Back to Neorealism, and beyond?

By Jan Baetens

Franceso Pitassio

Neorealist Film Culture, 1945-1954. Rome, Open Cinema

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (Film Culture in Transition series), 2019

PitassioSince the scholarly production on Neorealism continues to be superabundant (and this in more than one language), the new book by Francesco Pitassio may not immediately be distinguished by all those interested in the field, but one can be sure that the outstanding qualities of this book will soon turn it into a real classic, both in the specific domain of Neorealist cinema and in the broader domain of film and cultural studies in general. Pitassio’s study is indeed much more than a new take on Neorealism; it is also a landmark reflection on the theoretical and methodological questions that define film history. In this regard, its stakes and insights are of interest to all those working on film as cultural form, just as, for instance, the book by Antoine de Baecque on cinephilia as a form of film culture, which partially covers similar ground (cf. La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968, Fayard, 2013).

Pitassio’s book is neither a story of Neorealism as a specific style of filmmaking nor a close-reading of some of its well-known masterpieces (by De Sica, Rosselini or Visconti). Instead, the author focuses on a much wider approach that examines Neorealism in light of a large set of cultural-historical traditions, practices, and constraints, that deeply affect a type of cinema often described in terms of absolute novelty and lack of antecedents. Pitassio challenges this narrow (narrowly aesthetic as well as narrowly ideological) and traditionally auteurist notion of Neorealism in order to ask completely new questions and open new windows to overlooked historical contexts and productions. At the same time, this broader contextualization of Neorealism is also a way of reopening a certain number of questions that are too easily, that is, uncritically taken for granted in film studies.

The starting point is Pittasio’s refusal to limit Neorealism to a set of themes, stylistic features, works, and directors, and the decision to consider it a way of reinventing new forms of culture in a period of crisis, when the classic distinctions between old and new, center and periphery, established and innovative are no longer valid and where all those involved in cinema at all possible levels (funding, production, distribution, but also reviewing and actual moviegoing) can no longer rely on existing structures and habits.

After the introduction on Neorealism as “transitional culture”, Pitassio develops his study along four axes: first that of the tension between national, international and transnational culture (Neorealism still has the reputation of being “typically Italian”, but a closer look at this filmic culture displays a permanent interaction between Italian and non-Italian elements); second that of the clash between a very realistic representation of the present (which starts in 1943, when Italy breaks the pact with Germany and the country is occupied by the Nazis) and the complete absence of the twenty years of Fascism that precede the mythical rebirth of the nation; third, the overwhelming presence of non-Neorealist visual styles and images within Neorealism (as shown for instance by the permanent interaction with the photonovel, allegedly very different from all things Neorealist); and fourth the generally ignored copresence of amateurs and professionals in Neorealist films (a way of filmmaking often pitched as voluntarily antiprofessional as a guarantee of supreme authenticity).

On all these points, which Pitassio describes as crossroads, the book radically challenges our traditional ways of thinking on Neorealism. At the same time, the author also returns to a large number of general concepts, such as for instance “realism”, “popular culture” or “nationalism”, in order to give a critical survey of the existing scholarship as well as its usefulness or not for the study of this type of cinema and cinema and culture in general. The advantages of this approach are exceptional: on the one hand, it helps bring to the fore numerous works and authors whose importance has never been acknowledged; on the other hand, it progressively builds a more complex, more nuanced and above all more open reading of Neorealism, which ceases to be the absolute novelty it still is for many of us but which at the same time also appears an extremely fascinating way of dealing with already existing styles and practices, as demonstrated by the brilliant analyses of, among many other discoveries one can make in this book, the role of Modernist documentary styles or the influence of 19th century visual and literary melodrama in the mass-media marketing of these movies with the help of decidedly non-Neorealist posters.

True Copy

By Ana Schultze and Geert Janssen

The Dutchman Geert Jan Jansen (Waalre, 1943) is an art forger who was exposed and arrested in 1994. He was, for example, so familiar with Karel Appel’s style that the artist himself could not see the difference between an original and a counterfeit work. The multimedia theater company BERLIN has built its play True Copy around Jansen after he had previously played a small role in their play Perhaps All The Dragons. The central question is where the boundaries lie between real and fake. In True Copy, quite relevantly, nothing is as it seems.


The evening starts just like an interview in a snappy late-night talk show, but Jansen quickly takes over from the host. He shares his trade secrets with us as if it were a YouTube tutorial. A ‘good’ counterfeit is more than just a matter of style: you have to consider the right type of paint and canvas, select the right frame, and forge archival documents. Once the painting materials are prepared, Jansen enters an enclosed booth on stage, where the public can only watch him via camera footage.

Gradually, more and more biographical elements come forward, culminating in the unmasking of the art forger. Very prosaically, it was not a stylistic but a linguistic error, in a falsified Chagall certificate, that exposed Jansen. An enthusiastic intern smelled trouble and went exploring (a successful internship can truly give you a nice place in cultural history!). The police came over to Jansen’s castle and he ended up in jail for six months. However, the public prosecutor found nobody willing to stand as a civil party. Jansen had, allegedly, no dissatisfied customers.

In this way, he passes on the blame: not he, but the art world is corrupt. It is currently estimated that up to forty percent of paintings in circulation are counterfeit. Painters, buyers, auction houses, connoisseurs and historians cover each other as nobody wants to admit their mistake. To illustrate how easy this is, Jansen auctions a Picasso of his hand on the spot. In Overpelt, after some encouragement, it was sold for 2800 euros.

There and back again, a Cultural Studies student’s tale

By Astrid Van Canneyt

We all know the struggles of writing the obligatory Master Thesis, alumni and students alike. Whether it’s choosing a topic, looking for sources or rewriting chapters over and over. I’m not even speaking of all the mental breakdowns that follow in their wake. But to encourage you to press on, I would like to share with you my unexpected journey.

When I enrolled for the Master of Cultural Studies, I already dreaded the idea of having to write a thesis. I wasn’t a fan of writing a bachelor’s paper, so the prospect of having to do it all over again enforced that feeling. Therefore I decided early on that it would be about a topic I truly loved. In my case that meant analysing my favourite comic series, Frank Miller’s Sin City. In hindsight I’m very thankful for making that choice, because if I hadn’t followed my heart and stood behind my decision, I could not have worked so hard and dug so deep into the subject. My love for the Sin City series gave me the motivation to return to the artwork over and over, especially in those moments when my supervisor suggested I returned to the comics once more, even if I was confident I had already found everything in them. Of course, the credit for my perseverance isn’t all mine: my parents had played a huge part in that too. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have seen the similarity between comics and film composition and editing.

So when your supervisor pushes your boundaries, listen, because it will make your thesis even better. Also, it is OK to seek help and support of your parents or friends when you’re feeling down. Their input may be the key to seeing your work from an entirely different angle. At the end of the academic year, I submitted my thesis for the annual Comics Thesis Prize. A friend had tipped me off about it and I figured “what the hell, what have I got to lose”. I was pleased with my “14/20” and my supervisor gladly took care of sending it in for me. That being done, life went on and I started on my Concept Art degree in film. By the end of September, I had already forgotten about my thesis.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email from the Comics Thesis Prize organisation about attending the award ceremony. Still, I thought “OK then, a mere formality, it probably doesn’t mean anything”. At the bottom of the email it said that “if you were among the laureates, you would be notified a few days prior to the ceremony”. I didn’t even take that seriously. Until the day before the ceremony, when I received an email saying that I won the first prize. When I read that, I literally stared at my laptop screen for five minutes. I couldn’t believe it was actually true. I never dreamed I would even make it into the top three, let alone win.

After a few hours, when I came round from the surprise and I realized what it meant, I took up the Comics Thesis Prize’s offer to write a short article for their next summer issue. An extra publication is never a waste. Besides, what’s a mere 6 pages compared to the average university paper and moreover, a thesis.

What I’m trying to say, is that you never know when a trial like your thesis can bring something unexpected around the corner. I thought I was done with academia and writing stuff – but as it turns out, however, academia was not yet done with me. So there you have it: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all.” (Mulan, the Emperor)

More info on the Comics Thesis Prize can be found here:

Generation A: 50s in Antwerp Relived

Look. Evoke. Shake. Flicker.

An admiration of images then, a record of life now, a salute to the past, a celebration of the present, and a quest for the future.


How often do we look back? What are we looking at when we look into the past? In an attempt to find answers, a student team from KU Leuven’s Master of  Cultural Studies made an open call to emerging photographers spotlighting Generation A – A referring to Antwerp, a city assigned great significance and aesthetic values. Under the framework of the EC funded project ‘50s in Europe Kaleidoscope’, these young creatives were invited to rewash negatives of the 50s and give way to their experience of (re)living the past, creating a bridge between the post-war society of the 1950s and young citizens today. After months of search and discovery, we are nearly ready to share and engage you with a photographic dialogue between (the representation of) life in Antwerp in the 50s and now.

Bridging then and now

In the framework of the exhibition “Blue Skies, Red Panic”, which showcases photographs of the 50’s in Europe, we set up our own sub-exhibition, which is now nearly ready to be visited. Following one of the aims of the ‘Kaleidoscope’ project – to create a bridge between today’s viewers and the 1950s post-war generation, making heritage more accessible and relatable – we focused on Antwerp with an open call to emerging local artists. These artists engaged with selected photographs of the 50s in Antwerp – transforming, interpreting and actualising them, and looking at the past as an inspiration to create new meaning. The connection of the old and the new, the past and the present, resulted in the exhibition “Generation A”. We also invited established photographers and artists to pre-view the submitted works, giving us and the emerging artists a professional opinion. With the exhibition we do not only want to contribute to the bigger ‘Kaleidoscope’ project and engage more users to interact with heritage and history, but we also want to give emerging photographers and artists a stage and platform to present their work.

Vernissage & Exhibition

FlyerOn January 9th the doors of KU Leuven Campus Antwerpen will open for the Vernissage of not only “Blue Skies, Red Panic”, but also “Generation A”. From 6pm onwards visitors are welcome to stroll through the exhibition engaging with heritage and building bridges to today’s life, experiencing the present art-scene of upcoming artists in Antwerp. The Vernissage is accompanied by a reception and opening speeches by Prof. Dr. Bart Van Looy, Academic Dean of Flanders Business School, and Professor Fred Truyen, from the Cultural Studies Department of KU Leuven.

The exhibition(s) run from January 10th until February 7th, and are open from 10am until 6pm.

Do come, enjoy the images, go back in time and please, don’t forget to register for the vernissage here:

Merel Daemen , Eline Debeaussaert, Marieke Devaere, Lien Joosten, Lisa Kraus, Ziyue Lu, Kim Vanuytrecht, Loes Welkenhuysen

More Information:

Generation A – Facebook:

Link to Venue – KU Leuven Campus Carolus, Antwerpen,4.4029101,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x47c3f6f82ee83355:0xf41b41c297a94a73!8m2!3d51.2201459!4d4.4051041

Blue Skies, Red Panic Exhibition:

‘50s in Europe Kaleidoscope’: