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Rethinking Italian cinema and history

Studies of Italian cinema have often overlooked popular and genre films. The Italian Cinemas/Italian histories projects seeks to rectify this, reports Alan O’Leary.

The goal of the Italian Cinemas/Italian histories project is to give a comprehensive account of the modes, genres and registers in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy. The project is necessary because certain (exportable) moments and types of filmmaking continue to be seen as having a privileged relationship to the Italian nation and its history: neorealism, auteur cinema, socially and politically committed cinema. The tastes of the Italian audience for less culturally valued forms of cinema have been lamented, and modes and registers of engagement with history exemplified in popular or genre film, or in imported cinema, have been regularly overlooked.

The Italian Cinemas/Italian histories project is being developed through a series of workshops and other events, including panels at Italian Studies and Screen Studies conferences, and it involves an international group of scholars, from Italy, the US and the UK.

Cross-dressing and Leslie Nielsen in the historical farce S P Q R  (1994)

Cross-dressing and Leslie Nielsen in the historical farce S.P.Q.R.: 2,000 and a Half Years Ago (1994)

The challenge for the project is to evade prescriptive accounts of historical cinema that posit exclusive categories of films as ‘properly’ historical, accounts found in some of the big names on film and history, concerned as they are to articulate a delimited genre of history film. Such accounts transpose the traditional suspicion of historical film (as factually inaccurate or ‘melodramatic’) to less favoured forms of cinema, deplored by scholars like Robert Burgoyne and Robert Rosenstone as ‘costume drama’, ‘romance’ and so on. This approach leaves intact a certain preferred structure of engagement with the past while failing to consider the variety of ways in which people actually do engage with the past and how this variety might be expressed or enabled in cinematic form.

The attempt to grasp the variety of engagements with the past implies the adoption of a mixed and flexible set of methodologies, including statistical, quantitative and ‘distant reading’ methods, to allow a vastly enlarged corpus of films to be apprehended (no more canon here, as Franco Moretti would say). It also implies that we, in Italian Film Studies, abandon our habitual tropes of understanding. Scholarship always operates by its metaphors: these may be explicit or unconscious but they tend to precede and orientate method. Auteurist ‘paternity’ has been the most persistent guiding metaphor in Italian Film Studies; it has led to intentionalist accounts of films as well as ‘anxiety of influence’ accounts of cinema, where the younger (male) director wrestles his art from the influence of the older director.

A more apt metaphor for a necessary and possible study of film and history is ‘ecology’. The metaphor risks describing processes of culture in terms of the ‘natural’, but the idea of a cultural ecosystem challenges us to build a methodology equal to complexity and to the study of (inter)relationships rather than mere objects (texts). It forbids a prescriptive approach, eschews any notion of the ‘top down’ and puts the emphasis on contexts rather than, say, auteurist intention. It allows us to recognize contingency and the accidental character of historical emphases and survivals. It implies consideration of the paratextual, of distribution and reception; and, finally, it implicates also the role of the critic herself, reflexively located in the evolving cultural environment.

Dr Alan O’Leary is Associate Professor in Italian at the University of Leeds. His most recent book is Fenomenologia del cinepanettone (Soveria Manelli: Rubbettino, 2013), the first study of the critically despised Italian Christmas film.

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