Starring Richard Gere and directed by Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven (1978) defies American film conventions by using natural lighting exclusively. This was the vision of DP Néstor Almendros, a Spanish born cinematographer. For the film Days of Heaven, Almendros draws upon European filmmaking tradition, Italian Neorealism in particular. Almendros himself studied in Rome and was part of the Cuban film industry as well. More than American film, Cuban film takes aesthetic inspiration from Italian cinema. Almendros then represents the proliferation of Italian film conventions through Cuba, with Days of Heaven as an aesthetic outlier in the United States. For my paper I will analyze the influence of Italian neorealist aesthetics on 20th century Cuban cinema and beyond, using Days of Heaven as an example of the connection.
The French film critic André Bazin (1918-1959) believed cinema was best while pursuing realism. He saw stylistic intervention as disturbing the beauty of God’s creation. For this reason, he believed Italian Neorealism to be the pinnacle of film.
“Bazin valued those film artists who respected the mystery embedded in creation. One such director was the Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica, who in films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952) humbly renounced the hubristic display of authorial personality and thus enabled his audience to intuit the numinous significance of people, things, and places. ‘The mise en scène seems to take shape after the fashion of a natural form in living matter,’ Bazin wrote in 1951” (Cardullo, 8).
Bazin thought that Italian Neorealist films were closest to real life because of the editing style used. He thought the editing style of Soviet Montage films to be too removed from how life is, and to be “the creation of a sense or meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived entirely from their juxtaposition” (Bazin). While Soviet Montage films contain a multitude of short shots, and create thematic relationships between images through editing, neorealism utilizes a multitude of long scenes which are one continuous shot. An important quality of neorealism is the choice it makes to use nonprofessional actors. Neorealism is not meant to appear polished, it is meant to look real.
One element of neorealism Bazin admires is deep focus. In this shot from Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), the background is just as detailed as the foreground, displaying a deep depth of field. The only blurring is in the figures closest to the lens. Otherwise, the figures appear to be on the same plane. The woman behind the policeman is in as much detail as he is for example. Professor Anastasia Valecce talks about Italian screenwriter and film theorist Cesare Zavattini in her piece Cine y (r)evolucion. El neorrealismo italiano en Cuba (1959-1969), translated by myself from Spanish, “Zavattini’s idea of ’desnovelizar’… refers to the desire to make films that increasingly resemble the real life and not fictional stories that romanticize life, perhaps softening it with a happy ending” (Valecce, 60).
Made using high quality film stock, the film Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) is considered a visual masterpiece. Almendros shared in an interview with American Cinematographer that he took inspiration on the composition in this film from early American painters, and from cinematographers of silent films. “[The film] is a homage to those creators of images in the years before sound whose works I admire for their raw quality and for their lack of artificial refinement and gloss” (Almendros). It’s not made to look more polished than life, it’s meant to have dimension this idea seems supported by the film’s lack of blue skies. A lot of the lighting work in this film seems to be about taking away light rather than adding it. Visually I can see in a multitude of scenes that Almendros found a balance of overexposing the sky and underexposing the faces to create a soft looking image.
This frame from Days of Heaven is of the fire scene, they are completely backlit by the warm glow of the fire eating the fields. Fire is the only source of light in the scene, which is technically challenging, and also visually evocative. The fire is felt more strongly because it is not competing with any other light in the scene. In the final scene of El mégano, a film which I will discuss in depth later, there is a fire which destroys the workers harvest. Due to limitations of the poor black and white film stock, the fire is mostly indicated by smoke, an index rather than the source. There is an interesting parallel between these scenes.
The lighting within this frame is very soft and warm. The sky is extremely textured, you can see details in the clouds and the shifts in the soft blue throughout the frame. This shot has a very deep focus; everything within the frame appears clear and detailed.
The natural exterior lighting in France is really ideal lighting for filming, the light is soft because there is a layer of clouds to divide the light from the sky. Almendros once wrote that “the light in France is very soft and subtle because of a mattress-like layer of clouds that covers the sky, making work in exteriors very easy, shots matching each other from any angle without modification” (Almendros). The whole United States gets so much more harsh natural light than pretty much all of Europe. The light in most of North America is less kind to film in, Almendros shared that in North America “the air seems more transparent and the light more harsh. When a person is backlit, his face appears to be in dark shadows to the eye of the film” (Almendros). The natural exterior lighting in Alberta, where the film Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) was shot is a lot softer than the light anywhere in the United States. However it is still quite harsh to accommodate this without bringing in additional lighting sources, the filmmakers of Days of Heaven chose to overexpose the shadows, and in turn wash out the color in the sky. The fact that the film is shot in a different location and time period that it is supposed to occur does not relate to realism. There is a degree of fabrication and illusion necessary to making any period piece, but it is notable that the filming location was the home of Hitterites, a religious sect that forsook modern technology.
“They communally own and work the great stretches of land, growing a wheat that is longer than the kind grown by modern farming today. They make all their material possessions, including their austere furniture. They have no radio or television, eat homegrown natural foods, and even their faces look different from ours (some appear in the film). In the one-hour drive from our hotel we would pass from the 20th to the 19th century” (Almendros).
The landscape maintained by the Hitterites, and their inclusion as actors, lends the film more authenticity than if it was completely constructed. While the film was not made on location, it was filmed in almost a time machine to the past. This lends the film some realism, though in a manner unconventional to the Italian and Cuban films discussed.
The cinematographer for the film Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978), Néstor Almendros’s eyesight was diminishing while shooting the film. In his memoir, A Man With a Camera, Alemdros wrote “I had several camera operators in Days of Heaven because union regulations did not allow me to operate the camera myself, which is not the case in Europe,” (Almendros). American cultural critic Peter Biskind shared in his book titled Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that when setting up a scene Almendros would take a Polaroid photo of the scene before shooting. Almendros would analyze the photo through “very strong glasses” before setting up the shot (Benchetrit). The film was made using Panavision Cameras and Panavision Lenses.
At the age of eighteen, Néstor Almendros moved to Cuba with his father. In the year 1949, he co-founded Cuba’s first cine club. There he made a number of short films before traveling to Italy where he attended Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. This was before the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) was created by the Cuban government in 1959 after the revolution. Its purpose was to create films to educate its viewers. Many Third Cinema filmmakers in Cuba made films with the help of the ICAIC, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, but before its existence it was common for Cuban filmmakers to study in Italy.
A significant amount of revolutionary Cuban filmmakers studied in either the Soviet Union or Italy. Valecce talks about the Italian Neorealism Cuban film connection, “the contact between Italian Neorealism and revolutionary Cuban film production is represented by the presence of Cuban directors in Rome at the school of cinema, and through the travels of Cesare Zavattini to Cuba between 1953 and 1959 to work with Cuban directors” (Valecce). Many Third Cinema films borrow Italian Neorealism film aesthetics and themes. Third Cinema is the name for the oeuvre of revolutionary films made in the Global South around this era, including the films of Alea and Espinosa. Third Cinema was very purposely created by the people it is for, it is not created with the intention of being picked up to be redistributed. Third Cinema is not meant to be commercialized, or to be a passive experience, this makes it very different from Hollywood’s film model. Third Cinema requires you to be an active viewer, these films are meant to be a tool to inspire viewers to go on to take on revolutionary action.
The aesthetic of amateurism is present in both Italian Neorealism films and Third Cinema films, these films were made both out of necessity and stylistic choice to have an unpolished look. Particularly in Cuban Cinema, the aesthetic of amateurism is purely out of necessity. Many Cuban films were made by filming with handheld portable cameras, there are a multitude of POV shots. Italian Neorealist films also frequently use handheld cameras. The work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea shows a heavy influence by Italian Neorealism. The aesthetics in Neorealist films are a product of necessity, these are films made with a low budget and often with amateur actors. In both Italian Neorealism films and Third Cinema films sound is dubbed a lot of the time, simply because they didn’t have the equipment to record sound while filming.
The short pre-revolution, semi-documentary film El mégano (1955) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa in Cuba utilizes neorealist themes, some of which are also key Third Cinema themes. The Viewer’s Dialectic written by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea talks about the two parallel paths cinema can take, and has from the beginning. There is both the “popular” film and the people’s film. Alea writes that “popular” film is a commodity while the people’s film is meant to be used to capture and share a “‘true’ documentation of certain aspects of reality.” This film is created by the people it is about, meaning it showcases non-professional actors. Real workers are shown in the real-life setting of the swamp. El mégano takes inspiration from Italian Neorealism in the style in which it is edited. This short film contains multiple long takes.
The below shot taken from El mégano has a little bit of deep focus, it is easy to see the detail in every part of the frame. This is a cinematography technique used in Italian Neorealism. This shot also has a lot of harsh natural lighting, not soft and diffused like in a studio.
Visually, the short film El mégano is full of texture, the shadows of the grass lined paths within the swamp have high contrast. The little dialogue in the film creates such an emphasis on the movements of the real workers as well as the scenery. There are a multitude of long shots, an element emblematic of neorealism as described by Bazin, which show how slow and how difficult moving throughout the swamp is. El mégano is very effective in “making the public aware of its own misery” as Rocha describes in his manifesto as the goal of Third Cinema.
The editing techniques and stylistic qualities of Italian Neorealism are both emulated and related to Third Cinema practices present in Cuban Cinema. American film critic Hollis Alpert once called neorealism “the birth of a new conscience, which was translated into social awareness and a concern for the ordinary man” (Alpert). This relates to El mégano as well. In every film mentioned, the characters are very poor. These are films meant to bring some awareness of class. That social aspect is something they all share, and is a core tenant of neorealism, and Third Cinema especially. Days of Heaven represents, through Néstor Almendros, the shared aesthetics and cinematic history of Italian Neorealism and Cuban Cinema, and their shared impact on the global film industry.
Alea, Tomás Gutiérrez, and Julio García Espinosa. El mégano. 1955.
Alea, Tomás Gutiérrez. The Viewer’s Dialectic
Almendros, Néstor. A man with a camera. 1980.
Almendros, Néstor. (2021, March 18). Photographing Days of Heaven. American Cinematographer. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://ascmag.com/articles/photographing-days-of-heaven
Alpert, Hollis, The Dreams and the Dreamers. Macmillan (1962), p. 183
Bazin, André. André Bazin and Italian Neorealism. Edited by Bert Cardullo, Continuum, 2011.
Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen ed., Film Theory and Criticism (1999), p. 47
Benchetrit, Jenna. How ‘Days of Heaven’ Was Filmed With a Visually Impaired Cinematographer FSR 27 March 2019. https://filmschoolrejects.com/days-of-heaven-visually-impaired-cinematographer/
Dalle Vacche, Angela. André Bazin’s Film Theory: Art, Science, Religion. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2020. Web.
De Sica, Vittorio. Bicycle Thieves. 1948.
Malick, Terrence Days of Heaven. United States: Paramount, 1978.
Schiavo, Gianluca. “Language and National Identity: The ‘Revolution’ of Italian Neorealism.” Fu Jen Studies Literature & Linguistics 45.45 (2012): 101. Web.
Valecce, Anastasia “Cine y (r)evolucion. El neorrealismo italiano en Cuba (1959-1969)” (2013)