Mimesis: How Neo-Realism Works

Norman N. Holland

    Kracauer said if you take photographs of, let me call it the epidermis of reality, the skin of reality, this leads you back to reality. And I said to him that it depends on a grasping of the nature, a grasping of the essence of things. When a child understands what a cat or a dog is, it is not that he assimilates all the details in a sort of mechanical fashion or photographic fashion. You somehow catch the cattiness of the cat or the dogginess of the dog. This is what we call grasping reality. How are you going to do this in a medium that records mechanically? And the great miracle of the great films—and if you take the realistic ones, let’s say like the old Pudovkin films or Umberto D. or something like that, you get exactly what matters. This I think is the great miracle of the masters.

    Arnheim is stating a principle that goes back to Aristotle and the Greeks. For the Greeks, good art called for mimesis (μιμησις). We usually translate that “imitation.” We get our words “mimic,” “mime,” and “mimosa” from it. But mimesis calls for more than imitation. It is to catch “the cattiness of the cat or the dogginess of the dog. This is what we call grasping reality.” Or what the Greeks meant by “mimesis.” It is putting on the stage or screen or in the pages of a book something that enables us to get at and understand, not just the look of things, but their essence.

    In watching a film like Umberto D., you might ask yourself just how these neo-realistic directors achieved mimesis. That’s a hard question. Samuel Taylor Coleridge answered it this way: that “imitation, as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the throughout the radically DIFFERENT, or the different throughout a base radically the same.”

    The question comes up most clearly in the Italian neo-realist films of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I think directors achieve mimesis in the neo-realist tradition two ways. One, you let what Stuart Klawans has called “the cinema of the steady gaze” linger on ordinary acts, a maid’s morning routine, a man putting up a poster, boys sitting in a prison cell, so that we become absorbed in the action. These would be Coleridge’s “the different,” widely varying events. Two, you arrange events so that some common themes run through them, Coleridge’s “the different throughout a base radically the same.” At least that is the way I have been reading these neo-realist films with themes like the power relationship between high and low and tall and short, or the many against the one, or the failure to care for another human being. (Check out my comments on Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, or Umberto D.).