A Master Narrative in Italian Cinema?

By Celli, Carlo | Italica, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

A Master Narrative in Italian Cinema?


Celli, Carlo, Italica


Andre Bazin wrote that when reduced to basic plot elements, Italian films are often structured like moralizing melodramas (264). Bazin was writing about the thematic debts that neorealism owed to the Italian professional cinema before World War II. But when the Italian film canon is examined in light of his comment, analysis reveals an oft-repeated narrative pattern that draws from deep-seated literary, historical, and cultural sources. The narrative commonplaces that consolidated during the early sound cinema of 1930s and continued in the neorealist period as noted by Bazin, have in fact been a continuing if not defining characteristic of the Italian cinema in the work of noted directors across genre divisions.

The idea of a master narrative in national cinema is most often associated with Hollywood rather than Italy. The recognition of the three act happy ending narrative as a defining characteristic of mainstream classical Hollywood is a foundation of the study and teaching of film (Bordwell 76; Crofts 26; Giannetti 329; Kolker 99). Scholars may have realized that narrativity is culture bound (Scholes 393), but there has been a lack of scholarly attention to potential master narratives in national cinemas outside classical mainstream Hollywood film. Much discussion of national issues in cinema rests on the assumption that classical Hollywood cinema is supranational and transcultural. This designation of the importance and dominance of Hollywood has caused other national traditions to receive scholarly attention for expressing a style in opposition to the Hollywood model. A Hollywood non-Hollywood polarity has even been identified as a corner stone of academic film study (Elsaesser 24).

Studies of national culture often cite Benedict Anderson's conception of the nation as an imagined community with origins in the educational policies and print media of secular cultural currents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since silent film was inherently universal due to its reliance on image rather than language, the separations between individual national cinematic traditions did not consolidate until the arrival of sound technology in the 1930s (Williams 1). This thesis regarding the importance of sound in the development of national cinemas seconds Anderson's affirmation of the centrality of print media in the creation of national cultures in the nineteenth century. The role of sound in the cinema is a logical extension of the part played by linguistic identity in the formation of separate cultural and national traditions. Sound in the cinema divided national cinemas by standardized tongues, koinai, which communicate to a body politic and cultural community familiar with the historical and cultural commonplaces of the nation in question. Cinema may have been somewhat universal before sound, but after sound it became more culturally specific as national film industries reeling from competition with Hollywood after World War I were able to offer a product that could find a niche in a national market. If national cinemas have developed allegorical patterns (Xavier 361) or national projections (Frodon 12), the consolidation of these attributes began in the early sound period.

The early sound period was also concurrent with a political climate in which many countries in Europe underwent right-wing political turnovers before the outbreak of World War II. (1) This global right-wing political tendency included a reliance on protectionism in trade that extended to cultural policies. National interests were emphasized politically, militarily, culturally, and industrially as an expression of prestige. The first Italian sound film was La canzone dell'amore by Gennaro Righelli (1931), although the first sound production was Alessandro Blasetti's Resurrectio (1931), released shortly thereafter. In Italy the appearance and diffusion of sound film coincided with the cultural and political moment of Mussolini's fascist regime. …

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