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  • Engendering Occupation: The Body as Warzone in Liliana Cavani’s La pelle
  • Ruth Glynn

War has long had a special relationship with space. As Kate McLoughlin recently observed, space is both the subject and venue of war – it is what is fought for, defended, conquered or lost (86–87). War not only alters the space on which and in which it occurs but also produces space: the ‘battlefield,’ the ‘site of engagement’ and the ‘warzone’ are all produced by the practice of war in its conventional territorial forms. But where does the space of war begin and end? And can war be understood or delineated in purely spatial terms? Following the emergence of new forms and practices of warfare, recent scholarship has come to consider anew the relationship between war and space, to question traditional understandings of the relationship between the two, and to expose the ideological premises of discursive conventions surrounding the articulation of war and space.1

Feminist scholarship has been particularly productive in questioning the ideological premises – gender and otherwise – underpinning traditional spatial delineations between war and non-war. Cynthia Enloe, for instance, in her pioneering study of the gendering of war narratives, Does Khaki Become You?, exposed the ideological strategies at play in the military’s constant redefinition of war and its spaces “as wherever ‘women’ are not” (15). More recently, Chris Cuomo and Miriam Cooke have queried the extent to which spatial boundaries between “war” and “non-war,” combat zones and safe zones, relate to the experiences of women. Noting that much of the military violence done to women occurs outside the boundaries of declared wars, Cuomo argues that “the spatial metaphors used to refer to war as a separate, [End Page 345] bounded sphere indicate assumptions that war is a realm of human activity vastly removed from normal human life” (30). To counter such misleading assumptions, Cuomo calls for a feminist reconceptualization of war as a continuum of peacetime violence rather than as a discrete event or space. In a similar vein, Cooke observes in women’s accounts of war a rejection of the polarization of space inherent to the paradigmatic (male) ‘War Story.’ In rejecting such polarization, Cooke argues, women’s narratives contest the dyadic structure underpinning the rhetoric and practice of war, and reveal that for women “the violence of war is not so different from the violence of peace” (43).

Cooke’s insistence on the importance of asking questions about how war is (en)gendered and how that (en)gendering relates to the production and practice of space underpins this brief consideration of Liliana Cavani’s cinematic treatment of the post-Liberation occupation of Naples by the Allied Forces in 1943–44 in La pelle (1981).2 The very concept of the city ‘occupied’ by recently Allied forces and hosting the headquarters of the US Fifth Army throughout its winter-spring campaign at Monte Cassino, fifty miles north, necessarily questions the spatial parameters of the warzone and troubles the border between militarized and civilian spaces. However, in its attention to the ways in which “war is produced, constructed, and waged on highly gendered terrain,” Cavani’s film provides an important cinematic counterpart to contemporary theoretical interventions which seek to “disrupt and make visible the masculinized, militarized, racialized, sexualized and classed dynamics through which war operates” (Hunt and Rygiel 3). Key to Cavani’s project are the presentation of the Allied Occupation of Naples as a continuum of capitalist American imperialism – a practice which itself blurs the boundary between the spaces of war and non-war – and the reconceptualization of the warzone not in terms of physical or topological space but in terms of the gendered and corporeal space of the human body.

Rather than a screen adaptation of Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 literary account of the Allied Occupation of Naples, Cavani’s La pelle is more accurately a cinematic text inspired by the same. In its exposé of the numerous horrors, humiliations and moral compromises inherent in the everyday struggle [End Page 346] for survival in a society destroyed by war, the film respects the spirit and mission of the original – a fictionalized, fragmented, highly complex and extremely controversial account...


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pp. 345-355
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