Italian Political Cinema

Public Life, Imaginary, and Identity in Contemporary Italian Film

by Giancarlo Lombardi (Volume editor) Christian Uva (Volume editor)
©2016 Monographs X, 448 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 38


Despite the powerful anti-political impulses that have pervaded Italian society in recent years, Italian cinema has sustained and renewed its longstanding engagement with questions of politics, both in the narrow definition of the term, and in a wider understanding that takes in reflections on public life, imaginary, and national identity. This book explores these political dimensions of contemporary Italian cinema by looking at three complementary strands: the thematics of contemporary political film from a variety of perspectives; the most prominent directors currently engaged in this filone; and case studies of the films that best represent this engagement. Conceived and edited by two Italian film scholars working in radically different academic settings, Italian Political Cinema brings together a wide array of critical positions and research from Italy, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. The tripartite structure and international perspective create a volume that is an accessible entry-point into a subject that continues to attract critical and cultural attention, both inside and outside of academia.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prologue
  • Giancarlo Lombardi and Christian Uva - Italian Political Cinema: Definitions and Goals
  • Part One: Thematic Approaches
  • Gaetana Marrone - Italian Political Cinema: The Early Masters
  • Christian Uva - The New Cinema of Political Engagement
  • Nicoletta Marini-Maio - Before and After Silvio: A Corpus for Us All
  • Áine O’Healy - Bound to Care: Gender, Affect, and Immigrant Labour
  • Anita Angelone - Italian Documentaries and Immigration
  • Elena Past - Documenting Ecomafia
  • Mary P. Wood - Noir Style and Political Cinema
  • Alan O’Leary - Political/Popular Cinema
  • Vito Zagarrio - The ‘Great Beauty’, or Form Is Politics
  • Paolo Russo - Gimme (Tax) Shelter: The Politics of the Production System
  • Part Two: The Authors of Politics
  • Ruth Glynn - Marco Bellocchio and the ‘New’ Political Cinema
  • Cosetta Gaudenzi - Guido Chiesa and Postmodern Impegno
  • Laura Di Bianco - Francesca Comencini: Women Outside the Polis
  • Anna Paparcone - Marco Tullio Giordana’s Cinema and Its Civil Engagement: Truth Does Not Play Anyone’s Game
  • Marguerite Waller - Sabina Guzzanti: Transmediating cinema politico
  • Clarissa Clò - Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi’s Trilogy: Comizi d’amore in the Digital Age
  • Simona Bondavalli - Daniele Luchetti as Author of Politics? Little Teachers and Modest Lessons
  • Marcia Landy - Nanni Moretti by Nanni Moretti: The Biopic as Counter-History
  • Claudio Bisoni - Paolo Sorrentino: Between Engagement and savoir faire
  • Monica Jansen - Daniele Vicari: The Real Is also Human
  • Part Three: Films
  • Nicoletta Marini-Maio - Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Cosmonauta: The Space Race, or When Communist Girls Dreamed of the Moon
  • Pierpaolo Antonello - Il divo: Paolo Sorrentino’s Spectacle of Politics
  • Millicent Marcus - Gomorra by Matteo Garrone: ‘La normalità dello sfacelo’
  • Luca Caminati - Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica and the National Body Politics
  • Danielle Hipkins - Nessuno mi può giudicare: Making Over the Prostitute from a Post-Feminist Perspective
  • Gius Gargiulo - Mario Martone’s Noi credevamo: History and Fiction
  • Giovanna De Luca - Placido Rizzotto and Segreti di Stato: Italian Investigative Cinema and Memory
  • Catherine O’Rawe - La prima linea: Film, Terrorism, and the Politics of Funding
  • Dana Renga - Romanzo criminale as Male Melodrama: ‘It is in reality always too late’
  • Ellen Nerenberg - Tutta colpa di Giuda: Performing Captivity
  • Giancarlo Lombardi - Viva la libertà: Language, Politics, and Consensus
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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The editors would like to thank the series editors of Italian Modernities, Pierpaolo Antonello and Robert Gordon, for their constant support. Ashna Ali and Michael Healy offered invaluable help in the various stages of this very lengthy project. Stefania Porcelli demonstrated exceptional competence and care in the final preparation of the manuscript: we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. In conclusion, we would like to thank Lia Pasqualino for sharing with us her production stills of Viva la libertà, and for allowing us to use one for our cover art.

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Italian Political Cinema: Definitions and Goals

In early 2012, shortly before Mario Monti’s government began to inflame public opinion with its unpopular reform of the labour system, the political magazine Panorama asked two prominent leaders of the Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni and Matteo Renzi, to review Roberto Andò’s Il trono vuoto (2012), a political novel which was brought to the big screen a year later as Viva la libertà (2013), and with great critical acclaim. In his novel, Andò narrates the switched identities of his two protagonists, identical twin brothers with strikingly different character traits: Enrico, the depressed, introverted political Democratic leader whose lack of charisma is perceived as symptomatic of the current crisis of the left, and his brother Giovanni, a brilliant philosopher who spent much of his life in a mental institution. Upon his release, Giovanni is summoned to impersonate Enrico, who mysteriously vanishes during the last, critical weeks of his political campaign. Giovanni’s joie de vivre, optimism and directness contrast with the defeatist attitude of a political caste that has long failed to communicate with its constituency. Performing as (and in lieu of) his brother, Giovanni achieves the impossible, reconnecting with a disenchanted electorate and inspiring new faith in the purpose of Italian politics. Veltroni, who comes to embody the voice of a generation of politicians asked by their younger peers to step aside and make room for the future, captures, in his reading of Andò’s novel, the indictment of a political class ‘that is often too removed from the real life of its voters’. Renzi, the politician most vocal in calling for such rottamazione, the ‘scrapping’ associated with the adoption of new technologies over the technically obsolete, believes that Andò is indeed telling his readers that the Shakespearean fool’s sudden ascent to power constitutes an unforeseen and salvific event, a dream that spells ‘the path we should follow’.1 ← 3 | 4 →

Two years later, when Renzi has obtained his rottamazione, forming a government whose cabinets are entrusted to young, barely known figures chosen largely from the ‘civil society’ whose presence in politics had been deemed necessary since the demise of Berlusconi’s last government, the political talk show Ballarò hosts for a time a dark political sitcom. In its indictment of current politics, the sitcom responds rather directly to Renzi’s earlier statements by turning the dream into a veritable nightmare. Il candidato (Ludovico Bessegato 2014) tells the story of yet another fool, a postman and dummy candidate for a primary election, chosen as a representative everyman in hopes that his obvious ineptitude will facilitate his corrupt opponent’s ascent to power. Once the unpredictable electorate favours the postman, the staff that intentionally grooms him for certain failure is suddenly saddled with betting on his candidacy.

Portrayed as mere artifice, packaging, and as the product of the media spin cycle, the creators of this series boil politics in the age of Renzi down to a ruthless marketing operation that, in semiotic terms, successfully voids the sign of its original signified, thus leaving an empty signifier. If during his tenure Berlusconi highlighted the importance of physical appearance, Renzi brought to the fore, as political satirists such as Maurizio Crozza have amply demonstrated, that of catch-phrase wordplay. Both experts in mass communication, Berlusconi and Renzi are representatives of a time when politics suffers a semiotic slippage, a disappearance of conceptual substance that results instead in a greater concentration on the surface of things.2

New Forms of Political Cinema?

In spite of such antipolitica – the adversarial relation with politics which increasingly spread through society during the Second Republic – Italian cinema has recently returned an engagement, in varied forms, with political ← 4 | 5 → issues. Its persistent attention to the complex manifestations of a social, cultural, ideological Italian identity has led several critics to question whether we are indeed witnessing the birth of what could be termed a ‘New Italian Political Cinema’. This is the question raised, in the Anglophone world, by William Hope in a collective research project which culminated in two significant volumes dedicated to recent cinematic discussions of labour, migration, gender relations, and the representation of the recent socio-political past.3

While Pierpaolo Antonello and Florian Mussgnug had already reframed the political question within the larger landscape of postmodern impegno in the Anglophone context,4 in the Italophone context, in his ‘“Il cinema è l’arma più forte”: È tornato il cinema politico?’, Paolo Bertetto wonders whether we can indeed speak of a true rebirth of Italian political cinema.5 A few years ago, Roy Menarini and Giovanni Spagnoletti engaged in a complex discussion over what they define as Forme della politica nel cinema contemporaneo.6 The international success of Gomorra and Il divo in 2008 confirmed the suspicion held since Tangentopoli that Italian cinema had begun to take measure of the socio-political realities of a country about to face one of its most delicate and unpredictable seasons. It is indeed since the release of Il portaborse (Daniele Luchetti 1991) that the Italian film industry appears interested in the necessity of facing the political establishment head on, bringing to the screen, shortly before the explosion of the Mani Pulite scandal, ‘the departure from legality of an entire ruling class’, signalling the twilight of the Italian First Republic.7 ← 5 | 6 →

In recent times, Italian cinema has continued incessantly to engage with politics, both in its most strict definition, and in a wider context that includes reflection upon public life, memory, and national identity. On one hand, a certain type of auteur cinema, from that of Marco Bellocchio and Nanni Moretti to that of Mario Martone and Paolo Sorrentino, continues to posit personal interpretations of the most crucial aspects of the life of the nation. On the other – while we are witnessing a noteworthy revival of the poliziesco and noir film – comedy, in its many instantiations has become the genre most inclined to offer a real-time portrayal of the tumultuous events of the Second Republic. As Menarini suggests, ‘if we consider realism to be today’s form of excess, if the voracious politician is now part of our daily chronicles, comedy inevitably becomes cinema of political denunciation, even when treading upon tragicomic blueprints or capitalising on a gallery of famous actors, or stock characterisation’.8

The series of questions and assessments pertaining to the presence, or rather, to the reappearance of ‘political cinema’ in recent Italian film production calls for a preliminary reflection on the very terminology adopted to address it. As many scholars have signalled over the years, its semantic horizon is slippery and ambiguous to the extent that, as Maurizio Grande remarked, it often comes across as ‘a mirage, as the “ghost” of an “ideal” object’.9

Theorising Cinema Politico: Early Debates

The question of ‘political cinema’ has long been an object of debate among illustrious Italian film critics and scholars. An ample, intensive discussion first took place in France, and later in Italy at the end of the 1960s, in step ← 6 | 7 → with the wave of socio-cultural insurgence that began with the events of May 1968. Back then, the copious production of films labeled as ‘political’ due to their subject matter, their programmatic intent, or the vantage point from which their narratives originated, drew the attention of several critics and scholars. The increasing visibility and growing debate about political cinema outside of institutional circuits allowed for a militant and interventionist cinema which gained from the employment of lighter modes of filming (8 or 16 millimeters) and the gradual introduction of new technology.

Using as a springboard the organic and systematic debate occurring on the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, Cinéthique and Positif, Italian critics and scholars paid particular attention to a definition of the ‘politicity’ of cinema, attempting to recover the ‘critical and terminological tools of linguistics and semiology, and linking the question of political cinema to that of a cinema engaged in the invention of new “forms” and “structures”’.10 In doing so, they either gravitated toward foreign film-makers such as Godard and Straub, as attested by studies appeared in Filmcritica and Cinema & Film, or pursued the new direction of the militant cinema long praised in Cinema Nuovo, which based its Marxist critical reflections upon strict political terms, and by Ombre Rosse, which rooted its work on the counter-informationist and interventionist cinema directly inspired or produced by the working class and by the student movement.11

The ideological tenets which greatly informed and limited the positions of many critics of the time led them to attack what they termed as ‘Italian political cinema’ as a degraded genre which had found its inspiration in the unparalleled success of films such as Costa Gavras’s Z (1969) or Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). Critics such as Goffredo Fofi and Guido Aristarco based their indictment of this genre on an excessive spectacularity that poorly hid its analytic superficiality as ← 7 | 8 → it called for emotional rather than intellectual spectatorial investment. As a consequence, these films were perceived as strongly compromised with what these critics deemed to be capitalist values.12

We should not forget, in this context, the heated debate over the theme of ‘technique and ideology’, a loaded phrase which actually served as title of a collection of essays, originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1971 and 1972, later reprinted in an Italian translation edited by Jean-Louis Comolli in 1982,13 and used also as the title of a 1980 collection of essays edited by Antonio Bertini.14 Even earlier, this debate found sustenance in the words of Pio Baldelli, whose remarks at a roundtable during the 1966 Mostra del Nuovo Cinema di Pesaro asserted the importance of ‘ideology as hermeneutic structure of style’ and consequently, as the title of his intervention stated, of a ‘linguaggio cinematografico come strumento di mistificazione ideologica’.15

As per Antonio Bertini, cinematic technique was associated with ‘a calculated and somewhat compressed choice which obeyed goals of industrial rationalisation’16 inevitably leading to a ‘cinema of prose’, as Pasolini would have called it, to be perceived as ‘fruit of violence exerted by the market, by a system of production and distribution’.17 As Claudio Bisoni notes, this is how ‘civil cinema’ comes to be ‘not merely considered as kitsch ← 8 | 9 → and in bad taste, but also authoritarian in structure and figural language’. Thus, the pervasive use of selected formal parameters common to many films within this genre, ‘such as the acceleration in film speed, the use of the zoom and of wide angle shots’, come to be described as ‘authoritarian techniques’ that render this style ‘synonymous with constriction’.18

The hypothesis of a political and militant action in cinema, based on the concept of a direct intervention on reality, is meant to oppose the Balaszian ‘bourgeoisification’ of film.19 The echo of Zavattini’s positions is evident: it all starts, in fact, from the guiding neorealist principle of ‘the direct encounter, the physical encounter with things’20 that substitutes the old, ‘bourgeois’ idea of subject and screenplay, thus replaced by a script strictly taken as a ‘moral, or better, political canvas’.21

This is the terrain from which, in the early 1970s, said theoretical debate follows a new direction. Still in opposition to the idea of cinema as institutional and bourgeois spectacle, Ciriaco Tiso identifies a new category, that of ‘poetic-political’ cinema. Its political nature derives from the awareness that ‘revolutionary ideology does not always generate revolutionary cinema, yet revolutionary cinema always generates revolutionary ideology’.22

Through this lens we should distinguish between political cinema, defined by its language and form rather than by its content, and cinema on politics. Gianfranco Bettetini concurred with Tiso when, in a roundtable discussion on political cinema, he sketched the current coordinates of the cinematographic horizon in Italy and Western Europe. Bettetini evidenced the traits of a cinematography where ‘the mere mimetic act did not bear the same political relevance […] as the transformative work of a film that interrogates, more than its society and its original referent, the ← 9 | 10 → actual medium of communication concretely offered by that very society in which the film acts’.23

What can we thus retain and recover from the debate we have briefly attempted to revisit in order to evaluate the level of politicity of contemporary Italian cinema and the forms that such dimension assumes? Bettetini’s position could indeed serve as our starting point, if only as a reminder that we should never lose sight of the formal aspect of language and style as such, as we extend our consideration to the role granted to technique in the writings of critics such as Comolli, Bertini and Tiso. As Lino Miccichè once said, ‘the “political” core of filmic communication continues to rest not only in the content to be communicated, but also and mostly in the very modes of communication’.24

Such a statement inevitably leads us to consider the question of the politics of cinema, namely the way in which the system of production and distribution is organised, structured, and directed within a specific political and economic context. The politicity of cinema, therefore, is a question equally pertaining to form, content, and to the productive system in which the works to be analysed are embedded.

We can thus begin to present the hypothesis that the politicity of film presents itself in different degrees, varying in accordance to the extent to which form and content are joined harmonically within their specific network of production. The nature and level of politicity of a film can depend on the extent to which form and content organically coexist in a project which should be aimed at investigating, reflecting, photographing, representing, and interpreting salient and problematic aspects which identify the polis, a concept by which we intend the communal life a group of men and women organised and governed according to norms that reflect shared values.

If upon such considerations we conclude that, on the one hand, there is no stable definition of political cinema, then on the other, for this very ← 10 | 11 → same reason, we can affirm that, as Maurizio Grande maintains, we are not in presence of an actual genre, but of a ‘filone which cuts diagonally across diverse genres and subgenres […] labelling their definite thematic or practical attitude towards politics’.25 If we follow Grande’s suggestion, one of the main questions to be addressed when investigating political cinema rests on the type of image put forth by the cinematic corpus to be analysed in relation to Italian public life, as conceived in its societal and its political context.26

Italian Political Cinema

Conceived and edited by two Italian film scholars working in radically different academic settings, Italian Political Cinema inscribes its investigation in this theoretical debate on Italian political film by bringing together a wide array of critical positions. Film scholars from Italy, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, and the US have contributed to this venture, which posits itself as a unique and multifaceted reflection on contemporary Italian political cinema.

The volume opens on a group of thematic essays that discuss contemporary political film from a variety of angles. Gaetana Marrone revisits the work of a selected group of early masters of political cinema, in order to set up the tone for the production of the coming years. Christian Uva continues this argument with a wider discussion of contemporary cinema, restricting the field of politics to what was once termed as civil engagement. Nicoletta Marini-Maio offers instead a unique perspective in this field by focusing on the cinematic presence of the most invasive and iconic political figure of the Second Republic, Silvio Berlusconi. The cinema of migration is the object of Áine O’Healy’s analysis, while non-fiction film is the focus of the two essays that follow: Anita Angelone’s investigation of the documentaries on migration and Elena Past’s examination of those ← 11 | 12 → dedicated to denouncing Ecomafia. Mary P. Wood and Alan O’Leary read political cinema through the lens of genre: Wood analyses its paradigmatic manifestations within film noir, while O’Leary draws connections, raising significant questions, between political and popular cinema. Although our choice was not to focus specifically on the political comedy, to which several essays make multiple references, O’Leary’s reading of the cinepanettone stands in stark and significant contrast with the following essay by Vito Zagarrio, where questions of form in political cinema target comedies as well as recent auteuristic efforts. Paolo Russo closes this first section dedicated to themes and genres by shifting gears and taking the reader through a detailed quantitative and statistical analysis of the economic aspects of political cinema, paying specific attention to its state and regional subsidisation.

In the second section of this volume, a group of scholars reprise the themes discussed earlier in the book by providing individual critical assessments of the recent cinematography of the most prominent directors currently engaged in this genre: Ruth Glynn on Marco Bellocchio, Cosetta Gaudenzi on Guido Chiesa, Laura Di Bianco on Francesca Comencini, Anna Paparcone on Marco Tullio Giordana, Marguerite Waller on Sabina Guzzanti, Simona Bondavalli on Daniele Luchetti, Marcia Landy on Nanni Moretti, Claudio Bisoni on Paolo Sorrentino, Monica Jansen on Daniele Vicari, and lastly Clarissa Clò on the documentarists Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi.

Questions of gender and sexuality, which were not the sole subject of any thematic essay in the first section, inflect many of the essays contained in the remaining two, as witnessed also by the choice of films selected to represent specific case studies of new political cinema. In this light, we should read Danielle Hipkins’s analysis of Nessuno mi può giudicare, Nicoletta Marini-Maio’s discussion of Cosmonauta, Catherine O’Rawe’s reading of La prima linea and Dana Renga’s study of Romanzo criminale. The selection of films analysed in this section is informed by their representative nature as well as by their wide distribution outside national borders. This is the case for Lamerica, Il divo, Gomorra, and Viva la libertà, analysed respectively by Luca Caminati, Pierpaolo Antonello, Millicent Marcus, and Giancarlo Lombardi. Other films were selected for their specific treatment ← 12 | 13 → of key aspects of new political cinema: Gius Gargiulo explores the continuity between Risorgimento and the anni di piombo in Noi credevamo; Giovanna De Luca investigates the cinematic representation of two hotly contested events in the history of mafia as portrayed in Placido Rizzotto and Segreti di Stato; Ellen Nerenberg studies the depiction of captivity in an emblematic, yet relatively unknown film, Tutta colpa di Giuda. We are of the opinion that all these films should be considered as constitutive of the filone of New Political Cinema. It is our hope that this tripartite structure will facilitate the utility and application of this volume for scholars and students of film alike, offering diverse points of entry into a subject that continues to deserve increased critical attention, inside and outside of academia.

1 W. Veltroni, ‘Il nostro nemico è il cliché’, Panorama (21 March 2012), 65. M. Renzi, ‘L’imprevisto ci può salvare’, Panorama (21 March 2012), 65. All translations ours.

2 All episodes of Il candidato were shown at the end of Ballarò and are now available online at <http://www.rai.it/dl/portaleRadio/Programmi/Page-e92daca4-c0b9-4571-a407-ac99931e5265.html?section=Main> accessed 1 November 2015.

3 W. Hope, L. d’Arcangeli, and S. Serra, eds, Un nuovo cinema politico italiano?, i: Lavoro, migrazione, relazioni di genere (Leicester: Troubador Publishing, 2013); Un nuovo cinema politico italiano?, ii: Il passato sociopolitico, il potere istituzionale, la marginalizzazione (2014).

4 See P. Antonello and F. Mussgnug, eds, Postmodern Impegno: Ethics and Commitment in Contemporary Italian Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009).

5 P. Bertetto, ‘“Il cinema è l’arma più forte”: È tornato il cinema politico?’, Alfabeta 2 19 (May 2012), 60–7.

6 R. Menarini and G. Spagnoletti, eds, Forme della politica nel cinema italiano contemporaneo: Da Tangentopoli al Partito Democratico e alle elezioni 2008, Close Up 23 (2007–8).

7 E. Galli Della Loggia, ‘Dov’è lo scandalo?’, Mondoperaio (March 1980).

8 R. Menarini, ‘Foto di famiglia in un interno: La rappresentazione politica dell’italia nel cinema di Luchetti’, in L. Ceretto and A. Morsiani, eds, Declinazioni del vero: Il cinema di Davide Ferrario, Daniele Luchetti e Daniele Vicari (Bergamo: Edizioni di Cineforum, 2007), 34–6; 35.


X, 448
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Italian Political Cinema Poltitical Engagement Noir Style
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 448 pp., 31 b/w ill., 3 fig.

Biographical notes

Giancarlo Lombardi (Volume editor) Christian Uva (Volume editor)

Giancarlo Lombardi is Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the College of Staten Island and at the Graduate Center/CUNY. He has published extensively on Italian film, television studies, and contemporary Italian literature. He is the author of Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction (2002) and the co-editor of Remembering Aldo Moro (2012) and Terrorism, Italian Style (2012). Christian Uva is Associate Professor at the University of Roma Tre. His books include Schermi di piombo. Il terrorismo nel cinema italiano (2007), Sergio Leone. Il cinema come favola politica (2013), and L’immagine politica. Forme del contropotere tra cinema, video e fotografie nell’ Italia degli anni Settanta (2015). He is the author of numerous articles in international journals and edited volumes, both on the intersection of politics and history in Italian cinema and on the theoretical implications of the advent of the digital era.


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