From Rossellini to RoboCop

Cinema is suffering from a lack of movement. Sure, it’s heading in certain directions (think of the dearth of medium-budget films being made nowadays and the ridiculous number of superhero films out and you can see depressing trends), but the Twentieth Century idea of the artistic movement within film, defined by an -ism and with something to say, is dead and buried.

If you went to the cinema in the late 1940s in Italy, you would have seen some of the most groundbreaking and politically engaging films, including De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., or Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. The likes of De Sica and Rossellini, Cesare Zavattini, and Luchino Visconti were creating films that offered a view on Italy after World War Two, loaded with political and social meaning sympathetic to the average Italian. A decade later, in France, Truffaut, Godard, and Alain Resnais would blow the French literary establishment out of the water and crown cinema the new dominant artistic medium of the country under the tutelage of André Bazin and his auteur theory, that a director’s film ought to represent his or her personal vision. Again, these were deeply political films about young love and social conflict, all deliberately breaking the old rules of filmmaking and subverting expectation. It was historical cinema, which told you about the mindset of a section of society, the trials they faced, and the social, intellectual, and existentialist concerns of those living at the time.

These directors were artists, and, like artists, they fought for their ideas. Godard and Truffaut disagreed intensely on what the nouvelle vague ought to be, with the former accusing the latter of taking too much of the social realism of older French literature into his films. Godard was published in Bazin’s journal, Cahiers du cinéma, writing film criticism, as did Truffaut, who was so passionately critical in his reviews that he was banned from Cannes in 1958. Is there a director around nowadays who has so much to say, and so vocally, about the cinematic medium? The closest we seem to get nowadays is Tarantino shouting, once again, that his films’ gratuitous violence does not affect people in real life. Surely this in itself – a director denying the possibility of his work having any real impact on society – is an indictment of how cinema today engages with the wider world?

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That’s not to deny that we now have extremely talented directors with intensely personal styles, and films which may try to teach us something about ourselves. Those with recognisable trademarks that spring to mind in Hollywood include Tarantino, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola. In the UK, Edgar Wright has been cultivating a uniquely off-beat and self-referential way of doing things, whilst in mainland Europe, Paolo Sorrentino, Gaspar Noe, and Lars von Trier are all taking things a little bit more seriously (the last admittedly, was part of a wider communicative effort named Dogme 95, which, in the 90s, had many intellectual hallmarks of a cinematic movement).

The problem is that there’s no conscious communication, no discourse. Where are the directors writing in film journals and where are the directors challenging norms and looking for new ways to express themselves? The best directors around are making stylistically wonderful films which are politically and socially void. The most politically moving films out at the moment are about hardship and persecution, certainly, but they are about examples so damningly obvious that you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who disagreed with the films’ theses; no one will deny the messages about persecution present in Twelve Years A Slave or The Imitation Game, but when it comes to turning the spotlight on our own culture and its injustices, there’s no one out there to do it. At a time when the young are increasingly marginalised by the establishment, there is a serious absence of their voice, or a voice for them, in mainstream cinema.