The Erotic Spectacle and Female Beauty Representing a Nation by Katie Suarez

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Laura Mulvey breaks the scopophilic cinematic boundaries into “active/male and passive/female,” in her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

“The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female form, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote a certain to-be-look-at-ness.” (Mulvey, 4)

This so-called “to-be-looked-at-ness” is manipulated by costume, camera techniques such as extra-diegetic long takes and close ups, and performance creating an erotic spectacle in the films Riso Amaro by Giuseppe De Santis, and Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio and 8 ½ by Federico Fellini. Silvana Mangano, renowned beauty and sex symbol from her outbreak in 1946 through the 1960s as well as Claudia Cardinale and Anita Ekberg, both sex symbols of the 1960s represented different ideals of beauty meant to call to mind propelled images of Italy in its rebirth in the 1940s and newly consumer culture in the 1960s. These images of beauty and inherent connotations were not created by these women themselves however, but rather manipulated by male journalists, filmmakers and directors into an image of masculine creation.

Silvana Mangano was one of the first internationally renowned Italian stars after World War II, with the leading role in her breakout film Riso Amaro at the age of 18. With the importation of Hollywood into Italy in the 1940s following the second World War, Italian neorealist director Giuseppe De Santis decided that he wanted his female protagonist of Riso Amaro to carry with her all of the glamour and sex appeal of the American cinema stating that he wanted, “a character who was meant to resemble a Rita Hayworth of the Italian periphery.” (Gundle, 143.) Silvana Mangano’s curvaceous body and youthful pretty face in her rice worker’s uniform of micro-mini shorts and thigh high socks drew international attention long before the film hit theaters. This buzz was generated in large part by the rave reviews of Mangano’s beauty by journalist Italo Calvino who exalted Mangano’s generous curves and Mediterranean coloring. While Mangano’s character Silvana is the protagonist of the film, she is constantly subjectified. Throughout the film her beauty is mentioned as she notes that everyone wants to court her when the rice workers arrive at the rice fields, and later wins a beauty contest hosted by the rice field.

The audience’s first view of Mangano takes place within the first scene of the film and she immediately is presented as an erotic spectacle. We first see Silvana dancing in front of the train in a sleeveless fitted top and a high-waisted A-line skirt that falls just above the knee. Her right arm is hiking up the skirt as she swings her hips from side to side. It then cuts to Francesca (the other female protagonist) and Walter, a male lead who could be considered the antagonist as a thief who eventually steals all of the rice workers’ hard earned work. The audience is immediately connected to Walter as the shot-reverse-shot from Silvana to Walter turns back to Silvana and it slowly pans up her body following what would be Walter’s gaze. This sequence is interesting as it is extra-diegetic except for the later introduction of Silvana into Walter and Francesca’s lives when he begins to dance with her. The story line is stopped and we observe nothing other than the eroticized image of a beautiful woman dancing. As Mulvey states,

“A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude. For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s-land outside its own time and space…. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen.” (Mulvey, 5)

This flatness is seen while the camera pans up Silvana’s body causing her to resemble the foldout page of a pin-up poster. Pin up posters were newly popular in this era thanks to the proliferation of the posters in the hands of American GIs during World War II. Similar to the masculine exposition of a female’s sexuality in a director’s work with his female star, pin up posters in Italy in this period were man-made creations, “even in photographic form the elimination of all physical details and peculiarities of the model meant that the pin-up was ‘a man-made object disguised as a girl.’” (Gundle, 110.)

Her figure is sexualized again when she is shown in her rice worker’s uniform of short shorts, her leg is propped up and she slides her thigh high socks slowly up her leg. This sexualization of the character continues throughout the film including a bathing sequence and another dancing sequence where she performs encircled by a crowd. In this sequence, Walter has arrived at the rice worker’s camp and we (the spectators) are again associated with his point of view and gaze. We see Silvana at a medium close up shimmying to the music. When she recognizes Walter she is distressed at wearing his stolen necklace but then plays to his gaze as she dances for him and entices him to join her as she lifts her hair from her neck, flashes her leg and waves him over. The continued shot reverse shot allows the audience to follow their gazes but only Silvana is seen as an erotic spectacle, dancing and shaking her body while Walter stands still in the crowd.

Another interesting aspect to this sequence is the fact that Silvana is surrounded by the crowd of rice workers, she is performing for the crowd, Walter and the camera. In this way the spectators are not only linked to Walter’s desire for Silvana but are experiencing the same voyeuristic pleasures as the rest of the crowd. A similar phenomenon takes place in Fellini’s Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio when the poster of Anita Ekberg is slowly put together. Fellini takes the slow pan that seems to cut apart the female lead’s body parts to another level by literally objectifying Anita Ekberg into a poster promoting milk and a crowd gathers in a park in Rome to watch the various pieces of Ekberg’s body slowly come together. Her body is put together from the feet up just as De Santis had the camera pan from Mangano’s feet up in revealing her body. Finally the image of Anita’s head and shoulders is seen as she is propped on her side in a low-cut revealing evening gown holding a glass of milk. The crane pulls up this last piece of the poster and it shakes tantalizingly above the rest of the her body, as the crane slowly brings it down to fit in place, the crowd cheers and celebratory music is played making this the ultimate example of an erotic spectacle.

As the camera pans across the crowd only men and a few little girls can be seen, everyone is applauding and a group of American musicians chime a trumpet call. The camera then pulls farther away and we see more people approaching the field. This time there are a few women approaching the crowd but again it is mostly men. This sequence is reminiscent of many Italian films from this period. When the audience is left with male protagonists, male voice-overs, and the camera follows a male point of view so that the spectators take on a male persona, which Maggie Gunsberg coins as spectatorial transvestism.

“After all, for the female spectator to put her femininity aside in order to masculine-identify would be to perform an act of spectatorial transvestism only too consonant with patriarchal imperatives to put masculinity first, with femininity as the subordinate other.” (Gunsberg, 66)

This same spectatorial transvestism occurred throughout Riso Amaro as the spectator followed Walter’s point of view and occurs again in 8 ½ as the camera not only follows Guido’s gaze but we see his fantasies, dreams and memories unfold before our eyes.

This sequence is also interesting in the complete objectification of Anita. Mulvey states in her Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema, that Freud, “associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”  (Mulvey, 3.) She is a flattened static image we have no idea what her thoughts or desires may be. When she does come to life later in the film it is all within the dream and fantasy of Antonio leaving us to wonder if this character has any autonomy within the film.

The fact that we have no clue what her desires may be recalls John Berger’s notes on 17th century and onwards oil paintings and publicity photography. Berger notes that while the male figure is meant to connote power interior to him through his poses in which is hips and shoulders are typically square to the artist’s perspective or camera, the female figure’s power is always exterior to her. She is posed in a way to excite interest and desire in the viewer and make the viewer feel as if he or in terms of spectatorial transvestism, she, is able to attain her. All of her desires are concentrated on him and her desires are of no concern to the viewer.

Another intriguing scene later in the film occurs when Anita comes to life in Antonio’s dream. Her enormous size is representative of her larger than life fame and persona as a sex symbol. In Mulvey’s Fetishism and Curiosity she states that female subjectivity was created in American film in the 1920s to fit American women’s new sexual freedom into the patriarchal hierarchy. In order for men to be able to accept that women were taking on a more, previously, masculine role in their sex lives it was necessary for them to frame it into a way that they could control hence the creation of the eroticized film star who displays her sexuality for the viewing man. Anita’s sex appeal and physique were so overwhelmingly larger than life that no one could seemingly pin it down making the sequence even more potent. When she finally shrinks down to Antonio’s size he calms down, and then enraptured by her beauty proposes. Her response of “per sempre? Che noia! Per una settimana, forse!” (Forever? How boring! Maybe for a week,) sends him back into a rage whereupon Anita transforms herself back into her giant stature.

While the characters of Anita and Silvana are demonized in Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio and Riso Amaro for their lack of sexual inhibitions and Silvana’s consumerist desires, Claudia is idealized in Fellini’s 8 ½. Throughout the film Claudia is presented to us as Guido’s muse and savior. She is dressed in all white and her hair despite one scene is swept back and neat. She is at Guido’s constant disposal, whenever he is worried or having another creative break she magically appears.

The most erotic sequence that Claudia plays in 8 ½ takes place in Guido’s hotel room after one of his longtime right hand men has just quit the film. Guido wonders what role Claudia will have in his upcoming film and what she will symbolize, again showing how male directors and filmmakers were able to shape the roles and images of these female stars. As he whispers what she will represent, Claudia dressed in nothing but a white slip sits on a chair with her legs spread and laughs as her upper body spills downward onto her knees. “Hai ragione,” whispers Guido (You’re right,) as he rolls onto the bed over a pile of photographs and headshots of beautiful actresses. This pile of photographs is again representative in the power the male director has in deciding which beautiful actress will become the new Italian ideal and how he wants to display her. The ability for a director to dictate exactly how he wants his lead actress to look and dress is seen in a later sequence where Claudia the actress discusses her upcoming role in Guido’s next film and he describes to her how she will wear her hair and dress, all of which fit the description of the imaginary Claudia the audience has been watching throughout the film.

After Guido rolls over the photographs telling Claudia she’s right in her laughter, Claudia makes her way over to the bed gently fanning a white chiffon scarf in front of her. The camera is at a medium close up of her bust and slowly pans up to her face. Her hair is disheveled for the first time and she is looking downward, presumably at Guido. She sits down on the bed and we see a close up of her face kiss Guido’s hand and then a medium close up of her bust leaning forward as she places the hand onto Guido. There is then a cut to her hair falling over Guido as she kisses his forehead. Another cut shifts us to seeing Claudia’s back. Her slip has been pulled off of her shoulders and her mid-to-upper back is completely exposed as she whispers. Another cut shows Claudia in the all white bed and we see a close up of her face whispering, “Voglio far ordine, voglio far pulizia,” again and again. The camera zooms in to an extreme close up of her face before it cuts to another sequence.

“Her words, I want to make order, I want to make cleanliness,” evoke exactly what Guido is aching for. He is a mess; unable to decide what creative direction he wants to go in. Her costume of an all white slip represents cleanliness and purity as does the white scarf she is playing with which could resemble a wedding veil. In this semi-autobiographical film it is no surprise that, “Fellini’s women were explicitly described as projections of the director’s desires and fears, and therefore, to some extent, of all men of his generation and background.” (Gunsberg, 197.)

Besides for this sequence being the most erotic of the many sequences between imaginary Claudia and Guido it is also the most intimate as it is one of the few in which she speaks. It’s interesting that Fellini’s example of the ideal woman of “antique and childlike beauty” has absolutely no voice in the film except in the one sequence in which her voice mimics his needs. Throughout the film the audience is only privy to Guido’s thoughts, fantasies, dreams and memories, not one moment is allowed for us to creep inside the minds of a female character. Instead the only view of women we receive is that of the Madonna-Magdalena paradigm. His wife and mistress are only allowed to fit into their specific roles in the virgin-whore spectrum, which was strong in Fellini’s consciousness.

“In 1965 he [Fellini] declared that: ‘we have still not freed ourselves of the old Catholic and moralistic cliché about women, that oscillates between two opposed images- the Madonna, the mother and the angel on the one hand and prostitution, the devil and son on the other.’ This outlook he developed first and perhaps most fully while he was making 8 ½…” (Gundle, 197)

As previously stated, Fellini’s views on women and life were common among men who grew up with similar lifestyles as him, meaning a middle class childhood. Claudia Cardinale certainly signified the ideal Italian beauty at this point in time. While Silvana’s curvy figure in 1946 was meant to embody the type of maternal plenitude that Italy hoped to be born into again, Claudia’s figure was reminiscent of the earlier stars while still reflecting the 1960s.

“Claudia Cardinale…was strongly reminiscent in her physical characteristics of those stars who emerged earlier. In this way, she provided a continuity, a physical reminder of the qualities of the Italian people at a time when foreign influence was strong.” (Gundle, 171)

While Anita Ekberg was a perfect example of the foreign sex symbols bombarding the Italian imaginary in the early ‘60s, Claudia was seen as a down-to-earth more typical Italian. Her character in 8 ½ was meant to represent, “’Grace’ or inspiration, it has been said, qualities that derived from the actress’s ‘pleasing and earthy aspect.’”  (Gundle, 198) Anita, on the other hand, was an attractive figure to Fellini due to her abundant curves.

“She (Anita Ekberg) was a key figure in the Italian imagination of the economic miracle and her abundant figure would come, due to her role as a film star in Fellini’s 1960 extravaganza La Dolce Vita, to symbolize the headlong rush to prosperity. The director was fascinated by her exuberance and opulence that were marked in his imagination as foreign.” (Gundle, 172)

Unlike the Italian sex symbols preceding Anita who were chosen to represent Italy for their darker hair, skin, and eyes representing the Mediterranean and Southern Italy, (Claudia Cardinale was of Sicilian descent,) coming into the new era after the economic miracle of American consumerism, blonde actresses were seen to represent the modern, clean and new. Just as the new sex symbols differed from their predecessors so did the cinema’s treatment of them. “Post-war Italian cinema was full of female roles and images because the female body was the ‘imaginary place of its re-birth,’ just as it was of the country itself.” (Gundle, 145) This type of maternal warmth is not seen in the characters of Anita Ekberg in Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio nor in Claudia Cardinale in 8 ½. Instead Anita is viewed (by Antonio’s character, at least,) as a man-eating fearful creature provoking lustful desires in men that she is wont to deliver, as seen in her refusal of his marriage proposal while Claudia is viewed as sterile, pure and untouchable in Guido’s imaginary.

As Kolker states in his essay, “The Search for Form,” “In a society, the artist is both consumer and producer of ideology, He or she may incorporate the dominant ideology wholesale, or question it or counter it, creating in the work- by means of the work- alternatives to the dominant ideological discourse of the society.” (Kolker, 38-39.) As seen in Fellini’s 8 ½ and Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio he further propagated the patriarchal ideology and his conception of the virgin-whore paradigm in the way he created and featured his female characters. De Santis was a little more liberal in his treatment of Silvana’s character in Riso Amaro as she is neither a fully admirable or distasteful character and while being subjectified throughout the film, she does have a main role in the narrative. Yet despite their differences in their propagation and support of the patriarchal ideology to the masses, each displayed their leading ladies in a sexualized and erotic way. Using the camera to slowly pan up their bodies, in a fragmentary manner by De Santis’ Riso Amaro and the fragmentary putting together of Anita’s body in front of a crowd of cheering men in Fellini’s Le tentazioni di dottor Antonio as well as the fragmented medium close-up shots of Claudia’s bust, face, hands and exposed back in 8 ½ all showed their leading ladies in an eroticized, objectifying light.

Showing the women in such a manner not only further fulfilled the patriarchal ideology in its sexualization, objectification and commodification of the female body but also does so by keeping female sexuality under control by focusing it in a way that is aimed to please the male viewer. As female viewers watch these images they undergo a sort of spectatorial transvestism momentarily losing themselves in the beautiful and erotic images of the female stars as the camera is filmed from the male point of view and the audience is typically privy to only the male thoughts, fantasies, and voices.

Each of these female stars attracted viewers not only due to their beauty and performance but also because of what their beauty symbolized for Italy at the time. In Silvana’s case her curvaceous figure, olive-toned skin and dark eyes linked her to the Italian imaginary of a maternal figure that would give birth to the new Italy. Claudia Cardinale similarly represented the Mediterranean woman with her dark hair, eyes and tanned skin as well as her curvy body and Sicilian background. Her youthful face and playful style however kept her look up to the moment while Anita Ekberg’s overflowing curves and blonde hair made her an exotic spectacle reminiscent of the economic miracle making her even more attractive to Fellini.

Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972. Print.

Gundle, Stephen. Bellissima Feminine Beauty and the Idea of Italy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Gunsberg, Maggie. “Commodifying Passions: Gender and Consumerism in Commedia All’Italiana.” Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre. Print.

Kokler, Robert. The Search for Form. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Web. <http://www.jahsonic.com/VPNC.html&gt;.

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