With his book, Fabio Vighi has accomplished something that has been eagerly awaited by those familiar with Italian cinema and psychoanalysis: an examination of Italian films through the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. To do this, Vighi has insightfully drawn on the writings of Slavoj Zizek and the underestimated and often ignored 1960s semiology of cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as the philosophy of Fredrick Hegel.
In a market swamped with books redundantly stating that post-war Italian cinema represents cultural and social stereotypes and that it is involved in issues of national identity, Vighi’s book brings some fresh air to the subject. At the same time, Vighi’s work follows in the steps of Angelo Restivo’s 2002 study The Cinema of Economic Miracles (1), in which the author attempted, for the first time, an examination of Italian films through Lacan’s theories as interpreted by Zizek. Moving “beyond the standard critical presupposition of the autonomy of film as a self-entrenched, specialized academic discipline” (p. 11), Vighi achieves a successful and original re-reading of Italian cinema that elevates it above a mere national cinema. He handles Italian film “more than as an end in itself” as a means “to unravel the dialectics of knowledge and desire” (p. 11). Vighi’s aim is to make Italian film become theory itself (p. 12).
By positioning himself in front of a film as an analyst in front of the analysand, Vighi tries to understand “what Italian film really wants”. Just as in a psychoanalytic session, he looks at Italian film for symptoms of the traumatic encounter with “the desiring other” which, in the symbolic order, cannot be represented. However, while the desire of the other cannot express itself, in film – as in life – it emerges in uncanny distortions that, eventually, rupture the symbolic order and unearth the Real.
Vighi dares to see the Real in Italian films as the point at which the symbolic meaning loses its consistency and the kernel of the filmic truth is discovered as a kern of non-sense (p. 8). In Vighi’s analyses, it is as if Italian cinema is supported by a “nothingness of jouissance”: impossible to say and represent, but that captivates and mesmerises the viewer in front of the image. This is because the viewer not only encounters the disavowed core of cinematic representation but also her/his own remote desires, reaching the extreme peak of jouissance.
To date, academic studies on post-war Italian cinema have generally focused on the laborious quest for national identity, or they have overemphasised how Italian films are a suitable locus for investigating national mores and folkloric values. These studies have analysed how Italian cinema has represented the transformation of the national landscape in the crucial post-war years (with neorealist films) and during the global modernisation of the 1960s (2). Although his book undertakes a new direction in the study of Italian cinema, at the same time Vighi knows well the extent to which post-war Italian cinema has been strictly implicated within the nation’s social and political history. He considers such an attribute in relation to Italian cinema’s penchant for radical self-reflexivity; according to Vighi, post-war Italian cinema has not limited itself to reflecting the social-political context, but it has shown the filmic representation’s desire to construct and give itself meaning.
It is for this reason that the “hunt” for the Real and jouissance in Italian cinema does not compel Vighi to follow a univocal direction limiting the study to the psychoanalytic problematics of the unconscious. In his analysis of Italian film, Vighi takes into account the formal work of representation and the camera’s gaze, as well as the subversive potential embedded in the Real and the cinematic unconscious. Such a double perspective enables him to focus widely on Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films. While at the heart of Antonioni’s films is an unequalled and impressive cinematic gaze, Pasolini’s films rely upon unconscious desire as a way of purposely disrupting the symbolic: the liberal bourgeois dominant order that Pasolini so despised.
Vighi’s introduction brings the reader straight to the core of the argument through images from two Italian films which, although different from each other, favour the reader with an immediate “imaginary traumatic encounter”: Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970) and Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti ignoti (Persons Unknown, 1958), a classic Italian comedy. In his analysis of La Strategia del ragno, Vighi lingers on the last scene in which long grass engulfs an abandoned railway station; with regard to I Soliti ignoti, he dwells on a hole in a wall drilled by a band of hopeless thieves. Through his discussion of these two images, Vighi shows how Italian cinema is traversed by the void of nothingness that props up the symbolic meaning. This void of nothingness is eventually revealed as the Real, thereby disclosing the truth of the desire of the cinematic unconscious.
Following this short but hard-hitting introduction, each of the book’s four chapters deals with the different ways in which the Real manifests in Italian cinema. The first chapter, “Figurations of the Real: Locating the unconscious”, engages more specifically with Pasolini’s cinematic theory which, expressed in his essay Empirismo Eretico (Heretical Empiricism, 1972), has only recently been re-discovered and properly re-evaluated. Vighi succeeds in his attempt to show that Pasolini’s idea of cinema anticipated the way in which Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories have been adopted by cinema studies. But Pasolini’s intrusion in the book can also be viewed as part of an intimate and passionate ideological genealogy, linking Vighi to an outstanding poet, writer, intellectual and filmmaker.
The intriguing idea of Pasolini’s theory is based on a semiological concept of cinema as “lingua scritta della realta” (written language of reality), but what Vighi emphasises is Pasolini’s intuition regarding editing and the similarity between film and life. For Pasolini, “death accomplishes an instantaneous montage of our life”, “for while we are alive we lack sense” and “only through death does our life help us to express ourselves” by choosing the most significant moments (p. 15). Similarly, editing “does to the filmic material…what death does to life” (p. 15): it selects the most significant material to create meaning. Intuitively, Vighi shows that the way in which Pasolini conceived of editing – a structuring cut allowing a film to acquire symbolic meaning – is strictly correlated to the cinematic unconscious. Pasolini’s editing gives a film the possibility of coming into being after the self-fracture between the symbolic and the underside void of meaning. It is in this sense that Vighi considers the role of the filmmaker who, through editing, assumes the responsibility of showing “the inconsistency of the world” (p. 22). Vighi makes us reflect on the political implications of the filmmaking process in our contemporary world, increasingly plastered with images of visual simulacra.
According to Vighi, the fundamental points of Pasolini’s concept of editing as death-drive, as well as its politically self-referential intent, are exemplified in “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” (“What are clouds?”), Pasolini’s contribution to Capriccio all’italiana (Caprice Italian Style, 1968), a collection of Italian short films produced by Dino De Laurentiis. The characters are a group of puppets acting out Shakespeare’s Othello; they are shown before and after the theatrical representation, from their coming into being to when they are thrown away once the performance is over. Dumped into a rubbish lorry, looking at the sky, the puppets observe “the torturous, incredibly marvellous beauty of creation” (p. 26) which coincides for them with the pleasurable yet perverse encounter with the void of the desire of the other and its death drive.
In his second and third chapters, respectively titled “Enjoying the Real: unconscious strategies of subversion” and “Adventures in the Real of Sexual difference”, Vighi goes on to analyse the cinematic Real as it is figured in a range of films. While he gives a short sketch of some, Vighi lingers on Antonioni’s masterpieces such as L’ Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), La Notte (The Night, 1961), and L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), as well as his films from the 1950s such as Il Grido (The Cry, 1957) and Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1958). Vighi also discusses Pasolini’s La Ricotta (short, 1963), Teorema (Theorem, 1968), Porcile (Pigsty, 1969), Medea (1970), Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, 1975) and his neorealist films such as Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962).
In Blow-Up, for example, Vighi claims that the cinematic gaze of Antonioni epitomises the Lacanian concept of the gaze: the missing object of desire which cannot be seen but is there looking back at the subject. With Pasolini’s theory of editing informing his analysis, Vighi demonstrates that the dead body in the park, revealed in the photos by Thomas’ scopic drive, coincides with the traumatic encounter with the void of the reality, as well as Thomas’ own object of desire. Through the dead body, not only does Thomas come close to his own death drive, but he assumes the position of the gap in which the symbolic has failed to provide meaning. In the film’s last scene, this gap of meaninglessness is confirmed as the place in which Thomas finally comes to be. As he throws an invisible tennis ball to the group of mimes, the mimicry of the entire scene – much like the puppets in Pasolini’s film – envisages the Real that has exceeded the symbolic. It is this Real in which, henceforth, Thomas will participate.
Vighi’s examination of Antonioni’s films targets the filmmaker’s own obsession and formal bravura in figuring symptomatic absences and in gazing at the empty core of desire that is the underside of reality. In his third chapter, Vighi demonstrates how eroticism and the dysfunctional sentimental relationships affecting the protagonists of Antonioni’s films are the Lacanian “Real of the sexual difference”. The impossible encounter between man and woman – particularly in Il Grido, La Notte and in the trilogy of the early 1960s, L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and Il Deserto rosso – represents the trauma of gender differentiation, insofar as the male embodies phallic enjoyment while the female represents “the possibility of the subversive encounter with the Real beyond the phallus” (p. 131). In this way, Vighi reveals the ideology of Antonioni’s films which is resolved in the aesthetic dimension of feminine jouissance and, eventually, in the potential of the feminine to disrupt the phallocentric symbolic order.
The notable thing in regard to Vighi’s approach to Pasolini’s oeuvre is that he emphasises the jouissance and eroticised death drive at the base of Pasolini’s subversive cinema. In Pasolini’s films, the Real disrupts the symbolic order by extracting the kernel of jouissance through which the external reality is shattered. Pasolini’s films are marked by this jouissance, a force exposing the negative emptiness sustaining the law and the establishment. Thus, Pasolini presents a critical and severe gaze towards the Italian bourgeoisie and the repressive, corrupt dominant order.
In Pasolini’s films, the privileged character is a subject detached from the symbolic realm to the extent that their subjectivity disappears, sucked into the void of the jouissance of desire. This desire springs from the abyss of the Real and exposes the inconsistency of the law structuring the order of Italian society. In Teorema, for example, the stranger becomes the radical otherness and the empty gaze, like the desire lying bare within the bourgeois family and revealing the terrible vacuum of its superstructure of values. The editing of Teorema – with its frequent cuts to the alienating space of Mount Etna – realises for Vighi a representation of the death drive, bringing to the fore the traumatic encounter with the zero degree of meaning both within the film and in Italian cinema.
From Accattone and La Ricotta to Porcile and Medea, editing and the death drive reveal the unconscious desire of resistance to the superior power. But as Vighi rightly shows, it is with Salò – released only after his tragic death – that Pasolini truly traumatises the viewer. In Salò the perverted cruelty of the executioners demonstrates the extreme void of jouissance; at the same time, the entire structure of law and power they embody collapses. With the shooting of Salò and his murder soon after in 1975, Pasolini becomes his own idea of editing as death: he reveals the horrible non-sense of the neo-fascist order of Italian neocapitalism through the subversive nothingness of the jouissance of the death drive.
In addition to his analysis of the films of Antonioni and Pasolini, Vighi offers an examination of the Real in neorealist films and contemporary Italian cinema. In the films of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, the neorealist gaze was the first great attempt of Italian cinema to unearth the Real. Particularly with Ossessione (Visconti, 1943) and Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, Rossellini, 1945), Italian neorealism represented the fragmentation of reality and the jouissance emerging from the “cracks” provoked by the Second World War. With regards to the Real of the postmodern era, Vighi emphasises the way in which contemporary Italian cinema does not follow cultural and artistic trends: it does not represent the subject in the “fluidity of symbolic roles and structures” (p. 159), but rather, depicts characters who enact a subjectivity that antagonises and resists the symbolic order. He analyses three contemporary Italian films: Nanni Moretti’s La Stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room, 2001), Marco Bellocchio’s L’Ora di religione: Il sorriso di mia madre (The Religion Hour: My Mother’s Smile, 2002) and Marco Tullio Giordana’s I Cento passi (The Hundred Steps, 2000). The protagonists of these films come face to face with death, thereby coming to terms with their own lack which is converted into a void of jouissance and a notion of freedom from the symbolic. While they encounter the kernel of nothingness that sustains the symbolic, at the same time the abyss of the negativity of death becomes a strategy of resistance and offers a different gaze upon the external reality.
Fabio Vighi’s book Traumatic Encounters in Italian Film provides a truly traumatic plot twist in the study of post-war Italian cinema. Deeply stimulating, this work may pave the way for a new critical perspective on the subject matter. As a traumatic experience, Vighi’s book challenges those faithful to the traditional study of Italian cinema: it offers a way of viewing Italian film in order to encounter its real strategic, subversive jouissance, which is the source of its riveting power and impact on the viewer. So, enjoy the trauma!
Traumatic Encounters in Italian Film: Locating the Cinematic Unconscious, by Fabio Vighi, Intellect Books, Bristol, 2006.
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- Angelo Restivo, The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2002.
- I am referring to studies such as: Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Continuum, New York, 2001; Marcia Landy, Italian Film, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000; P. Adams Sitney, Vital Crises in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995; Pierre Sorlin, Italian National Cinema 1896-1996, Routledge, London and New York, 1996.