Workshop 1

Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

Cambridge, 28 February 2013 (Report)


This first afternoon workshop in a series of events intended to develop the project Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories was generously supported by the Cambridge Italian Research Network (CIRN) and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute. We are very grateful to Robert Gordon for making the CIRN funding available and to Nan Taplin and Robert for their organization of venue and refreshments in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and of accommodation in Downing College. Robert also kindly facilitated the presentation by Catherine O’Rawe and Christian Uva of the first issue of Cinema e storia: rivista di studi interdiscipinari (annual journal edited by Christian Uva and Paolo Mattera) at Caius College. Finally, many thanks to all the speakers and other participants for their precious contributions to an intriguing discussion.


Alan O’Leary (Leeds) introduced the project and the series of events – further workshops and/or seminars in Bristol and Leeds, panels at major conferences – and the various funding applications that will be used to develop it. He presented the project research question and goals, previously circulated, as apparently innocuous but far-reaching in their implications if comprehensively pursued:

Research Question: What are the modes, genres and registers in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy?

Research Goal: To rethink the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical rather than prescriptive and paternalistic perspective. The project will investigate the variety of ways in which Italians have understood and engaged with their history through the medium of dramatic film.

He presented as key to his vision of the project the assembly of an international group of scholars and construction of a flexible set of methodologies adequate to the analysis of large and complex corpora of films: these would include quantitative and ‘distant reading’ methods, as well as methods of micro-analysis. The key thing, though, is to achieve a conceptual ‘knight’s move’ that would value the actual engagement of people with history as catalysed by the cinema (the example given was of fashion influenced by historical costume in a Bollywood film) rather than starting with a prior idea of what ‘history’ and ‘historical film’ should be.

Christian Uva (Roma 3), in ‘La Storia nel cinema italiano: dibattito teorico e ipotesi interpretative’, gave an account of theories of film and history that have been influential in Italy, in particular the work of French writers like Marc Ferro from the Annales school and of Pierre Sorlin, and he introduced the significant contemporary work of Pietro Cavallo and Pasquale Iaccio: the latter is the director of a series for the publisher Liguori called Cinema e Storia ( Christian put an emphasis on the idea (from Maurizio Grande) of a cinematic ‘textualization’ of history or events, and on the idea of the ‘visibile’ – what lends itself to representation – versus the ‘invisibile’ – what cannot be represented, what cannot even be seen – in a given epoch. His emphasis on the construction of national identity through historical cinema proved controversial (seen by some as a dated line of inquiry), but this may be a question of vocabulary: after all, analyses of migration and ‘new Italians’ in Italian cinema must deal with such a theme, and there is a sense in which popular cinema needs to be discussed in the terms of ‘Italian national cinema’ that have traditionally be allowed only to auteurist and realist Italian cinema.

John Foot (UCL), in ‘Documentary and drama: The cases of Basaglia and the movimento’, discussed three very different documentaries (two Italian and one Finnish) dealing with asylums for the mentally ill in Italy and the successful movement to improve them. John was keen to adopt a more historical approach per se: he was interested in how reception itself has a history (often mythologized); he refused the distinction between history and memory previously debunked in his Italy’s Divided Memory; he insisted that there could be no intellectual justification beyond convenience or narrow disciplinary interest for excluding as pervasive a medium as television from the discussion of audio-visual media and history. He also implicitly challenged us to consider the distinction between ‘dramatic’ and documentary film. Christian Uva had already referred to the necessary ‘abolizione dell’obsoleta distinzione, eredità del positivismo, tra fiction e factual, documentario e film di finzione’. Both John’s and Christian’s interventi raised, therefore, challenging methodological questions.

Matt Boswell (Leeds), ‘Thinking about public engagement and impact’. Matt is a Germanist, specialist in Holocaust Studies, and Impact and Innovation Fellow with the Arts Engaged project at Leeds ( He explained his role in the Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories project as being one of helping to think through and organize collaboration with non-academic partners, including schoolteachers, cinemas and art centres, museums and other organizations. He suggested it was key to draft a description of the project that could be circulated and be attractive to non-specialists. This should make clear the purpose of the project, what it is trying to understand and who might benefit from the work. Essential to the notion of ‘impact’ – if it is not to be just a fleeting buzzword – is the informing of academic research questions by the perspectives of non-academic partners: this should not be an imposition but a stimulating possibility.

Dom Holdaway (Warwick) discussed two distinct modes historical representation, neither of which he was inclined to favour or disdain, in ‘Historiographic Performances and Metafictions, and Methods of Reading History’. Dom began by considering the fiction versus non-fiction distinction already problematized earlier; he noted how, for Stella Bruzzi, everything, even in so-called observational documentary, is ‘performed’. This idea of performativity informed Dom’s analysis of those dramatic feature films which use archive images and newsreel to ‘perform’ and authenticate the history they present. He suggested we needed proper audience research to discern the pleasures and engagements enabled for spectators by the ‘phenomenological enactment of history’. ‘Historiographic metafictions’, noted Dom, were the critically privileged mode of doing history. As in Sorrentino’s Il divo, such films claim historical veracity though irony and self-reflexivity, while disavowing that claim through the refusal of performativity. Dom finished by recommending the application of queer theory and the idea of queer temporalities in order to develop the idea of the ‘visibile’ and ‘invisibile’ introduced earlier by Christian Uva.

Paolo Noto (Bologna), in ‘Il film storico come genere’, used his expertise in the Italian genre cinema of the 1950s to offer a critique of the definition of the historical film proposed by Robert Rosenstone in the reading for the workshop. Paolo built on genre theory by Rick Altman and Steve Neale – which understands genres as descriptors held in common by industry, reviewers and audience – to debunk Rosenstone’s assertion that the historical ‘genre’ was something inherent to the film text itself. Besides, Rosenstone’s assertion that the historical film was a matter of appropriate organization of particular sorts of content couldn’t work in the Italian context for three reasons: the privileging of the auteur (so that a Visconti film will be seen as ‘historical’ whereas another, very similar, will not); the role of public institutions, which tend to fund history films (as ‘national cinema’) and to identify them as such; films have tended to be identified as aids to historical understanding within the family (Paolo mentioned a 2008 article by Elisa Soncini, ‘Quando il passato lo raccontano i media: Don Camillo, Peppone e il ricordo del dopoguerra italiano’, on how the Don Camillo series was used by Emilian families to make sense of the 1950s). Rosenstone, argued Paolo, has problematized the notion of historical truth only to reserve the historian’s authority to declare which film forms offer the correct approach to history.

The four participants in the roundtable, ‘Thinking about film and history’, reflected on the discussion during the afternoon and on how the project could be taken forward.

Pierpaolo Antonello (Cambridge) mentioned counterfactual approaches to history, and he talked about how different audiences might have different expectations of history (or perhaps, in Italy, a homogenous set of expectations given shared education?). In any case, the collective processing of historical film by ‘constituencies’ could also have a ritual function. He mentioned the sometimes ‘supplementary’ function of historical fiction in the absence of documents.

Robert Gordon (Cambridge) suggested various concerns the project might address going forward. He noted the variety of positions articulated earlier in the workshop and suggested one way to build a coherent project would be to investigate the history of conceptual modes for understanding the past. Memory, nostalgia, conspiracy – all have had their moment in the hermeneutical spotlight in the Italian context: what other terms might there have been, and what consequences have these had? He discussed the challenge of studying contemporary multi-platform systems for doing history (book-film-TV-online etc.): could equivalents for such systems be found in earlier periods?

Áine O’Healy (Loyola Marymount, LA) raised the question of the film on contemporary conditions as always-already historical, as in the migration films she had been working on, and suggested Pierre Sorlin’s approach to this question (in The Film in History, 1980) was inadequate. She was suspicious of a ‘window on the past’ approach she sees in writers like Rosenstone, and spoke of coming from a poststructuralist tradition of interpretation that discerns meaning in absences and refuses any metaphor of transparency. She was also interested in historical films as literary adaptation, wondering about the complexity of the twice-removed textualization (to borrow Christian’s term) of historical experience.

Catherine O’Rawe (Bristol) reprised the question of constituencies of reception and interpretation; she gave the example of YouTube user comments to clips from films: how can we study such material? Reception needed consideration too in relation to controversial pasts in biopics and other films (e.g., La prima linea, Vallanzasca). The ‘charisma’ of the star performers in such films has been judged dangerous and stardom. Perhaps the star impersonation of historical figures is one form of deployment of the archive, which includes footage and shared versions of the past (again, films like La prima linea and Vallanzasca bear this out). Finally, she wondered to what extent certain modes (love triangles, male melancholy, ‘hauntology’)  are to be considered particularly Italian?

The workshop showcased a variety of approaches to Italian film (and television) and history that were not always obviously compatible. There seemed to be several distinct, if also overlapping, attitudes to history and film at work in the discourse of the speakers.

  1. Film (and television) as historical source. This was seen in John’s paper, but is also implicit in the work of say, Sorlin, who sees historical films as telling us only about the period in which they were made, not about the past they represent.
  2. Film as vehicle of historical understanding. This is Rosenstone’s explicit position, but it was implicit in the whole discussion even when speakers were sceptical, and was seen in particular in Dom’s paper.
  3. Film (or features or absences therein) as symptom of historical circumstance. Áine argued this, and the position has something in common with film as source (1), though it requires more elaborate forms of hermeneutical unpacking (e.g., symptomatic reading).
  4. Film as catalyst for historical engagement. This was Alan’s position, in which film is understood as enabling uses of history through discursive (e.g., arguments about factual accuracy) and non-discursive (e.g., ‘wearing’ history through the appropriation of costume) circulation.
  5. Film as itself an object of historical understanding. As scholars of film, we all subscribe to this, but it particularly informed John’s and Paolo’s papers.
  6. Film as part of a field of historical representation or processing of historical experience. John argued for this when he insisted television could not be omitted

Given our differences, it will be important to articulate parallel lines of enquiry if a large project (and large grant proposal) can be built from shared interests. It will also be important to articulate what distinguishes the project from previous work on Italian cinema and history, like that of Marcia Landy. One means of distinguishing a project would certainly be to widen the range of texts to be considered (whether by considering popular or otherwise neglected material, or by including television etc.). Another would be to place film in a broader field (as per (6) above), and to study particular themes or periods from that perspective (as Robert has already done on the Holocaust in Italian culture). Perhaps also, quantitative and digital methods of analysis might allow a vastly enlarged corpus to be apprehended – enabling, to adapt Franco Moretti (and to risk his positivistic nostalgia), a more ‘rational’ film history. In any case, the discussion in the next workshop, devoted to methodologies for the study of film and history (Bristol, 24 April 2013), will be key to discerning if it is feasible to articulate a large project built on shared interests, and participants are invited to suggest readings they consider particularly pertinent.

Readings for the Cambridge workshop (available here:

  1. Marc Ferro, ‘Linee per una ricerca’, in Gianfranco Miro Gori (ed), La storia al cinema: ricostruzione del passato/interpretazione del presente (Rome: Bulzoni, 1994), pp.73-78
  2. Marnie Hughes-Warrington,  ‘Genre’, in id., History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 36-57
  3. Marcia Landy, The Historical Film: History and Film in Media (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 1-22.
  4. Peter Miskell, ‘Historians and Film’, in Peter Lambert and Philipp Schofield (eds), Making History: An Introdcution to the History and Practices of a Discipline (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 245-56.
  5. Robert Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History (Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2006), pp. 11-31.
  6. Pierre Sorlin, ‘Un cantiere da aprire: il cinema di storia’, in Gianfraco Miro Gori (ed), La storia al cinema: ricostruzione del passato/interpretazione del presente (Rome: Bulzoni, 1994), pp. 103-113

Participants at the Cambridge workshop

Pierpaolo Antonello (Cambridge)
Matt Boswell (Leeds)
John Foot (UCL)
Robert Gordon (Cambridge)
Dom Holdaway (Warwick)
Chuck Leavitt (Reading)
Paolo Noto (Bologna)
Áine O’Healy (Loyola Marymount, LA)
Alan O’Leary (Leeds)
Catherine O’Rawe (Bristol)
Colin Schindler (Cambridge)
Christian Uva (Roma 3)