As near as I can tell, we're currently undergoing a renaissance of realism in film. As a student of American literary realism and someone frequently bored by realism, I approach this development with a mixture of excitement and boredom. Most importantly, even as I see realism as perhaps the dominant force in world cinema, I have to ask the question: will it ever make a dent in the American art house box office? (Related Question, to be Answered Later: Does the American Art House Box Office Exist?)
A historical primer: Realism was the dominant mode of 19th century literary expression, superseding Romanticism and also birthing with Romanticism a filthy and disgusting literary offspring: Naturalism. It was superseded by the modernist revolution at the turn of the century and, in large chunks of the world, lay mostly forgotten as both a literary and cinematic mode for the bulk of the 20th century, cast aside by the fervor of modernism and its far-reaching successor, post-modernism
The primary exception to this is historical arc is Italian neo-realism, a post-WWII form of realism which looked upon post-Mussolini Italy and saw the perfect setting for realist cinema. Which leads us to:
A Partial Definition: Realism as a literary form was a repudiation of Romanticism, particularly (in the American context) gothic Romanticism. It wasn't interested in gothic castles, ancient bloodlines, quothing Ravens, epic metaphysical sea voyages, Ivanhoe, or anything of the sort. It was a literature of surfaces, but not in a shallow way; it took simple people, either middle- or lower-class, and depicted them as it found them, on their own terms, with an interest in their daily lives. It was not a genre devoid of metaphor, nor did it eschew standard plot formations of rising and falling action, built around conflict and building towards a climax. It just calmed everything down and gave us traditional stories based on the basic, surface perception of bourgeois reality. Also, unfortunately, Dickens.
Italian Neo-Realism: Emerging after Mussolini and the wild modernist fantasies of the fascist futurists, Italian neo-realism sought to reclaim the realist project and apply it to the grim post-war Italy. The middle-class more or less didn't exist, so the primary subject was the lower-class. Lighting was naturalistic, actors were amateurs asked to more or less play themselves, and standard plots frequently existed but were slower, more observational, and less interested in a transformative climax than standard Hollywood filmmaking. And although the films weren't necessarily political, they were always socially minded. The most famous example of Italian Neo-Realism is The Bicycle Thief, in which a man gets a job putting up movie posters, but loses it when his bike is stolen, and must go on a long search for the lost bike with his son. Starring almost completely amateurs, with a keen eye for social injustice and a deeply convincing portrait of a simple man whose livelihood is endangered, The Bicycle Thief is the standard for cinematic realism.
Neo-neo-Realism: For the last 30 years or, cinematic realism has been going strong, but almost exclusively in Iran, in the form of Abbas Kiarostami and like-minded Iranian filmmakers. Realism proved to be the perfect form for Iran; as the cinematic mode of restraint, it made sense in a country where female actors can't be seen and people can't touch, and as a socially minded but not political form, it only earned the privilege of not being shown in Iran government, not imprisonment and death for its creators. Iranian realism is, like other forms of realism, frequently metaphorical and concerned with weighty issues, but it is never overtly so and is often frustratingly subtle, especially for audiences unused to realism (or, like myself, who wish they would just get on with it). Nevertheless, it is a beautiful and deceptively lyrical art form.
Today!!!: Ok, so, finally, what this post was supposed to be about. Italian/Iranian style realism has recently started showing up elsewhere. Here's where:
Romanian: In the last couple of years, no two international films, save perhaps The Lives of Others, have garnered the same level of critical acclaim as two Romanian films, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Both of them are wrenching, nearly unwatchable gloomfests revolving around Romanian citizens unable to get the health care they need. Mr. Lazarescu is moved from ER to ER till he dies; the two friends in 4 Months have to wrangle out an illegal abortion. Both films are socially minded, hide deep metaphorical frameworks behind surface depictions, and feature all the hallmarks of a realist aesthetic: naturalistic lighting, naturalistic performances from amateur actors roughly playing themselves, and scathing insights about social situations expressed in the most subtle way possible. And when I say they're gloomfests, I mean that quite literary; apparently every room in Romania is a murky greenish color with 5-foot ceilings and no windows. I'm barely exaggerating. Death pulled in barely $80000 in the US; 4 Months did a whopping $1.2 mil, which is only about 1/800th of what Titanic made. Death got an 84 on metacritic; while 4 Months, with 97, received the second-highest score of any non-re-release ever. Did I mention they're both terminally (literally) boring?
Tom McCarthy: After his mostly realist whimsyfest, 2003's The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy's recent film The Visitor once again has all the hallmarks of realism. It's perhaps more explicit about its social and political criticism than the other films on this list, and features an uber-professional actor (Intolerable Cruelty's Richard Jenkins) in its starring role, but it's otherwise textbook realism: naturalistic performances from mostly amateurs/newcomers, a traditional plot devoid of sensationalism and uninterested in an easy ending, and restraint practically bleeding from every scene. So far, it's made $5.5 million at the US box office, which is probably more than all of the other films on this list combined; metacritic rated it at 79/100.
Raman Bahrani: An Iranian-American born in North Carolina, Bahrani has made to films pretty much indistinguishable from Kiarostami films, except they're set in New York City. The first is Man Push Cart, about a Pakistani immigrant adjusting to life as a coffee cart runner in Manhattan; the second is Chop Shop, about a pair of orphans trying to make ends meet in a seedy stretch of body shops in Queens. Bahrani is a visual poet who does his best to hide his poetry behind the numbingly destitute situations of his protagonists, which explains why the films made $36 000 and $104 000 respectively, and received metacritic scores of 71 and 83.
Take Out: Just released in Manhattan, Take Out is another neo-realist paragon: amateur actors, made for nothing, shot in New York City, follows an impoverished immigrant, has been mistaken for a documentary, has a %100 fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and will make roughly $100 in theaters and not come to the Chelsea. Woohoo
Conclusion (assuming anyone read this far): Neo-neo-Realism has left Iran and traveled anywhere people are poor and live in depressing post-Industrial urban landscapes - ie. Romanian and New York City. My guess is, film textbooks will hail all of these films and link them together into an important movement with both Iranian and Italian roots, but the demise of the American art house ensures that no one will ever see them until they take my community college class at the Juneau Community College on Neo-neo-Realism, at which point some survivalist will probably murder me for making him watch Mr. Lazarescu die. I have so much to look forward to.