- Inside the Historical Film by Bruno Ramirez
Inside the Historical Film is among the latest in McGill-Queen’s University Press’s recent impressive run of titles showcasing innovative work in the fields of film and media studies. The book’s author, Bruno Ramirez, is uniquely situated as both an accomplished screenwriter of historical films and an established scholar of history at the Université de Montréal. The book opens with a caveat lector that what follows is not a typical scholarly project. Instead, Ramirez presents a work that mixes traditional scholarship in film history with both a reflexive memoir of a career in screen-writing and engaging interviews with an array of contemporary filmmakers invested in historical film. With such a structure comes the risk of a loss of cohesion and focus, but Ramirez’s consistent return to core concepts and preoccupations serves to unite the book’s potentially disjointed flow.
Two such central premises course throughout Inside the Historical Film. The first of these is the notion that the act of filmmaking—from conception through all stages of production—can in fact very much be considered a legitimate, though certainly different, methodological form of “doing history.” Second, the book consistently revisits the notion that fiction—traditionally seen as opposed to serious historical work—can in fact play a valuable function in the historical film. Filmmakers, so the argument goes, should have the freedom to knowingly alter the accepted historical record, for the sake of dramaturgical purposes, in the service of promoting a deeper understanding of character and circumstance, at the expense of often minor historical realities or details.
The book is divided into two clear sections. The first follows more closely the model of a traditional scholarly monograph, examining core moments and theoretical frameworks in the study of historical film. The second section shifts gears completely and presents a collection of interviews with leading international filmmakers. The highlight of the book’s first section is chapter four, where Ramirez looks back on his own professional and artistic practice as both a historian and a screenwriter of numerous Canadian productions. An expert in Italian immigration history, specifically to Montreal, Ramirez reflects at length on a career spent translating traditional historical research into dramatic scenarios. While the tone occasionally veers a little too close to the self-congratulatory (a not uncommon danger when speaking about one’s own work), this remains an insightful and cogent piece of reflexive scholarship.
In the book’s earlier chapters focused on mapping out some of the historical and conceptual conditions of historical film, Ramirez occasionally find himself in some uneasy, and ultimately unresolved, territory. A noticeable tendency throughout the book’s pages is an all too clean [End Page 517] dichotomy between “fact-based” historical film on one hand and “fictional” historical film on the other. This ignores the simple truth that all historical film is fiction, whether it is based in actual events or not. The difference is merely one of scale, not of philosophical orientation. The book’s second section, however, featuring interviews with notable directors of historical film, works surprisingly well, and Ramirez shines as an interviewer. The filmmakers assembled (Paolo Taviani, Denys Arcand, Deepa Mehta, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Renzo Rossellini, and Margarethe von Trotta) make for an eclectic group, but it is a cohort clearly united by a consistent fascination with historical material in their respective films, not to mention an ability to thoughtfully articulate the appeal, dangers, and ethics associated with making historical films.
Ultimately, that which leaves the most lasting impression is not actually an explicitly stated thesis of the book (but Ramirez deserves full credit for subtly and repeatedly teasing it out). From the book’s revisitation of seminal moments in historical film, to the author’s personal reflections on his own experiences as a filmmaker and scholar, to the anecdotal recollections of his interview subjects, we are consistently reminded that often the most fascinating and telling lessons of historical film come, not during the research, the screenwriting, or the various phases of production, but rather at the...