Film and the Power of Representation

“It could be this very purity which makes [neorealism] impossible to define, for it has as its paradoxical intention not to produce a spectacle which appears real, but rather to turn reality into a spectacle: a man is walking along the street and the onlooker is amazed at the beauty of the man walking.”

– Andre Bazin

Because so many of my interests and studies revolve around film, it is difficult for me to read anything about ideology without reading it first through a filmic context – particularly when it regards the power of images as does the first chapter of Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking, “Images, Power, and Politics.” So, for the purposes of this post, I will discuss a few things about the art of film which came to mind as I read the chapter.


Italian neorealism was one of the most influential film movements in history, and it honored a style of strict criterion. In discussing his first film, Shoeshine (1946), Vittoro De Sica speaks of the “social and ethical commitment” by which neorealist filmmakers had to abide in order to call themselves true neorealists. De Sica states, “Each felt the mad desire….to plant the camera in the midst of real life, in the midst of all that struck our astonished eyes….we wanted to look ourselves in the face and tell ourselves the truth” (Marcus xiv). It was the common goal of Italian neorealist filmmakers to portray the dilapidation of post-WWII Italy with an acute yet impossible exactness, and these attempts at mimesis were received not without skepticism. In his “What Is Cinema, Vol. II,” André Bazin states, “‘realism’ can only occupy in art a dialectical position – it is more a reaction than a truth” (Bazin 48). Taking the same position is Harry Levin, who, according to Millicent Marcus in his “Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism”, believes that “realism is by no means innocent of the illusions and conventions it seeks to challenge in earlier styles” (5), including idealism, modernism, nominalism, and romanticism to name a few (4).


In Sturken and Cartwright’s book, they state, “Although the concept of mimesis has a long history, today it is no longer accepted that representations are mere copies of things as they are or as the person who created them believes they ought to be” (12). Sturken and Cartwright discuss the way in which we accept “the rules and conventions of the systems of representation within a given culture” (14), and refer to Surrealist Rene Magritte as an example of the various artists who work to violate those rules. One of Magritte’s most famous pieces, The Treachery of Images (1928-1929), portrays a pipe under which the sentence, “This is not a pipe,” is written in French. With this, as Sturken and Cartwright note, Magritte is “pointing to the relationship between words and things, as this is not a pipe itself but rather the representation of a pipe; it is a painting rather than the material object itself” (15). With a seemingly simple painting, Magritte comments on the complexity which surrounds the “relationship between words and things” (15), and upon reading this I instantly thought of Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Greek drama entitled Dogtooth.


In Dogtooth, a husband and wife live together with their three children whom, as far as we know, have never left the confines of the property. The parents subject their children to homemade tapes filled with vocabulary that completely defies that of the outside world, and, in the event that the children hear a word which their parents have excluded from their teachings, the parents quickly assign the word a definition (the ‘sea’ is said to be a big armchair while a ‘zombie’ is a small yellow flower). Like Magritte’s paintings, the film comments on how, as Sturken and Cartwright states, “the most banal and everyday, sensible uses of representation can so easily fall apart, can be simply silly” (16).  In demonstrating the insignificance of words or signifiers in regards to the meanings with which we have come to associate them, Dogtooth provides viewers with some incredible insight towards both the human language and the conventions and ideologies  to which we are disposed, and this in part is why it has achieved its reputation as a truly disturbing film.


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