Realist cinema as World Cinema

Authored by: Lúcia Nagib

The Routledge Companion to World Cinema

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138918801
eBook ISBN: 9781315688251
Adobe ISBN:


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The idea that “realism” is the common denominator across the vast range of productions normally labelled as “World Cinema” is widespread and seemingly uncontroversial. Thus, it is not surprising that Thomas Elsaesser should start his insightful essay on “World Cinema: Realism, Evidence, Presence” by declaring: “European art/auteur cinema (and by extension, world cinema) has always defined itself against Hollywood on the basis of its greater realism” (2009: 3). It is easy to infer the whole story behind this formula: World Cinema started in Europe, more precisely with Italian neorealism in the 1940s, which, on the basis of a documentary approach to the real, offered fertile ground for the development of art and auteur cinema. Turning its back on Hollywood fantasy and standing on the grave of the Nazi-fascist propaganda machine, this new realist cinema unveiled on screen the gritty reality of a poverty-stricken, devastated Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. As we know, the raw aesthetics and revelatory power of this foundational movement inspired a flurry of subsequent (social-)realist schools in the world, such as Indian independent cinema in the 1950s, Brazilian Cinema Novo in the 1960s, African post-independence cinemas in the 1970s, the New Iranian Cinema in the 1980s, Danish Dogme 95 in the 1990s and many other new waves and new cinemas, remaining influential up to today. Neorealism was moreover the touchstone of André Bazin’s concept of cinematic realism, the world’s most revolutionary and enduring film theory ever written, albeit in the form of short magazine articles. As is well known, the film medium, for Bazin (1967a), is intrinsically realist thanks to the “ontology of the photographic image”, that is, the medium’s recording property that establishes a material bond with its referent in the objective world, a process later equated by Peter Wollen (1998: 86) to “indexicality” as defined by Charles Sanders Pierce’s semiotic theory. Bazin was moreover, and most importantly to my own approach, the first to locate realism at the point of production, by extolling about neorealism (Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica) the regular use of real locations, non-professional actors (as well as actors stripped of their acting personas) and the combination of long takes and long shots that preserve the space–time integrity of the profilmic event.

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