ONCE upon a time, Italy had one of the world's most vital and creative film industries. Its greatest period was in the decade after World War II, when the style called "neo-realism" set an international standard for telling simple, human stories in vivid, everyday settings. Classic films like "Open City" and "The Bicycle Thief" became even more popular with American audiences than with the Italians themselves.
Neorealism faded as its greatest artists found new interests and drifted in different directions - Vittorio De Sica toward comedy and romance, Roberto Rossellini toward dramatic projects with Ingrid Bergman, and so forth. But the neorealist spirit has never quite vanished, and this season two new movies are demonstrating its continuing vitality.
"Mediterraneo" is not only a hit, it's an award winner, earning this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film. It's a quiet and unpretentious picture, and its success is probably coming as a surprise to its own producers. But audiences have taken to it with unmistakable enthusiasm, and it's likely to be showing on American screens for a quite a while.
Set in 1941, the story centers on eight Italian soldiers who've been shipped to a Greek island, which they are supposed to liberate and safeguard for the fascist cause. Most of them, however, are in their current situation - and in the military, for that matter - through no particular choice of their own. One of them thinks less about his present duty than about his pregnant wife back home, while another is concerned mostly with the welfare of his pet donkey, who's also on the expedition.
Partly because the soldiers are distracted and partly because they're not very competent to begin with, casualties mount up quickly: first the donkey, then their radio, then the ship that brought them to the island. Cut off from their commanders, and from the war itself, they soon start thinking for themselves. Soon each has begun to go "native" in one way or another.
What links "Mediterraneo" with the neorealist tradition is its keen interest in the most ordinary people, and its willingness to spin an uncomplicated yarn that stresses character over action. Also neorealistic is the movie's sharply honed instinct for geography and architecture; after watching it you feel saturated with Mediterranean tradition and warm Aegean sunshine.
Directed by Gabriele Salvatores, whose past experience lies more in theater than in cinema, "Mediterraneo" isn't an exciting film, and I don't think it will prove very memorable. But it has a friendly spirit, a wry sense of humor, and lots of atmosphere, and those are always pleasant qualities to encounter.
Besides making an appearance in American movie houses this season, the heritage of neorealism also showed up at the recent Cannes Film Festival, where it helped an Italian film called "The Stolen Children" win the Grand Jury Prize, one of the top awards granted there. The much-respected production was directed by Gianni Amelio, whose "Open Doors" played in the United States not long ago. The hero of "The Stolen Children" is an undistinguished Italian police officer, instructed to bring two children from the household of their abusive mother to an orphanage where the state will care for them. He takes his job so seriously he forgets to follow orders, however, instead doing what he thinks is best for the youngsters. The results are ironic and poignant.
"Open Doors," the previous film by Mr. Amelio, conjoined its deceptively soft-spoken style with a theme of enormous resonance and importance: the incongruousness of state-sponsored vengeance, represented by capital punishment, in a society that aspires to be civilized and humane. "The Stolen Children" lacks such a complex and thought-provoking subject, concentrating its attention on people and events that are so homely it's sometimes hard to stay interested in them.
If the movie is painfully small in scale, however, it's also carefully directed by Amelio and lovingly acted by a dedicated cast. It cares deeply about the minute details of unglamorous daily life, and that's what neorealism does best. "The Stolen Children" deserves to be acquired promptly by an enterprising international distributor, so that audiences worldwide can experience its modest virtues.