- In Person: Reenactment in Postwar and Contemporary Cinema by Ivone Margulies
In Person: Reenactment in Postwar and Contemporary Cinema. By Ivone Margulies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019; 336 pp.; illustrations. $99.00 cloth, $29.95 paper, e-book available.
Ivone Margulies's inventive new book In Person: Reenactment in Postwar and Contemporary Cinema reframes the aesthetic, cultural, and ethical concerns of postwar realist cinema through the lens of a particular performative practice: in-person reenactment, wherein "a person replays her own past on camera" (4). Although reenactment, broadly construed, connotes an array of historical, biographical, and artistic practices of restaging events, in-person reenactment departs from these other forms due to its foundation in personal experience. If one's re-performance of their past "always introduces a differential," for Margulies the epistemological and ethical stakes of such replay reside in the possibility of redemptive transformation (5). Drawing on a Brechtian framework, wherein the theatrical citation of an act becomes a form of socially conscious pedagogy, she argues that first-person embodied replay allows subjects to critically revise their past (9–10). In doing so, individual lives "acquire a collective resonance" as exemplary narratives directed toward didactic, therapeutic, memorial, and historiographical ends (8).
While In Person establishes the reenactment film as a newly configured subcategory within realist cinema, it has much broader stakes for the study of modern and contemporary film at large. Attending to reenactment excavates the hitherto unacknowledged "activist impetus" (14) at the heart of postwar cinema, the desire for representation to not only record "contested social realities" (7), but also to effect real change within them (14). Additionally, Margulies observes that the "celebrated aesthetic aspects of modern and contemporary cinema—its hybridity, reflexivity, and performance ambiguity"—are the animating formal concerns of reenactment (15). [End Page 181] Consequently, reenactments form the very condition of possibility for postwar cinema's formal experimentation, becoming both "instruments and signifiers of late neorealism's and of New Wave cinema's existentialist concern with theatricality and authenticity" (15).
Margulies's analysis moves along both of these axes of reenactment: as "instrument" and as "signifier," the instrumental line of thought delineating reenactment's function within postwar realist narratives, and the signifying line of thought interrogating reenactment's formal conditions—its temporal and referential structure. The instrumental argument takes up the majority of the book and traces a historical genealogy of the mode in postwar realist cinema. Beginning with Cesare Zavattini's vision of cinema in which everyone "play[s] themselves" (37), Margulies elaborates neorealism's critical shift from an illustrative model of social types to a "performative" model, which enables the social actor to "reclaim […] her experience" for moral instruction (47–48). In Storia di Caterina (The Story of Caterina, 1953), Caterina Rigoglioso, a mother who was publicly tried and acquitted for abandoning her child, reenacts the abandonment in order to explain the desperation that led her to take such drastic action and symbolically atone for it. This redemptive ethos is subsequently reinflected in Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's cinema vérité experiments, which shift from neorealism's emphasis on social type and on gesture to individual psychology and cathartic speech.
Cinema vérité's emphasis on individual speech amplifies the "testimonial" dimension of reenactment, setting the stage for the subsequent proximity between the reenactment narrative and the trial in post-Holocaust films. Marceline's monologue about her memories of concentration camps in Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961) serves as a hinge for Margulies's turn from reenactment as "self-enlightening pedagogy" (114) to reenactment as social forum for witnessing and accounting for historical trauma. While late vérité and activist films of the 1960s and '70s explore reenactment's ritual, phatic ability to conjure absence, Margulies argues that Claude Lanzmann's landmark Holocaust film Shoah (1985) occasions a historical shift away from a reparative model, engendering a more critical, unredemptive stance that continues to characterize contemporary cinema (172).
Margulies's historical genealogy is deeply researched...