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October 10, 2004

Before Sunset: Neorealism for Lovers

Italian Neorealism was born during the Second World War. Studios had been destroyed. Film stock was hard to come by. Pessimism was abundant.

One of the founders of the movement, Cesare Zavattini, commented that the perfect Neorealist film would follow a worker over the course of one day. Even though most Neorealist films did not reach that extreme, they were influenced by it. Cuts were minimal. Takes were long. Filming was on location. Stories were simple and dealt with the plight of the poor, often in a melodramatic fashion. Themes leaned heavily toward Socialism. Endings were either ambiguous or sombre. Roles were played by untrained actors. Dialogue and action were often improvised.

Fifty years later, American director Richard Linklater channelled the ghost of Neorealist past to create what some believe to be the most romantic film ever made, Before Sunrise. By discarding most of the Neorealist story conventions, and choosing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as his leads, but retaining most of the Neorealist filmmaking principles, Linklater crafted a truly memorable film the story of which can be summed up in a sentence: Jesse, an American, and Celine, A Frenchwoman, meet on a train and spend one night together in Vienna.

Sixty years after Neorealism, and nine years after Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine are back in another Linklater film. This time they’re older, they’re in Paris, and they only have until 7:30. We haven’t seen them for nine years, and they haven’t seen each other. The actors are nine years older. The film is called Before Sunset and the result is an even fuller experiment in Neorealism.

True to Zavattini’s doctrine, and in the footsteps of classics such as The Bicycle Thief, Before Sunset takes place over less than one day (although the story could be argued to take place over more than nine years.) The characters aren’t from the lower brackets of society, but Celine’s character is an environmental activist and takes some pointed left-handed jabs at a several targets. However, the film avoids the preachiness of some Neorealist films, such as Rosselini’s Open City, because the dialogue is so natural that it belongs to the character rather than the screenwriters. There’s also a lot more of it in Linklater’s film than in the Italian Neorealist films, in which lines were dubbed in after filming. Before Sunset is even closer to the melodrama of Neorealism than Before Sunset. Starting with the clunky opening flashback, the mention of Jesse’s failing marriage, and ending with the question of whether Jesse and Celine will end up together there is plenty of room for cheap emotion. Fortunately it’s never overbearing.

Technically, Before Sunset employs most of the Neorealist canon. The film was shot where it takes place, in Paris. There are long, unbroken shots that follow Jesse and Celine through small Parisian streets and parks. There is improvisation by the two leads, which is commendable, but less commendable than in an Italian Neorealist film because Linklater didn’t have to worry about running out of supplies! In a nice touch, Paris is even shown to be quite gritty. Graffiti makes an appearance, and in Celine’s flat the paint and walls are chipped. Not quite the same as a war ravaged city, but Jesse does tell a story about a plot to blow up Notre Dame during World War Two (although with a romantic twist.)

Many people view Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as an ode to, among other things, cinema history. It’s possible to watch the film and identity references to Film Noir, Fritz Lang, and King Kong. But that’s a gimmick. Before Sunset isn’t gimmicky. It understands cinema history, and uses it not as a parlour game, but to create a great motion picture. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow apes various styles, directors, and films. Before Sunset takes Neorealism and builds on it.


Anonymous Rodney Welch said...

K0resting concept, but I think the idea of the movie as Neo-Realist is a bit of a reach; I don't think Before Sunset or its predecessor is any more Neo-Realist than, say, a Cassavetes film. That is to say, it takes maybe some of its energy from that style, but so do a lot of movies that try to keep up with the beat of modern life. But your thoughts do intrigue me.

9:53 pm  

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