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Brutal Vision

The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema

Karl Schoonover

Publication Year: 2012

Film history identifies Italian neorealism as the exemplar of national cinema, a specifically domestic response to wartime atrocities. Brutal Vision challenges this orthodoxy by arguing that neorealist films—including such classics as Rome, Open City; Paisan; Shoeshine; and Bicycle Thieves—should be understood less as national products and more as complex agents of a postwar reorganization of global politics. For these films, cinema facilitates the liberal humanist sympathy required to usher in a new era of world stability.

In his readings of crucial films and newly discovered documents from the archives of neorealism’s international distribution, Karl Schoonover reveals how these films used images of the imperiled body to reconstitute the concept of the human and to recalibrate the scale of human community. He traces how Italian neorealism emerges from and consolidates the transnational space of the North Atlantic, with scenarios of physical suffering dramatizing the geopolitical stakes of a newly global vision. Here we see how—in their views of injury, torture, and martyrdom—these films propose a new mode of spectating that answers the period’s call for extranational witnesses, makes the imposition of limited sovereignty palatable, and underwrites a new visual politics of liberal compassion that Schoonover calls brutal humanism.

These films redefine moviegoing as a form of political action and place the filmgoer at the center of a postwar geopolitics of international aid. Brutal Vision interrogates the role of neorealism’s famously heart-wrenching scenes in a new global order that requires its citizenry to invest emotionally in large-scale international aid packages, from the Marshall Plan to the liberal charity schemes of NGOs. The book fundamentally revises ideas of cinematic specificity, the human, and geopolitical scale that we inherit from neorealism and its postwar milieu—ideas that continue to set the terms for political filmmaking today.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xi

Expressing gratitude is by definition humbling, but the task of adequately acknowledging the people and institutions who helped to bring this book to completion feels monumental. The commitment of Mary Ann Doane to this endeavor was vital and sustaining. She believed in...

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pp. xiii-xxxiii

Late twentieth-century thinkers often repeat a fateful parable of how World War II destroyed the photographic image. “After the camps,” according to this parable, the camera image could only reveal its own inadequacy. The unprecedented death toll of World...

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1. An Inevitably Obscene Cinema: Bazin and Neorealism

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pp. 1-67

André Bazin’s writings exemplify mid-twentieth-century arguments that locate cinema’s representational richness in the photographic mechanics of image production. In the epigraph to this chapter, Bazin proposes that because cinema is based on the photograph...

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2. The North Atlantic Ballyhoo of Liberal Humanism

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pp. 69-108

LIFE magazine predicted in 1952 that Italian cinema would pose an increasing commercial threat to Hollywood’s domination of the U.S. market if Italy continued to produce both “provocative films” and “provocative beauties.”1 Life even went so far as to trace the recent American...

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3. Rossellini’s Exemplary Corpse and the Sovereign Bystander

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pp. 109-148

In his 1999 documentary My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese describes his personal devotion to Italian cinema. The film begins with the director sharing a memory from his childhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when every Friday night, his extended family gathered...

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4. Spectacular Suffering: De Sica’s Bodies and Charity’s Gaze

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pp. 149-183

Vittorio De Sica described his film Bicycle Thieves as “dedicated to the suffering of the humble.”1 He said that his Shoeshine arose from the desire to bring attention to “the indifference of humanity to the needs of others.”2 Over the course of the 1940s and early...

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5. Neorealism Undone: The Resistant Physicalities of the Second Generation

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pp. 185-213

Ordinarily, when the diegesis of one film overtly duplicates the diegesis of an earlier film, the cohesive homogeneity of fictional cinema implodes. Without an industrial rubric of star persona, adaptation, or sequeling, this form of diegetic repetition involves a disruptive...

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pp. 215-231

This book emerged from an encounter with a film. It was not an Italian film but rather the well-known HIV/AIDS documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin, 1993). That film raised questions for me about using the image of a suffering body to up the ante...


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pp. 233-265


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pp. 267-283

E-ISBN-13: 9780816680245
E-ISBN-10: 0816680248
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816675555

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012