In this ever-changing society, movies offer escapism, and a different point of reference to acknowledge and understand culture, environment, people, places, and things. Moreover, cinema echoes a sense of veracity, and reflects our society. This paper, will concentrate on four films – Germany Year Zero, The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, and Sugar Cane Alley. Furthermore, it will analyze the significance of Italian neorealism and the French new wave movement in Germany Year Zero and The 400 Blows; and compare and contrast Germany Year Zero, The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, and Sugar Cane Alley using the theme of troubled adolescents and poverty.
Italian neorealism is a film movement that began in 1943. A narrative that illustrates some aspect of the poor and working class characterizes Italian neorealism. Furthermore, long takes shot on location, and utilization of nonprofessional actors for secondary and primary roles reflect the film movement. Italian neorealist films usually reflect changes in the Italian psyche and the conditions of everyday life, such as loss, poverty, and despair. Nonetheless, specific definitions of what Italian neorealism represents vary. According to Peter Bondanella, “the label itself is confusing, for it limits the parameters of any critical debate to concern with the connection between the films produced and the society or culture which produced them.”  If this is true then perhaps any society or culture can produce aspects of Italian neorealism. The remainder of the paper will connote Italian neorealism simply as neorealism – a transition started and employed by Roberto Rossellini.
Roberto Rossellini’s, Germany Year Zero is a neorealist film that deals with the economic and moral conditions of postwar Berlin. The film opens with an epigraph title, which announces the moralistic perspective of the film. A commentary voice-over announces that the film is “intended to be simply an objective, true-to-life picture of this enormous, half-destroyed city…it is simply a presentation of the facts.” For Rossellini, facts take on a meaning and follow one another, and the mind is forced to observe their similarity, eventually illustrating the ethics of the story. In Germany Year Zero, Rossellini portrays the moral emptiness of his young protagonist – Edmund Koehler; “Edmund’s tragedy stems not only from the evil effects of the moral climate which produced Nazi Germany but also from the tragic failure to find an appropriate paternal authority figure – neither his father, nor Herr Enning, nor Hitler, nor the Church has provided him with a workable moral code”. Perhaps, Edmund’s suicide represents the reality of misfortune in his environment and social-economic status.
Like neorealism, the French New Wave reiterates a realistic approach in cinema and incorporates similar characteristics. On the other hand, the French New Wave emphasizes personal themes and subjectivity. The French New Wave started in 1959. The movement correlates with a generation of young French artists and critics who brought a sense of renewal and innovation to cinema. The New Wave consisted of two parts – the Cahiers who were critics-turned-directors, and the Left Bank who had gone straight into filmmaking. The legendary New Wave director Francois Truffaut was a part of the Cahiers group. This affiliation inevitably led to the creation of The 400 Blows, which is synonymous to the New Wave aesthetic.
The aesthetic French New Wave cinema typically portrays is characters that are outcasts, antiheroes, and loners. In The 400 Blows, Antoine Doinel is an outcast who is neglected, vandalized and unlucky. Nonetheless, Antoine, “must endure a prison-like school and a school-like prison, sentenced to by both hypocritical, unsympathetic, unperceptive adults.” The title 400 Blows literally reflects the misfortune and setback of Antoine Doinel and metaphorically reflects the pain and agony of society. The most astonishing part of The 400 Blows is how realistically the film ends. Antoine escapes the observation center for juvenile delinquents (reform school) and races towards the sea. The scene ends with a freeze frame of Antoine’s perplexed expression of confusion and realization – he cannot run forever and must face his consequences. Nevertheless, his future is ambiguous and suggests a sense of sadness and delight.
Uncertainty is prevalent in the eyes of the protagonist in The 400 Blows and Germany Year Zero. The troubled adolescent in search of him or herself in a messed up adult world is also seen in Los Olvidados and Sugar Cane Alley. Los Olvidados and Sugar Cane Alley, like Germany Year Zero and The 400 Blows, deal with adolescent youth, poverty and the struggle for survival. In Los Olvidados, a group of destitute street children lives a violent and devastating life in the brutal slums of Mexico City. The protagonist Pedro genuinely wants to be good and do the right thing, but is hopelessly a victim of the streets, with socio-economic factors beyond his control. According to Carl Mora, “Bunuel’s street children are not ‘ennobled’ by their desperate struggle for survival; they are in fact ruthless predators who are no better than their equally unromanticized victims”.
Germany Year Zero, The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, and Sugar Cane Alley share many similarities – they all feature nonprofessional actors, adolescents in major roles, and the impoverished and / or working class. Also, they are all primarily shot on location, and filmed in poor neighborhoods or rural areas. Furthermore, the protagonists in all four movies are adolescent males experiencing a process and purpose of movement, transition and change relative to society’s social constructs. Unfortunately, most of these characters realities are filled with disdain, pity, self-absorption and grief. Most of the male protagonists come from dysfunctional families. In Germany Year Zero, Edmund lives among nine people and five different families. His immediate family is a father, who is suffering from malnutrition and poor health, a brother, who is a former Nazi soldier in hiding to avoid arrest, and a sister who is a prostitute. In The 400 Blows, Antoine’s parents neglect and use him as a scapegoat for their own insecurities. In Los Olvidados, the characters are street children, who work and sleep on the streets, with minimal contact with their families. Pedro is the only character with a mother, but she is a single parent struggling to feed her children and survive. In contrast, Sugar Cane Alley is the only film of the selected that observe some aspect of dysfunction in the theme of troubled adolescent and poverty, but at the same time delivers an optimistic climax.
Sugar Cane Alley, like the other selected films, deals with similar themes and characters, but steer away from the menacing aspects of poverty and violence. Jose, the protagonist, live with his grandmother in the cane fields of Martinique, they are inherently lower class. Nonetheless, Martinique is filled with life lessons – one of those lessons includes education as a way to escape poverty. Jose’s diligence pays off when he wins a scholarship to attend high school in Fort-de-France, the capital.
Germany Year Zero, The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, and Sugar Cane Alley all deal with some aspect of realism. This realism is interrelated in Italian neorealism or neorealism and the French New Wave. Even though neorealism is not inherently related to the French New Wave, they do share some characteristics and attributes. Likewise, the cinema of Rossellini and Truffaut share some of the same traits. Germany Year Zero, The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, and Sugar Cane Alley all relate to each other and consequently share different aspects of the same reality.
Germany Year Zero (1948)
Producer: Salvo DoAngelo
Screenplay: Max Kolpé
Editor:Eraldo Da Roma
Los Olvidados (1950)
Production Company: Ultramar Films
Director: Luis Buñuel
Producer: Oscar Dancigers, Sergio Kogan, Jaime A. Menasce
Screenplay: Luis Buñuel, Luis Acoriza
Editor: Calos Savage
Sugar Cane Alley (1983)
Directed by: Euzhan Palcy
Produced by: Michel Loulerque
Screenplay: Euzhan Palcy, Joseph Zobel
Film Editing by: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte
The 400 Blows (1959)
Production Company: Umbrella Entertainment
Director: Francois Truffaut
Producer: Georges Charlot
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut
Editor: Marie- Josèphe Yoyotte
Annette Insdorf, Francois Truffaut: Revised and Updated Edition (New York: First Cambridge University Press, 1994) 147-151.
Irene Glasser, Homelessness in Global Perspective (New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1994) 54.
John Orr and Olga Taxidou, Post-War Cinema and Modernity: A Film Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000) 22-191.
Pamela C. Gibson and John Hill, World Cinema: Critical Approaches (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 71.
Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From its Beginnings to the Present (New York: Continuum, 2002) 203-212.
 Peter Bondanella, The Masters of Neorealism: Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 1983) 31.
 Peter Bondanella, The Masters of Neorealism: Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 1983) 50.
 Peter Bondanella, The Masters of Neorealism: Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 1983) 52.
 Bruce F. Kawin and Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies. 8th Edition (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2003) 357.
 Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society (California: University of California Press, 1982) 91.