The Case of Italian Cinema

Lecture series poster

Poster by Emma Gobbato


What is History on Film? The Case of Italian Cinema 1911-2010

This was originally designed as a large-scale project with five co-Investigators and multiple institutional partners. This iteration was not funded so the project is currently being redesigned in a slimmed down version. The text here is from the opening of the Case for Support in our funding bid to the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

This project brings together an international group of scholars at different career stages with expertise in Italian cinema, culture, politics and history to examine how Italian film has mediated history and established a relationship with the past over a century of cinema production. History has been a constant preoccupation of Italian cinema, while cinema is a controversial but key means of access to the past, often more influential than written history. Historical films (e.g., those that deal with fascism or 1970s terrorism) generate national debate within Italy, they are often chosen to represent Italy abroad, and they are privileged in academic criticism; but scholarship has tended to be based on a set of prescriptive assumptions about the ‘proper’ character of historical cinema that excludes many films. As a result, the vast majority of Italian films—even many very successful films—that have mediated history have not been studied in terms of how they establish a relationship with the past. In recent years, this has begun to change, and this project draws on and extends the reach and ambition of a growing body of scholarship concerning film and history in Italy and beyond. 

Using a mixed methodology and working in phases, this project will begin with the ‘distant reading’ (quantitative) analysis of every ‘feature’ film produced in a sample selection of ten yearsstarting with 1911, when multi-reel narratives were first produced in significant numbers, and ending with 2010in order to capture continuities and ruptures over a century of cinema. In a second phase, we will use the diverse expertise of the project team to ask a range of questions of representative corpora of films identified in phase one. The third phase of the project will apply our discoveries to the traditional canon of Italian historical cinema in order to test our conclusions and in order to demonstrate the utility of our approach for other contexts.  

The project will produce a range of written and audiovisual outputs and will benefit scholars in disciplines from Italian and screen studies to political science and history. The study of the Italian case will challenge canonical accounts of film and history, helping to take the study of film and history beyond its ‘perpetual embryonic state’ (Burgoyne 2007) by modelling an analytical approach to be adapted and applied to other national and transnational circumstances. 

Problems and research questions 

The project is designed to address the following problems:  

  • scholarship about history and cinema tends to begin with a definition of historical cinema that determines the character of the films taken into account: ‘history’ becomes taken for granted in such an approach, rather than an object of the study;  
  • history is a key theme and resource in Italian cinema and a central topic in Italian cinema studies, but scholarship has typically considered a small number of Italian films in certain privileged modes—especially realist, epic, art or ‘auteur’ films and a few admired comedies; 
  • because only a small number of films have been studied, we know relatively little about the character of the past communicated by Italian cinema—or, indeed, by cinema as such, as this tends also to be the case for other national traditions.