Joseph Luzzi’s A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film is a dense and layered book that focuses on different aspects of post-war Italian cinema, spanning from neorealism to films as recent as Le quattro volte (The Four Times, Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010). This volume is one of the many texts on Italian cinema that recognizes the debt to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ambiguous and yet fruitful formulation of a “cinema of poetry”: for Luzzi, this idea is the centre around which a number of different films and theoretical approaches to Italian cinema revolve. The book is divided into three parts: “Neorealist rhetoric and national identity”, “Cinemas of poetry”, and “Aesthetic corsi and ricorsi”, plus an epilogue on the cinema of the 2000s – in particular, the work of filmmakers Emanuele Crialese, Michelangelo Frammartino, and Marco Tullio Giordana.
A Cinema of Poetry emphasises Italian cinema’s relationship with literature (and above all poetry) and other arts rather than focussing on cinema’s industrial aspects, its status as mass entertainment, or even its relationship with other forms of popular entertainment like comic books, or with scientific endeavours and technological advancements. The author writes:
“My book […] is the first to consider the advent of film within ancient traditions in the arts. By analysing Italian cinema in connection to such questions as the afterlife of the Greek tragic chorus, the literary prehistory of montage, and the cinematic application of poetic apostrophe, I intend to bring Italian film studies into dialogue with fields outside its usual purview.” (p. 11)
This, however, is done within a certain tradition, since Italian film studies (especially in the Anglo-American context) is strongly linked to literature and “ancient traditions in the arts”. Furthermore, the author’s decision to focus only on art cinema – a decision that he justifies masterfully and convincingly in his introduction (pp. 4-7) – speaks to a certain approach to Italian film studies. Besides the role of poetry in Italian cinema and the focus on art films, some of the themes recurrent throughout the book are the attention to concepts such as the body politic, bearing witness, and the issue of Italian national identity. Furthermore, Luzzi is probably the first scholar to connect the philosopher Giambattista Vico to Italian cinema: this alone is one of the main reasons to read this work. In A Cinema of Poetry we can also see Luzzi’s other interests, in particular his investment in the study of Romanticism: the author is in fact a scholar of the movement in 19th-century Italy and Europe, and he wrote Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, (1) a book that has been widely discussed in the field. Besides Vico, Italian poets and literary heroes such as Dante, Giacomo Leopardi, Ugo Foscolo and Andrea Zanzotto, among others, are mentioned at different points in the book, rendering Luzzi’s text well rooted and connected to Italian culture as a whole.
A few specific notes on each chapter can be helpful in assessing the book. Countless pages have been written on Italian neorealism, yet Luzzi demonstrates in his first chapter that one can still say something fresh and innovative: his analysis of the relationship between coralità (chorality) and the question of italianità (“Italian-ness”) is extremely interesting, and scholars of neorealism will have to take it into account. The author manages to find examples of coralità in the most immediately apparent situations – such as the children marching at the end of Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945) – and in more hidden ones; but most importantly he posits the idea of coralità almost as a “mode of filmmaking” in the post-war period. (2) The section entitled “Cinemas of poetry” focuses on Pasolini himself – on his theory and film practices, particularly with respect to Il decamerone (The Decameron, 1971), bringing Homer and Vico into dialogue with Pasolini in a surprising and fascinating way – and on Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1954), which Luzzi sees as another example of Pasolini’s cinema of poetry. The author writes on this subject, “In line with Pasolini’s notion of the free indirect point-of-view shot, Rossellini achieves a ‘cinema of poetry’ by employing the signs of reality – that is, the objects, feelings, and sensations […] – to project a human consciousness without the mediating skein of language or other forms of description.” (p. 59)
The last part of the book is divided into three chapters, one of which uses the rhetorical figure of chiasmus to take stock of Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) and Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970) – both the books and their filmic adaptations. This chapter takes the reader on a journey through the idea of chiasmus and its recurrence in Italian culture, analysing among others works by Canova and Titian. I would argue, however, that it runs the risk of excessively widening the scope of this notion. Luzzi writes, “That the chiasmus became a privileged rhetorical mode for representing the national self makes sense when one considers the bitter legacies of power substitutions and switching alliances during the Risorgimento (The Leopard) and Fascism (The Conformist)” (p. 123), but he uses only a handful of examples to make such a broad statement. While this is certainly an engaging hypothesis, it will need to be verified with research on a much more ample array of films. Hopefully other scholars – or Luzzi himself – will carry on this work.
The other two chapters of this section respectively focus on Michelangelo Antonioni and on the relationship between Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto and Federico Fellini. In the former, Luzzi discusses Antonioni’s departure from neorealism, analysing films such as L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1960), and the dynamic between “fact” and “image” in his cinema. The relationship between Fellini and Zanzotto, meanwhile, ought to be given a brief explanation: Andrea Zanzotto is one of the most important poets of 20th-century Italy (and one of the most frequently translated into English), and he worked with Fellini for the latter’s Casanova adaptation, with particular attention given to the Veneto dialect which is spoken in the film. Luzzi is interested in demonstrating how “figures of speech associated with one medium – for example, cinematic montage and literary apostrophe – can migrate to others.” (p. 126) He does so very creatively, first challenging the widespread assumption that Fellini is an “antiliterary director”, and then juxtaposing Zanzotto’s poetry with Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (Fellini’s Casanova, 1976) and Leopardi’s poetry with another Fellini film, La Voce della luna (The Voice of the Moon, 1990).
A Cinema of Poetry is elegantly written and stitches together a number of different references, authors, films. At times the amount of information is almost overwhelming, but this is also a sign of the outstanding work that has been done on the volume. Luzzi recognises that the book was born in the classroom, and indeed the classroom seems one of the natural destinations for this text, both at an undergraduate and a graduate level. It is a welcome addition to the field of Italian studies, and could be of interest to scholars in film and media studies, as well as for a broader non-academic audience interested in Italian cinema. The author is not new to this, having published two very interesting non- or semi-academic books and a number of articles and essays for newspapers and magazines. This, it seems to me, it is also one of the main strengths of his latest book: namely, that it transcends narrow academic discourse and makes itself readable for the non-expert of Italian cinema.
Joseph Luzzi, A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).
1. See Joseph Luzzi, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
2. I am aware that usually in film studies the concept of “mode of filmmaking” has different resonances: I am adapting here the idea of “mode of filmmaking” in light of David Bordwell’s essay on “The art cinema as a mode of film practice”. See “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Criticism 4:1 (1979): 56–64. Reprinted in Catherine Fowler, ed., The European Cinema Reader (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 94–102.