Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar

Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 4:30pm

Karl Schoonover (Michigan State University)

Neorealist Suffering

Respondent: Karen Beckman (University of Pennsylvania)

According to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist films of the late 1940s and 1950s, a society is dehumanized when a body suffers without eyewitnesses. Like other postwar Italian films of the period, De Sica’s camera often lingers on the suffering or vulnerable human body. Karl Schoonover will argue in this paper that the corporeality of these films bespeaks a historically specific notion of humanism, one that tells us as much about the political faultlines of an emergent North Atlantic community as it does the particularities of Italy’s postwar devastation. His films form an outward address, hailing an extranational gaze. In other words, De Sica’s bodies both convene a global audience of moral onlookers. They also make explicit the dangers of a society that hinders collective vision and lacks external oversight. De Sica’s internationally popular Shoeshine, for example, cautions against the epistemological frailty of non-visual perceptions: here the audible can lie in ways the visual cannot, for the narrative conflict of the film turns on a tragic aural misperception. The faked sounds of a bogus torture session destroy the loyal friendship between the two main characters and lead to mutual betrayals. Bonds of solidarity are threatened, this film proposes, when individuals base their actions on what they have heard but have not seen. Thus the characters in Shoeshine can only reconcile after each has watched the other’s body being harmed. This narrative teaches its viewer that the moral truth of the world lies in ocular perception. It is only able to make this point by foregrounding the eyewitnessing of bodily injury and death. De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, also considered in this chapter, does not depict the violence of war, but its corporeal scenarios do work to raise the political ante of an otherwise simple story. The discovery of a drowned body, for instance, unexpectedly usurps the film’s narrative structure, and the unsettling spectacle of a young man’s seizure enables the film to illustrate a conflict between mob mentality and individual testimony. Finally, The Roof / Il tetto describes a gaze of charity and dramatizes how vision constitutes the relational category of “the less fortunate.”

Cinema Studies Program
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