Review by Anna Viola Sborgi
Elisabetta Girelli, Beauty and the Beast: Italianness in British Cinema, Bristol, Intellect, 2009, pp. 240.
While the area of studies on the representations of Italians and Italo-Americans within American film and television is extremely rich in bibliography, little attention has been so far given to the representations of Italianness in British film. If the Godfather series and similar movies gave a great contribution to create a strong, immediately recognizable and stereotyped representation of Italian identity within American cinema, culture and imagination, the overall presence of Italians in British cinema seems to be more marginal. However, reading Elisabetta Girelli’s book makes one realize the pervasive role of the Italian community in Britain throughout the twentieth century both in terms of the rootedness of Italian immigration and in the way Italianness as a cultural construct has been defined in the British imagination.
Beauty and the Beast analyses cinema as a complex system of production and a powerful means of representation shaping national identity and imagination, a critical approach which is common in British Film studies, but less frequent within Italian critique, still more concerned with issues of authorship. Drawing both on a variety of archival sources and literary texts, Girelli situates the stereotypes associated with Italy and Italians in Britain within a rich textual background which forms the nucleus for plural and flexible identities in different moments of British history: the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and the Thatcher era. Moreover, Girelli combines this cultural approach with the use of categories until recently belonging to the field of Post-colonial studies and attempts to apply them to the different realm of the representation of nationality out of a specifically colonialist context. Although this might initially seem forced, concepts such as “situational identity” and “textual attitude” are effectively brought up to define a flexible and at the same time deeply articulated representation of Italianness. These two expressions seem to be particularly fit for this kind of study, where the representation of identity is an ongoing process and not a static one. The textual attitude, a notion the author derives from Said, helps her situate the stereotypes about Italians within the textual corpus represented by British literature, from the well-known equation of the Italian as the villain in the wake of the reception of Machiavelli’s works to the standard representation of Italy as the land of vice and intrigues in Elizabethan theatre, to the later choice of Italy as an ideal setting for Gothic novels. Girelli argues that any reconfiguration of Italian identity in different social and historical contexts is rooted in these long-debated stereotypes, which were never abandoned completely. Moreover, it must be added that Nationality in Italian culture is a more fluid construct when compared to Britishness and Englishness, (it is often claimed that Italy as a nation is much younger than other European states and thus the regional divide often takes on a more significant shared identity than the country as a whole). This fracture only taken into account from a geographic point of view, since certain regions emerge with their own specific imagery while, Girelli argues, the representation of the average Italian is leveled.
The first introductory chapter maps the major phases and the extent of Italian immigration into the United Kingdom, and, more importantly, traces back the different functions performed by Italian immigrants that coincide with, but are not limited to, the different professions they chose throughout different centuries. From organ-grinders, to ice-cream sellers to key players in the catering system, Italians were associated with different issues depending on different periods in British history, seen in contrast with British identity. For instance, in Victorian London the problem of noise seemed to be a prerogative of Italian organ-grinders and a public alarm on the hygienic conditions of food that regarded the bad conditions of conservation in glass containers in general was confined to the ice-cream trade. These new stereotypes were thus added up to previous ones and formed a corpus of multiple associations which filmic representations would later rely on for their depiction of Italian characters and settings.
The second chapter deals with the perception of Italian identity during the different phases of the Second World War following the transformation of Italians from enemies to victims. Girelli examines two large groups of material: on the one hand she goes through war footage, where the most frequent image of Italians is their ineptitude at war, and on the other, she analyses the highly popular genre of Gainsborough melodrama, where a completely different representation is given. Through an in-depth analysis of characters, settings, costumes and narrative developments, Girelli demonstrates how the three films considered under this category (Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Magic Bow and Blanche Fury) express, though in slightly different ways, a vision of Italianness as depravity, in opposition to English respectability. Although the triumph of passion and irrationality often brought death to the characters who had inadvertently succumbed to it, this genre was largely praised by the majority of cinema-goers, Girelli points out. In this way the freedom associated with Italian characters and settings brought within it a counter-discourse that was certainly more appealing to the audience than the dull representation of virtue characterising constructions of British nationality in those days.
Gender appears throughout the book as the main site where the negotiation of cultural stereotypes takes place. In carrying out her analysis, Girelli draws back on Laura Mulvey’s well-known theorization of visual pleasure, though her critique is not limited only to the objectification of women’s bodies on the screen, but is also concerned with the interplay between desire and distance, identification and objectification of the Italian male.
That is why the third chapter analyses the representation of masculinities within British cinema of the 1950s, a period in which previous notions underwent a crisis after men came back from the front and had to adapt to civilian life anew: men were now split between persisting conservative models and a new concept of manhood which required adaptation to the new role women had acquired in the professional field during the war. Male narratives took centre stage within the films of the time and Italian men are often feminized in order to reinforce by contrast equally stereotyped models of Britishness such as the British tough guy. Furthermore Italian men are often characterized as either losers or crooks. This makes them unfit as role models and again reinforces British troubled masculinity. Both tendencies suggest a more or less disguised racist feeling which was vastly shared by the British population of the time and not only directed towards Italians, as the anti-black riots of the period well show.
The fourth chapter goes through British cinema between the mid 1950s and the 1960s, when Italianness radically changed its cultural significance thanks to the glamorization of Italian lifestyle, brands and food, an association that, Girelli reminds us, was nothing new with respect to the traditional view of Italy as a producer of art, culture and beauty, though dissociated from its uninteresting and primitive inhabitants. Girelli also delineates the economic and social conditions that made this shift in representation possible. Vespas and Lambrettas were now all the rage and Italian stars peopled the British screen, from Gina Lollobrigida to Sophia Loren. The glamour of Italian stardom, the critical success of Italian cinema and a liberated sexuality which took on the one hand the form of the exaltation of the typical Italian womanizer and on the other was expressed by the powerful feminine sex-symbols of the time represented the ingredients for success of Italian culture in that period.
Finally, the fifth chapter leads us to the bleaker period of Thatcherism. British film of the Thatcher era has been often considered a battlefield where different notions of Britishness and Englishness were constantly negotiated: on the one hand those deployed by the establishment and on the other those who were brought up as an alternative, both in the well-known trend of Social Realism and in the more underground Art Cinema. It would thus seem that British film would be saturated enough with representation of British national identity – let’s just think of Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987) and the more conservative, though not unproblematic, visions of nationality expressed by heritage cinema – to be interested in foreign identities. However, it is precisely in those films which most insist on a certain “proper” idea of Britishness and Englishness that the Other enters the screen, especially through the unsettling experience of passion often associated with Italianness. Girelli then analyses two heritage classics: Charles Sturridge’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) and Merchant-Ivory’s A Room with a View (1986). The latter in particular has always been considered an encyclopaedia of stereotypes concerning a romanticized vision of Italy as the land of emotions as opposed to the cold and repressed view of relationships associated with Englishness, and Girelli confirms this prevalent interpretation. She also shares the idea, common among critics of British cinema of the Thatcher Era, that this unsettling representation of Italianness ambivalently undermines the same concept of Britishness which the film and, in general, heritage cinema, aims to reinforce. At the same time, however, the author argues that where Italy as a destabilizing place is opposed to a rigid, normative view of being British, it is essentially a tool for discovering a more subjective and freer interpretation of brutishness itself.
A different and equally problematic representation of nationality appears in another classic of the period analyzed by Girelli, Michael Radford’s Another Time, Another place (1983), where a similar scheme is enacted – the Italian PoWs bringing chaos within the little rural Scottish community in which they arrived – and italianness is deployed to create an opposition with a Scottish identity which is in turn alternative to Englishness but not less problematic.[i]
National identity is therefore always created through the negotiation taking place by juxtaposition or association with different kinds of otherness. This process is never univocal or binary but is enacted through multiple negotiations which can be read only within the liminal space of borders. Recent contributions in Cultural Studies have defined these “transit zones” as “porous” and the “outcome of historical and cultural clash and compromise”[ii]. The fluidity of representations of national identity and, at the same time, the connectedness among the different representations of otherness from a temporal perspective are well-expressed in Girelli’s book, which opens new grounds and stimulates further research.
v Anna Viola Sborgi, Ph.D. Comparative Literature, University of Genoa 2007, is a part-time lecturer in English Culture and Literature at the University of Genoa, Italy. Her main research interests include inter-arts and modernism studies, film and television and audiovisual translation (linguistic and cultural translation of TV series). She has published both on film (Derek Jarman, Antonioni, British Film of the 1980s) and literary portraiture in the work of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Fernando Pessoa, João Cabral de Melo Neto and Ford Madox Ford.
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[i] In addition to the films and themes Girelli analyses within this period I would like to mention the fascination of art cinema with Italianness during these years. While Peter Greenaway’s Rome in The Belly of an Architect is an unsettling experience as much as the bewildering Tuscany in A Room with a View, though more intellectualized, in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio the connection between Art and Italy is merged with the figure of the Italian artist as social and sexual outcast, thus constructing an alternative identity to the normative Britishness imposed by Thatcherism.
[ii] See Ian Chambers, “Borders and the Boundaries of Democracy”, in New Formations, n. 58, Summer 2006, p. 47.