Spanish neorealism in comparison with Italian neorealism

Spanish neorealism in comparison with Italian neorealism
Photo by Adam Chrzanowski / Unsplash

This essay was written in the Spring 2013 semester as part of a course titled Photography, Set Design and Editing in Spanish Cinema, 1925 - 1980 (riveting name!) at New York University, numbered SPAN-GA 2965.

One of the most important developments in post-war cinema was the advent of Italian Neorealism. The development of faster film stock and lighter, more portable cameras, coupled with the destruction of the physical infrastructure needed for filmmaking such as film studios, gave rise to a style of filmmaking that employed the city itself as its environment and its inhabitants as its characters, with an emphasis on the difficulties faced by the average person in post-war Italy. It would be inaccurate, however, to characterize Italian Neorealism as a movement borne purely out of expediency. Roy Armes notes, for example, that the prototypically Neorealist Bicycle Thieves was overshadowed at the box office by Fabiola, a large-scale "monumental" production, reflecting a duality in Italian cultural output dating to well before the First World War: the coexistence of extravagant spectaculars designed to entertain and provide an escape from reality, and realist works that highlighted and delved into social issues drawn from the surrounding reality (23).

Italian Neorealism, then, was a considered artistic choice on the part of its proponents, not simply a technical and narrative resourcefulness necessitated by post-war developments. This is not surprising, considering the extent of the influence of Italian Neorealism and the way it affected national cinemas throughout Europe and beyond; something about the rationale behind the Neorealist approach resonated in the global post-war climate. Spain was no exception, but the Spanish approach to Neorealism differed from the Italian in several important ways.

In order to understand Spanish Neorealism and its relationship to realism as an artistic movement and to social reality, we must first begin with the philosophical and historical bases of realism in general, and Italian Neorealism in particular. A critical question to consider is simply this: what is realism? And by extension, what is Neorealism? Is it a style? Is it a set of formal characteristics, and if so, which? Or is it instead a set of narrative characteristics? Does realism preclude the use of symbolism?

The neorealist cinema drew from the literary and theatrical tradition of realism that arose at the end of the 19th century, a dedication to depicting life as lived by ordinary people on a day-to-day basis, eschewing the traditional material of nobility and mythology. Armes, in Patterns of Realism, observes that realism as an artistic movement began in the eighteenth century with the rise of the novel, which required that characters be placed in a specific societal context (17). He does not expand on this point, but a comparison with other literary and dramatic forms is implied: the shorter novella, for example, does not demand as complex an interaction between characters and their societal environment, while plays foreground dramatic relationships between characters rather than between man and his social context.

Armes quotes Georg Lukács in identifying the essence of the realist movement: "The great realist… [if] the intrinsic artistic development of situations and characters he has created comes into conflict with his most cherished prejudices or even his most sacred convictions will, without an instant's hesitation, set aside these his own prejudices and convictions and describe what he really sees, not what he would prefer to see. This ruthlessness towards their own subjective world-picture is the hall-mark of all great realists" (19). This is a description that encompasses realism in every form, not just in the cinema, but the cinema is the form in which the potential for a direct confrontation with reality is the greatest. In the post-war years in Italy, Armes notes, "the Italian filmmakers, by taking their cameras out into the streets and forgetting the dead rules of conventional film-making, did come face to face with reality again" (20). That is not to say that Italian Neorealism as a style was primarily defined by its mode of production, but rather that the mode of production was a means of narrowing the gap between reality and the expression of reality.

For the purposes of this essay, then, realism will refer broadly to the commitment to create art that has a referent in the experience of the common person, and Neorealism to the specific breed of realism that came about in post-war Italian cinema and spread to other national cinemas. Stricter definitions may be adopted if they prove useful in exploring Italian Neorealism's influence on Spanish cinema.

In this essay, I will be looking at Surcos (1951) and Muerte de un ciclista (1955), and examining in what ways the Spanish approach was similar and in which ways it diverged from the Italian Neorealist approach.

Spanish Neorealism, also referred to as the Nuevo Cine Español (NCE), is generally agreed to have begun with Surcos in 1951. Thus, Spanish Neorealism began just as Italian Neorealism began to wane, and indeed Surcos already lacks the unselfconsciousness of Italian Neorealist films. In many ways, however, Surcos is very much a typical Neorealist film. It has as its protagonists a working-class family that migrates from rural Spain to Madrid in the hopes of finding a better life, and their hopes are thwarted by Don Roque, the personfication of the oppressive social forces at work in the Madrid of 1950. The protagonists are steadily and unrelentingly beaten down by a litany of setbacks, which, if not directly orchestrated by Don Roque, are always traceable to the fact of urban life, either a force of an implacable, impersonal mass of people, or the arbitrariness of governance (for example, Manuel being mobbed by children in the streets and then losing his candy to the police officer). In this way, Surcos pits the rural farming family – in many ways iconic of the Spain that Franco claimed to defend – against the realities of life for the farmer under Franco. It is significant that Surcos came not from the left, but from the Falangist director José Antonio Nieves Conde, whose Nationalist credentials could not have been more solid: born into a military family, he fought in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer on the Nationalist side. Benet notes that "a Nieves Conde [y a sus colaboradores] los guiaba también el interés por hacer un filme de denuncia de la cuestión social, en este caso, desde una perspectiva falangista. Todos ellos formaban parte del sector más purista y doctrinario de lo que consideraban la auténtica Falange y pensaban que el franquismo había traicionado el verdadero espíritu social del movimiento nacional-sindicalista" (273). Curiously, this is not far removed from the perspective that Juan in Muerte de un ciclista comes to hold.

Inasmuch as Neorealism can be said to have been an aesthetic style (as opposed to an approach informed by a particular ideology of the cinema), however, Surcos does not employ it, favoring highly stylized cinematography and set design, with low-key lighting and a reconstructed set of Madrid's streets. Benet attributes this choice to the reflexiveness of Surcos in comparison to its Italian counterparts (272-3).

Indeed, Surcos lacks a certain naïve idealism present to some degree in Italian Neorealism. Vicente Benet highlights a scene in which a character says, "no sé que gusto encuentran en sacar a luz la miseria. Con lo bonita que es la vida de los millonarios," referring specifically to a Neorealist film playing in the cinema. He writes, "Podemos observar que, para entonces [1951], la moda neorrealista ya era vista con cierta ironía… el neorrealismo fue objeto de caricatura en el cine español casi desde un primer momento" (265-266). Setting cynicism aside, it is safe to say that the Spanish films classed as Neorealist took the opportunity to critically examine Neorealism itself as a tool for examining society, adding a layer of reflexivity that was not present in their Italian counterparts. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the effect of time on Italian Neorealist cinema itself: from 1950 onwards, Italian filmmakers themselves began to move away from straightforward Neorealism. In fact, Roy Armes marks the heyday of Italian Neorealism as being from 1945 to 1951, and observes that eventually "most of the successful Italian film-makers moved away from true neo-realism and yet produced works of outstanding interest and importance, while Vittorio De Sica, who as late as 1956 still remained loyal to the neo-realist aesthetic, merely witnessed the exhaustion of his creative powers" (20).

However, it seems to me significant that Surcos, commonly regarded as the first Spanish Neorealist film, already exhibits this reflexivity. Since Surcos meets the definition of a Neorealist film in every other aspect (subject matter, influence of the city, circumstances of lead characters, post-war setting), it is perhaps inaccurate to regard Surcos as a film cynical of Neorealism as a whole, but rather simply doubtful of its own capacity to create the kind of impact necessary for social change. Its ending, in which the family returns to their village having found it impossible to make a life in Madrid, can in a sense be considered defeatist, highlighting neither a clear way forward as a society nor a path to redemption as an individual. This is one aspect in which Surcos and Muerte de un ciclista differ.

Muerte de un ciclista expresses its doubt about the possibility of social change in a different way within the narrative itself. Unlike the typical Neorealist film, Muerte de un ciclista deals with the bourgeoisie, not with the working class, and unlike the typical Neorealist film, the inertia of change is a result not of unseen urban and societal forces acting on the individual, but of the individual's own moral inertia. Where the typical Neorealist film strips its key characters of agency, showing them to be pawns in a vicious world guided by a heartless hand, Muerte de un ciclista gives its key characters agency and finds that they do not use it. Thus, Muerte de un ciclista embeds its cynicism not in a specific self-referential scene, but throughout the narrative itself.

In the Salamanca Conversations in 1955, Juan Antonio Bardem famously argued that "El cine español es políticamente ineficaz, socialmente falso, intelectualmente ínfimo, estéticamente nulo e industrialmente raquítico" (as quoted in Benet 275). Juan Francisco Cerón Gómez argues that Surcos exhibits a lack of social analysis: "la miseria de unos no se ponía en relación con la opulencia de otros" ("Oposición Política" 34). Furthermore, he points out, Surcos offers a false solution, the family's return to the country, thereby negating the story entirely ("Oposición Política" 34). In assigning agency to his characters, Bardem assigns responsibility and blame, but in this way he also presents the viewer with a solution and a personal path to redemption. Juan's evolution over the course of the film is instructive: of his own accord, he visits the mother of the slain cyclist, coming up close with the life of the working-class for the first time. This contact is transformative, and it is what causes him to eventually decide to admit to the manslaughter.

At the same time, because of the middle-class circumstances of the key characters, the action takes place at a remove from the typical setting of Neorealist films. The characters (and consequently the camera) are not placed directly in the city, but behind windows and other sealed spaces, through layers of protective glass, putting a physical barrier between those who seek change and those who have the power to cause change – one need only consider, for example, who is in the hermetically sealed space of the car and who is riding the bicycle, exposed to the elements. Under this interpretation, then, Juan's monologue at the end of the film, occurring in vulnerable open space, is symbolic of his transformation from middle-class bourgoisie, sealed from the problems of the outside world, to his acceptance that he is ultimately a member of wider society and needs to be responsible to it.

It is notable that Muerte de un ciclista, veiling such a strong social critique, should have escaped the Spanish censors on this particular count. Cerón Gómez notes "la obsesión de los burócratas franquistas era el adulterio de los protagonistas mientras que la significación socio-política del filme permaneció intacta", while elsewhere he wryly observes that "[los] informes [de la censura] llegan a causar la sonrisa al demostrar una ceguera casi absoluta sobre el carácter acusatorio del guión como descripción de una realidad injusta provocada por la Guerra Civil" ("Oposición Política" 33-34, Cine de Bardem 125). This is indicative of the attitude of the Spanish bureaucratic establishment at the time, of course, but it is also reflective of the careful way that the script was constructed, such that an independent narrative exists at two levels. On the superficial level, the film is simply about two lovers conducting an affair who accidentally run over a cyclist and then struggle to deal with their fears of being discovered. Read on a social level, however, it is about a solidly upper-middle class former soldier whose circumstances bring him into contact with lower levels of society, who finds that the ideals he fought for have been betrayed, which prompts him to reject the vanities of the bourgeosie. With the latter reading completely subsumed within the former, the film is at least still completely coherent at face value.

That is also why a film that is ostensibly about the middle-class can still be considered Neorealist, because it is ultimately still about man's relationship to society. Each character personifies a single class or social group, and their interactions are symptomatic of interactions between those groups. Céron Gómez notes that "Juan, antiguo combatiente de ideas falangistas, defraudado al comprobar que aquello por lo que él había luchado no se iba a cumplir… representaba así a ciertos significados falangistas que acabarían situados en la oposición al régimen. La protesta estudiantil por el suspenso de Matilde era el trasunto de la inquietud universitaria por la libertad que comenzaba a emerger en el país… el obrero atropellado por los amantes venía a significar la Segunda República o la clase trabajadora arrolladas por una guerra instigada por las altas esferas de la sociedad" (Cine de Bardem 127). By extension, María José is the part of the middle class that prefers to remain deaf and blind to the rest of society, yet sees threats to her position where there are none; her husband is the part of the establishment that will hypocritically protect its own using the resources at its disposal even when faced with its own moral corruption, in order to give the impression of a monolithic, unified front. Rafa, then, is the ineffective pseudo-intellectual class that pretends to criticize the establishment but in reality cannot even begin to penetrate the surface of its corruption and its separation from the rest of social reality.

It is important to emphasize that Muerte de un ciclista works not because it tells of an interaction between classes or groups, but fundamentally it is a drama between people: the characters come to take on the mantle of entire social classes because they are so highly contextualized, and each little bit of contextual information is in itself so highly charged with meaning; we understand instinctively, for example, what it means for María José to be married to a rich industrialist and what it means for Juan to have been a Falangist in the Civil War. Above all, we instinctively understand what it means when someone is driving a car while someone else drives a bicycle: when the two are juxtaposed together so sharply, it is only natural that we see social class reflected in what are simply modes of transportation.

Having brought the discussion to symbolic representations of social reality, I would now like to briefly discuss representations of experiential reality. There are two scenes, one in Surcos and one in Muerte de un ciclista, that are of interest in this discussion because they externalize interior action in a highly subjective way, which raises interesting questions about the nature of realist cinema. In Surcos, the scene where Manuel goes to work in the foundry and attempts to deal with his new environment is presented as a series of quick, rapid cuts. We see metal being smelted and hammered, we hear the noise of the foundry and of the hammer specifically, and the rhythm and pace of the action increases to breaking point, driving Manuel to leave the foundry. What is interesting to me about this sequence is that although each element in itself is clearly drawn from the realist tradition, putting them together in this specific way results in a sequence that is viewed entirely from a subjective point of view and makes no pretense at being an objective experience. Of course, realism does not imply that there must be a strictly objective point of view, but it is interesting to find such a key plot point, consisting of internal action, expressed from an overtly subjective point of view than implied through the expression of objective circumstances such as at the end of Ladri di Biciclette or the comparatively subtle ending of I Vitelloni.

A similar sequence happens in Muerte de un ciclista, when Juan sees the news of the dead cyclist during the mathematics exam and becomes so engrossed in his thoughts that his reality becomes distorted. Again, each individual constituent of this sequence is realist, but put together in such a way that we, as the audience, experience Juan's discomfort and distress from his subjective point of view, a device that is rarely employed in early Italian Neorealism. Like the foundry sequence in Surcos, this sequence serves not simply as an exploration of a character's psyche but as a key plot point, without which the story cannot move forward.

Additionally, Muerte de un ciclista employs a style of editing that is, in parts, not entirely transparent; it is designed to draw attention to itself and invite the viewer to make their own connections. For example, after Rafa throws a bottle at a window, the film cuts to the university administrator looking out of a broken window onto the protesting students. Because the cut is governed not by spatial and temporal continuity but by a thematic relationship, the viewer reads Rafa's action not simply as helpless indignation at Miguel and María José, but at the privileged classes as a whole, and at the same time it is also symbolic of the students, the masses, trying to break into the citadels of institutional power. While not mutually exclusive with a Neorealist style of filmmaking, such editing shows an awareness that realism in film is neither necessarily beholden to traditional continuity editing nor to reality as it is experienced.

We can conclude, then, that Spanish Neorealism represents an evolution of Italian Neorealism, differing not in its fundamental ideology or concerns but in its narrative and formal approach. Both movements were primarily concerned with portraying the life of an individual in his social context, and using that as a starting point from which to explore social issues in their respective countries. Unlike what evolved to become free cinema in England, however, Spanish Neorealism was not defined by the realism of its formal or technical elements, but by its narrative elements; it did not demand that what was in front of the camera at any given moment be a document of reality, only that the film, taken as a whole and understood as a story in its entirety, accurately reflect the social conditions of the time. In these respects, Spanish Neorealism took clear influences from Italian Neorealism. Where Spanish Neorealism built on its Italian counterpart was an increased awareness of the possibilities of the symbolic and the experiential.


Armes, Roy. Patterns of Realism. New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1971. Print.

Benet, Vicente. El cine español. Barcelona: Paidós, 2012. Print.

Cerón Gómez, Juan Francisco. El cine de Juan Antonio Bardem. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1998. Print.

Cerón Gómez. "El cine de Bardem como oposición política: Muerte de un ciclista (1955)". In Lastra, Antonio (ed.), Estudios sobre cine. Madrid: Editorial Verbum, 2004. Print.

Muerte de un ciclista. Dir. Juan Antonio Bardem. Janus Films, 1955. Film.

Surcos. Dir. José Antonio Nieves Conde. Atenea Films, 1951. Film.