New Visions of the Child in Italian Cinema

by Danielle Hipkins (Volume editor) Roger Pitt (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection XIV, 342 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 20


The figure of the child has long been a mainstay of Italian cinema, conventionally interpreted as a witness of adult shortcomings, a vessel of innocence, hope and renewal, or an avatar of nostalgia for the (cinematic) past. New Visions of the Child in Italian Cinema challenges these settled categories of interpretation and reconsiders the Italian canon as it relates to the child. The book draws on a growing body of new work in the history and theory of children on film and is the first volume to bring together and to apply some of these new approaches to Italian cinema. Chapters in the book address aspects of industry and spectatorship and the varied film psychology of infancy, childhood and adolescence, as well as genres as diverse as silent cinema, contemporary teen movies, melodrama and film ethnography. The contributors engage with a wide range of modes and theories including neorealism, auteurism and contemporary postfeminism. The book maps out new roles for gender, the transnational, loss and mourning, and filmmaking itself, leading to a revised understanding of the child in Italian cinema.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • The Child in Italian Cinema: An Introduction
  • PART 1 Childhood: The Other Sides of the Story
  • The Uses of Children
  • Ragazzo Fortunato? Children in Italian Cinema
  • PART 2 Transnational Perspectides on the Italian Canon
  • Pas de Deux: The ‘Situational Ballet’ of Film Fathers-and-Sons
  • Los Olvidados: A Damning Verdict on Neorealism’s Aesthetic and Moral Positions
  • Postfeminist (D)au(gh)teurs: Sofia Coppola and the Girl’s Voyage to Italy in Somewhere
  • PART 3 Children Sacrificed and Lost
  • From Pinocchio to Cuore: Children in Early Italian Cinema
  • Something Else Besides a Man: Melodrama and the Maschietto in Postwar Italian Cinema
  • Girls Lost and Found: Daughters of Sin in Italian Melodramas of the 1950s
  • ‘È difficile didentare grandi in Italia!’ The Trauma of Becoming in Nanni Moretti’s La stanza del figlio
  • Un’ora sola ti vorrei: Childhood and Mourning
  • PART 4 Contemporary Italian Cinema
  • Subjectivity and the Ethnographic Gaze in Antonio Capuano’s Vito e gli altri
  • Boys as Icons of Movement, Potential and Desire in Contemporary Melodramas of Boyhood
  • Italian Teen Film and the Female Auteur
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index


Table 1  Top twenty-four films in Europe by admissions since 1996

Table 2  Top fifty European films in Europe by admissions since 1996

Table 3  Top twenty films by admissions in Italy, 2002

Table 4  Top twenty-five Italian films in Italy by admissions since 1996

All tables reproduced by kind permission of Dr André Lange, European Audiovisual Observatory.


Figure 1  Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

Figure 2  The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921)

Figure 3  Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)

Figure 4  There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Figure 5  Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

Figure 6  I figli di nessuno (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1952)

Figure 7  La schiava del peccato (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1954)

Figure 8  La schiava del peccato (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1954)

Figure 9  La spiaggia (Alberto Lattuada, 1954)

Figure 10  Un’ora sola ti vorrei (Alina Marazzi, 2002)

Figure 11  Cosmonauta (Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2009)


We would like to thank all the participants in the conference ‘Re-envisioning the Child in Italian Cinema’, held at the University of Exeter in July 2008, for their support, enthusiasm and intellectual input. A special thank you also goes to our keynote speakers, Aine O’Healy, Robert Gordon, Mary Wood and Paul Sutton, and to Exeter colleagues who offered support and chaired sessions. We would also like to thank the administrative support staff at Exeter who assisted in the organization, and the Society of Italian Studies, who contributed towards the costs of the conference. This book grew out of that conference but has evolved into something more substantial than conference proceedings.

Particular thanks to John Stevenson for assistance with the formatting of tables and to Catherine O’Rawe and Alan O’Leary for their guidance in shaping the volume. Above all, we would like to thank all the contributors, the series editors and publishers of this volume, who waited so patiently for its eventual emergence.

All translations are the authors’ own, unless otherwise indicated.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book to my parents, Pauline and Michael Hipkins, whose commitment to children has enhanced many lives, particularly my own.

Danielle Hipkins
April 2014
← xiii | xiv →


← xiv | 1 →


The Child in Italian Cinema: An Introduction

If filmmakers seek new ways in which to imagine, to frame and to interpret our world, then the child, with all her connotations of perception without preconception, offers the ideal vehicle through which to seek out that renewed vision. As Vicky Lebeau has pointed out, cinema has had a special relationship with the child since its inception, because the cinematic apparatus can also offer the promise of getting closer to the child’s experience of discovery: ‘cinema, with its privileged access to the perceptual, its visual and aural richness, would seem to have the advantage [over words]: closer to perception, it can come closer to the child’.1 Lebeau is one of several critics who have recently turned their attention to the child in cinema, and in explaining its universal popularity as a trope, she reminds us that the child is something we all share: ‘Bordering on an otherness within, a space and time that we have all known without knowing it, this is a child that must be left behind – or, more dramatically, put to death – if we are to find our way into the worlds of language, culture and community, but that we must too, continually negotiate.’2 Hence, she explains, our cinematic obsession with revisiting the child’s discovery of the world, its growth, its rites of passage. Most recently in the UK, film critic and director, Mark Cousins, has produced a film essay which reflects upon this cinematic fascination with childhood. A Story of Children and Film (2013) draws upon home footage of Cousins’ own nephew and niece, and the director’s encyclopaedic knowledge of world cinema, to show excerpts from seventeen different films about children, familiar and less well-known, that reflect the changing moods of his own young relatives. In interview, Cousins comments: ‘Of ← 1 | 2 → course there’s loads missing; it’s not trying to be comprehensive. There’s not a single Italian film in there, which is terrible!’3 Indirectly, Cousins’ choice of Italy as the country he might have been expected to include is significant. Without wishing to read too much into its omission, we might perhaps infer that to discuss the child in Italian cinema is almost to cover old ground. This speaks to the aims of this collection to revitalize interest in the child in Italian cinema from a series of new perspectives.

Through the heyday of its postwar filmmaking, with such influential texts as I bambini ci guardano [The Children Are Watching Us] (De Sica, 1942), Roma città aperta [Rome Open City] (Rossellini, 1945), Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] (De Sica, 1948), Sciuscià [Shoeshine] (De Sica, 1946) and Germania, anno zero [Germany, Year Zero] (Rossellini, 1948), Italian cinema has become internationally renowned for its privileged relationship with the figure of the child, still evident in the international popularity of films such as the recently rereleased Cinema paradiso (Tornatore, 1988), the Oscar-winning La vita è bella [Life is Beautiful] (Benigni, 1997) and Gabriele Salvatores’ Io non ho paura [I’m Not Scared] (2003). In the interpretation of this trajectory critics have emphasized a continuity in the role of children as witnesses of adult shortcomings, but also as ‘thermometers of society’,4 figures of innocence and renewal, symbols of hope for the future,5 and in more recent cinema sometimes nostalgia for the (cinematic) past.6 ← 2 | 3 →

Much of the important work that has been carried out on the representation of children in cinema cites Italy’s internationally famous postwar neorealist canon as foundational. Based on his reading of neorealism and its use of the child as witness, Deleuze most famously argued that the child’s ‘motor helplessness […] makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing’.7 This witnessing function of what Neil Sinyard has described as the ‘wise child’ also works in harmony with the child’s lack of hypocrisy as she or he may appear to apply values in theoretical form, prior to the compromises involved in adulthood.8 The function of ‘defamiliarization’ is used to see the world anew through the child’s eyes. This is very much evident in reception of the child protagonists of neorealism, who are perceived to comment upon adults’ difficulties in managing the economically devastated postwar world, most famously in Bicycle Thieves’ Bruno’s witnessing of his father’s desperate theft of the bicycle, for which he, and therefore the viewer, can then forgive him. As Mark Shiel tells us the child actor Enzo Staiola ‘was cast in the role of the boy because of his natural appearance of innocence and warmth’, reinforcing his depiction as a ‘figure of almost angelic innocence’ and ‘a figure of moral and physical stamina’.9 Thus the film trades upon Bruno’s wide-eyed purity, and this association of the child with innocence is one of the ways in which the use of the child as a moral focalizer is enabled within neorealism. Although neorealism is hailed for its purist adherence to ‘realist’ codes in its use of nonprofessional actors, in particular child actors, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the visual and conceptual patterns that it reinforced in its very deliberate selection of its child protagonists. P. Adams-Sitney points out that not only did ← 3 | 4 → Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini reject the actual ‘Shoeshine’ boys they talked to in their research as possible protagonists for their eponymous film because they were too ‘ugly’, but they also

overlooked the sexual lives of the characters, even though one of the actors had pimped, and Zavattini recorded in his diary the story of three shoeshine boys who ‘kept a girl of twelve as a mistress; they paid her 50 lire’. De Sica told Charles Samuels he did not develop the homoerotic implications of the jealousies within the boys’ prison because the idea ‘revolted’ him.10

As recent critics suggest, what we exclude from our representations of the child may be as interesting as what we include; Mary Wood, for example, has observed the way in which ‘child figures are rarely sexualized’ in Italian cinema, ‘their sexual neutrality investing them with the ability to comment, implicitly or explicitly, on the state of their world’.11

Although, as we shall see, the emphasis on the innocent, and potentially vulnerable, witness is only one of many possible readings of the child’s very varied roles within neorealism, it is the one that tends to echo in subsequent films that are critically acclaimed as its appropriate inheritors, perhaps because this is the most palatable view of childhood. In the recent Io non ho paura not only is the function of ‘defamiliarization’ brought into play as the child looks questioningly upon the criminal underworld of the rural South in the 1970s, but this innocence is also manifested as the two young teenage boys play in glorious sweeping shots of golden cornfields. They are thus associated with nature, echoing the Romantic view of childhood, that ‘children are supposed to be incapable of inflicting harm’.12 Indeed the film sees Michele heroically sacrifice himself to his father’s violence to defend his friend, Filippo, kidnapped by Michele’s father for a ransom. ← 4 | 5 →

If Italian cinema was once at the forefront of international avant-garde filmmaking in its representation of children, the contemporary films for which it is now known internationally are disappointing. Films like Cinema paradiso and Io non ho paura in fact indulge in a form of ‘photogenic poverty’,13 as children are used to prettify and soften the problems of the North/South divide in Italy for international audiences. As Sinyard has written, ‘the main problem with children in films has always been the problem of sentimentality’,14 and on the merit of its international releases, Italian cinema would now appear trapped in this particular rhetoric of sentimentality, with serious consequences for its development. Aine O’Healy has also questioned the predominance of an Oedipal narrative trajectory focusing on the male child in the Italian mainstream canon,15 while Mary Wood, in relation to Tornatore’s Malèna (2000) archly observes that by selecting a young adolescent male’s ‘point of view, Tornatore is able to ignore feminist views and the wider political context (neither being known as the preoccupations of young boys)’.16 The growing body of work on children in cinema certainly demands that we revise and reconsider the canon typically discussed in relation to the child on the Italian screen in order to take into account the changes that have come about in society, culture and cinematic representation since the heyday of postwar filmmaking.

There is no doubt that the postwar neorealist films shaped the use of the children in Italian cinema, for example when certain Italian directors of the late 1980s and 1990s, such as Francesca Archibugi, deliberately revived the neorealist motifs of the child as ‘witnesses of adult weakness or ineptitude’, as Aine O’Healy observed.17 However the continued preoccupation ← 5 | 6 → largely only with neorealism and its legacy,18 can lead to a tendency always to read the emergence of the patterns originally identified within those internationally renowned films in subsequent national filmmaking, and to ignore other aspects of the representation of the child in Italian film history, sometimes obscuring the more complex role that children and childhood have played in the evolution of Italian cinema and within neorealism itself.19 I am not suggesting that we ignore the legacy of neorealism altogether. This is fundamental, and often directors reference it openly and deliberately. Nicoletta Marini-Maio helpfully suggests, however, that: ‘identifying elements of novelty in the perspective of the child’s gaze in contemporary Italian films will allow us to better understand whether Italian cinema is still paying tribute to the neorealist legacy or if it has developed a new code of representation’.20 Marini-Maio goes on to produce a nuanced account of the representation of children in films by the Frazzi brothers in the early 2000s as an innovative cinematic code in tune with postmodernity. In particular, she shows how the new cinematographic development of the Steadicam brings a particularly fluidity to filmmaking ‘particularly apt to render the dynamic energy – the fluidity, in Bauman’s terms – of Rosario’s [the child’s] motion, feelings, memories, and a-linear thoughts’.21 As Marini-Maio’s work shows, neorealism is but one of many influences on contemporary Italian filmmaking, and contemporary Italian society raises ← 6 | 7 → some fundamental questions about immigration, precarity, social exclusion, gender identity, sexuality and the changing shape of the family, from the falling birthrate to the so-called ‘gioventù prolungata’ that have a direct impact on the representation of the family and should be foregrounded.22

If on the one hand some criticism of contemporary film still deploys a neorealist shorthand to discuss the child, on the other hand it is clear that new visions of Italian cinema and the child, even the neorealist child, are most definitely emerging. Jaimey Fisher’s work comparing Italian neorealism and the German rubble-film is typical of an effort to put Italian cinema in dialogue with other filmmaking traditions that inspires some of the work in this book. His findings that ‘the presence of the child highlights the limits of the male, the horizons of his effective agency, and the twilight of his conventional role in the masculine action-image’23 also remind us that gender has been central to a turning towards new ways of understanding Italian cinema. Maggie Günsberg’s work on gender and genre drew attention to the gendering of children within Italian melodrama of the 1950s in particular, which will also be taken further here.24 With an emphasis on female directors and feminist issues, the work of Aine O’Healy on Francesca Archibugi and Mario Martone has foregrounded the role of the female child on screen in overturning the gendered status quo that lies at the heart of the patriarchal family.25 Not only has this female child slowly begun to emerge from the rubble of neorealism, as the work of Susanna Scarparo and Bernadette Luciano and further work by Dana Renga in this volume ← 7 | 8 → will also testify,26 but masculinity itself has been shown to be surprisingly dependent on the child. If Fisher identifies the dyad male child-weak man in postwar neorealism, Sergio Rigoletto’s work on Marco Ferreri’s filmmaking of the 1970s identifies the child as a means of renegotiating masculinity (or not) in the face of the changes wrought by feminism,27 whilst Catherine O’Rawe reads the child as a means of affording homosocial bonding across popular contemporary Italian cinema, from male melodrama to male-focused comedy.28

In relation to readings of gender, certain Italian locations also emerge as key in producing new readings of the child. O’Healy writes that in the work of Antonio Capuano in particular, Naples becomes a locus for filmmaking that challenges prevailing clichés of childhood innocence and ‘rejects the redemptive or salvific image of the younger generation that has become predominant in contemporary Italian cinema’.29 In her study of Antonio Capuano’s film Pianese Nunzio 14 anni a maggio [Nunzio Pianese, Fourteen in May] (1996), she suggests that ‘if childhood is time- and context-bound, the experience of young people and the meanings attached to childhood in Naples must surely possess distinctive contours that reflect the city’s complicated social history and cultural terrain.’30 In the film’s creation of ‘tensions that discourage any definitive judgement on the relationship between the priest and the adolescent’, according to O’Healy it ‘subtly prompts its viewers to ask if the distinction between child and adolescent, or between adolescent and adult, is a useful one that can hold up across different social and historical contexts’.31 This recognition of Naples as a ← 8 | 9 → space that challenges traditional, national and legal conceptualizations of childhood is also picked up by Alex Marlow-Mann who, in his monograph on the New Neapolitan Cinema, shows how the figure of the child, the female child in particular, is used to ‘problematize patriarchal ideology’. By contrasting the New Neapolitan Cinema with earlier Neapolitan cinematic tradition, the ‘traditional narrative structure of the sceneggiata and the Neapolitan Formula’, he shows how using ‘a woman’s perspective on the family life she experienced as a child’ highlights the ‘extent to which the advent of feminism has involved a rethinking of an earlier value system’.32 This engagement with a different historical tradition to that of neorealism brings a refreshing perspective on the use of child that we can also see in Marlow-Mann’s work for this volume on Capuano’s transportation of the secondary character of the ‘scugnizzo’ or street-urchin of Neapolitan tradition to centre-stage.

Nonetheless, fragmented across surveys of cinema, edited volumes on international cinema and monographs dedicated to single directors, or specific periods or schools, these emerging views have not yet led to an overview of where studies of the child in Italian cinema currently lie. The closest we have is the recent summary of the child’s representation in Italian film presented by Giovanna De Luca. Inevitably, in offering an introduction to the child in Italian cinema for a very broad introductory volume on Italian cinema, De Luca is obliged to elide the complexity of representations in earlier Italian cinema, and cinema under Fascism, in order to reiterate the importance of the child in the canon of neorealist filmmaking. In turn this governs the selection of Francesca Archibugi and Gianni Amelio as two directors who fit most easily into a coherent vision for contemporary Italian cinema as bearing the traces of neorealism in its treatment of children. Nonetheless De Luca brings an important emphasis on the agency of the child in Italian cinema, and the most innovative aspect of the piece is her inclusion of the popular filmmaker Luigi Comencini, whose twelve films featuring child protagonists have tended to remain on ← 9 | 10 → the margins of the canon, precisely because ‘his style has its roots in his past as a documentary film-maker and in the so-called neorealismo rosa, a less critical strain of neorealism, containing elements of comedy and melodrama designed for a mass audience’.33 De Luca has made significant attempts to bring this popular director’s work back into discussion of depictions of childhood across a range of genres and periods, emphasizing his interest in restoring their duality, as both dependent on adults and uniquely free.34

Perhaps the most stimulating discussions of the child in Italian cinema in fact arise from the broader perspective on the child as a transnational cinematic concept, which do indeed permit themselves to focus fully on the child. Out of this field comes an emphasis on performance, for example, as in the work of Karen Lury,35 which then feed productively back into studies of Italian national cinema, as in John David Rhodes’s analysis of young male bodies in Pasolini’s Salò (1975) and the role of ‘the child actor, about whom questions of agency, consent, coercion and exploitation perpetually swirl’.36 In this analysis Rhodes dares to ask whether sexual pleasure in viewing the adolescent actors’ bodies might not be something that Salò deliberately provokes, despite critical denial of that possibility. Emma Wilson’s extensive work on the child has also been very influential,37 in particular in her use of the trope of the missing child, which has in turn influenced Roger Pitt’s detailed analysis of the use of this trope within Italian cinema, an example of which we include in this volume. The impetus of the emergent new visions of the child in Italian cinema is at least twofold: on the one hand there is an attempt to see contemporary Italian cinema with different ← 10 | 11 → lenses to those offered by the standard readings of neorealism, and on the other to create film histories that recalibrate the role of neorealism within it. With this volume we hope to bring some of the visions discussed so far into dialogue with some further new approaches, and out of this interaction we hope to present a more extended point of reference for studies of the child in Italian cinema, that will point towards possible avenues for future exploration. Indeed, whilst we cannot carry forward all of the tantalizing paths indicated by the authors mentioned so far, nor redress completely the relative absence of interest in the child beyond the recurrent focal points established by criticism on neorealism, with this volume we aim only to continue on the journey that traces more fully the impact that the figure of the child has had on Italian film. In particular, we begin by asking questions about what the child represents for contemporary Italian cinema, and how it might be subject to a series of industrial, generic and sociohistorical concerns that lie distant from the concerns of the postwar period. We then consider how Italy’s legacy of arthouse cinema may be considered as part of transnational patterns or dialogues, in a way that challenges the perception of that canon as a ‘royal road’ towards the world of childhood. We go on to consider the role of the child in realism’s classic antagonist: melodrama. We create space here to consider the central question of the relationship between the lost or sacrificed child, death, and mourning. Finally, we think about the contemporary representation of the child across a wide range of new filmmaking trends that enter into dialogue with various aspects of the Italian tradition both to perpetuate and transform certain functions of the child in Italian cinema.

Before going into more detail about the individual contributions within each section, it is worth highlighting the ways in which tendrils of thought intertwine across these basic divisions and thus begin to foster our ‘new visions’ of the child in Italian cinema. In particular, the most prominent of these is a new attention to gender. If critics have tended to take it for granted that Italian cinema is predominantly about the boy child, this volume both asks whether that is really true, uncovering hidden or emergent histories of the girl child within each section, and also showing how child protagonists’ masculinity is a marked, and far from neutral narrative ← 11 | 12 → function.38 In both cases, this new emphasis on the gender of the child can have a transformative function. As chapters by both Fiona Handyside and Dana Renga show, when considered from the perspective of the female child, touchstones of Italian cinema like La dolce vita (Fellini, 1960) may still inspire, but largely they inspire radical revision, or even rejection. What emerges instead is a picture of postwar cinema in which the gender of the child is nuanced according to its intersection with a range of national and transnational concerns.


XIV, 342
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
history psychology auteurism postfeminism neorealism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 342 pp., 11 b/w ill., 4 tables

Biographical notes

Danielle Hipkins (Volume editor) Roger Pitt (Volume editor)

Danielle Hipkins is Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Film at the University of Exeter. She is currently completing a monograph on gender and prostitution in postwar Italian cinema. Other research projects include an AHRC-funded project on Italian cinema-going audiences of the 1940s and 1950s. Roger Pitt was awarded his PhD by the University of Exeter in 2012. His AHRC-funded doctoral research project, ‘Italian Cinema’s Missing Children’, explored the topos of the lost or endangered child in works by six contemporary Italian filmmakers.


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