressionism or constructivism.
First, ascesis of the script. The concern is no longer with a script that is well-constructed according to some impeccable dramatic logic with subtle psychological counterpoints. The question is not one of architecture but of existence. If an artist merits the divine name of creator in any sphere, it is here. And he is rarely alone. Italian scriptwriting teams are famous. There has been an attempt to explain this away as a question of publicity, but its roots lie deeper, in a sense of the infinite richness of life which one man could never evoke successfully. Zavattini and De Sica worked for months on the script of Bicycle Thieves in order to make people believe there was no such thing.
The ascesis of the script is completed by ascesis of the mise en scene and actors (admirably analysed by Andre Bazin in his article for Esprit, November 19493). This always calls for supplementary devices to ensure, for example, that the introduction and operation of a camera in the filming of a street scene does not cause any obvious disruption and that the worker and his son assume no more of a role than the bicycle. In phenomenological realism, art is therefore established within the very act by which it seeks to destroy itself. But it is perfectly conscious of that and indeed turns it into its claim to validity as art. The definition needs also to take account of the fact that everything is filmed in such a way as to produce the dense texture of life which, to quote a thought that predates Sartre, is the only true measure of beauty.
This is why the category of neo-realist films where the formal concerns are clear (the best example of which is La terra trema) cannot be brought in as an argument against the views just expressed. If they are taken as authentically phenomenological, and I believe this is true for La terra trema at least, they cannot be explained, like II Cristo proibito, solely in terms of the conjunction between the neo-realist tendency and the great Italian tradition of the grandiose, the operatic and the baroque. Even in these films the beauty is less a function of their formal aspects than of the dense texture of life in them. The very essence of their form is the tactile quality of the subject matter, their ponderable human mass. Or to put it more precisely, what needs to be acknowledged is the masterly conjunction of the two elements, their genuine and deliberate reciprocity. It has been said that a poster must not be too beautiful or the passer-by may never get past the surface to the real point. This is not altogether so. Alongside neutral form there is a place for a translucent art, an instrumental kind of beauty which is plenitude and transparence at the same time. Like those figures which can be seen in depth or relief at will, a Vermeer painting can be a diligent lace-maker at her window or a skilful chromatic effect in blue, silver-grey and very pale orange, radiating out from a pulpy, velvety, almost fleshy surface. The same experience can come from Visconti's genuine Sicilian fishermen. The glory (in almost the theological sense of the word) he shrouds them in does not veil them but is what enables them to be seen. I know that this is dangerous ground and that the majority of other, similarly oriented films have remained trapped in their self-indulgence, but at least in this case it is impossible to avoid seeing in the formal shaping a kind of ontological humility which is to the deliberate neutralism of Bicycle Thieves what mysticism is to asceticism.
Human reality and its meaning
There are a number of aesthetic tendencies which may be opposed to phenomenological realism, the most appropriate being the piece a these, the drama with a message, or its more attenuated form, the piece a these. Their constant characteristic is a certain transcendence of the work which takes the form of a particular, extrinsic end and entails a constant pursuit of the ideal of unambiguous meaning in its simplest possible form. This, even when the interpretation is subtle, is diametrically opposed to phenomenological realism with its determination not to tamper with events, nor to permeate them artificially with ideas and emotions. But the all-mclusive nature of the event takes in both the spatio-temporal reality and a relation to human consciousness which is part of its essence and is lts meaning' or 'sense'. Because it can only be deciphered by a consciousness which is never rigidly directed to an external end, this 'sense' can always be interpreted and coloured by consciousness according to its Own standards and theories, i.e. its own Weltanschauung, exactly like the real world itself.
The result is a fundamental ambiguity. The condition, of course, is that the event has been allowed to conserve its completeness. The slightest intrusion of any treatment whereby the author tends to make his personal interpretation of the intrinsic meaning explicit compromises the whole operation. We are back with the message. This shows how far from phenomenological are those films which claim to be as existentialist as Les Jeux sont faits or Les Mains sales. Sartre clearly has a commitment in the themes (if not the message) he deals with, unlike Kafka, whom he commended for engaging in a unified situation and complete event. It is not just under the analysis of the critic that everything breaks up into problems; in order to bring them to life, the author has to be committed. To do otherwise it is probably necessary not to be a philosopher, but to have the genius of Zavattini ... or Pagliero.
Pagliero's film, Un Homme marche dans Ia ville, is in fact a notable illustration of all that has just been said of phenomenological realism, and at the same time it offers some valuable additional dimensions. This film too describes in minute detail an all-embracing human situation and all the events, large and small, it brings together. There are no main characters for whom the rest are merely the supporting cast. They are all equally present - the big Brazilian, the presumed murderer and the corner cafe alike. Lives unfold side by side, sometimes enmesh, sometimes separate. The end is not really an end; one is left with the sense that everything could continue. And when the critic's eye extrapolates themes, these are so much the flesh of things that making them explicit is immediately to betray them. Since they are there, however, they need to be mentioned: the problem of the misunderstanding - the so-called murderer is innocent; the absurd - a man kills another by mistake because he takes the victim for someone else; loneliness of the gregarious kind - not one authentic communication passes between one person and another in love or hate and love is no more than the contact of skins; the child who is de trap, constantly pushed into the street, out of the way. The adults too suffer the nausea of existence and are in part strangers to themselves. They are are beings-for-death; the worker with the 'ugly mug' or 'the face of an undertaker', as he is often told, cannot find a job and ends up being ridiculously killed. The woman who cannot find any kind of love and gasses herself. The negro who dies of TB, killed by his working conditions. 'All men are mortal' and here no one dies of 'natural causes'. None of these people escapes his situation and in the end there is a clear sense that the boat pulling out to sea is not an escape to the 'Islands of the Blessed', but that the true murderer and the supposed one are both leaving for a new situation which will prove to be like the first. They are temporarily 'reprieved' but will never manage to extricate themselves from the situation which constantly coagulates around them.
And the formal element 'clings' strangely to these people. It can be summed up in a word: the film is 'flat'. The light has something hard and lustreless about it, not atmospheric but brittle, angular and brutal. The most gripping image, the wounded man on a stretcher ascending the steep wall that dominates the quay, is an existential metaphor of uncommon rigour and power - the 'wall' behind which there is only nothingness and death. The wall is not there to 'symbolize' the facticity4 of existence, it 'is' existence itself, freezing into facticity, becoming a thing and taking on the cold permanence and blind hardness of things. There is nothing here of Carne's mists of Le Havre or the radiant light of Italian films, which each in their way evoke extra-human horizons .. It is the steel screen which blots out these horizons, the wall which supports the closed doors of the human prison in which we are condemned to freedom. The total absence of music, the heavy, grating soundtrack, again underlines this aspect and prevents any evocative effect.
Thus it is an existentialist or, more precisely, Sartrian meaning that Pagliero makes us give the events he describes phenomenologically. But because he does this with a quite different sense of the demands of the work and a quite different respect for the concrete and for method, he brings a complement to the preceding analyses which is valuable in quite a different way from Sartre's own films. Since, without any obvious distortion, he ends up impressing on the audience such a clearly directed vision of the world and of man, it seems that Heidegger was right to oppose Husserl in asserting that a description of existence always and necessarily confirms the idea one has of it, since that idea is already an element, mode and factor of existence itself. It was therefore possibly a little premature to congratulate, as we just did, Rossellini, De Sica and Zavattini, for their reserve and the freedom of interpretation they allowed the audience. If their worlds seemed less marked by their vision, this was doubtless because they still hesitated in the face of choice, or because their choice was on quite a different level, up there where Gabriel Marcel's words might possibly be verified: 'All existence which does not refer to the transcendental degenerates into falsity and facticity.' It is therefore fruitless to question Pagliero's captivating depictions, and enough simply to set them at a different angle.
Phenomenological realism and the Catholic meaning of grace
This is perhaps what Cielo sulIa palude offers. Like all the other films of the school, it constitutes a social, psychological and ethical entity. It can be seen as simply a documentary on the Pontine Marshes, for the Goretti family is presented as profoundly integrated with land, water and sky. But gradually attention is focused on the mutual attitudes of Alessandro and young Maria, without, however, causing any break with the rest of the event. The whole of life on a farm on the Pontine Marshes continues to unfold in parallel as Alessandro's attitude becomes more precise, revealing its true nature as an irresistible sexual obsession which culminates in several attempted rapes and finally the crime.
In the meantime the film shows us the girl's preparation for her first communion, then the ceremony with its always slightly fussy details, especially in countries where the old religious traditions survive. Nevertheless, the film does not conceal the sincerity and profound attention which Maria brings to the act, any more than the empty formality which it perhaps represents for some of her companions. After the crime, the injured girl is taken care of in the hospital, where she dies. The crowd sees her as a saint and prays.
These are the events as they are shown, with no pressure directing the interpretations they should be given. If, on emerging from the cinema, the viewer discovers that the girl was actually canonized, he may well find that utterly absurd. His personal set of values did not have to change for the events to hold his interest.
But for the believer, applying the religious interpretation to the intrinsic meaning of these events presents no problems. The ambiguity itself is in a sense a criterion of authenticity. The illusory area of external visions and internal voices would be far more alarming. Here everything is so profoundly marked by corporeality and so far from fantasy that it presents no problems and there is no difficulty in recognizing the finger of God. Where everything is susceptible of a natural explanation there is still room for a transcendent reality within the natural development of determinations, and indeed this is one of the characteristics of that transcendence itself.
In other words, the ambiguity is the mode of existence of the Mystery which is the safeguard of freedom. Whatever the appearances to the contrary, a Christian will have no difficulty in recognizing, from the mystical point of view, a level and a quality which is at least equal if not superior to the worlds created by Bresson.
For if the psychology in the proper sense is infinitely less elaborate, grace is no more hidden and the ambiguities are not fundamentally greater; it is in any case in the very nature of grace to be hidden and ambiguous precisely because it is the human face of the transcendent Mystery of God.
Such, it seems to me, are the possibilities and the dangers of phenomenological realism in the area of religious expression. But the bigger danger would certainly be to want to take greater care of God's interests than He does himself by trying to direct events by force and constrain the audience to read in them a meaning which is only accessible to those who discover it freely.
The gamut of meanings accessible to phenomenological realism is thus as broad as human reality itself. It rejects no a priori, provided these meanings remain in the order of question rather than solution, for while, like Jean Wahl, it knows that problems have a value in themselves, it believes with Pascal that they can only be resolved by stepping outside them and that the human prison is open to the sky.
Translated by Diana Matias
Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave/Part One: French Cinema /
Amedee Ayfre: 'Neo-Realism and Phenomenology'
Edited by Jim Hillier
Harvard University Press