The Influence of Italian Neorealism on Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries, has often credited Italian neorealism as a significant influence on his work. This movement, which emerged in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, is characterized by its focus on everyday life, social issues, and the human condition, often employing non-professional actors and on-location shooting to achieve a sense of realism. For Scorsese, whose own heritage and upbringing in an Italian-American community deeply inform his storytelling, neorealism has provided a rich tapestry of techniques and themes that have permeated his filmography.

Italian neorealism
Image Courtesy: Taste of Cinema

Early Life And Heritage

Born in 1942 to Italian-American parents in Queens, New York, and raised in the neighbourhood of Little Italy, Scorsese was steeped in the culture and traditions of his heritage from a young age. This environment, marked by its vibrant community life and complex social dynamics, served as a backdrop for many of his films. Scorsese’s childhood experiences and his deep connection to his Italian roots are evident in his detailed, authentic portrayals of urban life and the Italian-American experience.

Introduction to Italian Neorealism

Scorsese’s formal introduction to Italian neorealism came during his time at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he was exposed to the works of directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti. Films like Rossellini’s ‘Rome’, ‘Open City’ (1945) and De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948) left a lasting impression on the young filmmaker. The raw, unfiltered portrayal of post-war Italian society resonated with Scorsese, who saw parallels between the struggles depicted in these films and the challenges faced by the working-class families in his own neighbourhood.

De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’--Italian Neorealism
Image Courtesy: Senses of Cinema

Cinematic Techniques And Storytelling

Italian neorealism’s emphasis on realism, social commentary, and character-driven narratives can be seen throughout Scorsese’s work. One of the hallmarks of neorealism is the use of real locations rather than studio sets, a technique that Scorsese has employed to great effect. In ‘Mean Streets’ (1973), his breakout film, the gritty streets of New York’s Little Italy are as much a character as the people inhabiting them. The film’s authenticity is enhanced by Scorsese’s decision to shoot on location, capturing the texture and vibrancy of urban life.

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Neorealism’s focus on the ordinary and the marginalized also finds echoes in Scorsese’s films. Like the Italian neorealists, Scorsese often centers his stories on individuals who exist on the fringes of society. In ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), Travis Bickle’s descent into madness is portrayed with a stark realism that reflects the influence of neorealist principles. The film’s raw depiction of loneliness and alienation in a decaying urban landscape draws a direct line to the social concerns of post-war Italian cinema.

Taxi Driver’ (1976)--Italian neorealism
Image Courtesy: New Statesman

Themes of Faith And Morality

Another significant aspect of Italian neorealism that influenced Scorsese is its exploration of faith, morality, and human dignity. Scorsese, who was raised in a devout Catholic household, frequently grapples with these themes in his work. Films like ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) and ‘Silence’ (2016) delve deeply into the moral and spiritual crises of their protagonists, much like the introspective and often morally complex characters found in neorealist cinema. The introspection and moral ambiguity present in the works of Rossellini and De Sica are mirrored in Scorsese’s nuanced portrayals of his characters’ internal struggles.

‘Raging Bull’ (1980)--Italian neorealism
Image Courtesy: Entertainment-Time

Legacy And Continued Influence

The influence of Italian neorealism on Scorsese is not just a relic of his early career but continues to inform his work. Even in his later films, such as ‘The Irishman’ (2019), there is a commitment to authenticity, character depth, and social commentary that harks back to the neorealist tradition. Scorsese’s dedication to portraying the human condition in its most unvarnished form is a testament to the enduring impact of Italian neorealism on his artistic vision.

‘The Irishman’ (2019) Italian neorealism
Image Courtesy: IMDb

In conclusion, Martin Scorsese’s heritage and the influence of Italian neorealism have profoundly shaped his approach to filmmaking. The techniques and themes of neorealism—realism, social commentary, and a focus on the human condition—are woven into the fabric of Scorsese’s work, from his early films to his most recent projects. This rich cinematic legacy continues to inspire Scorsese, driving him to create films that are not only visually compelling but also deeply human.