When we get into the post-War foreign cinema, we are continually pointed towards certain moments and movements - Italian neo-realism, Prague Spring, New German Cinema, New Iranian cinema, Dogme 95 – that privilege the real over the fantastic, that operate in opposition to the dominant commercial forces in world cinema. (The French New Wave, for a number of reasons, doesn't actually fit into this category, though with careful editing, they can be made to fit.)
Of course, they are all movements that start out with very little money, and you might argue that "reality" is what you do when you can't afford "fiction."
It's interesting to look back at the Italian neo-realists at this moment. At the recentCinematheque screening of Rosselini's Open City, I ran into a young local publicist who'd actually bought the series and was having some problems with it, in part because hanging the neo-realist tag on Rossellini means that his films are almost never what you expect them to be. His comment on Open City was, "Kind of melodramatic, isn't it?" Well, yeah, what with partisans being tortured by Nazis, Anna Magnani being gunned down in the street, and the Monster Chiller Horror Theatre music cues. It's very melodramatic, as life often is.
Watching Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, neither of which I'd seen in almost 30 years, what struck me wasn't the "reality" of these neo-realist classics, but DeSica's astonishing ability to fake reality. (Which, by the way, is not a criticism - these aren't documentaries or surveillance footage. They are fictions and constructed with remarkable skill.
These were hailed, when they arrived in North American shores as revolutionary innovations in the history of cinema - as life spilled across the screen. Which is kind of insulting to DeSica and his scenarist, Cesare Zavattini., who put an inordinate amount of work into the screenplays.
Orson Welles, who should have known better, said of Shoeshine that "...the camera disappeared, it was just life". Looking at them again, I'm struck by the film's compositional brilliance - in Bicycle Thieves, look at the how he treats the lines of unemployed, the clean use of shadow and trees to divide the screen in the street scenes, the utter clarity of the line. In Shoeshine, there's an unxpected fondness for near expressionist shadowing - in the jail scenes, or in the apartment building where the boys go to see the old fortune teller.
Of course, the rebellion in the neo-realist movement happened when they took the camera into the street and made movies about "real people" rather than staying in the studios and making romantic movies about the rich, the so-called white telephone movies.
North American audiences were stunned by the reality of the settings and chose to ignore the melodramas, or to subsume them into the "reality" of the aesthetic.
Anyway, this is how we're trained, and it gets reinforced when we spend great chunks of time watching Hollywood movies. What looks good are things that don't look like Hollywood movies. Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold, which is a story about an Of Mice And Men relationship in contemporary Tehran that winds up with one of the characters trapped in a jewelry store by the police, is a story that Hollywood could easily make, but you can bet the reviews wouldn't have been nearly as good. They might have been more like mine.