In 1952, Ayfre argued on the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that “phenomenological-realism” was a more apt title than “neorealism” for the cinema movement taking shape in post-war Italy. Using Rossellini as his primary example, Ayfre describes a tendency in this new Italian realism to give “primacy to existence over essence in all things” and “go to the things themselves, to ask what they manifest through themselves.” These filmmakers manage to show us the straightforward existence of people and landscapes by stripping away any layers of reflection, judgment, or commentary. “Above all,” writes Ayfre, “the objective, subjective, social, etc. are never analyzed as such; they are taken as a factual whole in all its inchoate fullness…Rossellini makes no decisions. He puts the question. In the face of an existential attitude, he proposes the mystery of existence.” Ayfre keenly observes that such an ontological and aesthetic position lends itself to a particular realm of thought, “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.’” This is also the definition of phenomenology.
Bicycle Thieves. What Ayfre calls phenomenology, Bazin articulates as the “appearance of an accidental and as it were anecdotal chronology,” or the element of “chance” in the film, and finally the “phenomenological integrity” of each successive event. “Basically, the workman might have found his bicycle in the middle of the film; only then there would have been no film,” writes Bazin. Ayfre makes explicit, however, that this “accidental” and “phenomenological” quality to these films is painstakingly manufactured. It took methodical thinking by the filmmakers to construct a world void of just such methodical thinking and construction. As Ayfre quite perfectly summarizes, “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…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.” Ayfre and Bazin both acknowledge, even embrace, that the illusion of the cinema is never put to more arduous exercise than when convincing the audience that it doesn’t exist.
In a genre whose borders have been hotly contested, Ayfre and Bazin’s idea that neorealism engages with the appearance of spontaneity articulates a crucial, unifying thrust of the neorealist movement. Indeed the films that lie at the heart of Italian neorealism all employ cinematic illusion to present a “story” where all of the possibilities of the real world are believable possibilities in the cinematic world. This effort to present a world seemingly subject to the same whims of the universe that govern our everyday lives, defines neorealism. Which is to say, Ayfre’s definition of neorealism as phenomenological-realism is both accurate and incredibly useful in helping to delimit a genre whose borders remain fuzzy in 2008. That being said, the evidence of such phenomenology shines forth from the texts.
Bazin outlines several examples in Bicycle Thieves that exhibit this tendency toward a phenomenological perspective, but two examples from DaSica’s films, gone unmentioned by Bazin, are particularly useful in proving phenomenology at work. The first appears in Bicycle Thieves just after a serious spat that left tensions high and little Bruno with a slap across the face. After a silent walk, in which father and son are first truly out of step with one another, Ricci goes to follow a lead on the bike and leaves little woolen-shorted Bruno by the river. A few minutes later, Ricci hears screaming from the river about a boy drowning. He turns, walks, and then starts running toward the river as he’s hit with the overwhelming fear that Bruno has drowned. And at this moment, the viewer’s thoughts and emotions perfectly align with Ricci’s. Liberated from the confines of traditional narratives, we know that this could happen; Bruno could drown, like any kid could in real life. Just as Bruno stops to pee in the middle of a chase scene, just as he slips and falls on the wet pavement, just as all of these anti-narrative phenomena occur, he very well might drown. Because the film is composed of the phenomena of life, of utter existence, it is not prescriptive. The possibilities of the film are the possibilities of reality. If Bruno "happens" to drown, the phenomena of life will simply continue to unfold. In this scene, as in the core body of neorealist works, a phenomenological reading facilitates our understanding of how these films create reality.
Frankly, this is old news. If you're familiar with any Italian neorealism (or really any neorealist-type movement) AND you've also read this far in this entry (!!!), you might be feeling a little bombarded with the obvious. But I think there's more here. Specifically in the way this phenomenological-realism interacts with Italian neorealism's other foundational impulse--that of social criticism.
DeSica and Zavattini pushin' a thesis:
Ayfre and Bazin both indicate that if the illusion of spontaneity breaks, or even merely cracks, and the audience senses any kind of agenda at work, the phenomenological project of the filmmaker is instantly undermined. Ayfre comments, “the slightest intrusion of any treatment whereby the author tends to make his personal interpretation of the intrinsic meaning explicit compromises the whole operation.” Along the same lines, Bazin’s fascination with Bicycle Thieves stems from its ability to avoid just such authorial intrusions. “The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. But this thesis is never stated as such, it is just that events are so linked together that they have the appearance of a formal truth while retaining an anecdotal quality…In other words, a propaganda film would try to prove that the workman could not find his bicycle, and that he is inevitably trapped in the vicious circle of poverty. De Sica limits himself to showing that the workman cannot find his bicycle and that as a result he
doubtless will be unemployed again.” The meaning of the film, Bazin holds, arises organically from the phenomena. DeSica and Zavattini are not telling us a story via Ricci, Bruno; they are presenting a world that, once we’ve taken it all in, gives birth to social and political meanings. He continues, “Clearly…events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis—but the thesis emerges fully armed and all the more irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown into the bargain. It is our intelligence that discerns and shapes it, not the film. De Sica wins every play on the board without ever having made a bet.”
This is where Ayfre and Bazin’s phenomenological reading seems to overstep its bounds. As previously discussed, the idea of neorealism as phenomenological-realism is an invaluable concept in its pulling back the curtain on the mechanisms behind these realities, but the theses and agendas of these phenomenological-realistic films are explicit. The authors, in this case DeSica and Zavattini, DO intrude. At times, they DO point and direct and tell us what to think. On the one hand, these films present an incredibly adept portrait of reality by seemingly allowing anything to happen, but, at the same time, they push a social message. Indeed, these films wear their theses on their sleeves! The meanings of these films are not implicit; they are not wide open to interpretation and do not arise within us, but are blunt and prescribed. In other words, phenomenological-realism is just a sneakier way to push a message; in its beautifully choreographed and carefully attended pretensions to realism, it opens up the perfect avenue to push an agenda, so that just at the moment the film convinces you it is not spoonfeeding you, you are most vulnerable to being spoonfed. Lest I paint this too negatively, this is the nature of Italian neorealism. It was a politically charged movement that did have explicit commentaries about Italian post-war society. The social-political agenda driving these films does not discount the importance of phenomenological-realism, however. It seems the explicit social theses of these films and their phenomenological-realism are not mutually exclusive, as Bazin and Ayfre suggest, but rather, sit comfortably together.
Throughout these neorealist classics, mise-en-scene and diologue quite explicitly demonstrate the intruding, authorial, social-political theses at work. The most striking of these scenes in Bicycle Thieves takes place just after Ricci loses his bike. He heads out to get help and walks into a, quite literally, ‘underground’ socialist meeting. “It’s not about the employment office,” the leader announces, “Without work, people can’t be placed in jobs. We’ve raised this issue with the Department of Labor. A welfare check solves nothing. It just humiliates the worker and doesn’t help anything. We need a massive program of public works. But what did they say at today’s meeting? The same as always: ‘you can’t expect miracles’. You can be sure we’ll do our best to find you jobs.” The camera stays on Ricci who drifts in and out of these messages looking for someone who is not there, but it’s all happening right in front of our faces; these men are conducting a semi-secret, underground meeting about the social ills of Italy and the leader of the group articulates complaints with the government’s care for its citizens quite clearly to the group of men, to Ricci, and to the viewer. Ricci then descends into an underground theater rehearsal. As Ricci sits and waits, the song they are singing halts on the word 'gente' (people). The performers repeat it back and forth about ten times, supposedly correcting each other on pronunciation. The song is halted two more times in a kind of pain-staking meditation on 'gente'. It's obvious the worlds Ricci and Bruno inhabit are poverty-stricken ones, marked by working class struggles, injustices, and competition. As it has been extensively noted, the manifestations of poverty show up in the peripheries and backgrounds of the neorealist classics--in the crowds, hungry job-seekers, begging children, etc.. Here, Bazin’s more implicit meanings and images are being subtly conjured and we are gently led to realize the social conditions at play. In the above example, however, subtlety falls by the wayside and Ricci enters into a complete socialist world. This is just one example of the way the social-political subtext rises to the surface and is rendered explicit throughout these phenomenological-realist films.
DeSica and Zavattini have created a world that appears to have all the possibilities of reality. The genius of the film lies in its careful construction of a world that unfolds phenomenologically and, as Ayfre implies, this is the remarkable genius of the neorealist movement at large. Bazin and Ayfre believe that the perfect illusion of phenomenological-realism is subverted at the moment the authorial voice is heard. On the contrary, the genius of Italian neorealism seems to be in maintaining the phenomenological illusion while at the same time pushing a social-political thesis. The author is at once there and not there; you hear him and then you don’t; you are at once a distanced receptor of a social message and intimately tied to Ricci and Bruno. And all the while, the illusion of reality, that most perfect of cinema's magic tricks, persists.