The impact of Italian Neorealism in film cannot be overstated. The works of Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and other major Neorealist directors are undeniable when it comes to the influence they have had on cinema throughout the world. They also had an immense effect on a young boy growing up in Queens named Martin Scorsese.

We’re going to look at a series of seminal Italian Neorealist films, including; Roma Citta Aperta, Ladri di Bicicletti, I Vitelloni, La Strada, and Viaggio in Italia and how they informed stylistic decisions in some of Scorsese’s best films.

Italian Neorealism in Film

What is Italian Neorealism?

The term Neorealismo, which directly translates to “new reality” or “new realism,” sprouted in the wake of World War II in Italy. Neorealismo signified a trend in art and film that aimed to provide insight into the contemporary Italian society of the 1940’s. The films associated with Italian Neorealism are focused on showing Italy removed from Fascist influence.

Characteristics of Italian Neorealism:

  • Social disorder
  • Representations of extreme poverty
  • “The Rehabilitation of an entire culture and people through cinema” - Martin Scorsese

Italian Neorealism in Films: History 

Looking at where the genre began

In 1937, Benito Mussolini founded Cinecitta, a massive studio that operated under the slogan “Il cinema è l'arma più forte,” which translates to “the cinema is the strongest weapon.” The purpose of the studio was to produce propaganda films for the Italian state. But during the war, it was bombed by Allied forces and nearly entirely destroyed. 

After the war, filmmakers had to find a new way to produce their stories. Many directors chose to shoot their films in the streets, with low budgets and amateur actors.


Roma Citta Aperta (1945)

Scorsese's sage scrutiny on neorealist films

Roma Citta Aperta was one of the first films to be produced outside of Cinecitta after the war. Director Roberto Rossellini consulted his close friend Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei to help with the script.

The film struggled in production while being shot just months after Italy was declared open from Nazi occupation. Roma Citta Aperta was Rossellini’s first anti-fascist film. It was also Fellini’s first foray into Neorealist film and is recognized today as one Italian cinema’s most important films.

NEOREALISM IN The Bicycle Thief 

Ladri di Biciclette (1948)

Scorsese's analysis on The Bicycle Thief

Vittorio De Sica’s undoubted masterpiece Ladri di Biciclette is a landmark film for the Neorealist movement. Perhaps the most iconic and enduring of the movements films, Biciclette stands out with its parabolic, intimate story that follows a father and sons’ desperate search for a lost bicycle across a post-war Italy.

The film’s foundation lies in the instruction of its morals; that an eye for an eye makes the world go blind. Biciclette was also a film that symbolized many of the values of Italian Neorealist films, including shooting entirely on location, and casting all amateur actors. The lead actor, Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker. His son, played by Enzo Staiola, was cast after De Sica observed him watching the shoot. 

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Scorsese on Ladri di Biciclette
“No director expressed those (Neorealist) values better than De Sica and very few films have been as meaningful to as many people as The Bicycle Thief… it was considered the peak moment, the pinnacle of Neorealism.”


I Vitelloni (1952)

Scorsese on Fellini

I Vitelloni is an understated masterpiece from Federico Fellini. The film follows a group of five young ruffians, each with their own ambitions, loitering about small town Italy.

Much of the film is autobiographical and Fellini drew on his personal experiences as a young man living in Rimini, Italy. I Vitelloni is a transitional Neorealist film. It exists as a portal to Fellini’s unique view of the past, foreshadowing the modernity that is yet to come.

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Scorsese on I Vitelloni's impact on Mean Streets
“The humor of it, it was very much the type of street humor I grew up with. And I looked at the film and began to realize that I was aiming to make pictures about my friends and myself anyways. But that was it. When I finally saw I Vitelloni, I said that’s the only way… I mean if he could do it about Rimini, I could do it about Elizabeth Street... I Vitelloni, meaning the wastrels or the guys⏤fellas who just hang out⏤really these are thirty-two year old guys who still live with their mothers, don’t work.”

Interviewer posits, “Sounds like Mean Streets.”

Scorsese responds with a laugh, “Yes. Exactly.”


La Strada (1954)

You will see the world, learn to sing and dance

La Strada, which translates directly to “the street,” very much portrays the harsh economic conditions of street life in Italy after World War II. The film begins with a brutish man named Zampano buying a young girl named Gelsomina to be his circus assistant. Gelsomina’s mother pleads with her that she must go because they do not have enough money to feed the family.

Zampano takes Gelsomina across Italy, performing in small weddings and big cities. In some ways, they fall in love, although Gelsomina is very much a captive of Zampano. The whole film glows with desperation; whether desperate for love, success, or respect. The character played by Richard Basehart shames Zampano and that shame eventually leads to the unravelling of Zampano, the fool, and Gelsomina.

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Scorsese on La Strada
“It’s the road of life. The famous Fellini road of life. Everyone walking on the road and ending up at the seashore… In my films later, I went more towards the fool. I found the characters, like Johnny Boy in Mean Streets pushing, pushing, pushing all the time, knowing that he’ll get hurt, but can’t help pushing just a little further.”

Italian Neorealism in Film 

Viaggio in Italia (1954)

Now that we're strangers, we can start all over...

Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia  signified the end of the Neorealist movement in Italian film. A British couple take a journey to Italy, where they silently hope to heal their troubled relationship.

The film has an overall sense of “other” or an outsider perspective. It’s very much about foreign characters discovering the sensational aspects of Italian culture, both modern and ancient.


In 1979, Martin Scorsese married Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Roberto Rosselini, just months after their first meeting.

The Neorealist movement signified poverty, strife, and the new reality of Italy after World War II. Viaggio in Italia is the bookend to Roma Citta Aperta. Whereas Roma Citta Aperta was emblematic of the new reality of Italy, Vigaggio in Italia feels more like the rebirth of Italian cinema. 

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Scorsese on Viaggio in Italia
“It’s the most modern film (of Rossellini’s). It began modern cinema in a way. And it wasn’t just a change in style, it was a change in the execution of art and the perception of the world through art, raising cinema to another level.”

Modern Neorealism 

Where is the mov​ement today?

Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas are all films that were directly inspired by the films we’ve talked about in this article. But Martin Scorsese admits that Fellini, Rossellini, and De Sica find their way into all of his works. 

There are also many other modern directors who were clearly influenced by the Italian Neorealist movement. Amongst them are David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Richard Linklater. Neorealismo also influenced other major movements including the French New Wave and Commedia all’italiana.


What is German Expressionism?

Want to learn more about other popular movements in the history of film? In this article, we define the style of German Expressionism by looking at iconic films within the genre. We also explore thematic and visual cues that inform our understanding of one of the earliest and most stylistic film movements.

Up Next: German Expressionism →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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