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Ryan Calabretta-Sajder, Lecturer in Italian

AATI at the MLA – Italian Cinema: Death or Rebirth?

Italian Cinema: Death or Rebirth – A New Look at Contemporary Cinema

In contemporary Italian cinema scholarship, critics have been recently debating about the current state of Italian cinema.  In fact, a true consensus has yet to be reached; critics are divided, is Italian Cinema in a state of ‘death’, ‘rebirth’, or has it in fact always remained vibrant and scholars have just overlooked certain cinematic Italian geniuses.  This panel seeks to delve deep into this dilemma and dialogue about contemporary Italian cinema either by directly addressing this question or by demonstrating the mastery of contemporary directors and/or specific themes evident within this medium.

Chair: Ryan Calabretta-Sajder


Colleen Ryan – “Masculinity and Madness: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Contemporary Italian Cinema”
The rebirth of Italian cinema has as much to do with the quality and innovation of the films produced as it does with the quality and innovation of the reception, analyses, and interpretations these works receive.  By asking new questions and by crossing disciplinary boundaries in our approaches to films, the life and value of Italian cinema appear vibrant indeed.  This paper undertakes a cross-disciplinary approach to several contemporary films by asking, in the grand scheme, what it means when a man goes mad in the modern age? Does it alter his sense of manhood and masculinity? Does it alter how he perceive him?

An aspect of gender studies dedicated to the male gender, the subfield of masculinity involves all of the behaviors that define what it means to be men in a given society. Drawing four examples of contemporary Italian cinema as lenses through which to consider different facets of masculinity in 20th-century Italian society, this paper shows madness to be a fortuitously destabilizing factor that raises ethical and formal-artistic questions, rather than sexual questions about manhood and masculinity.

The films examined include two features and two adaptations of theatrical monologues: Vincere (Bellocchio, 2009), L’uomo di vetro (Incerti, 2007), Il grido (Del Bono, 2006) and La pecora nera (Celestini, 2010).  In Vincere, Bellocchio’s revisitation of the fascist era connects megalomania, masculinity and madness in both the Mussolini character and his son Benito Albino.  Incerti’s L’uomo di vetro connects the notions of mafia and masculinity in the Vitale character who goes mad at the time he repents and confesses his misdeeds.  La pecora nera and Il grido connects the theatrical monologue and autobiographical memoire genres with the subject of madness. Each comprises a moving testimony of what it means to be mad or go mad, providing unique and fertile terrain for the study of artistic genre as a vehicle of gender identity and expression.  Together these films show masculinity to be a struggle between internal processes of (and often unconscious) subjectivity and external perceptions of sexual expression and social interactions.


  • Gilmore, David. Manhood in the Making. Cultural Conceptions of Masculinity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.
  • Jackson, Ronald et. Al, ed. Global Masculinities. University of Illinois Press, 2011.
  • Mansfield, Harvey. Manliness. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.
  • Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema. Indiana University Press, 2004.


Claudia Consolati – “Violence as Entertainment: Sorrentino and Tornatore in dialogue with Tarantino and Meirelles”

The representation of violence in Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman (2006) proves that contemporary Italian cinema is very much alive as it is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with current major international cinematic trends. Sorrentino’s and Tornatore’s films share two defining features whose problematic interaction is the object of the present paper. At the level of content, they both revolve around pressing political and social issues. Il Divo represents the figure and controversial legacy of Italian DC leader and former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti; The Unknown Woman deals with Eastern European women’s trafficking to Italy, prostitution, and the role of these female immigrants as social and personal care workers. From a stylistic point of view, both films heavily aestheticize and spectacularize violence, a practice whose entertainment value threatens to undermine if not eliminate the socio-political implications of their message.

Such glamorization of violence connects the two films to the production of world-renowned international filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Fernando Meirelles, whose signature filmic style often revolves around graphic but aesthetically pleasing cruelty. However, while Sorrentino successfully resorts to Tarantino-like techniques and yet still manages to deliver a politically engaged film, Tornatore’s indulgence in extremely brutal and inhumanly violent scenes is more problematic. Much like in Meirelles’ City of God (2006), where the spectacularization of violence undercuts the possibility of an authentic political denunciation of the extreme living conditions in the Brazilian favelas, in The Unknown Woman the excruciating, sadistic brutality perpetrated over the female body figures as gratuitous and tasteless, thus eliminating the possibility of a serious social condemnation of women’s trafficking and exploitation.  While Il Divo’s extreme and merciless violence gives the audience further insights into the life and deeds of Andreotti, sadistic, bloody brutality, in particular against women, in Tornatore seems to be there solely to satisfy the erotic pleasure of the (male) spectator.

Theoretical References:

As a general framework, I utilize Jean Baudrillard’s insight that in post-modern societies all levels of reality become aestheticized and turned into spectacle and empty simulacra. On a more specific level, I rely on Stephen Prince’s definition of film violence as “a stylistic encoding of a referential act.” Such encoding has two major components, a referential component (the content represented) and the cinematic stylistic treatment (Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003). Both elements are taken into account in my analysis of film violence. I also reference Henry A. Giroux’s notion of “hyper-real violence,” which is in essence the Tarantino-like brutality characterized by self-referentiality, irony, and an overarching parodic intent (Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth. New York: Routledge, 1996). My paper considers what happens when such aestheticized and graphic hyper-real violence is employed in films dealing with serious socio-political issues such as Il Divo or The Unknown Woman. I wish also to integrate these theories with those regarding the treatment of the female body in film, an issue that is of the utmost importance for a thorough analysis of Tornatore’s film.


  • Badley, Linda, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider, eds. Traditions in World Cinema. New Brunskwick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  • Botting, Fred, an Scott Wilson. The Tarantinian Ethics. London: Sage, 2001.
  • Ervin Bruder, Margaret. “Aestheticizing Violence, Or How To Do Things With Style,” 1998. http://web.archive.org/web/20040908094032/http://www.gradnet.de/papers/pomo2.archives/pomo98.papers/mtbruder98.htm. Accessed on 3/10/2012.
  • Fitzgibbon, Vanessa. “Fernando Meirelles’ City of God: The Representation of Racial Resentment and Violence in the New Brazilian Social Cinema,” New Trends in    Argentine and Brazilian Cinema, eds. Cacilda Rego and Carolina Rocha, Chicago: Intellect, 2011.
  • Giroux, Henry A. Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Kendrick, James. Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre. London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2009.
  • Marcus, Millicent. “The Ironist and the Auteur: Post-Realism in Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Il Divo,’” The Italianist, 2 (2010), 245-257.
  • Panzera, Ninni, ed. Giuseppe Tornatore: uno sguardo dal set. Milano: Silvana, 2007.
  • Prince, Stephen, ed. Screening Violence. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • —. Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Dana Renga – “Unfinished Business: Screening the Italian Mafia in the New Millennium”

This paper will looks at recent Italian mafia cinema through the lens of trauma and gender theory. I am particularly interested in how representations of gender in films from the new millennium interact and dialogue with the unfinished or delayed mourning of the trauma of the Mafia. The Italian Mafia is an ongoing, deadly and national problem. Yet, it is frequently downplayed, overlooked or ignored in the media and in public discourse. Furthermore, the Mafia is considered a ‘men only society,’ but women are a constant presence in, around and against it. Essentially, mafia women connote a problem: the trauma of the Mafia that hangs over Italy but is often disregarded. They embody the ‘unfinished business’ which is the unresolved conflict between the Mafia and Italians.

I will focus on a selection of filmmakers (Giordana, Scimeca, Torre, Sorrentino, Incerti, Conte, Barletti, Winspeare, Garrone, Amenta and Cupellini), who sensationalize violence and scapegoat women. Female protagonists and representations of the feminine are sacrificed at the expense of solidifying traditional modes of viewer identification and assuring narrative closure so that the image of the nation is left unblemished.

Whereas mafia cinema from the 60s and 70s by directors such as Rosi, Petri and Damiani is commonly classified under the rubric of engaged or political cinema, recent mafia cinema is far less homogeneous, and is increasingly indebted to traditional film models such as the melodrama, the noir, the woman’s film and the biopic. My paper pays particular attention to films made since the year2000 in the realist mode that conform to the traditional logic of desire that dominates the classical cinema. To what extent, I ask here, can dominant film forms translate the national trauma that is the Italian Mafia?


Elisabetta D’Amanda – “Nouvelle Vague and Intimism in a Meeting of Fiction and Reality in the Cinema of Mimmo Calopresti”

Calopresti, cresciuto all’ombra della Mole Antonelliana, mostra le stesse caratteristiche di sensibilità francese inserito nello scenario italiano. Caratteristiche che si rendono evidenti più nei suoi film che nei documentari, anche se si potrebbe eccepire che anche il suo lavoro documentario in special modo quando l’autore ibrida i generi in Alla Fiat era così (1990) o ne La Fabbrica dei Tedeschi (2009) abbia anch’esso queste caratteristiche.  In particolare, ci si riferisce all’influenza specifica del cinema francese e particolarmente all’influenza della nouvelle vague.  Già ne La seconda volta si notava la concentrazione quasi ossessiva sugli individui piuttosto che sulla storia ufficiale del terrorismo, come ci ricorda Mario Sesti, “si tratta di gente messa da parte che però ha imparato a non sottovalutare la saggezza e il metodo della propria rassegnazione…uno stoicismo impalpabile ma profondo che accentua la sensibilità per le cose e le persone invece che ridurla” (Il cinema di Calopresti 11,12) “[la sua utopia] è cercare delle persone e trovare dei personaggi” (10). Il ritrarre individui ha infatti una mano leggera ed intimista in Calopresti, che nasce proprio da una ricerca delle persone e l’interesse e sensibilità per la loro essenza umana che, a sua volta, scaturisce dal percorso di documentarista, come lui stesso descrive:

Quando lavori sulla realtà, quando fai documentari,  ti accorgi, mi sono accorto io nel mio lavoro, che immediatamente ti sembra che stai facendo qualcosa di importante perché stai facendo vedere quello che succede, dopo di che ti accorgi che esiste una persona che è più di quello che rappresenti in quel momento, molto di più. E  probabilmente, questo molto di più è qualcosa su cui puoi lavorare per esempio con la finzione. E qui nasce quest’idea in cui c’è questo continuo parallelo e incontro tra la realtà e la finzione e la finzione intesa non come la irrealtà ma come una realtà neanche nascosta, ma che è difficile da vedere immediatamente, che le persone hanno (Calopresti, Intervista personale 128).

E in questa ricerca fatta di attenzione ai dettagli ma intimista, anche l’ambiente diventa un altro personaggio della narrazione, crea una condizione che rende più intenso il percorso della soggettività dei personaggi e ne accentua il riflesso.