Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield



Realism in film is overrated. This has been my firm belief for quite some time. Since way before I started making films, in fact. What started as a personal inclination became a predilection in the choice of films to watch and finally a cornerstone in the design of my own fictional output.

This is not to say that I favour fantasy, horror or sci-fi over a good, solid flick featuring real human beings, dealing with realistic issues within a recognisable world. I'm often happy with minimalistic tales which present their content on a smaller scale - so long, for instance, as the implications to the characters are varied and the mood is carefully crafted through the available cinematic devices.

My point is that the tendency (of both filmmakers and audiences) to judge a film by 'real life' standards is the most limiting, narrow-minded approach I can think of.

Every artform should claim the right to expand itself; to enhance aspects of its own anatomy to deliver, at the very least, a pleasurable challenge. To suppress cinematic techniques in favour of comfortable realism in accordance with expectations is reductive and a little ridiculous.

The symptom becomes more acute if you add the prefix 'socio' to the term 'realism'. There is something utterly unimaginative about the way the trend developed and took shape.

If, to begin with, an assertion of national pride and identity may have had a place after a crippling World War II, to continue to pursue an approach that is light years from expressing the full potential of the artform is plain vanity. The constant, ongoing regurgitation of issues that highlight 'who we are' and 'where we belong' - without elevating the form to greater levels of artistic expression - is a tedious 'marking of territory'.

Those who abide to such a narrow standard, blindingly defending the usual conventional view that 'story comes first', should watch the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a true filmmaker who took his first creative steps as a man of words before entering and redefining cinema. His use of real circumstances and non-actors in his fictional work would humble any current practioners of socio-realism that may have a hint of genuine film understanding in them. In essence, Pasolini understood that, like poetry, the formulation of film is internal and not a reiteration of established values and formulas.


Espen Bale.

This year marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Italian filmmaker, poet, writer and political, social and cultural commentator Pier Paolo Pasolini. Growing up against the backdrop of Fascism in the north-eastern area of Friuli, Pasolini found his escape in poetry, writing his first poem aged seven. After school, the loss of his younger brother and expulsion from both the Italian Communist Party and his local community, Pasolini ended up in Rome, in the infamous borgate (slums). There, he befriended Attilio Bertolucci, father of director Bernardo Bertolucci, who not only helped publish his first novel, but also introduced him to the film business.

As a writer who knew Rome's slums, Pasolini was asked to work on the dialogue for the street scenes in Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957). However, a life in the margins of the film world was not enough and in 1961 he made his directorial début with Accattone. The film, based on his novel, was a revelation. It utilised the basic language of Italian cinema of the day, neorealism, and yet was imbued with a poetic beauty and moral ambivalence that was completely fresh.

Mamma Roma (1962) ensued - with an acclaimed performance by Anna Magnani. The violent intensity (and intense violence) of the lives of its characters was again beautifully balanced with a poetic sensibility and incredible eye for simultaneously simple, yet intensely affecting and infinitely complex imagery.

Pasolini's next film would prove to be a masterpiece, and arguably one of the finest ever made.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) - which, notably, kept religious affiliation to a minimum by excising the 'St.' - brings a transcendent ambience to the post-neorealist aesthetics of his previous output. The influence of religious iconography had always been evident (in the way he framed pimps, prostitutes and thugs as others painted Christ). Yet, no previous film of his employed it to such an incredible conclusion.

Here was a filmmaker challenging the very foundation of organised Christianity on its doorstep, exposing the teachings of Christ for the egalitarian vision they were, whilst condemning those who allowed social injustice to perpetuate, often under the guise of religious teaching.

For all the potential anger of these films - a common aspect in most politically-motivated realism - there is a sublime beauty inherent in Pasolini's work. The exception could perhaps be his other masterpiece - the brutal, shocking and incredibly relevant Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Its savage depiction of moral and physical debauchery and the unrestrained brutality lingering in humanity, make this, worryingly, his most 'realist' film of all.


Next from Filmreel

Looking back at Doc/Fest 2012.

To be perfectly honest, documentaries are still a source of discomfort to me - a sort of lifelong ambivalence which remains practically…

More Filmreel

Next article in issue 51

More Film

Flaming Assassin is catching fire on the festival circuit

Filmed in Sheffield, the crime thriller by filmmaker, dancer and martial artist Nathan Geering has been picking up awards. Nathan told us more about kung fu, ‘fire breaking’ and being invited to train with Jackie Chan’s stunt team.

More Film