Alan O'Leary (University of Leeds)

I am visiting the University of Mumbai in July and August 2013 to teach a course entitled 'Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories', which continues a course I taught, also in Mumbai, in summer 2011. This blog is intended as a record of my preparation and experience of the course, and I hope the material here will be useful for students and others. 'Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories' is the name of a long term project I am developing with the support of the University of Leeds.

My very sincere thanks are due to my hosts at Mumbai: Dr. Vidya Vencatesan and Dr. Roberto Bertilaccio of the Dept. of French, and Dr. Shobha Ghosh of the Department of English. I also owe thanks to the Department of Civics and Politics for allowing the use of their wonderful lecture hall. Finally, I acknowledge with gratitude the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre in New Delhi and its director Dottoressa Angela Trezza, as well as the Consulate General of Italy in Mumbai for making my visit possible.

For more about me see here

See also my research blog

Email Alan

Dept of French at Mumbai University


Seminar 3 (2013): Heritage Cinema


The third class in the 2013 course was devoted to the idea of heritage and heritage cinema. I was encouraged to think about this theme for three reasons. The first is that one of my key guiding films, as introduced in the ‘prezi’ here, is the Hindi film Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2008), which I think can best be described as a heritage film, and of which more below. Secondly, the ‘heritage gaze’ at history is a despised one, and as such something I’m interested in taking seriously and sympathetically. Finally, Paul Cooke, a senior colleague at Leeds, is developing a project I’m involved in, called ‘Screening European Heritage’. I’ll be presenting my material on Jodhaa Akbar at the project’s first conference in September. See the ‘Screening European Heritage’ website for Paul’s introduction to the project and for links to an already substantial variety of resources, including interviews with some of the key names in scholarship on heritage cinema.

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imageRomanzo di una strage (literal translation ‘Story of a massacre’) is a 2012 film by the scriptwriting team of Marco Tullio Giordana, who also directed the film, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, all of whom had already collaborated on La meglio gioventù. Rulli and Petraglia have also worked on Romanzo criminale among many other films, and are something of an overbearing force in Italian cinema. Indeed, Rulli is director of the prestigious national film school in Rome, the Centro Sperimentale. The pair’s quasi-official status as engaged commentators on issues of national importance is very visible in their work on Romanzo di una strage (which I also discuss in the videos contained in the previous post): the film is a deliberate attempt to construct a sharable national memory of divisive and traumatic events.

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Seminar 2 (2013): Cinema and Terrorism


I’ve embedded a pair of videos, below, made from the Mac Keynote presentation, film clips and audio (me talking) of this second lecture on the 2013 course (1.5 hours). It concerns (mainly) the Italian cinema that deals with the violence of the long 1970s in Italy, the so-called the anni di piombo (‘leaden years’, c. 1969-‘83). As such it contains a brief introduction to the historical circumstances of those years, and one that is unsatisfactory because brief and tendentious. Just a couple of points to add to what I say: firstly, the number of people involved in ‘terrorism’ in Italy was numerically always very small, and there was a large movement for social and political change on the left that has tended to be demonized by association with left-wing terrorism; secondly, I should state that some take seriously the suggestion that the 1980 Bologna Station bombing was not carried out by the Italian extreme right possibly aided by elements within the state - something I take for granted here. There are other problems too - not just with the content but with the tone of the lecture - but I hope it can be forgiven as the record of an unscripted piece in which I was engaging with a real audience.

The material in this lecture is developed from my book Tragedia all’italiana: Italian Cinema and Italian Terrorisms, 1970-2010 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2001). My research and conclusions are summarised in a short article available here which I intended as an accessible introduction to my approach and conclusions. See also here (an introduction to a volume I co-edited with Ruth Glynn (Bristol) and Giancarlo Lombardi (CUNY)) for more on the films and historical circumstances. Ruth and Giancarlo have also edited the important book Remembering Aldo Moro: The Cultural Legacy of the 1978 Kidnapping and Murder (Oxford: Legenda, 2012). My article from the book on the Moro kidnap in the cinema can be read here. See also this blog post from the 2011 course for more on Romanzo criminale and the representation of the Bologna bombing, whle much of the material discussed in the videos is also discussed in a post on conspiracy theory as popular history. I give a longer analysis there of the sequence from which the Polizia accusa… murder scene, mentioned twice in the videos, is derived.

Catherine O’Rawe has written a series of articles dealing with questions like the use of archive footage and montage sequences in the films discussed in the lecture, and she has discussed the work of scriptwriters Petraglia and Rulli as ‘middlebrow commitment. See here, here and here.

The interview video with me included in the film from the Screening European Heritage project was made by Axel Bangert.

Introduction to LA BATTAGLIA D’ALGERI (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)


Born in blood

Contrary to the myths that sustain them, nations have not existed since time immemorial. Nations are political constructions – ‘imaginary political communities’ in Benedict Anderson’s famous formulation – and not obvious cultural or even geographical occurrences. Cinema, like the nation, is a modern invention. If nations have always been born in violence, the cinema has always been come into being within the nation (though many film scholars now prefer to talk about the transnational), and from its tenderest years has manifested a fascination with both nationality and violence – and with terrorism. (‘Terrorism’ is a very dubious term: it will be discussed in the week 2 seminar and a subsequent blog post.)

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ITALIAN CINEMAS/ITALIAN HISTORIES Introduction to the 2013 course and to the project


This is the first post from the second ‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’ second course I have taught at the University of Mumbai. This six-class seminar course runs weekly from Friday 26 July to Friday 30 August, and aims to consider what it is to do history on film, especially in Italian film, in both culturally privileged and popular forms. The course deals with themes or genres rather than individual films, with examples being taken primarily from Italian cinema, but also from India’s different cinemas and from elsewhere, though each class will be accompanied by a screening of an individual film. The course is intended to be of interest to anyone concerned with themes of history and memory – not just to those concerned with cinema.

‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’ builds on and extends the content of the course taught in Mumbai in summer 2011, which is recorded earlier on this blog. See the index to entries here.


2013 Course outline

  1. Introduction to content, aims and rationale of course. Screening: La battaglia d’Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
  2. (Case study 1) Cinema and terrorism. Screening:  Romanzo di una strage (Story of a Massacre, Marco Tullio Giordana, 2012)
  3. Heritage Cinema. Screening: Tea with Mussolini (Franco Zeffirelli, 1999)
  4. Laughing at history. Screening: Don Camillo (The Little World of Don Camillo, Julien Duvivier, 1952)
  5. (Case study 2) The Spaghetti Western. Screening: Quien sabe? (A Bullet for the General, Damiano Damiani, 1966)
  6. Women and children first? Screening: Cosmonauta (Cosmonaut, Susanna Nicchiarelli)

I am using this blog to record the rough notes for the seminars, illustrated with powerpoint slides and clips, as employed in the sessions. As I stated in the first seminar on Friday, and as I have previously stated in the post that recorded the first session in July 2011, the course represents an opportunity for me to present and test ideas I have been thinking about for some time. I am very interested to see to what extent the ideas and analysis I present might make sense in an Indian context.

‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’ is not just the title of the two courses taught at Mumbai, it is also the name given to a long-term project I am developing at Leeds along with colleagues from other universities in the UK, Italy, the United States and – I hope – also from India.

Project Title: ‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’

Research Question: What are the modes, genres and registers in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy?

Research Goal: To rethink the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical rather than prescriptive and paternalistic perspective. The project will investigate the variety of ways in which Italians have understood and engaged with their history through the medium of dramatic film. It will articulate a comprehensive taxonomy of the different modes of engagement with the past represented by the century-plus of Italian cinema. This taxonomy will be clarified through comparison with non-Italian material, and include films on pre-Medieval and classical themes inasmuch as they have been used to speak of ‘Italy’ and its people’s experience.

The following presentation gives an introduction to the project. (Apologies for the lugubrious voiceover, which does not accompany all steps in the presentation, and my take a while to load).

See here for the introduction to The Battle of Algiers, the first film screened on the course.

Last days in Mumbai and an academic tour part 2

Some more souvenir photos of last days in Mumbai and tour to Gujurat and Delhi.

Last days in Mumbai and an academic tour

My course at the University of Mumbai is now finished and I’m back in Leeds where term starts next week. My last seminar at Mumbai was on 26 August, and my hosts Vidya Vencatasan and Roberto Bertilaccio kindly organised high tea with the students in one of the campus canteens, as well as a wonderful meal  with colleagues at a Bengali restaurant in South Mumbai. I also had the opportunity to give workshops or talks at other universities and venues in Mumbai, Gujurat and Delhi: the Directing Department at Whistling Woods International, Film City, Mumbai; the Department of English at Kachchh University in Bhuj; the Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies, Saurashtra University, Rajkot; the School of Liberal studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum UniversityGandhinagarCity Pulse Institute of Film & TelevisionGandhinagarthe School of Translation Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi; EUNIC lecture series, The India International Centre, Delhi. The students and faculty at all the talks were incredibly appreciative and gracious and I had a tremendous time, and thanks to all (including members of the public) who attended the talks. My gratitude is due to all my hosts for their hospitality, especially to Drs Sridhar Rajeswaran and Nilufer Barucha for organising the Gujurat tour. I post some souvenir photos above and in the next post as a way of saying thanks to all.

Memory, Chaostory, Fiction

In this, the final seminar, I repeated a certain amount of material from previous sessions because and although I introduced some new material it was intended as a summative talk and I tried to articulate some tentative conclusions. I had promised to deal with the question of memory and its relationship to history in seminar 2, but didn’t do so, so I devoted some time to it here. I treat it here, in slightly old-fashioned terms, as an alternative to history which puts more emphasis on felt knowledge that motivates contemporary behaviour. ‘Chaostory’ is a term I borrow from the theory of history to describe a form of historical understanding which is an equivalent to chaos theory in the sciences. The relevance for us here today is that counterfactual history writing has been used as a tool of chaostory, and counterfactuals were another topic I’d promised to deal with but haven’t until now. Finally: fiction. Though historians might get annoyed with the term, counterfactuals are essentially fiction, and the dramatic film, which has been our constant concern here, is also essentially a form of fiction. But I’m treating counterfactuals and dramatic films as no less interesting from the perspective of history because they are fiction.

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Introduction to La meglio gioventù

The six-hour mini-series La meglio gioventù, made for Italian state television but also given an international cinema release in two parts, is a family saga built around the tale of two brothers and covers a period from the mid-1960s to the early 21st century. On Italian television the film attracted nearly eight million viewers and provoked a massive discussion and even celebration in the press, with one non-film magazine devoting an entire edition to the heroes of the generation represented in the film. David Forgacs (2004), otherwise sympathetic to the film, has commented of it:

If the film avoids the trap of a straightforward good brother/bad brother narrative, it does not manage to escape a slide, particularly in the second half, into a sentimentalism that blunts the political edge of its chronicle of a generation adapting to a society that has failed to match up to their aspirations. 

I disagree with Forgacs (though the article which contains this comment is a very good introduction to the film, and you may even wish to start with it before reading the rest of my introduction). I would suggest that we link the particular politics of La meglio gioventù to its sentimentality and see them as essential to each other. La meglio gioventù is a political film, but one that might not be recognized or acknowledged as such because of its avoidance of explicit party politics, because of its schematic aspects, and because of its undoubted sentimentality.

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Questions of Cinema Genre and History


This seminar follows up material from seminar 2 especially, and some of it is lifted straight from there (see here and here). The seminar divided into three sections:

  1. A first part on the film Kapò which tries to raise in a particularly fraught context questions of the authority and the means that film has to do history, and the controversies about these means;
  2. A second part which discusses the distinction drawn by critics sympathetic to history done on screen between serious historical films and those deemed unworthy of attention, often referred to as costume dramas;
  3. A third part on the film Senso which considers the aspects of the film that have been favoured by critics and those likely to impress viewers less invested in extracting from it a prior historical reading.

The three parts are not persuasively related to each other, but are linked by my attempt to defend a conventionally deplored form, whether of film text or of spectator investment.

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Questions of Gender and History


In this sixth seminar I discussed some of the ways in which gender is employed as a vehicle of historical storytelling, and how cultural constructions of gender roles underpin political/historical film narrative. I note here in passing, and imply it below, that Italian films intended to express a progressive political agenda often rely on retrograde perceptions of gender roles. But first, some necessary distinctions:

Note though about the above that the sex-gender opposition is itself a little time-worn.

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Ajay Kamalakaran’s photo of the core audience at the Kalina campus of Mumbai University for my Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories course, during a break in seminar 5. They had been instructed to look like they were listening to me speak! The group includes my hosts Drs Vidya Vencatesan and Roberto Bertilaccio, staff and students mostly from French, Italian and English. Thanks to all of them for their engagement with the course. 

Ajay Kamalakaran’s photo of the core audience at the Kalina campus of Mumbai University for my Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories course, during a break in seminar 5. They had been instructed to look like they were listening to me speak! The group includes my hosts Drs Vidya Vencatesan and Roberto Bertilaccio, staff and students mostly from French, Italian and English. Thanks to all of them for their engagement with the course. 

Conspiracy Films as Popular History

In this seminar I tried to identify aspects of the appeal and interrogate the political and historical efficacy of conspiracy theory in films that discuss historical events. (I originally hoped also to discuss counterfactual elements in film but decided I was being too ambitious, and have postponed discussion of counterfactuals to seminar 8.) I treated conspiracy theory as a popular mode of historical understanding, and one that appeals broadly. We’re all familiar with some bestselling examples, and I suppose few of us would bother to take, say, The Da Vinci Code as anything but entertainment (though the Vatican got quite exercised about it) – but some literature and film proposes itself to be taken very seriously indeed. I discuss here several films that aspire to provide the ‘truth’, and something like the whole truth, ‘behind’ particular salient events or circumstances. However, I will be proposing that they often either fail to persuade or seem instead to be dealing with something else.

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Introduction to IL DIVO (Paolo Sorrentino, 2008)

This is a film by an important writer-director who has focussed in his four feature films on grotesque or solitary male figures – and this seems to be true also of the forthcoming English language film with Sean Penn as a washed-up rock star. The film tells the story of a period from the life of Gulio Andreotti, a central figure in Italian political life since the 1940s – he was several times Prime Minister and one of the leaders (like Aldo Moro) of the Christian Democrats (Democrazia Cristiana, DC), for many years the largest party in the Italian state. The DC collapsed following the end of the Cold War, which meant the end too of the so-called First republic. In the absence of the international conditions that generated it, corruption scandals caused a political system that had been in place since the 1950s to unravel, and Andreotti too came to be linked to corruption via his faction (corrente or ‘current’); worse still, he was accused of association with the mafia by an informer working with the police.

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