Mise-En-Scene and Narrative Strategies in the Tavianis and Wertmuller

Article excerpt

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects in film study is interpreting the way a director chooses to represent reality. When viewing events through a cinematic eye, we are subtly entranced by the manipulation of the camera. All elements of a picture, including the setting, lighting, and activity, are developed according to specific concerns with effect and expression. The communication of certain ideas and themes, then, is intimately tied to mise-en-scene. (1) In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director determines how events will be portrayed and what points the viewer should focus upon. A fruitful examination of mise-en-scene may be based on the director's stylistic approach. Even before the turn of the last century, movies began to develop in two major directions: the realist and the expressionist. The filmmakers were Auguste and Louis Lumiere and Georges Melies who between 1895 and 1905 set the two prevailing modes of cinema: the Lumieres defined realista--an interest in or concern for the actual or real, a tendency to view or represent things as they really are--while Melies created a sort of montage that is the antecedent of the fantasy mode or expressionism--an interest in or concern for the abstract, speculative, or fantastic (Barsam 28).

These classifications however require closer scrutiny because, although our tendency might be to group films according to one specific style, a careful analysis shows that the most complex and compelling films mingle both realism and expressionism to convey a certain mality. To illustrate my point so that it may be useful in a pedagogical presentation of Italian cinema, we will consider the elements of realism and expressionism in two widely known popular films: Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976) and the Taviani brothers' Night of the Shooting Stars (1982). (2) Before examining these films, however, it is helpful to delineate the general properties of these categories. Although for the purpose of contrast we tend to emphasize the polarity of realism and expressionism, it is important to remember that few films belong exclusively or completely to a particular style. The object of the film critic, then, is to determine the artist's stylistic emphasis. Generally speaking, realist cinema aims to preserve the spatial continuity of a situation, reproducing the surface of reality with as little distortion as possible. The director's concem lies in maintaining our sense of where details fit into a larger given system, and this is accomplished through a careful consideration of how objects and people may be filmed in order to suggest a richness comparable to real life. Here, illusion becomes an important part of the equation. In the attempt to convey a situation as realistically as possible, details must be selected with great subtlety, so that the world of film may appear to be a true mirror of reality. (3)

Although the expressionist is also attentive to the selection of details, reality is viewed as a fragmented body that is composed piece by piece according to the vision of the director. In literary terms this rhetorical device is called a synecdoche, similar to metonymy, a type of metaphor that uses a part to represent the whole. In film the synecdoche is most frequently rendered through an extreme close-up shot. (4) As a result, the illusion of the expressionistic world is more obviously subjective. Images are deliberately stylized and distorted without any great concern for accurately representing objective reality. At the same time, these ideas may be removed from their spatial and temporal context to establish a new world of meaning that is free to mimic or thwart our sense of the ordinary world. The construction of such films is often an arrangement of details to create a certain image of the whole. Because the composition is fragmentary, the viewer is less concerned with being convinced that the staged circumstances are real; the primary focus is the process through which the effect is achieved. …