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 “Forbidden Games”: A review by Peter Gribbin

David Forgacs, Zerilli-Marimò Professor of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University delivered the 8th Annual Frank R. Mastrangelo Lecture on April 9, 2013 to a room packed with students, professors and followers of contemporary Italian cinema. This year’s Mastrangelo lecture marks the culmination of CUA’s yearlong tribute to Italian culture, spearheaded by the tireless efforts of Professor Stefania Lucamante and her colleagues in the Program in Italian Studies.

Forgacs has written widely on Italian culture and cinema and his lecture, “Forbidden Games: Film and the Ambiguities of Childhood in Post-War Italy,” examined films from both Italy and France that have come to define post-war European cinema. In a talk that made use of multiple media, Forgacs focused his discussion on how different directors have dealt with various themes of childhood and how these themes are characterized by significant ambiguities. His outline was ambitious. That time and his own diminishing energies did not permit him to cover the whole topic did not detract from a lecture that was richly detailed and fully involved his audience.

As indicated on the flyer announcing his talk, Forgacs based a good portion of his examination of childhood and its ambiguous portrayal in Italian cinema on the seminal work by the French film critic, Andre Bazin. In presenting Bazin’s analysis of childhood in Italian cinema, Forgacs focused on five themes: 1) Children faces as caught by the camera; 2) Trauma; 3) Chastisement; 4) Work and Play; and, lastly, 5) Sexuality. Forgacs traced these themes as they appear in the works of Italian directors Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and the French filmmaker, René Clément.

Reading from Bazin at Work, a collection of essays by the noted French film critic, Forgacs looked first at the 1947-48 film of Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero. In his essay, Bazin drew attention to the young hero Edmund’s face “being as cold as a sheet of ice.” In this film, Rossellini purposely confronted the conflict that underlies the Hollywood image of innocent childhood captured in the faces of Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Bazin wrote that Rossellini in his portrayal of Edmund was forcing his adult audience to confront the conflict inherent in our view of children as the receptacles of our lost innocence, the faces (and people) we can no longer be. Rather than appropriate children to serve as reflections of our lost innocence, Rossellini’s Edmund offers up a face devoid of emotion, detached, someone onto whom we cannot project our own ambiguities. In this way, Rossellini forces his audience to confront its preconceived notions of childhood and demands that his viewers think carefully of how we make of a child’s face a false representation of our own conflicted identification.

In discussing De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, Forgacs contrasted Rossellini’s depiction of Edmund with the face of Bruno Ricci, a boy who is full of innocent love for his father Antonio, whose every move is to mimic the man he adores, a man, however, who by the end of the film, the son can no longer admire. Further, the son, in the hands of De Sica, becomes the character who ends up supporting the father. In their treatment of childhood in their respective films, both Rossellini and De Sica draw attention to the emasculation of the father figure as a consequence of the civilian carnage wrought across Europe by World War II.

In his discussion of Clément’s Forbidden Games, Bazin drew on the work of Ana Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. In her essays (based on clinical treatment of child survivors of WW II), Freud discussed the traumatic wounds inflicted on children in the wake of WW II. From her clinical findings, Freud noted that the chief cause of trauma for children was not the obvious violence of warfare and air raids. Rather it was the trauma of separation from their parental figures that caused children to spiral downward into detached and dysfunctional lives. Clément’s 1952 film Forbidden Games eerily draws attention to this as the young daughter, upon losing her parents begins to play a cruel game of capturing and killing small animals (the source of the film’s title) so that she can keep them – even in their dead state – close to hand. Freud noted (again in a desentimentalized view of children) that destruction and aggression are intrinsic to childhood, even to those children who did not experience traumatic separation from their parents. The frightening development in children who survived WW II was that the world would now be faced with a new generation whose intrinsic aggression had merged with the outer cruelty visited on them by adults.

As his lecture approached and hour, Forgacs touched briefly on the remaining themes of his talk: chastisement, work and play, and sexuality. It was unfortunate that he could not have gone on for another hour to treat these subjects in the detail he had already shown. But time and, it seemed, his own voice, were fading. It would have been enlightening had Forgacs drawn clearer lines of demarcation between his own and Bazin’s approach to critiquing the films discussed. Forgacs’ presentation was rich in its multi-media approach. He employed the spoken word. He read quotes from Bazin’s work. He projected onto the screen quotes from Anna Freud’s research. And, most importantly, he had shown clips from the films he discussed. David Forgacs gave a thoughtful lecture, even if he ran out of time and energy.