What does Italian neorealism ask of us? Frequently described as a political project, an “ethics of aesthetics,” an expression of anti-Fascist impegno (engagement), Italian neorealism seems to give voice to the desire to effect real change in the world. But what kind of change did the innovators of Italian neorealism desire, and how did they work to make it a reality? These are the questions I explore in my paper.
Building on an interpretive framework developed in my monograph Italian Neorealism: A Cultural History (University of Toronto Press, 2020), I argue that neorealism was guided by what I propose to call choral politics. Neorealist artists and intellectuals sought to represent the impact of world historical forces on individual citizens, working to link the intimate dynamics of individual lives to the geopolitical processes that had served, directly or indirectly, to transform them. Neorealist films, novels, and works of art thus depict the transition from an individual to a social consciousness, from a personal to a collective experience.
As I show, neorealism’s choral politics can help us to appreciate one of the most engaging but least examined innovations of post-war Italian culture: the Teatro di Massa (Mass Theatre): enormous productions, staged outside the usual theatre circuit and often outdoors, employing nonprofessional and usually local actors to represent events of recent history. Although it was a short-lived phenomenon, with its run all but over in 1953, the Teatro di Massa was nevertheless a popular—and indeed a mass—cultural phenomenon, with shows in Modena, Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Rimini, Rome, Siena, Livorno, Pisa, Forlì drawing thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators. Moreover, the impact of this short-lived phenomenon would continue to be felt for decades, and not only in the theatre.
In my paper, I argue that the Teatro di Massa exemplifies the choral politics of Italian neorealism, performing a new democratic polity, one not yet present in the theater of political action but already mobilized symbolically in the realm of art.
Charles L. Leavitt IV is Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Notre Dame. A Faculty Fellow of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and a Research Fellow of the University of Reading (UK), Professor Leavitt is a scholar of modern and contemporary Italian culture and history. His first book, Italian Neorealism: A Cultural History (University of Toronto Press, 2020), adopts an interdisciplinary approach to describe and analyze a neorealist project encompassing film, literature, theatre, art and architecture, cultural criticism, and political and intellectual debate.
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