“Neo-realism and re-enactment”.

A version of this originally appeared in Iain McCalman and Paul A Pickering (eds), Historical Re-Enactment: from Realism to the Affective Turn. ( 2010), pp. 79-89.

It links to my on-going interest in Italian neo-Realism and my interest in historical distance, and can be read in conjunction with my “Microhistories and the Histories of Everyday Life”, Cultural and Social History, vol 7, no 1 (2010) pp. 87-110, with which there are certain overlaps, and which also discusses neo-realism in relation to Italian microstoria.

Many thanks to Iain McCalman and Jonathan Lamb whose experience (including a mutiny) on the replica of Cook’s Endeavour inspired the conference for which this paper was written.





What are we to do about re-enactment? Here’s a term that seems to cover a multitude of sins and a myriad of forms – the Christian sacrament of communion, the activities of societies for creative anachronism, Shakespeare’s history plays, movies about the Alamo, art forgeries, a lot of pornography, most scientific experiments. Perhaps it is better to ask why supposedly sane academics have come to be interested in or pre-occupied by re-enactment. One easy answer is to say of re-enactment, as of sexually transmitted disease, that there is a lot more of it about nowadays. But re-enactment has been around for two hundred years or so. Its forms and frequency may have fluctuated but it has been a general feature of the culture of modernity, with its progressive view of history which figures change as both progress and loss. (Think for example of nineteenth and early twentieth-century world’s fairs almost all of which contained not just evidences of modernity, but re-enactments of the savage and the primitive.) [1]

In fact recent academic concern with re-enactment is rather more specific. It seems to me to be part of an anxiety about the proliferating interest in the past, from which its natural custodians – professional historians – have been largely excluded. (OK we all know the names of those who haven’t, but they are not many more than the fingers on one hand.)   Amateur enthusiasts, the representatives of identity politics and, above, all, participants in the culture industries that produce TV, video, and film – not academics – are the creators, purveyors and consumers of this past. What they create is a past that is at once consumer good and cultural possession.

The responses of academics to this phenomenon – at least of those who have not dismissed re-enactment as an illusory and unimportant path to historical understanding – have been threefold. The first two are anthropological in character. The post-Durkheimian world of social and cultural history seeks to analyse the functions, purpose and meaning of re-enactment, and to locate it within the categories of collective identity and memory and, in its more sophisticated versions, within the realm of social conflict. Pierre Nora’s series of volumes Les Lieux de Memoire stand as a (distinguished) representative of this trend.[2] This is a way of re-appropriating re-enactment and bringing it back into the realm of scholarly history.

The second response is ethnographic or (to use Garfinkel’s term) ethno-methodological (if you can’t beat them, join them): to act not just as an observer of re-enactment but as a (possibly privileged) participant, the fate of the historians (and other academics) who took part in The Ship.   The third response is to treat re-enactment more formally, to attend to its mechanics or poetics, as in Jonathan Lamb’s four-fold classification of re-enactment as pageantry, theatre, house and realism.[3]

In this paper I want to pursue a path closer to Lamb’s than any other – one that attends to the poetics of re-enactment, though what I want to argue is that we have become preoccupied with a particular notion (a sentimental and naively somatic) idea of how re-enactment does and should work, which has occluded other ways in which we might want both to practice and analyse re-enactment. Specifically I assume that all forms of re-enactment either tacitly or explicitly assume a notion of the real, and that this is the question to which we should attend. I make my argument using the case of Italian neo-realism or, more specifically, using the example of one neo-realist film, Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 masterpiece, Paisa, released in the Anglo-phone world as Paisan. (I restrict myself to this case study in part because I don’t want to get into the vexed debate, that has run since the 1940s, of what neo-realism is or was).[4] Rather I focus on the techniques and assumptions that underpin Paisa’s notion of the real. My aim is not to argue that we should revert to neo-realism, which like sentimental re-enactment has a very specific historical context, but to point out that any serious discussion of re-enactment must address the question of the poetics of the real.

I want to begin by looking at re-enactment from the point of view of the re-enactors, and then move to those who create re-enactments but may not be participants in them. I realise that a distinction between participants and impresarios is not always a clear one, but it has its heuristic uses, not least in discriminating those who often wish to overlook, and those who necessarily have to address the poetics of re-enactment.


One of the fundamental and certainly one of the most enduring historical problems has been about how to deal with the distance between the past and the present, the distinction between subject and object, participant and narrator/recorder/witness. History – as text, image or performance – constitutes the means by which these binaries are connected. My sense is that enthusiastic re-enactors embrace re-enactment in part because they believe that this tricky problem can be short-circuited or avoided through the process of re-enactment. Thus re-enactment is trailed at one web-site as follows: “Have you often wondered what it might have been like to actually live in the past? Historical re-enacting gives you that chance”.[5]   Self-descriptions of re-enactors seem to collapse the distance between past and present, reducing it to zero so that the re-enactor inhabits a sort of overwhelming timelessness in which the present self and past other merge into a single identity, a unique individual experience.   (As one would expect with such a sentimental view, what is important is not the truth of the enactment but its psychological effects.) Paradoxically historically specific paraphernalia are usually what make this possible – certain foods, clothes, locations – enabling the re-enactor not just to wear dead men’s shoes but to inhabit their skins.[6] This is, of course, a form of fetishism, in which authentic objects supposedly provide the subject with a complete experience of the past.

On the whole re-enactors seem to see re-enactment as experiential and somatic. Re-enactors typically fight battles, rehearse rituals etc.[7] They are about doing things, not about thinking things. ( I don’t know of too many examples of them engaging, for instance, in philosophical or theological arguments). This seems to be part of a widespread assumption that language and thought are culturally and temporally specific while feeling and somatic experience are in some sense timeless, an adjunct of human nature. To fight as a seventeenth-century soldier, to sail as an eighteenth-century mariner, to cook as a nineteenth-century housewife (apologies for the sexual politics, but they are ‘in period’), to suffer as a twentieth-century victim of persecution is to replicate and indeed inhabit their ‘experience’ through performance. Again, the issue of distance is occluded. But, as Martin Jay reminds us in his admirable book, Songs of Experience. Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme, our notion of experience also works against this sort of identification: “the word experience has often been used to gesture toward precisely that which exceeds concepts and even language itself. It is frequently used as a marker for what is so ineffable and individual (or specific to a particular group) that it cannot be rendered in conventionally communicative terms to those who lack it. Although we may try to share or represent what we experience, the argument goes, only the subject really knows what he or she has experienced”.[8]   Re-enactors, it seems, are engaged in seeking the triumph of hope over experience.   Put less factitiously, their notion of experience is an instance of what Karel Kosik has called “the pseudo-concrete”[9], a view that seems to have forgotten the human mind.


Of course the picture produced by those whose task it is to create re-enactments – I’m thinking here chiefly of those who produce historical media – TV and the like – have a somewhat more complex and sophisticated view. The creators of a commodified version of the past have to think about what strategies will best connect the product to the consumer, a process that, given the ways in which marketing strategies work, is largely seen as a question of establishing forms of identification. (I want to ask, what other sorts of tactic are there now? Identity seems to have swallowed everything.)


Re-enactments of this sort tend to come in two rather different flavours. The first falls into the realm of traditional political and military history (though there is also a social history version of this) and tells a story in which the audience is invited to take sides with the forces of light in their struggle with the forces of darkness. The temporal and narrative structure of such recreations is usually heroic and progressive, supposing a fairly standard idea of linear time. They often entail an unseen master narrator – think of Sir Lawrence Olivier in the 26 program ITV series ‘The World at War’. The attraction of such re-creations to an audience is through an identification with the goodies, a group whose character – national, ethnic or whatever – is assumed to be that of most of the audience. The nature of the identification is not necessarily sympathetic, though it often is. But the chief assumption is not that we wish to inhabit this re-enactment, but that we recognize that it in some ways made or makes us what we are. Identity is more important than sympathy.   Such re-enactment enables us (whoever the ‘us’ are) to place ourselves in a larger history, to see ourselves, ordinary as we may be, as participants in or the beneficiaries of a transformation – the growth of democracy, the emancipation of minorities, the defeat of totalitarianism, the emancipation of the self etc. As Taylor Downing, the managing director of Flashback Television puts it, talking about his mailbag, “there are millions of intelligent and thinking people who are genuinely interested in how the past has helped to make us what we are”.[10] These large scale narratives, rare cases in which abstract notions are purveyed to a public, are normally scaled down by concentrating on a small group of heroic figures. It is possible, however, for there to be considerable distance between what is re-enacted and the audience. The crucial question is whether there is a linear narrative (often what post-structuralists would call a myth of origins) that can connect the past to the present.

This sort of re-enactment approximates to what I, using a term derived from Jay Appleton’s analysis of landscape,[11] have called ‘prospect history’.   What do I mean by this?   Prospect history presents a single, superior point of view – a bird’s eye perspective or from a lofty peak – in which an extensive, large scale landscape is surveyed. The viewer or narrator is not in the picture but outside it. Subject and object are clearly differentiated and distinct.   Because of height, size and distance, what is observed and recorded is general not specific, an undifferentiated shape or aggregated trend whose contours and surface can be seen, even when it lacks distinct detail. The pleasures of this sort of history are formal and abstract, a bit like the aesthetic appeal that Adam Smith attributed to the contemplation of the workings (and wonders) of the market.

This sort of history can be contrasted with what I call ‘refuge’ history. Refuge history is close-up and on a small scale. Its emphasis is on a particular place rather than space, the careful delineation of particularities and details. The pleasures of refuge history derive from a sense of belonging, of connectedness – to both persons and details – in which the observer is also a participant.   Its assumption is that knowledge and insight come from sympathy and understanding, from a process of loving recuperation. Refuge history is Heimlich. It looks to the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than the Wealth of Nations. The assumption is that, as ordinary people who lead ordinary lives, ordinary life in the past is something that we can relate to our own experience, and something that we can imaginatively inhabit. The distance between the past and our own experience is radically reduced, because we believe that we have the same sort of experience – that of the everyday. And the reduction of scale makes everything more human – easier for the viewer to relate to sympathetically

A third sort of re-enactment is what Robert Darnton has called “incident history”,[12] and whose best example is probably the various versions – textual, filmic and musical – of the Return of Martin Guerre. Some of these – like Martin Guerre – belong to the old and time-tested genre of “strange but true” – their appeal is because of their oddity (and by virtue of that fact belong in the ahistorical category of the not normal),[13] but many others, such as the rehearsal of political crises or major battles, attempt to bring together the two sorts of history I have called prospect and refuge.

But the general point I want to make is that almost all of these versions of how re-enactment can and does work are shaped by the dominant terms sympathy and identity, whose chief virtue lies in the claim that they reduce distance. Now, while I see the merits of the claim for distance reduction, I see no merit to the notion of distance elimination. Indeed I see claims of distance elimination as inevitably and invariably false, illusory even when claimed by the re-enactor to be subjectively authentic.   Distance, I want to suggest is something we should work with rather than seek to remove.   Once we recognize that it inevitably is there, we can do other things with it apart from seeking its elimination.


All of this is by way of preliminary remarks before embarking on a case of show and tell. What I want to do is to look at how Roberto Rossellini recovers the experience of Italy’s liberation in ways which do not occlude distance and which, in my view, render a far more plausible and realistic re-enactment of what the process of liberation meant for many of those who participated in it.   Paisa – together with Roma, Citta Aperta – is conventionally cited as one of the first and most important films called neo-realist. Neo-realism was not just a cinematographic convention, but part of a larger post-war cultural movement intent on ending the ideological and aesthetic obfuscation of everyday life, a process largely (though not exclusively) equated with the spectacular culture of Italian fascism. (Later, in the Cold War, its target shifted to the spectacle of Hollywood and of consumer society.)   Though, as many of those identified as neo-realist have pointed out, not a coherent movement, it exemplified a quite shameless attempt to render the real. As Italo Calvino put it in the preface that accompanied the re-publication of his great neo-realist novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (first published in 1947): : “those who now think of ‘Neo-realism’ as a contamination or coercion of the literature by non-literary forces, are really shifting the terms of the question: in reality the non-literary elements were simply there, so solid and indisputable that they seemed to us to be completely natural; for us the problem appeared to be entirely one of poetics, of how to transform that world which for us was the world into a work of literature”.   Rossellini said, “What mattered to us was the investigation of reality, the [film’s] correspondence to reality”, The critic Cesare Zavattini, who was also the script-writer for Ladri di biciclette (The bicycle Thieves) , put it similarly: “What we are really attempting is not to invent a story that looks like reality, but to present reality as if it were a story”.[14]

Zavattini’s neo-realist manifesto adduced three main principles for neo-realist cinema: to shoot in the present tense in order to explore the impact of history on everyday life; to use episodic narrative to historicize the role of chance; to use non-professional actors to show that the flow of public history and the rhythm of private behaviour are neither neatly joined nor totally unrelated, but mostly at odds, while their effects overlap and intersect with one another.[15]

Roberto Rossellini’s Paisa, perhaps more than any other film, comes to embody these aims and principles.[16] I’m aware that there is considerable debate about the interpretation of the film, particularly about its contribution to issues of nationhood and identity at the end of war.[17]   But here I’m chiefly concerned with Rossellini’s strategies, both rhetorical and particularly narratological, in conveying or representing ‘the real’. It is instructive, in this context, to contrast Paisa with Rossellini’s other post-war masterpiece, Roma Citta Aperta.  The latter has rightly been characterised as a melodrama, one in which there is a clear struggle between wrong and right. But Paisa takes an altogether different form, one that plays out the tension between a progressive heroic narrative of the liberation of Italy by the British and Americans in 1943-4 and a series of stories that cast an unflinching eye on the human costs of freedom.   These stories are not figured as a struggle between right and wrong (there is brutality on all sides), but as a study in how the grand sweep of history gets worked out in everyday lives.   Its themes are not bravery and heroism – though this is shown – but of shared sacrifice and suffering (a Christian theme found in much of Rossellini’s work).[18] The characters are pushed and buffeted by the grand forces of the military struggle but also by chance, misfortune and misunderstanding. We are made acutely conscious of how strongly attached people are to the intimate pleasures of ordinary life – love, friendship, family, (Christian) fellowship – how much these are sought as a comfort and a refuge, and how powerfully they are disrupted by the sweep of history. The object of the film is not to re-act scenes from the invasion/liberation but to convey to the audience the emotional experience of those years.

Rossellini depicts six scenes set in different regions of Italy which follow the Allied advance, beginning in Sicily, then moving to Naples, Rome, Florence, Emilia-Romagna, finally ending in the Po Valley.   This grand narrative is represented as an impersonal inexorable process, signed by brief clips of maps, diagrams and a large abstract arrow, marking the movement of the allies and of time. These shots are accompanied by reassuring newsreel footage of retreats, victory parades and cheering crowds of the sort familiar to everyone who watched newsreels in Europe and America at the time.   They embody a cheerful optimism which is reinforced by our (retrospective) knowledge that the good guys will and did win. They constitute both in their narrative form and scale an instance of prospect history.

But the stories – in the present tense – have a very different effect. They reduce the conflict to a human scale – indeed, they make it human – yet in doing so they undercut or, at the very least, re-write the positive story of liberation.   In all but one case the effects and unintended consequences of the Allies liberation – the sufferings and misunderstandings that follow in the wake of war – are revealed as the larger narrative thread is entangled with a series of ordinary, personal everyday stories.

Every segment of Paisa deserves detailed treatment, but the constraints of space force me to confine my remarks to the very first episode, set at the beginning of the Allied advance through Sicily. It opens with the grand historical narrative, but the heroic bombast of the voiced-over allied landing quickly elides into a scene of confusion, a babble of voices, a tissue of misunderstanding, and a powerful sense of the entanglement of grand history and ordinary lives, when American soldiers first meet the local Sicilian population. As in the rest of the film the characters (many not actors but ‘ordinary people’) speak in a babble of languages and dialects – American English, English English, German, Sicilian, Neapolitan, Roman, Tuscan and Venetian dialects of Italian, as well as the pure version of the language. The opening linear narrative of the film is disrupted by a whole series of trajectories and points of view.

The American troops take a young Sicilian girl, Carmela, to guide them through a minefield.   They reach a castle tower, leave the woman with one of their number, “Joe from Jersey”, and continue their advance. Much of the episode is taken up with the attempts of Carmela and Joe to communicate despite their ignorance of the other’s language.   Joe admits his fears, talks of his job as a milk-float driver back home, and of his sister and her child. Carmela, mistakenly thinking he is showing her his wife or girlfriend, betrays a certain jealousy, and Joe, to show the family resemblance with his sister, uses a cigarette lighter to illuminate the photograph in his wallet. Rossellini then brutally cuts to a group of German soldiers who cry out as they see Joe’s light. A shot rings out. Joe falls dead at Carmela’s feet.   The swiftness of the transition is shocking. Carmela hides as the Germans take over the tower. Angered by the death of Joe – his gestures of friendship have rendered him a friend not an alien presence – she shoots one of the German’s with his rifle. When the Americans return to the tower, they find Joe’s body and assume that Carmela, “the dirty Eye-Tie”, has treacherously killed him. But in the final shot we see Carmela’s body sprawled on rocks at the sea’s edge where she has been thrown by the Germans.

This episode contains many of the features repeated in other parts of the film. The military action, filmed under cover of darkness, is hard to understand both for the soldiers and for the film’s viewers (just as in the final episode set in the Po Valley, a night landing of supplies in almost completely unintelligible). Apart from the scenes with Carmela and Joe, the episode is shot at middle distance so that the spectators are not directly engaged in the action but watching an unfolding story whose plot is almost impossible to detect. Here as elsewhere in the film the camera conveys in its framing and movement what Leo Braudy has called a “sense of detached, almost cold observation” that undercuts a sentimental view of events.[19]   Again, as throughout the film, the longing for intimacy, understanding and friendship clashes headlong with the brutal pressures of war. Time and again moments of connectedness and warmth – a shared meal, the washing of hands, a gift of a medicine, playing a mouth organ – are disrupted by conflict; dreams of union are thwarted.

At one level Rossellini is offering us a universal account of the vicissitudes of war, a sort of humanist analysis of what military conflict means for those who cross its path. At the same time, in its sensitivities to place – each of the episodes has regional character and feel, conveyed by the landscape and the people who inhabit it – it is culturally specific. (Neo-realist commentators, regardless of their ideological complexion, were highly conscious of how what they were doing grew out of a special historical conjuncture.) But Rossellini is not maudlin and rarely sentimental. His audience, like many of the characters in Paisa, is on a journey of discovery or realisation. It is not asked to act a part in the theatre of sympathy. The camera, the vehicle of image making – restless, mobile and detached, works not as a bond of sympathy but as a tool of understanding.   Throughout his career, Rossellini was preoccupied with the persuasive and instructive power of the visual media – a huge part of his output were the numerous and lengthy historical programs he made for television in his later years.[20] In Paisa (and other work of this period) Rossellini seems concerned to make clear that we should learn from history, even when we recognize that we have moved beyond it. We can reconstruct our sense of the past without having to inhabit it, because the point of reconstructing the past is to make us better equipped to live in the present. As many critics have pointed out, this sort of position is very much derived from Benedetto Croce, the influential liberal Italian philosopher.[21]

In the Poetics Aristotle famously distinguished historical truth that was concerned with particular events and what did or has happened, from poetic truth that was concerned with universal (human) matters and with what might or what we imagine could have happened.   Some commentators on Paisa have been concerned to emphasize its historical truth – the use of ‘real’ American soldiers and Italian partisans, or Neapolitan street urchins, and the filming in the ‘real’ locations where battles raged, and atrocities were committed.   But every bit as important as these fragments of authenticity and veracity are to the film, they pall in my view when placed beside the much larger verities that Rossellini explores about conflicting temporalities, about the complex dialectic between big history and small everyday lives, and about the way in which the forces of history are constantly led to deviate or change as a result of chance. (This, crucially, is neo-realism’s notion of the real.) Re-enactment, it seems to me, is not going to get much beyond a site of modern fantasy and nostalgia (pleasant as this may be), unless it can begin to address the issues of the relationship between historical and poetic truth (I know Aristotle wanted to keep them apart, but never mind), the issue of forms of narration, and of dealing with contingency and chance.   And to succeed in doing so one needs, as Rossellini’s camera shows, a degree of detachment, a consciousness of the processes by which we represent the real.




[1] Alex Geppert,   Fleeting Cities: Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (2010, 2013).

[2] Pierre Nora references

[3] See Lamb’s essay in this volume

[4] For an excellent account of the debate see Lucia Re, Calvino and the age of Neo-Realism: Fables of Estrangement (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1990), esp chs.1-3.

[5] http://genealogy.about.com/od/wars/a/reenacting.htm?terms=reenactment

[6] Thus debates at websites concerned with “standards of authenticity” seem chiefly preoccupied with dress and utensils, whether domestic or military.

[7] Even the most perfunctory search of re-enactment web sites reveals an overwhelming military predominance

[8] Martin Jay, Songs of Experience. Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (

[9] Karel Kosik, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study on the Problems of Man and the World (Boston and Dortrecht, 1975), 2.

[10] David Cannadine (ed.), History and the Media (Palgrave: Basingstoke and New York, 2000??),

[11] Appleton, Jay (1996), The Experience of Landscape, revised edition, Chichester: Wiley

[12] Robert Darnton “It Happened One Night’, New York Review of Books v.51, no. 11 (24 June 2004).

[13] For some important comments on the appeal of such strange but true stories to historians see Catharine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 54-6

[14] Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, trans. Archibald Colquhoun, revised Martin McLaughlin (Cape, 1998), 9-10. David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Roberto Rossellini. Magician of the Real, London: British Film Institute. 2000, 39, 151; Robert Stam, Film Theory an Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 19 )., 73.

[15] For Zavattini’s views see Cesare Zavattini Cinema. Diario cinematografico Neorealism ecc, a cura di Valentina Forrtichiari e Mino Argentieri (Classici Bompiani, Milan, 2002), esp. 741-769.

[16] Even though, it should be added, their views of neo-realism came to differ.

[17] Angela Dalle Vacche, The Body in the Mirror. Shapes of History in Italian Cinema (Princeton UP: Princeton, 1992), 102, 180-8, 194-5, 197-201; Peter Brunette, ‘Unity and Difference in Paisan’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 16, 1 (1983), 91-111.

[18] For Christian neo-realism see Tag Gallagher, “NR+MC2: Rossellini, ‘Neo-Realism’, and Croce”, Film History 2 (1988), 87-97.

[19] Leo Braudy, “Rossellini: From ‘Open City’ to ‘General della Rovere’”, in Leo Braudy and (ed.) 659.

[20] The best known remnant of this work is his The Rise to Power of Louis XIV.

[21] See especially, Tag Gallagher, ‘NR=MC2’, Film History (1988), 90-1.

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