Reviewer biography

Italian Location: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema

by Noa Steimatksy
Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2008
280 pp., illus. 63 b & w. Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 0-8166-5088-8; ISBN: 0-8166-5087-X.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

The stereotyped view of cinema as a mainly narrative genre, for instance in the Bordwellian doxa, explains the strange lack of interest in the study of space in film. The analogous and even more blatant undertheorizing of space in literary studies, the field to which film studies remain most indebted, is another reason of the same phenomenon. Books like Noa Steimatsky’s Italian Locations are, therefore, a more than welcome counterweight to the all-pervading reduction of cinema to narrative (in modern approaches) or time (in postmodern ones).

Yet Italian Locations is much more than just a study of the cinematographic representation of space in a particular form of cinema, namely Italian neo-realism. The books proposes –and wonderfully achieves– an in-depth reinterpretation, via a series of close reading of major movies by major filmmakers, of a cinematographic movement whose profound ambivalence has not always received the attention it deserves. Italian neo-realism is often seen as a mere refusal of Fascist cinema, in its fictional as well as its documentary versions, and as an attempt to bridge the gap, against the Hollywood dream factory, between documentary and fiction, but Steimatsky usefully shows the complexity of the realist as well as the modernist aspects of this corpus.

The greatness of Italian Locations is that it does not need to attack the existing understandings of neo-realism in order to replace them by a completely new theory. Instead, Noa Steimatsky deploys a personal rereading that helps her to gradually enlarge our perception of neo-realism as both a modern –although far from revolutionary– moment, a way of contributing to the healing of the material, social, psychic, and ideological wounds of WWII, and as a critique of modernism, in the first place of Fascist modernism but also of other forms of consumerist and capitalist modernizations.

The importance of place in neo-realism derives from the documentary stakes and ambitions of this cinema, hostile –at least in theory– to escapist fictionalization and eager to bypass any antirealist forms of scripted shooting. Rather than visualizations of a story, neo-realist movies were “studies in space”, the best example still being Visconti’s La terra trema, a “reportage” on fishing in Sicily where director and crew stayed for eight months in a local village to document non-scripted events. However, Steimatsky convincingly demonstrates that non-scripting did not mean non-staging, although the staging in case has less to do with the construction of a set or the direction of non-professional actors in their familiar surroundings than with the fundamental reinterpretation of a given place through filmic mechanisms and operations. In neo-realism it is space that tells the story, and this space is a permanent negotiation between two types or categories: referential space, i.e. the Italian landscape or, rather, landscapes, for the emphasis put on regionalism cannot be separated from the defence of the ordinary; and cinematographic space, whose construction supposes more than the combinations of long shot and panoramic views recommended by André Bazin.

In four brilliant chapters, Noa Steimatsky offers a thorough rereading of four classic directors: Antonioni, whose insistence on aerial views is analyzed as a reworking of the military overtones of the aerial views in post-Futurist Fascist cinema; Rossellini, whose representation of ruins –from Germany Year Zero to Journey to Italy– has to be understood as a reflection on the necessity to give its proper and lasting place to the past in the new world order of reconstruction and modernization; Visconti, whose utterly documentary vision of Sicily is filtered by a complex set of other iconographic and mythological representations that transform the “real” places in theatrical settings inspired by classic epic and tragedy; finally Pasolini, whose work on the Gospel set in Southern Italy exemplifies a fascination with archaic forms of life and representations that aspire to preserve the revolutionary potential of non-modern forms of neo-realism.

Each analysis focuses equally on apparently well-known material and on unknown or almost discarded sources, both inside and outside cinema. Noa Steimatsky reads Antonioni in the light of photomontages in the Fascist film journal Cinema. Rosselini’s images of Berlin and Pompeii are put against the various forms of trauma iconology and photography in the immediate post-war. Visconti’s recreation of Aci Trezza is linked with the photography of the great Sicilian naturalist novelist Verga (whose pictures were only discovered various decades after La terra trema). Pasolini’s use of the landscape as a backdrop is compared with the teaching of his Bologna professor of Art History.

In short, Italian Locations is outstanding in all respects. Clearly and elegantly written and avoiding all fashionable controversy with previous or competing theories of neo-realism, Noa Steimatsky manages to displace in a very profound way our reading of the majors neo-realist film-makers and of neo-realism as a movement, while making a brilliant plea for a sharper focus on that most forgotten aspect of film theory: space.