Guiding Questions

(a) Between Melodrama, Road Movie and a new Heimatfilm 

This part examines how migration in film relates to genre logics. Genres organise narratives and modes of presentation, comprising a typical character constellation but also, for instance, socio-geographical locations and milieus. These forms of genre logic are modelling memory (Assmann 2006), thus constituting “basic stories of Western cultures” (Hickethier 2002, 83, also cf. Schweinitz 1994, 105), which means they can be historicised and changed. The mere act of cinematographic representation transposes the migrants from the periphery into the centre; the question here is how this centre is shaped in terms of narration and visualisation, and to which genre rules respective productions adhere. Thus, the goal is to analyse the interplay of space, genre logics, cinema engagé, and migration.

Contemporary European cinema is rarely committed to only one genre. While its directors usually employ hybrid structures, we can nevertheless observe dominant tendencies, such as the use of the melodramatic mode or elements from the road movie and the cinema di regione. As mentioned earlier, comedies are less frequently featured in Italy, especially in contrast to big box office successes of transcultural comedies such as Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), or Intouchables (Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano, 2011). This phenomenon, too, deserves a closer analysis.

For the first tendency, the melodramatic mode, there are first publications (Metelmann 2013, 252). There, the audience adopts the world presented in the film and transforms the cinematographic image into an object of their internality. The difference between the object and the subject of sensation is lessened; the film creates a sense of ‘being emotionally present’ (Kappelhoff 2008, 56), imparting empathy with the migrants; in this sense, this constitutes a democratic mode (Williams 1998). At the same time, the melodrama is consi­dered to be a conservative genre, which does not counteract the boundaries between identity and alterity, between perpetrators and victims.

The second tendency concerns the road movie genre. Migrare means “to move”, and so it is no great surprise that numerous migration films stage movement itself, with “being on the road” taking a central role. The road movie, unlike any other genre, is a “vehicle for investigating metaphysical questions on the meaning and purpose of life” (Mazierska/ Rascaroli 2006, 5). This started off with Pummarò, but Lamerica can also be understood as a road movie. The archetype of the road movie genre is Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). In Easy Rider and the many films following it, being on the road means making an escape from social life and/or responsibilities. Lonely, uprooted men embark on a journey to find their identity, which they believe is irretrievably lost in the civilised world since society is “a fixed set of rules opposing the individual” (Grob/Klein 2006, 11). In the migration road movie – according to a first working hypothesis – the neoliberal ideal of freedom is reversed. Migrants are not at all starting out on their own accord in order to find a place ‘free of society’; they are rather looking for a society whose democratic set of rules provides them room for (economic) existence. So again, the question is how these films sanction or counteract genre rules.

Thridly, the cinema di migrazione is – unlike melodrama or the road movie – not at all of US-American provenance, but specifically Italian.1 Since the film crisis of the 1980’s, the contemporary Italian cinema is – more so than other cinemas – polycentric in shape, regionally anchored and increasingly dealing with matters of regional (filmic) identity. On the one hand, these (often low budget) productions have regional sponsors; on the other hand, the Italian cinema stages (and celebrates) regional specifics (Martini/Morelli 1998; Schrader 2007; Wagner/Winkler 2010). These films are cast with amateurs or mostly regionally known actors who speak in their own dialect or accent. And it is especially these smaller productions which stage the regionally and locally very different everyday life of migration in a more differentiated manner. Films like Vincenzo Marra’s Tornando a casa (Sailing Home, 2001), Giorgio Diritti’s Il vento fa il suo giro (The Wind Blows Round Giorgio Diritti, 2005), Andrea Segre’s Io sono Li (Shun Li and the Poet, 2011) and La prima neve (First Snowfall, 2013) inscribe themselves into a concrete regional context and utilise movie-making practices indebted to documentary procedures: hand-held cameras, outdoor locations, pictures not high-gloss perfect but blurry and shaky and sometimes even only with weak colour contrasts. Here, a realistic aesthetics is being proffered similar to the one introduced and revitalised by Neorealism from the mid-1990’s in Europe (especially by the Dogma group). It is this departure from high-gloss pictures which brings these films in the vicinity of the new Heimatfilm (Schrader 2013). So by analysing the genre procedures as a play with collective memory, the Italian cinema can be re-positioned between European and US-American cinema.

1 Even if this tendency can be observed e.g. in France, it is not as prevalent there yet but is rather an expression of setting oneself against Paris. Cf. e.g. the topical issue “Cinéma régional, cinéma national” of Cahiers de la Cinémathèque. Revue d’histoire du cinéma (79, 2010).

(b) Precarious Europe  

In the context of the so-called and nearly synchronic finance, migrant and Europe crisis around the beginning of the 21st century, many perfomative artists in cinema and theatre have searched for new artistic horizons. In front of a bundle of recent political, economic, social and cultural challenges in a global age, artists struggle with and criticize the missing values of "old Europe", while searching for new representations and visualizations of a "new Europe". They shed light especially on various precarious moments: fragmentary historiographies of Europe, limited conceptions of identity or excluding labour market conditions. Precarious subjects - migrants inside and outside Italy, Non-Europeans, Europeans and, in our project, especially Italians - are related to precarious histories and spaces, e.g. in certain minorities ( → Carpignano: A Ciambra 2018) or certain subjects not perceived or "cut out" of the general European frame (→ Placido: Pummarò 1990). These precarious images break through concepts of Europism (Ponzanesi 2012) and a mainly Eurocentric discourse (Conrad/Randeira 2013) that only on the surface seemsto be based on solidarity, freedom and community. Folliwing a performative pattern like a re-enactment and, if utopian, even pre-enactment, or a rewriting, these artistic forms speaks for alternative images of Europe. 

Generally, the aesthetic function of these alternative images of Europe "shimmer": with the help of documentary aesthetic (Ferraris 2012), for exmple, they do not only reconstruct and represent, but put into question inscribed power relations (Steyerl 2008), "repeat", "give a further life", "let survive" (Heeg 2014), emerge like a new vision or even model aspects for a "New Europe". Besides, these performative narratives follow a transcultural pattern that remind us of Rothberg's multidirectional memory (2009), namely the crossing of similar historic narratives in different times and spaces (e.g. different forms of lived precarity)  that may reveal their similarity and diversity at the same time. Thus, precarious subjects and histories of different European and Non-European countries are interwoven with each other developing new (power) relations, e.g., by parallelising the precariousness of different social subjects (Butler 2004) (→ cf. Randi: Into Paradiso 2010). In such way, artists question the "European" while searching for a tertium comparationis or a contingent interface (Claviez 2016). 

These narratives of a "New Europe", however, regularly come up against "spectres" of the past of the "old Europe" (Carlson 2003), e.g. colonialism (→ cf. Carpignano: Mediterranea 2015). That is why even two different subjects  - migration on the one hand, Europe and EU on the other - that until now merely seemed to be discussed in different frames and spaces are now increasingly related to each other. With reference to various media and documentary material as well as contemporary and former concepts of (neo-) realism or documentarism (→ cf. Placido: Pummarò 1990), artists play with the possibilities and limits of rewriting the historiography of "hyperral Europe" (Chakrabarty 2000). By means of repetition , practised in forms as re-enactments or pre-enactments, they create ambivalent palimpsests of a growing "precarious Europe". 

With cinematic and theatrical modes - singularly and in their intermedial interplay - form and represent the precariousness of the subjects and their histories? How are theses transcultural narratives of precarity and (governamental) precarization (Lorey 2012; Marchart 2013) embedded and integrated in a narrative and history about Europe? Which different conceptualizations of a "new Europe" do emerge and how can they be defined in aesthetic terms? Last but not least: Can all narratives that mainly deal with the problems of precarity and precarization of Europe still convincingly fulfil or speak for the ideas and ideals of Europe? Do they really leave a possible space for self-governing techniques in a democratic vision (→ cf. Crialese: Terraferma 2011), in other words, forms of agency as e.g. protests (Lorey 2011)? Or might they not rather give another argumentation for the dissolution of "Europe" (cf. Claviez 2016)?

All of these queries shall be examined within the context of the research project Cinema of Migration in Italy since 1990 embedded in my postdoctoral qualification with the preliminary title P/RE-ENACTING  E U R O P E. Precarious Subjects and Histories in Contemporary Theatre and Cinema since the Beginning of the 21st Century. In this, I will also tackle some francophone migration films as performances that question the history of Europe. Thus, the project aim overall is also to compare performative narratives of two different media: the theatre and the cinema , their intermedial interplay as well as their specific aesthetic features to narrate, represent, and question the "new Europe". 

(c) Intersectional Approach  

Film genres also organise the intersectional parameters of identity. For instance, the archetypes of melodrama are usually intended for a female audience and those of road movies as well as those of the cinema di regione for a male audience. Migration and work, for instance, tend to be less prominent themes in these genres. In contrast, one can observe an increasingly frequent differentiation between so-called “good” and “bad” refugees.1 The ethnic origin has become an indicator of social class; this means that the main focus is on integrating refugees into a neo-liberal economic structure whose effects can be noticed, especially in Italy, in the precariat (cf. for Italy Contarini/Marsi 2015). Working (and non-working) can serve as anchors for demonstrating political, social and cultural identity attributions. At the same time, ethnic origin and gender play an important role in terms of access to work/non-work (Brodkin 2000, Mezzadra/Neilson 2008). The precariat and the rhetoric of self-optimisation are particularly pronounced and present in Italy (Contarini/Marsi 2015). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that contemporary Italian cinema (cf. Hope/d’Arcangeli/ Serra 2013, 1-69; O’Healy 2016), more so than its French and German counterparts, for example, have taken up this topic. Following Ava Baron und Eileen Boris, one could say that work, like class or gender, constitute the body (Baron/Boris 2007, 23). The aestheticization of seeking work, unem­ployment or precarious work, exploitation, activity and inactivity are central topics in the cinema of migration as well, yet, unfortunately, have hardly been worked on so far. Since these are clearly contributing parameters for all our guiding questions, we consider them a main axis.

Intersectional Studies postulate that relationships of inequality and repression cannot be reduced to only one category. Rather, individual categories appear intertwined, reinforcing each other, mitigating each other, and changing each other. In current intersectionality research, the established triad of race (ethnicities), class, and gender is being extended by additional social categories such as sexual and religious orientation, disabilities, class/social stratum, or age (Lutz/Herrera Vivar/Supik 2010). A prerequisite for Intersectional Studies – just like in the case of Gender, Queer or Masculinity Studies – is a performative understanding of identity. Following Judith Butler, one can postulate that attributes of identity are not expressive (of an essential core of sorts) but performative (Butler 1991, 24). Film, as such, is part of modelling these identities, serving as a suggested model of and for identity. The levels of repre­sentation and practice should therefore be thought of as closely linked (Dietze/Hashemi/Michaelis 2012). Hence, the second objective of our research project is to differentiate intersectional attributes of migrant identities in the cinema of migration, whereby the genre expectation and respective visual regime play a central role (Mulvey 2000).

For instance, first surveys of masculinity in the cinema di migrazione have shown a broad scope. A high number of films does not escape an affirmation of hegemonic masculinity (that is, the ideal of the bourgeois, successful, heterosexual man), while women are often depicted as prostitutes and victims.2 Other films, such as Cover-Boy. L’ultima rivoluzione (Cover-Boy. Last Revolution Carmine Amoroso, 2006) or Into Paradiso (Paola Randi, 2010), offer themselves to questions of complicity by raising the question in how far the model of complicity (Connell 1999, 100) applies (or is subverted) with regard to trans­national friendships between men. Forms alternative to hegemonic masculinities and pronounced femininity are present in films like Occidente (West Corso Salani, 1999) or Brucio nel vento (Burning in the Wind Silvio Soldini, 2002).3 While queer perspectives like in Good Morning Aman (Claudio Noce, 2009) or Pablo Benedetti and Davide Sordella’s Corazones de mujer (2009) remain exceptions in the context of Italian cinema di migrazione, they nevertheless show that linking cultural diver­sity with working conditions and hegemonic masculinity in particular, can (at least theoretically) question the latter. What is central here, eventually, is a differentiated analysis of characters (represented identities), which, in turn, leads to the third focal point of our research. Starting with the premise that hegemonial power produces and reproduces difference as a key strategy (creating a social and spatial split between “us” and “others”, Soja, 1996), this guiding question is aimed at the spatial localisation of migrants in the cinema.


2 E.g. Alina in one of Giordana’s best-known films, Quando sei nato non puoi più nasconderti.

3 Or Riparo (Shelter me Marco S. Puccioni, 2007), Mar nero (Black Sea Federico Bondi, 2008).

(d) Collective Memory – The American Dream  

Lamerica (Gianni Amelio, 1994) is one of Italy’s best-known migration movies, while Merica (Federico Ferrone, Michele Manzolini and Francesco Ragazzi, 2007) is the title of a documentary on third-generation immigrants in Brazil desiring to return “home” to Italy. Both titles are ironically referring to the “American Dream”, thus seizing a central historic experience as collective memory: since the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century, dire economic necessity drove many Italians either to the cities of Northern Italy or Western Europe, or to America. Nearly one third of the Italian population were looking for a new home around the turn of the century. During the period between 1880 and 1915 – i.e. in the main epoch of migration – 4 million Italians emigrated to America alone, most of them coming from the agrarian Southern part of the country. In US-American movies, like D. W. Griffith’s In little Italy (1909), and Barker's The Italian (1915), it was first of all stereotype depictions of Italians, e.g. as mafiosi or Latin Lovers, which dominated the Italo-American film (cf. Brunetta 2001, S. 489-514). To date, Italo-American relations or Italian-Americanness in the cinema of US-Americans with an Italo-American background (like Scor­sese or Coppola) have been given attention mainly in American and Canadian Studies (e.g. Cavallero 2011). Hence, a trans-Atlantic axis needs to be established by analysing the interplay of Italy and America in the Italian cinema. Many of these films are co-productions, partly with France, partly with the U.S. In order to do justice to the film corpus, this question is more historically oriented. It focuses on aspects of borders, starting with melodrama, road movie and comedy, primarily from the post-War cinema until today. After all, the emigration experience is an integral part of the commedia all’italiana (Saponari 2012), considering films like Un americano a Roma (An American in Rome Steno, 1954), Un Italiano in America (An Italian in America Alberto Sordi, 1967) or Mortadella (Lady Liberty Mario Monicelli, 1971). This early migration experience is reflected also in contemporary cinematographic productions beyond the commedia all’italiana, like, for instance, in Good Morning Babilonia (Paolo e Vittorio Taviani 1987), Oltremare, non è l’America (Nello Correale 1999) or Emanuele Crialese e.g. with the Silver Lion- (2006) and the Davide di Donatello (2007) winning film Nuovomondo (Golden Door, 2006).

In fact, emigration is not just a part of Italy’s past. In the last decade a steady increase of emigration can be observed. From 2006 to 2016 the official emigration rate has grown by 54,9 % so that at the beginning of 2016 the number of Italians living abroad is 4.811.163, representing 7,9 % of the total population, while the percentage of foreigners residing in Italy in the same year is at 8,3 %.1 The current emigration mainly concerns qualified professionals and graduates seeking better employment opportunities abroad, the so-called “brain drain”. To date, this phenomenon has been mostly portrayed by documentaries, such as Brunella Filì’s Emergency Exit. Young Italians Abroad (2014) or Luca Vullo’s Influx (2016). Fictional films rarely approach this topic, like Emanuele Crialese’s Once We Were Strangers (1997), or tend to depict a different perspective, namely the homesick emigrant who decides to come back to Italy in spite of the prospect of a precarious future (Riccardo Milani’s Scusate se esisto! 2014, or Maurizio Losi’s Amo la tempesta, 2016).

Also with regard to the “American Dream”, we treat further questions regarding the function of borders and intersectional identity, as well as those concerning the narrative of the precariato and access to work. Moreover, we trace genre changes (from comedy to melodrama) under a transcultural perspective. In this context, the aesthetical presence of Hollywood in the Italian cinema is equally interesting. Amelio, for instance, uses a Panavision camera and the respective techniques required for his film Lamerica, referring back to post-War Hollywood cinema but also to Italo-Western movies (Winkler 2007, 249).

1 Rapporto Italiani nel Mondo 2016. (accessed on 15 february 2017).

(e) Spatial and Ethnic Frontiers, Borders, and Boundaries  

The much-cited dictum by French writer Pierre Vilar, that the history of the world could best be viewed from the edges,1 is viable without doubt for the European transcultural cinema, particularly since the 1990’s (Vilar 1985, 38; Mezzadra, Neilson 2008). Since Italy’s outside borders are particularly long and at the same time one “edge” of Europe, they are particularly prominent in the cinema di migra­zione. These borders, however, are more than geographic. With regard to academic work on Italian cinema, the issue of borders is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy and thus, all the more important. As early as in her 2000 book Italian Film, Ameri­can researcher in Italian Studies, Marcia Landy, has pointed out that this pheno­menon constitutes a difference to other European (film) nations, for instance Germany or France. According to her, however, depictions of the “dissolution of boundaries” are (aside from aspects of generation and gen­der) mainly directed at national issues, that is, there is strong focus on issues of self-identity (Landy 2000, 377).

Over the past fifteen years, however, more and more directors have confronted Italy quite vehemently with the fact that the country finds itself in a socio-cultural upheaval, that its borders and its (emigration) identity have become porous. Especially directors like Gianni Amelio and Andrea Segre, who have been dealing with the theme of migration time and time again since the 1990’s, have – beyond visually capturing Italy’s geo-political situation – brought about a real Writing or Filming back. They have questioned the narrative of Italy as an emigration country and contributed to a critical discussion of its histories of migration and colonialism in the Mediterranean (and even more so to revising the representations of Italy as a cinematographic bel paese). Equally, they challenge collective identity constructs that have become mat­ters of course in post-War Italy. Films like Gianni Amelio’s road movie Lamerica set in the Italian “ex-colony” Albania, or Andrea Segre’s Film Io sono Li set in Venice take, in contrast to the discourse on italianità, borders not as firmly defined institutions but in the sense of Certeau as transitory rooms which prove to be temporary and are subject to continuous re-definitions (Certeau 1988, 97).2

Here, the objective is to analyse films of migration which pick out the border(s of Italy) as their central theme and inscribe themselves into the tradition of a Mediterranean cinema, paradigms of which are the Neorealist Sicilian “island” and fisherman films of Luchino Visconti (La terra trema/The Earth Trembles, 1948) and Roberto Rossellini (Stromboli, 1949), but also the cinema of border cities like Venice (e.g. Luchino Visconti) and Naples (e.g. Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini). Thus, the project addresses the topic of appropriating and rewriting these traditions by directors like Vincenzo Marra or Paola Randi. In the interest of furthermore taking into account less commercial formats, a corpus of hybrid and documentary films is used as a contrast to these movies. Film makers like Vittorio De Seta, Kiff Kosoff and Andrea Segre, who themselves have crossed the borders of the Mediterranean and who have dealt with the borders of Europe (in terms of a cultural anthropology) or inverted the visual perspective, respectively.3

In sum, it needs to be seen to what extent contemporary productions uphold Landy’s thesis that questions of ethnic borders continue to be outnumbered by other border aspects. At the same time, we need to examine how border narratives are localised in the films, that is, to what extent Italian film traditions are being continued with special regard to clichés of the Mediterranean cinema, such as nostalgia and traditions. Eventually, we need to see if stereotyped patterns are subverted by new narrative strategies (Millet 2002). In other words: to what extent can films, in their effort to deconstruct geographical and ethnic borders (to follow Pierre Vilar), really be considered as a form of alternative and transnational (filmic) historiography of italianità? The focus here needs to be on productions who take Italy as a nation abutting the Mediter­ra­nean, analogously to the mass media discussion about the topos of Lampedusa. Our corpus will be limited to films that address migration from the Mediterranean region.4

1 A citation which Monika Eigmüller takes as starting statement in her study on Border Security Politics in the chapter “The theory of the border” (2007: 13–45).

2 Regarding the theory of the border, there have emerged a number of comprehensive works, e.g. within the scope of Border Studies (cf. Wilson/Hastings 2012; Eigmüller 2007; Kleinschmidt 2014).

3 E.g. Corazones de mujer/Woman's Hearts,  Davide Sordella/Pablo Benedetti 2008; Come un uomo sulla terra, Andrea Segre/Riccardo Biadene/Dagmawi Yimer 2008; Il sangue verde, Andrea Segre 2008; Mare chiuso/Push Back, Stefano Liberti/Andrea Segre 2012.

4 These comprise productions which directly refer to Italy’s material borders in a visual and spatial sense, i.e. films e.g. staging the migration across the Mediterranean sea, like Vincenzo Marra’s Tornando a casa (2001) set between Naples and Sicily or Giordana’s Quando sei nato non puoi più nasconderti (2005). 

Nach oben scrollen