The inclusion of neorealism in every history of film, every history of Italian cinema and every film course, and the existence of extended analyses of the films and directors associated with it suggest a deeper familiarity with this complex body of work than is the case among scholars and teachers.
Book-length studies in English are very rare, and Roy Armes's Patterns of Realism (1971) and David Overby's collection of translations, Springtime in Italy (1979), remain the standard references. Mark Shiel's book is, therefore, a welcome addition. It contains detailed accounts of six films and references to many more, discussions of directors and some history of the debates about the continuing impact of neorealism in post-war Italian film criticism and wider cultural and political accounts.
Neorealism's influence far exceeded the brief time and the small output of films covered by what Shiel calls "the movement", and he draws attention to the insistently ideological orientation of much of the scholarship informing debate about it.
He also takes issue with the major revisionist accounts published since then for their limited consideration of actual politics and their comparative neglect of the importance of different realisms in the original debates about film technique, and about cinematic realism's centrality to a politics of cinema, to political cinema and to postwar politics.
Because the authors whom Shiel singles out - James Hay, Lino Micciché, Adriana Aprà, Peter Bondanella and Pierre Sorlin - engage critically with the debates of the past, a more sustained discussion would be required to develop Shiel's claims fully. Given the intended audience, however, this has been sacrificed to detailed readings of the films. Although these are useful, they examine films about which significant English-language material already exists; thus the opportunity for a more extended analysis of the unfamiliar historical work on which the author's own arguments depend has been lost.
The book's subtitle, Rebuilding the Cinematic City , announces a claim for the distinctiveness of the city to neorealism. But how the differential signification of a city/town such as Ferrara might be understood in terms of urbanism and modernity in two of the films discussed - Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942), which is set predominantly in the Po Valley but has a sequence set in Ferrara, and Michelangelo Antonioni's Cronaca di un Amore (1950), which owes much to Ossessione but which contrasts Ferrara and the provinces with Milan - can only be gestured at in the space permitted.
An Anglophone film studies audience would benefit from a more extended study of neorealism's place in Italian postwar culture and from the opportunity to see Shiel's propositions about the filmed city given a wider rein outside the limitations imposed here.
Lesley Caldwell is honorary senior research fellow in the Italian department, University College London.
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City
Author - Mark Shiel
Publisher - Wallflower Press
Pages - 142
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 904764 48 7