Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (1946) is superb, using non-actors in the most wretched of shooting conditions with barely any budget and somehow coming out with a work of art.
The original script (co-written by Federico Fellini) was written as a tribute to American soldiers who died liberating Italy, but in Rossellini's hands, it's something richer and more ambiguous--a series of encounters between two cultures and all the friction, irony, humor, bitterness, and even love that might result from such encounters. The Italians are often bemused, even startled at the Americans' energy, integrity and, at times, nobility; the Americans discover something old and basic and simple, even spiritual, in their Italian colleagues. Both come away often sadder, sometimes a little wiser.
It's made up of six stories. The first, between an Italian girl left alone in an abandoned castle with an American soldier (both not knowing the other's language) has an awkward tenderness (even the American's clumsy line readings--actually, few of the American actors here are any good--somehow adds to his sincerity).
The second, about a black MP who catches a street urchin, shows remarkable restraint, in that it ends exactly where it should end, without any additional comment on the matter. Incidentally, the ruins around which the story is set are incredible; you'd need a budget in the tens of millions of postwar dollars to achieve the same effect (today, you'd have to use CGI...which would make a remake anything except neorealist). All Rossellini had to do is set up and roll his camera...
In the Rome sequence a soldier falls in love with a girl, is called away, looks for the girl some months later but can't find her, is picked up by a prostitute, tells her his story, whereupon the prostitue recognizes herself as the girl in his story. Hoary, but it's a variation on the old legend about Da Vinci using a beautiful model for the face of Jesus, spending years trying to find a face decrepit enough for Judas, finding it in some wretched prison, then realizing it's the same model. Human faces change, Rossellini seems to be telling us, sometimes drastically.
There's a harmless little interlude in a monastery--funny and even poignant, if you still have faith in God. There's an extraordinary thriller sequence where an American nurse looks for her Italian lover through streets still being fought over by partisans and Nazis, the whole thing built up from nothing more than a series of well-edited shots, music, and judicious use of silence and sound effects (machine gun rattles, bullet ricochets).
Finally there's the Po river sequence. Warfare alongside a riverbank isn't something we often see in World War 2 movies, and the visual record Rossellini gives us of this particular riparian battle (the crouched way the soldiers move through the reeds, the peculiar, slow motion quality of fighting on boats) is reason enough to watch the film. The ending is--well, I won't say more, but it's killer conclusion, and a fitting way to end the picture.