Federico Fellini: The Master of Italian Neorealism

The film movement Italian Neorealism illuminated the darkness in Italy after World War II. Filmmaker Federico Fellini was a pioneer of the movement.

Nov 18, 2022By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

federico fellini master italian neorealism


Italian Neorealism is a famous film movement that started in the early 1940s. As World War II ended and Fascist leader Benito Mussolini no longer held a position of power, the Italian film industry lost attention from the public. This provided a space for filmmakers to portray the reality of the working class in the aftermath of a war. Oppression and injustice towards the poor were exposed through capturing real citizens living in desperation, not just professional actors playing a role. The main Italian film studio Cinecittà had been partially destroyed during the war, so directors often chose to shoot on location, which perpetuated the harsh truth regarding the people’s economic suffering even further.


Who Was Federico Fellini, the Master of Italian Neorealism?

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Rome, Open City by Roberto Rossellini, 1945 via BFI


Considered The Golden Age of cinema by many, Italian Neorealism had a significant impact on major film movements that followed, such as European art cinema (the 1950s-70s) and the French New Wave (1958-1960s). Here are four Neorealist films directed by the legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, who helped pave the way for the movement.


Federico Fellini was a highly acclaimed Italian filmmaker known for his work after World War II that helped define the category of Neorealist films. He spent his childhood in the small Italian town Rimini and was raised in a middle-class, Roman Catholic household. He was creative from the start, leading puppet shows and drawing often. The graphic, horror-focused theater Grand Guignol and the character of Pierino the Clown influenced him as a youth and inspired him throughout his career. Later, Fellini stated that his films were not adaptations of his own childhood, but rather invented memories and nostalgic moments.


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Federico Fellini, via The Times UK


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His career began as an editor of a humor magazine, where he encountered creatives from the entertainment industry. His first screen credit was as a comedy writer for the movie Il pirata sono io (The Pirate’s Dream) and in 1941 he published the booklet Il mio amico Pasqualino about an alter ego he developed. One turning point was his writing and directing work for the screenplay I cavalieri del deserto in Libya, which he and his team had to flee from due to a British invasion of Africa.


His involvement in the Italian Neorealism movement began when renowned director Roberto Rossellini entered Fellini’s Funny Face Shop, where he drew caricatures of American soldiers. Rossellini wanted him to write dialogue for his Neorealist film Rome, Open City, which Fellini ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for. This led to years of collaboration between the two and the opportunity for Fellini to co-produce and co-direct his first feature film, Luci del varietà (Variety Lights). The reception was poor, but it kick-started his solo career as a film director. Here are four neorealist films directed by Fellini himself.


The White Sheik (1952)

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The White Sheik by Federico Fellini, 1952, via Los Angeles Times


The White Sheik was Fellini’s first film. Although it doesn’t convey the struggles of the working class, the overarching theme of idealism versus realism is the reason it’s considered a Neorealist film. The plot follows a couple who have separate dreams that they obsess over, both being completely different and secret from the other. Ivan Cavalli, played by inexperienced actor Leopoldo Trieste, is consumed with presenting his new wife to his strict Roman family and the Pope. His wife Wanda is fully distracted by the soap opera photo comic The White Sheik and is determined to meet the star of the story in person.


Ivan’s illusions of a smooth meeting between family and wife are crushed when Wanda leaves to find Fernando Rivoli, the hero of the comic. Wanda’s dreams are subsequently broken as his perfect fake persona is tainted by his true egotistical personality. When Ivan finds her fanatical letter written to Rivoli, he convinces himself that she’s just sick. Even in encounters with reality, human nature still tends to exist in a state of disbelief or denial.


On a nighttime walk Ivan takes after realizing the evident distance between him and his wife, he sits alone in the darkness, wallowing in his sadness. Before a couple of sex workers approach him, his lonely figure is shrouded in the black of the night as the hope he held for his vision of the future crumbles. Fellini was known for integrating fantasy elements into his work, and this example reveals one of his methods of doing so while balancing it with harsh reality.


I Vitelloni (1953)

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I Vitelloni by Federico Fellini, 1953 via The Criterion Channel


Following The White Sheik’s poor reception, Fellini directed I Vitelloni, a story about five young men living life in a small town. Each is in their 20s and still dependent on their parents, with ambitions of their own. Moraldo dreams of living in a big city, Riccardo hopes to sing and act professionally, Alberto contemplates his future but is very close to his mother, Leopoldo aspires to be a playwright, and Sergio Natali longs to be a stage actor. Drama ensues as they become tangled in love affairs with the women of the town and in the end, Moraldo boards a train and leaves his friends in hopes of a better life.


The film is defined by the rebellious energy of wanting to run away and find freedom, to escape melancholy. Fellini is quoted to state his goal of creating the cinema of Reconstruction… looking at reality with an honest eye. He targets the struggles of being a youth and desiring more for yourself. Moraldo’s departure signifies leaving behind the old, traditional Italy that never truly existed again after the war. The reality was that everything had changed, and people had to accept this, which was portrayed through Neorealism.


It also serves as a social commentary on a newly formed group of young men that were molded by the years after the war. Vitelloni roughly translates to slackers. One consequence of the war was a generation of men that emerged who were perceived to be lazy and self-absorbed. Another main character is Fausto, who is forced into marriage with Moraldo’s sister Sandra due to rumors of him impregnating her. He is an irresponsible womanizer, leading to messy affairs and the harsh reality of consequences that ensue. Without the draft and a duty to fulfill, Fellini illustrates the inevitable result that can follow.


La Strada (1954)

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La Strada by Federico Fellini, 1954 via MoMA, New York


La Strada is more characteristically a Neorealist film than The White Sheik and was released two years after. Following a young woman named Gelsomina, it illustrates the suffering that ensued after the war. Gelsomina is sold as an assistant and a wife by her mother, desperate to escape poverty, to Zampanò, a strongman in a traveling circus. These two main characters represent two different perspectives born out of scarcity. Zampanò is bitter and angry at the conditions of the war-torn world around him while Gelsomina seeks out a space in her new surroundings to set herself apart from her dreary beginnings.


Their constant movement in searching for a willing audience is treacherous and once again, their differing dispositions are apparent through their travels and performances. Zampanò views existence as cruel which influences his outward behavior, making him hostile and aggressive. Gelsomina’s attitude is defined by innocence, and naivety to harsh realities even though she came from nothing. This brings joy to those who watch her perform because she performs with genuine fun amidst a society-wide depression.


The visual aesthetic is classically neorealistic, shot in a black and white documentary-like narrative capturing the rawness of humanity after World War II. Images of poverty and destruction from the war are shown but paradoxically paralleled with beauty and redemption in the characters’ lives. The film is an example of the lengths people had to go to survive.


A Masterpiece of Italian Neorealism: Nights of Cabiria (1957)

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Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini, 1957, via White City Cinema


Nights of Cabiria is the story of a sex worker called Cabiria found in The White Sheik. The movie begins with Cabiria being robbed and thrown into a river by Giorgio, who is her boyfriend and a pimp. She barely survives and lives the rest of the film skeptical of love or goodness in the world. It illuminated the filthy streets of corruption amongst pimps and sex workers contrasted with the wealthy bourgeoisie. Shot on location, this look into their world after hours was deemed to be quite authentic.


One plot point aligns with the denial of reality experienced by the characters in The White Sheik. She encounters the movie star Alberto Lazzari and begins to idolize him. After an extravagant evening spent together and her hopes of living a lavish lifestyle and receiving attention from a celebrity, she ends up stuck in a bathroom after Lazzari’s lover shows up. Cabiria resorts to involving herself with a stranger named Oscar, still barely holding onto hope when things fall apart.


Another element that reveals it to be neorealistic is the state and appearance of Cabiria’s house. It’s simply a little square box made of breezeblocks located in a wasteland. Although on the outside her life seems to leave no room for enjoyment or dreams, she is still seen with a smile on her face at the end.


Italian Neorealism shows the true nature of reality when all hope seems to be lost yet highlights good morals and virtues that people hold on to during desperate times. Fellini successfully captured the essence of this concept while exploring his own thoughts on post-war existence in Italy. His films during this era exemplify this movement that continues to influence filmmakers and artists alike today.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.