Angelo Restivo, The cinema of economic miracles: visuality and modernization in the Italian art film. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2002
ISBN 0 8223 2799 6
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)
Given all that has already been written about postwar Italian cinema, the question that inevitably arises in picking up yet another book on the subject is whether anything more - or, at least, anything new and illuminating - can still be said about it. It's the question that, with typical courage and perspicacity, Restivo himself asks at the very opening of his study but which the 170 dense and insightful pages that follow allow us to answer emphatically in the affirmative. Indeed, I'd be tempted to say that this is one of the most interesting and intellectually-stimulating books on Italian cinema to have appeared in quite some time, a book which not only proves that there is more to say about Italian cinema but also furnishes some exciting new ways of exploring it further.
Creatively blending Henri Lefebvre's idea of space as a "heterogenous superimposition of historical moments and practices"with Lacanian notions of the Gaze and The Other (especially as further developed by Slavoj Zizek), and using Frederick Jameson's The geopolitical aesthetic as the other overarching point of reference, Restivo patiently constructs an elaborate and multi-layered argument about "a certain tendency"in Italian cinema of the early 1960s, the period of the so-called "Italian economic miracle". It's an argument which, due to its complexity, subtlety and theoretical sophistication, resists easy summary. It should be said, though, that this is, happily, one of those rare but welcome occasions when the toolbox of postmodern theory is used creatively to explore, analyse and illuminate rather than to bludgeon the reader and, in any case, the overall - and necessary - theoretical density of the book is everywhere greatly alleviated by the lucidity of Restivo's transparent writing style.
Restivo's study of this "certain tendency"in Italian cinema - by and large the Italian art film of the early 1960s and, in particular, the early films of Pasolini and the middle films of Antonioni - is subtitled "Visuality and modernization in the Italian art film", which certainly gives some idea of its extensive scope and ambitions. Given its focus and approach, however, it might as well have been ranged under the rubric - to borrow a phrase Restivo himself uses - "Italian cinema in the light of neocapitalism and the incipient postmodernity that accompanies it".
Postwar Italian cinema, Restivo argues, was profoundly connected to both to the processes of political and economic re-organisation that re-constructed the Italian nation into the Italy that we see today and to the larger and more "invisible"processes which marked the spread and transformation of global capitalism into postmodern consumerism. But Restivo emphatically rejects a simplistic "reflectionist"position between cinema and history especially if founded on a similarly simplistic notion of the nation. For Restivo the nation (and the notion of a national cinema) needs to be thought through in a more theoretically-sophisticated way, involving at the same time the complex processes of fashioning an "imagined community", to borrow Benedict Andersen's formulation, and a conceptual construction that orchestrates local and public spaces into "coherences"or structures of meaning. Cinema is thus central to nation-building, especially at times of "vital crises", since it can both create and project immagined communities and connect local and public spaces into meaningful structures through the use of narrative.
In the immediate postwar period, Neorealism shouldered a central role in attempting to fashion the new Italian nation. From this perspective the great neorealist achievement of Roma città aperta (Italy 1945) was precisely the creation and projection of an alternate imagined community to the (equally media-constructed) nation or imagined community of fascist construction. A year later Paisà (Italy 1946) took the process of nation-building further by not only attempting to unite different regional communities together in its six different episodes but also explicitly bringing spaces together in the map of the Italian peninsula which gradually becomes uniformly white as the forces of liberation are shown moving upwards along the Italian boot. It's significant, suggests Restivo in an aside, that Rossellini doesn't end up showing the Italian boot completely whitened by the movement of liberation but rather allows a "stain"to remain in the northeastern sector, approximately at the place of Salò (Italy/France, 1975).
Nevertheless, as is well-known, Neorealism itself failed and, in a sense, was destined to fail. On the one hand its commitment to an "aesthetics of reality"was self-defeating since Italy's millenarian regionalism worked against the construction of anything but the most fictionalised national unity. On the other hand the radical political openness that had existed briefly after the war which had allowed Neorealism to project an Italy fashioned along the lines of Partisan dreams, was greatly reduced by the 1948 elections and reduced further as the Christian Democrat party consolidated its power in the early 1950s. Neorealism thus disappeared and left the representation of the fragmented "real"Italy, in particular the pronounced uneven socio-economic development between North and South (the so-called Southern Question), to "pink neorealism"and to commedia all'italiana. Meanwhile, as the economic miracle gained momentum, Italy, both in terms of imagined representation and in terms of physical space, was being radically refashioned by processes connected with the globalisation of consumer capitalism and the postmodernism that accompanied it. Fellini's 8 and 1/2 (Italy/France 1963) marking perhaps the end of what Restivo calls "Fellini's voyage to the end of Neorealism", dramatised above all the rise and triumph of the "information industry"in Italian culture. By this time, too, the physical map of Italy was itself being redrawn by the autostrada network which was literally re-mapping the national space according to new flows of consumption and the new-found mobility afforded by the motor car (a central part of the book is, in fact, a reworking of a previous article by Restivo titled "The nation, the body and the Autostrada"which had appeared in The road movie book, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (Routledge, 1997). In this context, as Restivo rightly argues, Risi's much undervalued 1962 comedy, Il sorpasso, comes to take on emblematic value as it stages the tensions between a new and an old Italy through the trope of the road and the motor car.
Neorealism's early demise didn't prevent it from casting a long shadow - in fact, as Millicent Marcus has shown, most subsequent Italian cinema gains greatly from being looked at precisely "in the light of Neorealism". Restivo's considerable merit in this book, however, is to have intuited that the "art films"of the early 1960s, specifically the early films of Pasolini and those of Antonioni's middle period, are engaging quite specifically both with the legacy of Neorealism and, in a more critical way, with the contemporary processes of nation-building and the "anthropological transformation", as Pasolini called it, that was taking place as consumer neocapitalism extended its dominion, creating a new national Italian language and thus a new Italian subjectivity.
While Restivo's brief analysis of what he calls the "dialectical image"in films like Accattone (Italy 1961) is certainly interesting and his reading of Teorema (Italy 1968) is also thoroughly illuminating, a particularly clever stratagem is his choice to highlight Comizi d'amore, a little-known documentary made by Pasolini in 1964 as an investigation into contemporary Italians'attitude to sex, marriage, prostitution and homosexuality (and this at a time when Pasolini, following the "scandal"caused by La ricotta. in 1963, had become Italy's most controversial artist-intellectual). The documentary, clearly in the line of Zavattini's attempts in the early 1950s to use film to investigate contemporary Italy and Italians - one thinks of L'amore in città (Italy 1953) for example - is interesting particularly because it is an avowed and self-conscious attempt to uncover, through a mixture of raw interviews and expert sociological commentary, the "real"Italy. Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Pasolini discovers in 1964, as the crest of the economic miracle is passing, is that regionalism and heterogeneity are still rampant beneath the totalising discourses of consumer neocapitalism. One might note that the importance Restivo grants to this neglected work by Pasolini was independently confirmed recently by when Comizi d'amore was screened publicly in Rome in November 2002 as part of "Poetiche della realtà", an open four-day conference exploring the role of Italian cinema in creating images of national identity. In fact Pasolini's original film was shown together with Comizi d'amore 2000, a documentary made for Italian television in the year 2000 by Bruno Bigoni in which Bigoni put to contemporary Italians from all over the peninsula the same questions which Pasolini had asked Italians in 1964. The result was indeed instructive. While the most "liberated"of Pasolini's respondents had embraced an affirmation of sexuality, difference and "modernity", many young people in Bigoni's documentary claimed that nowadays there was too much pressure to try to appear different and some even expressed the desire to be quietly "normal".
Restivo's dense pages on Antonioni are among the most difficult but also most rewarding and insighful parts of this insightful book. What turns out to be a Lacanian-Zizekean analysis of the disembodied gaze in Blow-up (UK 1966) and Red Desert (France 1964) is too complex and finely-honed to be bluntly summarised in a review of this sort. However, over and above throwing more light on these Antonioni classics, the greatest merit of Restivo's afforts here is to reconnect Antonioni with the neorealist project. Antonioni had, of course, contributed to films like the Zavattini-inspired Amore in città which had openly touted itself as a cinematic investigation into the lives and attitudes of contemporary Italians. Restivo's analyses of these later Antonioni films serve to illustrate that Antonioni had indeed not abandoned the neorealist project and retreated into formalism but rather had sought to push the neorealist inquest to its limit by looking beyond appearances themselves and, in an Italy already dominated by the televisual image and the simulacrum, had discovered not things-in-themselves but rather the disembodied gaze of the Other.
All of this allows Restivo to motivate his use of the plural ("miracles") in his title. His working thesis, announced in the very first pages of the book, is that Italian postwar cinema was so imbricated with the rapid spread of consumer capitalism and the consequent radical social transformations from pre- to post-modernity that it can serve as a paradigm for the cinemas of other nations undergoing their own "economic miracle". Restivo's final chapter, "The erotics of the periphery", bears out this thesis in its examination of several telling examples of Taiwanese cinema as well as what he calls the "international youth film". The parallels Restivo is able to draw, especially with Pasolini's early cinema and its emphasis on the body, are intriguing and stimulating although this section is all too brief and clearly the beginning of another study which the reader hopes Restivo will take up at greater length in a following book.
As Umberto Eco once cautioned in a radio interview, the blurb on the back cover of books should always be read with some suspicion since its main purpose is not so much to inform but rather to entice the reader to buy the book. However, as one turns to the back cover of Restivo's book, still hungry for more stimulus and insights, it's difficult not to agree wholeheartedly with Peter Brunette's declaration that "this is one of the best books written in English on Italian cinema, and by far the most theoretically advanced [...] a brilliant work, one that will be a productive model for the future study of Italian cinema as well as the investigation of national cinema in general".
Australian National University.
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Created on: Wednesday, 25 June 2003 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June 2003