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Between Soundtrack and Performance: Music and History in Italian Film Melodrama, 1940-2010


Melodrama manifests itself in a variety of forms – as a film and theatre practice, as a discursive category, as a mode of imagination. This dissertation discusses film melodrama in its visual, gestural, and aural manifestations. My focus is on the persistence of melodrama and the traces it leaves on post-World War II Italian cinema: from the Neorealist canon of the 1940s to works that engage with the psychological and physical, private, and collective traumas after the experience of a totalitarian regime (Cavani’s Il portiere di notte, 1974), to postmodern Viscontian experiments set in a 21st-century capitalist society (Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore, 2009). The aural dimension is fundamental as an opening to the epistemology of each film. I pay particular attention to the presence of operatic music – as evoked directly or through semiotic displacement involving the film’s aesthetic and expressive figures – and I acknowledge the existence of a long legacy of practical and imaginative influences, infiltrations and borrowings between the screen and the operatic stage in the Italian cinematographic tradition. In doing so, I challenge the theoretical bias that associates melodrama with a reliance on grandiose theatrical settings, clichéd symphonic soundtracks, Manichean narrative tropes, redundancy and excess.

My contribution to the understanding of cinematic melodrama encompasses two main dimensions. First, I show how the melos in films is crucial to the epistemological structure of every film, rather than a separate or ancillary entity. Whereas realist cinema and melodrama are usually regarded as opposites or antagonists, realism in fact relies on melodramatic aural and gestural figures to fashion its reality effects. Second, my investigation contributes to an understanding of melodrama, in its visual and aural manifestations, both as a mode and as a discourse – a system of mutually enlightening relationships that are influenced by and, in turn, can influence historical and social changes.

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