Boys on Film

A Conversation with Catherine O’Rawe on Italian Cinema, Masculinities and History

Catherine O’Rawe is Senior Lecturer in Italian at the University of Bristol. Catherine has a wide range of interests relating to Italian cinema and television. She and I have worked together often over the years, co-editing a special issue of the journal Italian Studies called ‘Thinking Italian Film’ and co-authoring essays on the obsession with realism in Italian cinema studies and on contemporary Italian audiences. We have had many conversations about Italian cinema and history; Catherine has published several articles on the topic and teaches a course in Bristol devoted to it. Italian cinema’s engagement with history is one of the key themes in her forthcoming book, Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema, due out this summer (2014) from Macmillan USA. 

Stars and Maculinities

Riccardo Scamarcio, flattered to adorn the cover of Catherine’s book

Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema deals with contemporary Italian male film and television stars using methodology drawn from star and performance studies. The book analyses how star bodies make visible contemporary anxieties about Italian masculinity. Catherine does not restrict herself to a given type of film, but discusses a variety of genres, from the culturally privileged directors’ cinema to critically derided teen comedies. I was particularly interested in finding out from Catherine about how so many films turn to Italy’s recent history in order to shore up normative (straight, white) masculinities in the present through the recuperation of prior models of masculinity from the past.

Alan O’Leary [AOL]: Catherine, I know this book is the result of years of reading, viewing, research and debate. Can I ask you to put it in the context of your career and ongoing concern with Italian cinema—and with the weaknesses of Italian cinema studies? Why did you write precisely this book—and who are your interlocutors?

Catherine O’Rawe [COR]: Well, you and I have collaborated since 2006 on the ‘Thinking Italian film’ project, which has tried to challenge orthodoxies of Italian film studies, not least the obsession with (neo)realism, and put the study of popular cinema front and centre. The book started with my work on Italian star Riccardo Scamarcio, whose trajectory from teen idol to serious actor of middlebrow dramas had interested me. I decided that I wanted to bring together the study of stars, masculinities and genre, in a way that hadn’t been done in relation to Italian cinema. One of the challenges in writing the book was the lack of critical work on many areas and genres, which meant that I had to try to apply methodologies borrowed from Hollywood cinema. However, Italian film studies is changing a lot at the moment and my work is informed by that of a lot of other scholars, particularly yourself, Danielle Hipkins, and Dana Renga. But I’ve also been influenced a lot by work by feminist media scholars on popular culture, and regularly find myself a bit out of sync with the preoccupations of people in Italian studies.

AOL: In the book proposal that I read you state that the study with most in common with yours is Christopher Perriam’s widely read Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema.[1] Perriam relates star personas and performance styles to off-screen Spanish masculinities, something you do for Italian cinema. But you avoid Perriam’s ‘one star per chapter’ approach, preferring to organise the book by theme or genre. Why the different approaches? Does it have to do with different national conditions? And can you talk about the choice of stars and films you discuss in the book: why these specifically? Was anything or anybody left out?

COR: My approach was partly determined by the fact that I am interested particularly in genre and I wanted to map the relationship of stars to particular genres and their movement through them. So, for example, when I look at Scamarcio, I more or less devote a chapter to him (on the teen film) but then I track how his charismatic presence is used in a nostalgic key (in my chapter on homosocial masculinity and the anni di piombo I look at his roles in Mio fratello è figlio unico (Daniele Luchetti, 2007) and Il grande sogno (Michele Placido, 2009)) and how the use of a ‘glamorous’ star like him provoked such unease (in my final chapter, on biopics, I look at his performance as Prima Linea leader Sergio Segio in La prima linea (Renato De Maria, 2009)). In addition, the ‘masculinities’ part is just as important as the ‘stars’ part, and in my chapter on Romanzo criminale, I am able to look at both the performances by well-known stars such as Pierfrancesco Favino, Kim Rossi Stuart, Stefano Accorsi, Claudio Santamaria, and Scamarcio, but also how the TV series (2008-2010) used relatively unknown actors (Vinicio Marchioni, Alessandro Roja, Francesco Montanari) and made them into cult figures. A final consideration is that Italian cinema hasn’t produced the contemporary male stars that Spanish cinema has, who have had international success: so Perriam is able to devote chapters of his book to Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, whose names are selling points. Really, none of the actors I look at have much international name recognition, as I find out every time a non-Italianist asks me who the stars are that I write about.

As for what was left out of the book: lots! I couldn’t really write about other types of public masculinities, for reasons of space, although I discuss the role of Berlusconi in structuring debates in Italy around the ‘feminization’ of masculinity. But it would be important to look at footballers and TV stars. I also left out Checco Zalone (Luca Medici), Italy’s biggest film star, whose most recent film, Sole a catinelle (Gennaro Nunziante, 2013), became the country’s most successful ever at the box office. I love Zalone, but I found it too difficult to integrate a discussion of his comic persona into my chapter on comedy, which deals with films about single fathers and co-habiting men.

AOL: I’m interested in the relationship between ‘masculinity’ and ‘history’ in the book. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that Italian masculinities are themselves historical, and so subject to change, and they also rely on history to construct themselves in ways that are not simply about ‘being a product of the past’. You are suggesting that contemporary Italian masculinities locate themselves in a specific past, finding their corroborees in specific periods. And you are suggesting that they employ cinema and television to do so (whether representation in that period, or of that period). Is this an accurate description of your argument?

COR: Yes. If, in Judith Butler’s terms, gender identities have to be constantly re-performed and re-secured, media texts are a key way in which those ‘everyday’ performances are shaped and articulated. I argue against a ‘reflectionist’ view, in which film is merely a mirror of society, and so for me screen performances constitute masculinities as much as they reflect them. I trace certain continuities of representation (so, for example, I argue that male melodrama is thedominant mode of Italian cinema, at least since the Second World War), but I also note how much recent cinema has recourse to nostalgia for particular forms of masculinity.

AOL: What periods does Italian cinema turn to in the past to ‘do its work’ about contemporary masculinities? Why those particular periods, in your opinion?

COR: I look predominantly at the 1970s, mainly because so much recent Italian cinema has turned to that period. And I argue that not only is current cinema interested in returning to the great site of trauma for Italythe years of terrorismbut intimately bound up with that is a return to what is felt to be a hegemonic or more authentic type of masculinity. This connection of authentic masculinity with ideological certaintythese films examine the period before the great ideological collapse of the early 1990sis highly suggestive, and of course it is also significant that they are set in a society represented as ‘before’ second-wave feminism. I read the nostalgia for a vernacular masculinity in gangster narratives such as Romanzo criminale (film and TV series) and Vallanzasca (Michele Placido, 2011) as symptomatic of a flight from the supposed ‘feminization’ of contemporary masculinity, represented of course in Italy by Berlusconi. But it is interesting that most of these films about the 1970s are also full of images and metaphors of haunting: the return of dead men, of lost boys, and of dead ideologies is both a promise and a curse.

AOL: Some of the most influential writers on film and history have argued that historical film has nothing to tell us about the period represented, but a lot to say about the period in which it was made.[2] You seem to agree…

COR: I wouldn’t at all say that these films have nothing to tell us about the period: what I think is interesting about them is that they are part of the cultural, public memory of the period. So many of the Italian films, for example, are directed and/or written by ex-’68ers and are imbued with this sense of nostalgia, defeat, afterness. One thing that I write about is the extensive use of archive footage to recreate the period, and I am particularly interested in the use of the archive (normally the use of TV news footage of significant historical events, such as the killing of Aldo Moro, or the footage of the various right-wing massacres we see at the start of La prima linea) as an attempt to fix historical memory, to, in the words of Roland Barthes, ‘constantly repeat this happened’. The archive image as a kind of ‘cure’ for the trauma of the anni di piombo, as an attempt to fill in the blanks of history, and as an obsessively restated ‘electronic lieu de mémoire’ speaks, I think, to the anxiety about historical memory of the period.[3] How is it being remembered? What is being left out? Who is allowed to speak?

AOL: When I interviewed the historian Simon Ball about his book on the cultural afterlife of the battle of El Alamein I was struck to find he had come to what we might consider ‘cultural studies’ conclusions about how films and novels on the battle often seemed to be about a crisis of masculinity: ‘All of them give a sense that things have changed while referring back to simpler but still deeply traumatic circumstances.’ This is similar to some of the observations in your book. I put it to Simon that David Bordwellof whom, I know, you are a big fanconsiders the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to be a trope of academic film studies and therefore to have exhausted its explanatory power. How would you respond to Bordwell?

COR: Well, I love Bordwell, as my students will testify, but we know that he has no interest in gender or ideology. I would agree with him in relation to the exhaustion of the trope of ‘crisis masculinity’, and I write about this a lot in the book. One of my conclusions (which chimes with and is influenced by scholars of American cinema such as Sally Robinson, Hamilton Carroll and Nicola Rehling) is that the obsessive return to masculinity in crisis is also a mode of reasserting the centrality of masculinity. I always think of Pam Cook’s great summation of this when she wrote in 1982 of the nostalgic narrative of Scorsese’s Raging Bull that ‘masculinity is put into crisis so that we can mourn its loss’.[4] So what I think is interestingand this is something that I am finding again in the new work I am doing on post-war Italian cinemais that these films endlessly re-propose a discourse of masculinity in crisis, defeated, feminized, degraded etc., in order to somehow redeem it or mourn it. And I think it is only when we acknowledge that these narrative positions are gendered, that we can recognise the work these films are trying to do. So, for example, Danielle Hipkins, has made a very powerful argument about the prevalence of the prostitute in post-war Italian cinema and how she functions as a figure onto which Italian national guilt can be displaced.[5] If you are a critic who ignores gender, as many are, then the prevalence of the prostitute is only either a reflection of society at the time, or a narrative oddity that has to be ignored or dismissed by also dismissing the films as melodramatic and therefore uninteresting.

Similarly, when we note how across a variety of genres (comedy, biopics, gangster films, melodrama) similar types of hysterical, neurotic, fragile masculinity recur, we can read this not just as denoting a ‘crisis of masculinity’ that may or may not relate to the real state of masculinities in Italy, but as forcing us to ask what is at stake in these representations? What are the consequences if masculinity is in (perpetual) crisis? And why is femininity never allowed to be in crisis?

AOL: Film historians and those who study film aesthetics (Bordwell is both) tend to be critical of the kind of work you do in your book (and that I do in my writing). In particular, they are sceptical about two aspects: the study of ‘national’ cinemas, and the assumption of a relationship between film genre and historical circumstances. How sure are you that there is something exceptional or even particular about the Italian case? You ask in the conclusion to the book (or at least in the book proposal!) whether the genre processes you analyse are on the verge of exhausting themselves in a ‘post-Berlusconi’ era of Italian masculinity. How would you demonstrate this relationship, methodologically speaking?

COR: I don’t think I do argue for the ‘exceptionality’ of Italy, especially as much of my methodology is taken from Anglo-American critics, since masculinity studies came so late to the Italian academy. On the question of the national, there is a tension between the necessary acknowledgement of the transnational conditions of the film industry, the global media flow that surrounds all spectators, and the fact that most of the films I look at are destined for an Italian audience. From ‘unexportable’ comedies to films that are revisiting obscure and complex moments of the national past, there is something to be discussed here about how certain Italian spectators are being addressed. Of course, I also look at how some of the ‘quality’ films circulate via festivals and international distribution, and, using your work, how often they employ a fascination with Italy’s ‘tainted heritage’ that can appeal to an international spectator too. A film like La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) both digs deep into Italian film heritage, particularly Fellini, in a way that international spectators appreciate, and employs a mode of male melodrama that is certainly not specifically Italian, but that comes out of a tradition of similar representations, not least those by Fellini himself.

In terms of the relationship between genre and historical circumstance, one of the ways that I have charted that in contemporary cinema is by looking at Italy’s national genre, comedy. In looking at the ways that popular comedies respond to the economic crisis, and to changing gender roles (so films that pay lots of attention to single fathers, to ‘soft’ masculinities and to abandoned men forced to seek solace in the homosocial peer group) I try not to think of these films as reflecting what is ‘really’ going on in Italian society but as symptomatic of anxieties about feminism and about the erosion of rights for men.

I did wonder in my book proposal whether there might be a new wave of films doing different things as these cycles exhaust themselves, but so far I haven’t seen that. Though there have been political comedies that are obviously grappling with the ‘post-Berlusconi’ question, such as Viva l’Italia (Massimiliano Bruno, 2012), Benvenuto presidente! (Riccardo Miliani, 2013), and particularly, Viva la libertà (Roberto Andò, 2013),which is a male melodrama about the left’s depression that it cannot produce a Berlusconi (see Guido Vitiello’s brilliant reading).[6]

AOL: You are highly sensitive to ‘intersectional’ questions in this book. You talk about gender, race, disability, age and class. Can I close by asking you to position yourself in relation to the material you’re discussing? What does it mean for you to write about this stuff as an Irish person, as a woman, as white, as an academic…?

COR: I think one of the things that allows me the possibility of writing about this is that I am not Italian. Although things are changing in Italian academia now, with lots of interesting work coming out on TV, on popular cinema and on media, generally speaking this type of work hasn’t been much practised. The cultural studies approach that I (and you) take hasn’t traditionally found much favour in most of the Italian academy. So as outsiders I think it is much easier, institutionally, for us to study these forms, even if I feel keenly at times my lack of the kind of general contextual knowledge that is second nature to an Italian who grew up with their media culture.

As a woman there were a couple of things that I really wanted to do with this book: one was just to point out the omnipresence of homosocial masculinity everywhere in Italian cinema. I am not necessarily critical of this (though of course it means a marginalization of female characters and a lack of interesting roles for actresses apart from girlfriend/love interest/whore/mother); on the contrary, it fascinates me. The constant recourse to close homosocial bonds to tell national stories tells us something profound, I think, about the relation between gender formations and the imagined nation. The fact that nobody really seems to notice this tells us what a blind spot it is.

I also wanted, as an ex-teenage girl, to try to redeem girls’ fandom (in my chapter on Scamarcio). The patronising dismissal, or venomous opposition, that most Italian critics have applied to ‘hysterical’ female fans tells us lots about those critics, but very little about the affective work that is going on in these intense bonds girls form with their idols. So I was partly writing on behalf of myself and my peers, against an Italian left-wing intellectual orthodoxy that has had little time for the activities of girls.

My identity as an academic obviously co-exists and is sometimes in tension with my identity as a viewer: so as a lover of rom-coms I write about why Italy doesn’t really make traditional rom-coms with a female address, preferring choral or episodic romances. And I did struggle with writing about some of the formulaic ‘gender wars’ comedies: I tried to avoid a moralistic condemnation of their endless gender essentialism, but I have to say that at a certain point, listening to the DVD commentary on Femmine contro maschi (Fausto Brizzi, 2011), as Brizzi endlessly went on about the ‘reality’ that men love football and women nag men into missing important matches, I was ready to get the pitchforks out.

As a white person, I think one of the most important things I learned was in thinking about the invisibility of whiteness, and the privilege attached to that invisibility. So, for example, when they heard I was writing about contemporary popular comedies and race, lots of people asked me how those films could be ‘about race’ when most of the characters were white. The privilege of ignoring race is central to whiteness, and when I looked at those films, they turned out to be full of anxieties about shoring up white masculinity, and about the ways that ‘masculinity, whiteness and heterosexuality are always articulated through each other’.[7]

Finally, as a person from (Northern) Ireland, the obsession with the recent past that many Italian films exhibit is very familiar to me: the ideas of trauma, of the unspeakable past, of the haunting presence of those who were lost, of the impossibility of suturing ideological conflict, but yet the constant attempt to do so via film, is something that clearly resonates outside the Italian context. The idea of the ‘passato che non passa’, the past that does not past, and the use of the male star to attempt to seal over these traumatic conflicts, is something in which I have both an academic and a non-academic interest and investment.


[1] Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: from Banderas to Bardem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2]See Pierre Sorlin, The Film In History: Restaging The Past (Barnes & Noble Books, 1980).

[3] The quote is from Robert Burgoyne, ‘Memory, History and Digital Imagery in Contemporary Film’, in P. Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 220-36 (p. 226).

[4] Pam Cook, ‘Masculinity in Crisis? Tragedy and Identification in Raging Bull’, in Screen, 23: 3/4 (1982), 39-46 (p. 40).

[5] Danielle Hipkins, ‘Were Sisters Doing It For Themselves? The Sister-prostitute and Discredited Masculinity in Post-war Italian Cinema’, in War-Torn Tales: Representing Gender and World War II in Literature and Film, ed. by Danielle Hipkins and Gill Plain (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 81-104.

[6] Guido Vitiello, ‘Re folli, capri espiatori e spiriti dei defunti. Appunti (quasi) antropologici sui politici nel cinema italiano’, available at <>.

[7] Nicola Rehling, Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity and Contemporary Popular Cinema (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010), p 4.