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'A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene' a filmmaking experience

By Anthony Cristiano  |  05-Mar-2006

"Mise-en-scene" is an original French word applied to the theatre, and it referred to any material component added to the choreographic composition of the stage including the actors and their performances. In filmmaking the word has been expertly applied to the criticism of movies by the renowned critic and theorist André Bazin (1918-1958), co-founder of the popular film journal Cahiers du cinema. Among the films reviewed and analyzed, Bazin was particularly fond of Roma, città aperta (1945, Roberto Rossellini) and Ladri di biciclette (1948, Vittorio De Sica)1. Both films were shot in Rome and portray its social and psychological post-war climate. The ability of these and similar films to evoke raw feelings in the spectator and captivate one’s attention is puzzling if one thinks of how mise-en-scene is made subservient to a filmmaker's need.

Mise-en scene has evolved as a creative concept through the years in parallel with the evolution of film techniques and procedures, but particularly with the emergence of new filmic visions. The picture of Rome and its mise-en-scene have carried a hellishly charged feeling in Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini), a more saturated one in Fellini's Roma (1972, Federico Fellini), a desertedly quizzical one in Moretti's Caro diario (1994, Nanni Moretti), or a modernly variegated one in Gente di Roma (2003, Ettore Scola). Each filmmaker has carefully designed the composition and cinematic look of the material setting framed in the images added to their films. Yet, having lived intermittently for almost a decade in Rome, I realized how personal each vision was, for I was unable to perceive within the real setting of the city the overwhelming feelings felt watching each film. On the other had I began to conceive feelings and ideas of my own on how the city 'looked and felt' and I embarked on a long journey to translate them into original narratives.

My fondness for the malleable quality of the filmmaking craft began to bud within me as a young and enchanted spectator of films watched on the small TV screen of my parents’ home. The decisive experience that spurred me to make filmmaking one of my chief concerns occurred in Rome inside a film theatre. I had the memorable privilege of living in the city during a Cinema Matinée initiative held every Sunday morning at the Cinema Mignon, in Via Viterbo, during the spring of 1992. Besides the viewing of Italian and overseas masterworks we were treated with informal lectures and questions and answer periods hosted by old and new masters of Italian Cinema. Among the filmmakers-speakers and attendees were Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni, Gillo Pontecorvo, Nanni Moretti and Gianni Amelio2. The films that made an indelible impression on me included Kapò (1959, Gillo Pontecorvo) and the first half of 1900 (1976, Bernardo Bertoluccci) among the Italians, and Welles' More of Venice (The Tragedy of Othello: The More of Venice, 1952, Orson Welles) among the Americans.

Behind the magic of the cinema lies a calculated craft. Setting, costume, lighting, and staging are the components of any mise-en-scene, and duration and order are the basic attributes of any filmic montage. The coordinates of these various components and elements are the prerogative of the filmmaker. In addition to the filmmaker’s technical decisions made at every stage of production, there is a human component, the result of an unrepeatable contribution made by the artist/executioner of the work, which makes each film unique. The uniqueness of such a result is similar to a musicians’ unique execution/recording of a musical piece documented on a spartito in its mathematical elements.

Since the beginning of 2005 I have been editing the print of "A Self-conscious Mise-en-scene" the old fashion way, following into the footsteps of my predecessors by operating a top-notch Steenbeck editor3 fabricated in Hamburg and available at the National Film Board of Canada. The film was shot on approximately 3300 feet of 16mm black & white Kodak film 7222 100DXN455. A total of fifteen actors (8 males and 7 females) with speaking roles are inter-cut together, along with ordinary life scenes and objects, while they narrate the story of a late summer afternoon stroll in the streets of a big city. The time frame in which the story occurs is the seemingly quiet pre-September eleventh year two thousand, and the pretext is the subject of homelessness. It is an experimental film in virtue of the unconventional choices made by the filmmaker and the challenge they pose to the viewer accustomed to standard formulas of cinematic storytelling. The title of the film is a succinct rendition of the conceptual tapestry embroiled into the entire narrative. The film is based on the original story The Millenary Man. The mise-en-scene is said 'self-conscious' in that the film draws attention to itself by making conspicuous its modus operandi. The 're-writing' of the short story into the cinematic text is achieved at the expense of a number of unconventional choices.

The narration of the story occurs in the third person, by the book, and labouredly word by word. One after another various third-person narrators are placed in front of the camera and asked to re-tell the story as if it were their own. These actors are in turn juxtaposed, at varied pace, with ordinary object and scenes which provide a degage visual commentary to their words and performance. One of the inserts is a zooming back shot of a 3x2.5ft detailed map of Rome4 to recall an evening stroll in the old city. These non-diegetic inserts and associational formulas adopted in production and post-production represent an alternative to the conventional continuity editing style. In conjunction with the juxtaposition of discontinuous spatial and temporal scenes these choices account for the effect of a rebuttal exchange between actors/narrators. The lighting of inanimate objects and scenes is mostly done in high-key, while the actors are mostly lit in low-key to sharpen their sense of void. Selected mistakes made by the actors are appropriately integrated into this original film for they document the act and effort of telling the story of others, the 'foreign' story of estranged homeless people. By exposing the process of mise-en-scene I attempt to offers a re-interpretation via the film medium of the predicament, hopes, and fears contemplated within the short story. These bold choices are aimed at interrogating the unsuspecting viewer by re-enacting an intrinsic conflict, that of human communication and understanding, and yet it remains the portrayal of a personal vision generated by the memories of places and people visited in the course of one's journey.


  1. The complete essay on these works can be found in André Bazin's What is cinema? Essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray (Vol. 2; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). An extensive and more contemporary criticism of these classic films appears in Millicent Marcus' Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986).
  2. Critical analyses on these authors and on other Italian films can be found in Peter Bondanella's Italian Cinema: from Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 2001).
  3. I have been working on Italian made editors since then, and still use the widely popular taglierine (Italian splicers) designed and fabricated in Italy.
  4. Nuovississima pianta di Roma, Stabilimento Art Grafiche L. Salomone –Roma

A passionate writer/filmmaker Anthony Cristiano earned his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on contemporary Italian cinema. He conducts lectures at American and Canadian conferences, including coop centres and the National Film Board.

"A Revisitation of the Relationship between Creature and Creator in Nirvana by Salvatores," speaks of the new trends in the Italian cinema (Italica, Summer 2005). Works include: Infinitely Near (1999 Montreal World Film Festival), Sera di settembre (2001 Toronto Italian Film Festival), Intervalli chiaroscuri (2002 Bravo! New Style Arts Channel), The Laugh (2005 Toronto Festival of Italian Cinema; 25th Atlantic film Festival), and A Matter of Style (Fall 2005 VertexList Gallery Brooklyn, New York; 2005 Montreal Italian Film Festival). His latest book, The Graviton, is a collection of essays, narrative works, and scripts.

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