There is often something intangible about the cinematic images we regard onscreen that continually inspires our curiosity, attention, and seemingly endless questioning of cinema’s nature as art. Philosophy of film has long been a means of attempting to make sense of the aesthetics of images in movies, and what makes them so particular and intriguing. From early film theorists of the French Impressionist cinema movement to influential writings of André Bazin to this contemporary book by Keyvan Manafi, film lovers, theorists, and philosophers continue to study what techniques and ideas help us better understand the quality of certain cinematic images as something astonishing, confounding, ethical, and transcendent. 

For many readers (myself included) philosophy can often prove daunting or too abstract to clearly wrap one’s head around. This is doubly so when approaching Emmanuel Levinas’ writings – a philosopher generally known for the density and perplexity of his ethical inquiries. Manafi’s interest in writing on Levinas not only aims to apply the philosopher’s ideas to the realm of cinema (an approach that Levinas, himself, resisted during his career) but also strives to make Levinas’ obscure philosophy more assessable to cinephiles and to apply this to a basic understanding of Levinas’ idea of “the other” to filmed bodies within the frame. Manafi’s first two chapters are a bit dense as he presents an overview of Levanisian philosophy, but the variety in international films that he discusses throughout the rest of the book makes the philosophy more approachable to readers. In so doing, he sets out to interpret how onscreen bodies and film images can be deciphered through a philosophy of film that echoes from cinema’s early beginning over a century ago to our modern age. 

As Manafi examines the unique nature of onscreen bodies and cinematic images, he addresses a variety of topics including extended shot durations, offscreen aesthetic suggestions, a withdrawal of the body through excessive focal attention and amateur performance, ethics of visuality, facing images, and concepts of the other. While these subjects may at first appear a bit nebulous in understanding, Manafi applies his philosophical notions to specific film examples in a way in which the concepts can be perceived in relation to conspicuous film techniques and aesthetics. The coherent flow between chapters also helps the philosophical ideas transition rather well, despite their potential ambiguity in abstraction. In his debut monograph, Manafi endeavours to bring the ethics and philosophy of Levinas to cinema studies in a manner that is stimulating for both seasoned philosophers and film enthusiasts.

In The Eye of the Cinematograph: Levinas and Realisms of the Body, Manafi employs a philosophical perspective of Levinas in order to explore what he considers to be aesthetic realisms of the profilmic body. Through the eye of the cinematograph (i.e., the cinematic projection of filmed bodies) Manafi attempts to question ethical and aesthetic intersections of philosophical inquiry, wherein one can negotiate staged encounters with onscreen bodies and the faces of the viewers as othering perspectives. He writes: “Expanding the existing enquiries into the consequences of Levinas’ ethical thought for aesthetics, this book studies select films and cinematic approaches exemplifying realisms of the body that are consistent with ethics drawn from the notion of facing” (p. 29). By surveying a host of international filmmakers from Europe, North America, and Southwest Asia (with considerable attention to Iranian filmmakers) Manafi endeavours to reveal the underlying tensions between the ethical and the visual while centralising the aesthetic body within Levinasian ethics. 

In the first chapter of The Eye, Manafi introduces a few key concepts of Levinas’ ethical philosophy that highlight important underlying discussions present throughout the book. One crucial point of Levinasian interest concerns one’s encounter with “the face” of the other and the ethical responsibility that this quality of interaction and engagement entails. While understanding the other manifested in the body, Manafi determines that Levinas’ ideal conceptions of ethical realisation can be discovered at the intersection of “the specificity of the cinematic image, its technological formation and aesthetic use and the relation of the machine to the body” (p. 7). And if the notion of a face is to be traced from the body, then the face must also be facing; an ethical action that charges the body, and that within to image, to respond to potential subjugation and “subvert the vision of violence” (p. 8). Therefore, we can see cinematic images of both the face and the other as aesthetically charged to evoke tensions between the visual and the ethical. 

Manafi views Levinas’ core theories as fundamentally concerned with alterity, and endeavours to situate realisms of the filmed body as affirmations in response to Levinas’ iconoclast attitudes toward imagery in the arts. Furthermore, Manafi sets out to stage an encounter of Levinas’ ethical thought and the automatic formation of the body (through the cinematographic camera) by examining these philosophical and aesthetic activities through an array of international films. Manafi’s belief in the ethics and responsibility of the cinematograph, in recording the alterity of filmed bodies, bears his contention that the cinematic images are able to affirm the other onscreen through their technical and aesthetic capacity for duration, focal attention, and ability to depict persons untethered to prior identification. 

It is true that Levinas often regarded the visual arts as reductive to ethical thought and viewed most artistic activities as too fixed and immobile to offer a genuine philosophical ideal of the visual. However, Manafi reconsiders Levinas’ original resistance to this kind of (cinematic) imagery and instead positions Levinasian ethical thought as a rich opportunity to further study the philosophical complexities and visual aesthetics inherent in the cinematic image. 

While Levinas held a degree of antipathy toward the visual arts during his professional years as a philosopher and never discussed cinema like his contemporaries, Manafi specifically draws on his notion of face-to-face relations through the cinematic lens to privilege the corporeal body literally and conceptually as a rich site of existential and ethical study. Throughout the book, Manafi’s main intervention in film and ethics is indicated in his efforts to stage the automatic formation of the physical body, revealed through the camera, and to highlight its aesthetic realisms in relation the Levinas’ ethical thought. His opening chapter primarily surveys these Levinasian concepts and ethics, setting the stage for textual analyses apparent in subsequent chapters.

Manafi’s second chapter “The Image and the Body” explores the ethics of imagery by looking at Abbas Kiarostami’s Klūzāp, nemā-ye nazdīk (Close Up, 1990) and Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Tabiate bijan (Still Life, 1974). In Kiarostami’s Close-Up, representation becomes a poignant point of ethical inquiry, regarding Kiarostami’s blend of re-enactments and documentary footage within the film, and in Hossein Sabzian’s impersonation of filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf, whose story inspires this docufiction. Manafi writes that “Kiarostami collides documentary with fiction to pose questions to our assumptions about filmic practices of truth,” adding how “Close-Up exposes the masquerades of filmmaking to probe the ethical tensions inherent in representing the underprivileged other” (pp. 46-48). In Still Life, Shahib Saless’ use of protracted long-takes, rigid and still camera framing, and a taxing focus on quotidian activities impress upon the viewer a slow cinema aesthetic that reveals ethical revelations by demanding patient attention to the duration of the visual image. Manafi expresses how “Still Life achieves its ethico-aesthetic effects by retaining the thingness of the face and the body of the other” (p. 51). Still Life evidences how its monotonous images generate philosophical contemplation over habituated viewing expectations of vision, which are challenged by a surfeit of bodily exposure.

In chapter three, Manafi introduces philosophical examinations of the body and the cinema through the analytical perspective of André Bazin. In recognising earlier French film theory, he also alludes to the aesthetic capacity of the close-up image as an articulation of Jean Epstein’s notion of photogénie. More specifically, he examines Andy Warhols’ Screen Tests (1964-1966) series which posits a quite literal affirmation of bodies presented onscreen, devoid of imbued ethical purpose, that, in effect, “undermines a resistance to meaning,” by interrogating its “self-presentingness” (pp. 81-104). This aspect of an image’s reflexive presentation and cinema’s ability to conjure a duration of attention is further highlighted in Pedro Costa’s Ossos (1997), first introduced in chapter one, and Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986). According to Manafi, both of these films produce a staging process emblematic of photography and cinematically render the “body of the other” (p. 94). However, an excessive slowness of the cinematic image can also stage a withdrawal of the other by its very depiction of being brought to life by the camera as a meaning-making image.


Excessive durations of onscreen bodies are further exemplified in “Literal Durations and Cinematic Parallelism,” showcasing Chantal Akerman’s landmark 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In his fourth chapter, Manafi contends that Akerman’s film “demonstrate(s) how bodies in cinema are in surplus of readability,” adding that depictions of bodies and the other in Jeanne Dielman are provisional and often uncertain in their readability, thus rendering a certain impossibility in the intelligible understanding corporeal figures (p. 99). Manafi’s readings on Jeanne Dielman remain one of the most standout textual analyses in the book, signalling deeper textual interpretations of his case studies in the following chapters. 

Chapter five, “The Inhuman Eye and Formless Body” examines the camera’s preoccupation with and “automatic formation of the body’s image” (p. 125). While Manafi considers bodily surplus through protracted shots focused on the physicality of actors, as mentioned in the previous sections, here he approaches this physical excess more in terms of corporeal violence and affronting sexual situations. This chapter’s attention to New French Extremity filmmaker Bruno Dumont, in part, parallels Tim Palmer’s conceptions of a cinéma du corps, where images of harmed and subjugated bodies present challenging considerations of aestheticized corporeality. Manafi writes that Dumont’s aesthetics “evacuates subjectivity from bodies and renders them opaque through his imagery,” as Dumont uses both indecency, austerity, and extended durations to expose, at times, jarring realisms of the onscreen other (p. 136). He furthers that “Dumont’s elusive images exhibit this contradictory play of obscenity and ethnicity” (p. 149). Manafi indicates that Dumont’s filmed bodies which persist onscreen are not always readily meaningful, but that the act of bodies giving themselves over to the screen can incite aesthetic events of meaning. 

Ethics in the depiction of the other and harmed bodies are further discussed in chapter six, “Re-enactment, Proxies and the Facing Image,” as Manafi studies Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003). The reality-fiction connections between Elephant’s diegetic narrative and its adaptation of actual school shootings (i.e., Columbine) present important inquiries on figuration, spatialization, and re-enactment, and the tension this causes between the ethical and the visual. In response to some of the negative criticism that Van Sant’s film received, in relation to its unsettling source material, Manafi argues that aesthetic choices in specialization and Elephant’s avoidance of dramatic character psychology, prevent the work from falling into crass dramatization. He offers that “Elephant’s peculiar manipulation of time fragments high school life through a multiplication of perspectives while highlighting the sterility of cognitive exploration. There is no build-up, and the promise of in-depth portrayal of the bigger picture is evoked so that it can be frustrated” (p. 164). 

Manafi continues that Van Sant’s decisions to cast non-actors, deflate a traditional, linear story trajectory, and question profilmic reality through a knowing presence of the camera innately problematises any potential ignorance in attempting to authentically re-enact the Columbine massacre as fictional accounting. Instead, he emphasises a deliberate arbitrariness in Elephant’s narrative structure: “a dismantling of the given image of the event, a radical exhaustion of interpretation and a critical reworking of realist aesthetics that render meaning-making redundant and instead heighten a specifically cinematic exposure to the filmed bodies” (p. 162).

Manafi further conceptualises this notion as a withdrawal of the cinematic body. 


Chapter seven, “The Withdrawal of the Body,” returns to Dumont’s L’humanité (1999), while also observing Carlos Reygadas’ Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005), Jafar Panahi’s Talā-ye sorkh (Crimson Gold, 2003), and Amir Naderi’s Davandeh (The Runner, 1984), as these films provide ethical accounts of materiality and physiognomic peculiarities in their performances (p. 184). Each of these films employs non-actors who eschew typical dramatic expressions associated with more professional acting methods, and instead manifest surprising performance gestures and unintentional processes of ethical posturing. In this, Manafi also notes a hyperbolic parallelism, where gestures committed by the unwitting actor and their character become blurred in terms of performance and embodiment, thus troubling the camera’s capacity to tender the two in visual unison through an automated recording. 

Manafi’s final chapter, “The Offscreen and the Promise of the Image,” returns to the first film introduced at the beginning of the text, Ossos. In Costa’s film, he foregrounds dejected offscreen stares from his actors exhibited throughout the story, which Manafi reads as an ethical corollary that is inherently tethered to the onscreen other. He writes:

What is achieved in Ossos is not what is beyond the frame but the frame itself – the frame not simply as what separates the on from the off, but as what is self-presenting, what refers to itself as a promise. The presence to be witnessed, the being to be rewatched, is witnessed insofar as the event of the image – the event of its facing the viewer, its bringing into being a viewer through the facing – is reaffirmed (pp. 209-210). 

Manafi adds that the sense of suffering underlying the visages of each character in Ossos resists figuration, despite its ethical self-awareness. Their consistent eyeline attention to offscreen spaces continues to frame a tension between the ethical and the visual in the face of such diegetic suffering – and that which is affected from reality. 


Manafi’s monograph is a commendable example of a graduate dissertation manifesting into a monograph. His more philosophically dense sections of the book are offset by intelligent textual analyses of his case study films. The first two chapters foreground the more philosophy-intensive discussions, while the remaining sections attend to more filmic examples. His case studies also mostly register a slow cinema style, which is apt for the ethical inquires of his thesis; as he endeavours to gauge the aesthetics of bodies (i.e., the other) rendered onscreen, through the automatism of the cinematograph and in a philosophical approach of Levinasian interest. 

Manafi’s The Eye of the Cinematograph: Levinas and Realisms of the Body holds rewarding content for diverse students of philosophy, cinema studies, and aesthetics. Along with Levinas, Manafi involves important scholarly perspectives from Maurice Blanchot, André Bazin, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and Karl Schoonover throughout the text. He further positions Bazin’s theoretical postulations, as a recognisable ontologist of cinema, in order to “locate the ethical in the body-camera encounter where ‘otherwise than being’ [sic] can be borne witness to” (p. 224). Despite Levinas’ resistance to an ontological perspective that relies on visual ethics, Manafi makes an exemplary case for Levinasian ethics as a mode of further conceptualizing and regarding visuality in the cinematic image. In approaching a variety of topics involving the mechanical camera revealing deeply personal and philosophy nuances of filmed people, the body-camera/body-image relationship, temporal cinematic durations, facing images, and ethics of both engaging with a withdrawing from the body, Manafi takes several conceptually dense philosophical perspectives and endeavours to offer them more accessibly to the general reader.

Much of Manafi’s considerations also deal with the ostensible simplicity of profilmic happenings onscreen, and how actors’ bodies register aesthetic importance in the nuances of their corporeality and in their relationship which the visual itself. However, the apparent explicitness in his discussions of the realisms of the body is fortified by his deep philosophical inquiries into the nature of pre-existing bodies and the ethical meditations which they inspire through their cinematic framings. At the intersection of Levinasian thought and film theory, Manafi offers new meditations on the ethical nature of the cinematic image in its manifestations, contradictions, and revelations. 

Another important final thought to consider in Manafi’s book is his attention to a variety of films from around the globe. In our growing transnational world, it is important to acknowledge the growing fusion of different cultural perspectives, demographics, and areas of artistic study. In part, Manafi’s own background attests to this idea of transnational study. With cultural ties to southwest Asia, this Australia-based scholar studies diverse films emanating from various locales of Portland, Lisbon, Northern France, Brussels, and Tehran. By discussing this seemingly heterogeneous grouping of films, Manafi offers a connective thread of Levinasian philosophy that can be appreciated and understood more in transnational terms, where more nuanced ideological encounters may very well be found. 

Throughout the book, Manafi uses aesthetics and ethics as a framework for addressing framed bodies and their relationship with the image itself. In the final words of his monograph, Manafi offers:

I have hoped to demonstrate throughout this project how certain aesthetic experiments with the eye of the cinematograph can help us resist and counter the hegemony of the eye and engage with alternative ways of encountering the other through the cinematic image. This encounter can turn the image into a gift, into an openness towards the other in our shared vulnerability (p. 226).

Through Manafi’s attempts to render Levinas’ ethics through the lens of cinema (a bold gesture against the grain of the philosopher’s own general dissociation from the arts), he helps to showcase new encounters with the cinematic image, in an effort to bring further understanding to the often ineffable cinematic image that keeps us returning with renewed inquiry and openness.

Keyvan Manafi, The Eye of the Cinematograph: Levinas and Realisms of the Body (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023).

About The Author

M. Sellers Johnson is an independent scholar whose research interests include French art cinema, transnationalism, historiography, and aesthetics. He received his master’s from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) in 2021. His work has appeared in Afterimage, Film-Philosophy, Film Quarterly, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, among others.

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