The relationship of movies to "real life," and how well they portray that reality on screen is a constant source of debate. It began as soon as people started talking about movies and continued with critics like Bazin, Kracauer, and Arnheim up through the 50s--what is now remembered as the golden age of "neorealism" abroad--and into the 60s. Since then, it's been less of a dominant issue, but it still resurfaces every few years in a different form (see this year's debate over neo-neorealism), and some critics have argued that American independent film is currently experiencing a blessed reconnection with photorealism.
In the midst of such preoccupations, it seems strange that the questions asked and challenges made against the proponents of realism have always been so incomplete and poorly framed. Whether or not recreating the drama of everyday life should be the ultimate aspiration of movies is a philosophical question that is way too unwieldy for me to address in a few paragraphs. But what is worth discussing is how flawed and problematic the definition of what movie "realism" is has been, and whether or not it's time to retool our idea of just what it is that filmmakers should be aiming for.
During the heyday of Italian neorealism, films like Open City and The Bicycle Thief were hailed as the exemplars of a new kind of cinema that sought to document the struggles and tragedies of everyday life by way of using a static, unadorned shooting style. This, thanks to critics like Andre Bazin, essentially became the definition of what film realism was. They praised the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, long takes, and small stories about working class people, the idea being that presenting reality for its own sake was an end unto itself. Any other approach, for these critics, drew too much attention to the filmmaker as a creative force and was bound to taint the "truth" of the film with ideology and politics.
These ideas, which were all the vogue in the 1950s, have managed to be one of the longest running and most returned-to arguments in all of film theory. Watch any modern independent film by Kelly Reichardt or Ramin Bahrani that has been described as "well-observed" or "gritty" and you're likely to get a lot of long takes, unadorned editing, and location shooting. This in itself is perfectly fine--if those directors see that as the best way of achieving realism, then good for them. But the notion that this is the only way to achieve it is dangerously off base. Realism does not come from a particular shooting style or subject matter, it comes from a rare kind of consistency and harmony among all the aspects of a film, chiefly from the writing and the performances, but also from camerawork, editing, set design, the presence or lack of music, and a hundred other variables. If all of these aspects follow the same internal logic and are working toward a similar goal, then the result-- along with, more often than not, a decent product-- is a certain level of verisimilitude and, ultimately, realism.
Some classical theories of film realism would have you believe that anything other than the style of movies like the Bicycle Thief or Umberto D (which, don't get me wrong, are great and important films) results in failure, but their arguments have always been full of holes. First of all, a "style-less" approach of long takes and invisible editing is itself a style, no matter how simple it might be. And no matter how unobtrusive a filmmaker tries to be, their presence will always be felt. What angles they choose, the order of scenes, the length of individual shots-- all of these things still point to a director at work. On a similar note, location shooting is great, and stories of the common man are an admirable subject matter, but to brand them as resulting in a finished product that is more "real" is a mistake. Sparseness of style or subject matter will never equal realness, and in the context of a motion picture it will always be as much of a stylistic choice as anything else, especially when it's obvious that the director has gone out of their way to achieve it. As a rough example, take Technicolor film, the advent of which was met with much skepticism from audiences that had come to accept black and white as the only way to watch a movie. On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive. Life, after all, takes place in color. But you have to consider how, at the time, most color film was cartoonishly oversaturated, like looking at a photograph that had been painted over as an afterthought. It was still unequivocally a closer representation of everyday experience, but black and white was sharper, cleaner, simpler, more subdued, and therefore more real.
Filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, who made many of the most famous works of Italian Neorealism, undoubtedly achieved something important and, yes, realistic, but to say they did it because of a few small stylistic choices is to shortchange them. Every choice in those films helped create the feeling of realism that made them so great. If anything, critics who push neorealism as a theory are mistaking the work of uniquely talented filmmakers as a patented style that could be easily recreated. The same can be said of Bahrani or Reichardt, both of whom are undoubtedly among the more interesting directors currently working, and it also applies to any director who is able to find that perfect balance of story, theme, and style that makes their audience feel like they've witnessed something that reflects everyday life. In the end, perhaps all the style proposed by the neorealist critics does is make that balance a little easier to find, and only then because they've stylistically stripped the film down to its barest parts. But realism comes in many forms, and there will always be way more than one path to take in getting to it.