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Screening the Past: Brutal Vision

By Luca Peretti
Screening the Past

schoonover_brutal coverThe scholarship on Italian Neorealism is alive and well. The small group of films which typified post-World War II Italy still stimulates scholars in Film Studies and Italian Studies. Hence it is no surprise to read about a new publication, Brutal vision: The Neorealist body in postwar Italian cinema, by Karl Schoonover, assistant professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. He outlines the scope of his book very clearly at the beginning of the introduction: “I argue that neorealism’s interest in detailing the brutalized human body also underwrites the emergence of a new visual politics of liberal compassion that I call brutal humanism”. He describes how the films analyzed in the book “use scenarios of physical suffering to dramatize the political stakes of vision and the need for an outside extranational eyewitness” (xiv). The notion that this new spectacle has international spectators is central to the argument of the book: Schoonover repeatedly emphasizes the global character of these films, devoting several pages (69-108) to describing the marketing campaigns that promoted them in the United States, and focuses on how neorealism collaborated “with the liberal rhetorics of postwar reconstruction that prioritized expanding commodity capitalism over endorsing local forms of sovereignty” (xv). This strategy is employed, Schoonover claims, thanks to a scenario that is repeated again and again in “the most internationally successful neorealist film”: as he claims, “an imperiled body is offered to a bystander’s gaze as an opportunity to exercise ethical judgement” (xvi). Although, if describing the most internationally successful neorealist films succeeds in addressing these issues, Schoonover’s approach may seem at times somewhat narrow, considering that he deals in detail with only a few films out of the ample neorealist body (comprising fifty-five films, as Christopher Wagstaff claims, or even more, according to other sources[1] ).

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Brutal Vision