Non-professional actors in post-war Italian cinema (and beyond)

File:Enzo Staiola in Bicycle Thieves.jpg
One of Italy’s most famous non-professional actors: Enzo Staiola in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)


I received a British Academy grant in 2017-18 to work on a project on Stardom and Performance in Italian Neorealist Cinema, 1945-53. During the course of my research, I became more and more interested in the non-professional actors who were part of the global appeal and influence of key neorealist films such as Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, De Sica, 1948), and Paisa’ (Paisan, Rossellini, 1946). Non-professionals are associated with neorealism (usually viewed as the high point of Italian cinema history), but were actually widely used in Italian cinema at the time. And of course major female stars who emerged from beauty contests at the time, such as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, were non-professionals, though they are regarded very differently to children and adults ‘taken from the streets’ to represent the poverty and struggles of post-war Italy.

The use of non-professionals was controversial in the Italian film press: critics, actors, directors, and intellectuals debated endlessly whether the lack of professional training was detrimental to the film industry, whether the influx of low-paid and untrained hopefuls was undermining actors as a professional caste, and whether what a non-professional did was really ‘acting’ at all. These are all questions I am exploring in the book I am writing from this project.

The resonance of the non-professional does not start and end with neorealism, of course. Non-actors were used in Soviet and other cinema (which had a large influence on neorealism) and the non-professional continues to be profoundly associated with global art cinema and the festival circuit (the recent Italian film A Ciambra by Jonas Carpignano is testament to this enduring currency, as are recent high-profile films such as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider (2018),  Mustang (Ergüven, 2015), Girlhood (Sciamma, 2014), and even Clint Eastwood’s use of the real-life protagonists to create the Paris train attack in his The 15:17 to Paris. 

These performances, informed by the extra-textual context, often make us question our notions of what constitutes ‘good acting’. When children are involved in performance, the boundaries of acting/non-acting become even more blurred, and issues of agency, consent, and exploitation, which are already  inherent in the non-professional’s involvement in cinema and TV, are made more urgent and visible. These ethical questions, which address the director/producer’s responsibility to the often vulnerable non-professional (Andre Bazin famously remarked that the non-professional could only be used once), are of particular interest to me, and my aim is ultimately to bring together scholars working in different national and transnational contexts to reflect more holistically on the phenomenon of the non-professional actor.