Teaching at Leeds

Level 3 module: Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories


Alan writes: This page contains materials relating to a level 3 (final year undergraduate) course at Leeds, first taught in semester 2 (January to June), 2014-15. The course is substantially based on material I taught in Mumbai, much of which is recorded here.

There are now many courses devoted to film and history, and to Italian film and history, around the academic globe. Many of them are divided according to event or period, so that a class might deal with films on the First World War or on fascism, etc. Or a course might be divided according to period in the history of cinema, so that we might have a class on early cinema, then one on films form the thirties, from the neorealist moment etc. Neither is my approach on this course. I have preferred to deal with modes of approach to history on film, or with persistent themes and motifs in the articulation of history in Italian cinema. I recognise the selection of these is pretty arbitrary, and that the films utilized to illustrate each mode or theme are generally quite recent. (I have been guided in the choice of films often by my knowledge of the corpus of films on the terrorism of the long 1970s in Italy.)


Module Description

What are the modes, genres and registers in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy? The discipline of history has traditionally been sceptical of historical cinema: complaints about factual inaccuracy or ‘melodramatic’ manipulation are familiar. Film scholarship has also been ambivalent about treating cinema as a vehicle for historical understanding because of the risk of dealing with film as a ‘transparent’ medium. Even historians and film scholars sympathetic to historical film posit exclusive categories of films considered ‘properly’ historical, and thereby transpose the traditional suspicion of historical film to less favoured forms of cinema, deplored as ‘costume drama’, ‘romance’ etc. We will analyse and challenge this approach, and we will rethink the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical rather than from a prescriptive and paternalistic perspective.





The first film in each case must be viewed before the class. Individuals will be asked to report on the other films. In each case, I have suggested a non-Italian film as a further example that might be considered. 


Texts marked with an asterisk must be read in advance of the class. In the case of websites, you are not expected to read everything, but just to familiarize yourself with the contents. Individuals will be asked to report on the other texts, which may be useful for essays and will also be available on the VLE (a bibliography of standard works and suggestions for further reading will be provided during the course).

1 Introduction to ‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’(project and course)
  • Alan O’Leary, ‘Towards an Ecology of Cinema and History’, The Italianist, 34: 2 (2014), 250-5*
  • Project website <https://historyonfilm.leeds.ac.uk/>
  • Teaching website <http://italiancinema-mumbai.tumblr.com>
2 Film and history: Introduction to key ideas
  • Robert A. Rosenstone, chapters 1 and 2 of History on Film/Film on History (Harlow: Longman/Pearson, 1996), pp. 1-31*
  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Introduction to History goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 1-15*
  • Jonathan Stubbs, ‘What is Historical Cinema?’, in Historical Film: A Critical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 9-36
  • Marcia Landy, Introduction to Cinematic Uses of the Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 1–29
  • Peter Miskell, ‘Historians and Film’, in Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline, ed. by Peter Lambert and Phillipp Schofield (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 245-56
3 Nation
  1. La battaglia d’Algeri (1966)
  2. Paisá (1946)
  3. Michael Collins (1996)
  • John Dickie, ‘Imagined Italies’, in David Forgacs and Robert Lumley (eds), Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 19-33*
  • Andrew Higson, ‘The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema’, in Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (eds), Cinema and Nation (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 63-73
  • Pierre Sorlin, Introduction to Italian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 1-13
4 Gender
  1. Cosmonauta (2009)
  2. Romanzo criminale (2005)
  3. Elizabeth (1998)
  • Bernadette Luciano and Susanna Scarparo, ‘Reinventing our Mothers: Gendering History and Memory’, in Reframing Italy: New Trends in Italian Women’s Filmmaking (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2013) , pp. 86-116*
  • Catherine O’Rawe, ‘The Last Real Men: Romanzo criminale’, in Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema (New York: Palgrave, 2014), pp. 97- 115
  • Alan O’Leary, ‘The Gendered Space of Cinema and Nation in Elizabeth and Michael Collins’, Studies in European Cinema 1: 2 (2004), 117-28
5. Conspiracy
  1. La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide (1975)
  2. Il caso Moro (1986)
  3. JFK (1991)
  • Mary P. Wood, ‘Revealing the hidden city: The cinematic conspiracy thriller of the 1970s, The Italianist, 23: 1 (2003), 150-62*
  • Austin Fisher, ‘Il braccio violento della legge: Revelation, conspiracy and the politics of violence in the poliziottesco’, Journal of Italian Cinema and Media Studies, 2: 2 (2014), 167-81
  • Robert Burgoyne, ‘Modernism and the Narrative of nation in JFK, Ilha do Desterro – A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies, 32 (1997). 81-97
6 Comedy
  1. Don Camillo (1952)
  2. S.P.Q.R. (1994)
  3. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1988)
  • Hannu Salmi, Introduction: The Mad History of the World’, in Historical Comedy on Screen (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2011), pp. 7-30*
  • Elisa Soncini, ‘Quando il passato lo raccontano i media: Don Camillo, Peppone e il ricordo del dopoguerra italiano’, in Marco Santoro (ed.), Nuovi media, vecchi media (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2008), pp. 251-72
  • Alan O’Leary, ‘On the Complexity of the Cinepanettone’, in Popular Italian Cinema, ed. by Louis Bayman and Sergio Rigoletto (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 200-13
  • Q. Hunter, ‘Capitalism Most Triumphant: Bill & Ted’s Excellent History Lesson’, in Deborah Cartmell et al. (eds), Pulping Fictions: Consuming Cultures across the Literature/Media Divide (London: Pluto Press, 1996), pp. 111-24
7 Memory and ‘chaostory’
  1. Il caimano (2006)
  2. Buongiorno, notte (2003)
  3. Inglourious basterds (2009)
  • John Foot (2009). Italy’s Divided Memory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 1-29*
  • Clodagh Brook, ‘The Cinema of Resistance : Nanni Moretti’s Il Caimano and the Italian Film Industry’, in Daniele Albertazzi et al. (eds), Resisting the Tide: Cultures of Opposition Under Berlusconi (2001-06) (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), pp. 110-23
  • Niall Ferguson, Introduction, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals(London: Papermac, 1998), pp 1-90
8 Heritage
  1. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
  2. Tea with Mussolini (1999)
  3. JodhaAkbar (2008)
  • ‘From Political Critique to Online Fandom: Claire Monk on British Heritage Film, its Origins and Afterlife’, Interview with Claire Monk available at http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/screeningeuropeanheritage/956/*
  • Rosalind Galt, ‘Italy’s Landscapes of Loss: Historical Mourning and the Dialectical image in Cinema Paradiso, Mediterraneo and Il postino’, Screen, 43: 2 (2002), 158-73
  • Pauline Small (2005), ‘Representing the Female: Rural Idylls, Urban Nightmares’, in New Directions in Italian Cinema, ed. by William Hope (Oxford: Peter Lang), pp. 151-74
9 Case study: The Holocaust
  1. La vita è bella (1997)
  2. Kapò (1960)
  3. Schindler’s List (1993)
  • Robert S.C. Gordon, ‘Real Tanks and Toy Tanks: Playing Games with History in Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella/Life is Beautiful’, Studies in European Cinema, 2: 1 (2005), 31-44*
  • Millicent Marcus, ‘“Me lo dici babbo che gioco è?”: The Serious Humor of La vita è bella, Italica, 77: 2 (2000), 153-70
  • Giacomo Lichtner, ‘La Vita è Bella ad Auschwitz: luogo della memoria e dell’amnesia’, Cinema e Storia: rivista di studi interdisciplinari, 2 (2013), pp. 69-84
10 Case study: Terrorism
  1. Romanzo di una strage (2012)
  2. Mio fratello è figlio unico (2007)
  3. The Baader Meinhoff Complex (2008)
  • Giancarlo Lombardi, ‘Screening Terrorism: Cinematic Portrayals of the Italian Armed Struggle’, in Peter Bondanella (ed.), The Italian Cinema Book (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 246-53*
  • Alan O’Leary, ‘Italian Cinema and the anni di piombo’, Journal of European Studies, 40: 3 (2010), 243–57
  • Catherine O’Rawe, ‘Brothers in Arms: History and Masculinity in the anni di piombo’, in Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema (New York: Palgrave, 2014), pp. 117-37
  • Chris Homewood, ‘From Baader to Prada: Memory and Myth in Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)’, in Paul Cooke and Chris Homewood (eds.), New Directions in German Cinema (London/NY: I. B. Tauris, 2011), pp. 130-48

Module Objectives

This module will investigate some of the ways in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy. It is intended to introduce students to key theories of history on film and to test and sometimes challenge these theories by applying them to a variety of Italian films. It is also intended to challenge the common sense ‘deviation from fact/historical record’ discourse typical around historical cinema. The key objective is to allow students to think the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical perspective.

  • On completion of this module students will have gained a critical awareness of theories of film and history.
  • They will have become familiar with a variety of approaches to the representation of history in Italian cinema.
  • They will be able to apply their knowledge and analytical skills to historical films from other cinemas.

Assessment is by oral presentation and two essays of 2,000 words each.

Essay titles

  1. What is your definition of historical cinema? In your essay you should consider various critics’ approaches to the question of the definition of historical cinema.
  2. Discuss the contention that historical cinema is invariably concerned with the nation.
  3. ‘Men act and women appear.’ Consider John Berger’s famous comment on the symbolic roles allotted to the genders in relation to historical cinema.
  4. ‘Conspiracy theories […] foreground in whose interests society is ordered as it is.’ Consider the historical conspiracy film in the light of Mary P. Wood’s remark.
  5. According to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. Discuss historical comedy in the light of Marx’s assertion.
  6. Assess the contention that the best historical films posit a ‘what if…?’ question about the events or circumstances of the past.
  7. Discuss the assertion that in heritage cinema ‘the past is no more than a look or style, or a mass of material artefacts’.
  8. According to Franco Moretti, La vita è bella shows ‘what a childish adult wants a child to know about Auschwitz’. Discuss the appropriate means of representing the Holocaust in the light of Moretti’s remark.
  9. Italian cinema dealing the terrorism of the long 1970s is a cinema of ‘divided memory’. Discuss.