The Ideology of Realism: Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism

In my previous article about Andre Bazin I explored his claims that the ontology of the photograph and film – ontology being the essential essence – is its ability to represent life as it appears. According to Bazin, film is inclined to, and again best when, realist in aesthetic. In a series of articles I will examine Bazin’s position on film however I came across an excerpt of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (an online copy of which can be found here) which I felt was interesting as it came from the opposite position. In this article I will explore their claims that the aesthetic of realism is a reliance on the status quo and an aesthetic implicitly reliant on ideological cultural dominants.

In the examination of Comolli and Narboni’s paper it is important to note that they are Structuralist in outlook, in contrast to Bazin who was a staunch Humanist, and they therefore perceive the realist aesthetic differently. This is immediately evidenced when Comolli and Narboni explain that film is partly a ‘product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour [Money] to produce… a commodity, possessing exchange value… governed by the laws if the market’ as well as ‘an ideological product of the system, which in [the Western world] means capitalism’.(1.) Film is made to be sold. Film is an art that is also primarily a source of income and export: film is explicitly a commercial product. However film, according to Comolli and Narboni, is also implicitly the product of the ideology that dominates the field, or place, it was constructed in. A film-maker, according to Comolli and Narboni, cannot change the economic circumstance, or system they find themselves in [if they could would it be the film business anymore anyway?]. One may ‘deflect it, but not negate it or seriously upset its structure’.(2.) An example of this “deflection” may be found in the music industry where the Arctic Monkeys, and several other bands, initially gave away free CDs and allowed their music to be downloaded for free. They originally refracted the “rules” or logic of the music industry however they didn’t change the system itself as after a period of time, and a rise in popularity, they returned to the normal procedure of selling music. For Comolli and Narboni film ‘is determined by the ideology which produced it’.(3.)

As I explained in my article ‘Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image’ Bazin believed that film provides a reproduction of reality and although Comolli and Narboni may permit that film does reproduce reality when they say ‘this is what a camera and film stock are’ they hold a diametrically opposed view of what “reality” really is.(4.) Comolli and Narboni explain that ‘the tool and techniques of film-making are a part of [the] “reality” themselves… [Reality] is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology’.(5.) The realist aesthetic does not reproduce “the way things are”; it is in fact, at most an explicit and at least an implicit, a reproduction of the dominant way of seeing. Comolli and Narboni explain their position when they state ‘what the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant world’.(6.) To use a similar image that Bazin utilized, film does not blow-away the “dust” of regular perceptions and conceptions but rather relies upon and reproduces that “dust” which has settled upon our way of seeing things. The realist aesthetic reproduces the way we experience the world, and the way we experience the world is defined by cultural dominants: and one major cultural dominant, of which Comolli and Narboni are particularly concerned with, is ego-centred capitalism.(7.) In Comolli and Narboni’s words:

When we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the [dominant] ideology. (8.)

Realism is a reproduction, on the screen, of the ideological structures/world we encounter in “everyday” life. The realist aesthetic fails to comprehensively challenge or explore the structures of the dominant forces and world-view in society and art – which cannot challenge or explore sexist, racist or fascistic ideologies – is a blank critique and an utterly redundant social activity; art without the ability to challenge or explore social attitudes is not really art at all. According to Comolli and Narboni to stop film art from just becoming the “tool” of the dominant world-view ‘the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”‘ and, if they are able to achieve that; the film-maker may be able to ‘sever’ or ‘disrupt’ the ‘connection between the cinema and its ideological function’.(9.)

To Comolli and Narboni just simply reproducing reality ensures one relies on the assumptions found in “everyday” life. They argue for the utilization of techniques which upset the viewers ability to accept the supposedly unadulterated reality of the world depicted. The use of jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960) could be argued to facilitate this sort of alienating technique. There are many films that are naturalistic or realist in aesthetic that, at least appear, to transverse and critique society and this is a definite critique of Comolli and Narboni’s position. A lack of examples and instances in film of the realist aesthetic is also another critique I would level against their article – however It should be understood that the article is intended as theory rather than “practice”. Rather than quickly explore the counter-arguments a critic who favours the realist aesthetic would raise I will leave that duty to Bazin, whose position I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

 (1.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, in (Ed) J. Hollows, P. Hutchings, M. Jancovich, Film Studies Reader, London: Oxford Uni Press, (2000), pp. 197-200, p. 197.

(2.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(3.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(4.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(5.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(6.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(7.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(8.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(9.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.


Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image


Andre Bazin is undoubtedly a famous figure in film criticism and film theory. Bazin was a co-founder of the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, a mentor and friend of Francois Truffaut and firm supporter of realism. A large collection of Bazin’s writings were complied and published posthumously and entitled What Is Cinema?. In a series of articles I will explore Bazin’s essays. The first article will be:


The Ontology of the Photographic Image1

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.2

What Bazin is arguing here is that at the heart of the plastic arts – painting and sculpture – is a need to make immortal the mortal; to turn the image of our flesh into clay, steel and paint is to transform ourselves and preserve our being beyond its physical existence. Bazin is not, as some critics have argued, asserting that all art is solely defined by an attempt at immortalising the mortal. But that one of the defining characteristics, or innate motivations, in the production of art and artefacts, be it the mummification of Pharaohs, portraits of Kings and Emperors, is the ‘preservation of life by a representation of life’.3Bazin’s position is that the plastic arts, and I would also assert Bazin’s personal opinion in what makes art attractive, attempts to ‘have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures’.4

It should be noted that Bazin died at the age of forty and death stalked him continuously throughout his life. Bazin’s attraction to realism, and an idea of art as a production of the eternal, seems inherently linked to his psychological and physiological state. The attempt to cheat or outlast death through the preservation of one’s image and world seems very close to Bazin. As Bazin explains ‘the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’.5Just like F. Kafka’s fiction, which is infused with fears of and struggles with consumption, Bazin’s conception of the psychology of the plastic arts seems to be his own.6 That said the foundation of much art is linked to attempts at ensuring an ever-lasting legacy. From statues, palaces, portraits to tombs influential men have commissioned and produced art to represent themselves and the world they live in.


Bazin explains that painting, attempting the production of realism, encountered a problem in combining both the representation of the ‘spiritual’ real or emotionally real and the representation of the physical real.7Bazin notes that painting can successfully represent the emotionally real but that the reproduction of the physical real will always lean towards ‘illusion’.8This ‘illusion’, I believe, to Bazin meant the inability, of painting, to truly represent the outward appearances of things; a painting of a cart doesn’t really refer to a cart but rather refers to the painters painting of a cart. The cart refers back to the painter and his paint. And to Bazin not only was this a flaw of painting, in its attempt at reproducing reality, but also the main reason photography and film is so successful in the reproduction of reality. Bazin explains ‘Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image’ is unavoidable. Film, in contrast allowed, for the first time, allowed the image of the world to be:


formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of his painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.9

The painter is unable, due to his medium, to escape the appearance of his touch. Photography, according to Bazin, evaporates the human touch: photography removes the artist’s fingerprint evident in the medium of painting and sculpture. Bazin also believes that, because of the technical and scientific method of photography, the aesthetic experience derived is much more in-line with personal perception. Photography and cinema replicates the physically real without the barrier that one encounters when admiring a painting or sculpture. It should be noted however that Bazin invests far too much faith in the technical process of developing film as an objective and not subjective process. The production of film is open to that very same human touch Bazin felt paintings contained. With the birth of photography came the birth of photo modification and editing and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show this trend with certain scenes being coloured differently. And with digital film it is hard to really locate an image that hasn’t been altered somewhat for aesthetic reasons. I think Bazin, even if he accepted that film is often modified, would argue that the best cinema would attempt to capture reality as it is. However this position will be further explored in Bazin’s other essays and other articles concerning them.


Bazin may have argued, however, that the counter-position – that photography is not objective – incorrectly translates his proper position. Bazin uses the French word objectif, which means the lens of a camera, and overtly, in the French text, plays on this meaning. Bazin may therefore be arguing that by the objective nature of photography he means that the physical appearance of brush marks, the fingerprint of the human touch, are not apparent in film and therefore photography, unlike painting or sculpture, reproduces “reality” without direct reference to an artist or photographer. Bazin therefore may not mean objective as not-subjective but rather “through an object”. Photography removes the appearance of the touch of humanity rather than the touch of humanity.


To Bazin the process of photography ‘confers on [an object] a quality of credibility’.10Bazin explains that we ‘accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space’.11Bazin is arguing that photography and cinema communicates an items existence to us and we believe it. A point is often made here that Bazin seems to believe in the naïve position that “the camera never lies”. However I believe that this point is too harsh. Bazin uses the word ‘confers’ which indicates Bazin’s position to be that the sense of real is attached or attributed to the image – this is not the same as saying “the camera never lies”. Bazin is arguing that the reproduction of reality, through the camera, is imbued with an advantage because, unlike a painting or sculpture, a photograph is not an ‘ersatz’.12Painting, or sculpture, is a replacement for an object, a photograph the reproduction. And Bazin believes that this reproduction is treated, commonly, as if it is the object.


There does seem to be some truth to Bazin’s position. People often accept cinematic worlds without question and often photos modified, or “photo-shopped”, are accepted as true and real until people are promoted to believe otherwise – Piers Morgan losing his job over now discredited Iraq photos is a distinct instance of this. This common, or regular, acceptance of photography and films’ realism is often targeted by “viral” marketing campaigns and I am reminded of a film – whose name I currently can’t remember – which circulated a simulated, but realistic looking, office fight in order to gain surprise and attract people unknowingly towards the film’s website. It is not that “the camera never lies” but rather that we often accept photographs and films’ visual representation to be unadulterated and true (even though we known it isn’t – a psychological state known as ambivalence).


Bazin goes on to argue that ‘the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare… realities.13Bazin comes to the conclusion that:


Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.14

To Bazin photography makes us see the world anew. Realism strips bare those preconceptions which, to Bazin, we accumulate through the passage of time like dust settling on furniture. Therefore to Bazin photography and Cinema, in the realist style, is a gust of wind which blows away the dust that settles on our way of seeing. A problem with Bazin’s conclusion, that realism blows away our preconceptions, is that it moves from explanation to conclusion without exploration of the logical sequence which would indicate how realism would blow away our preconception. Bazin imbues the realist style, and photography, with magical qualities like the ones he noted in the Egyptian cultures motivation for mummification. However Bazin fails to establish the reason why and how the realist style blows away the dust of preconceptions and it seems rather, contradictory to Bazin’s intended position, that realism relies on preconceptions. Realism is not so much presenting ‘virginal purity’ but rather relying on regular conceptions and perceptions of reality – this reliance is in fact why one would argue realism is imbued with the power of truth. Realism encounters a problem as it seems to rely on “common-sense” perceptions – and those “common-sense” perceptions tend to be a naturalised ideological position.15In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Bazin cannot support the conclusion he comes to however he does provide a groundwork for arguing that the film is a powerful medium with a technical process of production which allows it to represent an object rather than replace it – which painting and sculpture does – therefore ensuring a sense of verisimilitude to attached to the medium of film. Bazin does go on to argue for realism in further essays and I will cover these in the attempt to uncover his motivation for his assertion that realism is the optimum style of film.



1‘The ontology of the photographic image’ is an inquiry and assertion by Bazin on the differences between film, and painting/Sculpture. On a wider note Bazin’s ‘ontological’ approach is an inquiry into “what is”, “could be” – and most important to Bazin’s What is Cinema? – and “what should be” in cinema.

2Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 9-16, p. 9.

3Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

4Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

5Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

6 It should be noted that, although it is evident that Kafka’s fiction is imbued with the personal fear of death and his physical state, there is great humor and joy even in the struggle and fear.

7Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 11.

8Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 12.

9Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 12-13.

10Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 13.

11Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 13-14.

12Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 14.

13Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

14Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

15See Barthes’ Mythologies or Althussers’ Ideological-State Apparatus

Shallow Focus and the Aura of Authenticity in Gamorra



Gamorra the film selects several stories from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano’s best seller of the same name. All set in or around the Camorra’s (Mafia of Napoli and its surrounding towns) territories and business interests. Gamorra includes several interesting formal features in which the film communicates the violence, despair, and seemingly unavoidable fate of the central character’s struggle to survive in Europe’s most violent neighbourhoods. The technique of shallow focus is important in Gamorra in communicating this poisoned atmosphere.


Shallow focus is the cinematographic technique which shows one plane of field clearly while the deeper plane of field is blurred or out of focus. The shallow focus technique would show a face close up in perfect detail but the background or location out of focus. Deep focus, shallow focus’s antithesis, is the technique which shows an entire image in focus. In exposition shots we see the use of deep focus to clearly identify depth and position. Gamorra uses the shallow focus technique to foreground certain elements important in the communication of the toxic heritage that living in the Camorra dominated south entails.


The shallow focus technique is used to indicate, in part, the attempt in the characters to ignore and distance themselves from the violence they are surrounded by. This is indicated in a scene where a money-carrier walks suspicious and fearful of his well-being after he has a gun pointed at his head. As he walks away hastily the background moves out of focus, he attempts to block out the violence he just saw, yet a voice shouts out his name and follows him until he reluctantly stops and engages with the voice that has been stalking him. As he does the film returns to a deep focus. This indicates the futile attempt that is ignoring the context or situation the character’s find themselves in; one cannot step out of Camorra controlled life. The aesthetic of the shallow focus communicates a sense of a constant, ungraspable, unknowable violence which envelops and blurs clear and distinctive perception. The use of shallow focus reminds the viewer that the violent acts and characters are borne out of the poisonous toxic context. The sense of the unknowable and paranoid, added to by the style of death of Maria, also alludes to the actual feelings of the author of Gomorra who lives under protective custody; the truth comes with a terrible price.


[[[SPOILER: At the end of the film as these boys are killed the Camorra boss commented that it was a waste of youth but it had to be done. The Camorra blunt and destroy youth and the very little of it that Italy has left are being chewed up and spat out. Gamorra seems to say that unless corruption is destroyed then every generation, in this region, will continue to have a large waste of youth.]]]


Gomorra has been linked to, and commented, to be in the Italian Neo-realist style [I have decided to create a full article concerning this statement however one element of the Neo-realist style is relevant enough here to merit bringing it up now; the use of non-actors in significant roles]. Andre Bazin commented concerning Italian Neo-realism ‘It is not the absence of professional actors that is, historically, the hallmark of social realism nor of the Italian film. Rather, it is specifically the rejection of the star concept and casual mixing of the professional’ and amateur. (1.) Bazin argues that this ensures the audience brings with it no pre-conceptions concerning character – the opposite to what Jean-Luc Godard did in Alphaville (1965); that is play with those pre-conceptions. Bazin explains ‘the result is… that extraordinary feeling of truth that one gets from [Italian Neo-realism]’. (2.) In Gomorra several significant, or rather nearly all, roles are played by amateurs and non-actors and this attributes to a sense of authenticity and realism. Skinny young men, fat overweight looking men litter the film; average-looking people, as opposed to the stylised look of Hollywood, imbues the aesthetic of Gamorra with an ‘atmosphere of authenticity’. (3.) This is added to outside of the film by the film’s official website which doesn’t list the actors beside pictures unlike Hollywood film where actor recognition is important.


Staying outside of the films’ digesis the aura of authenticity of Gomorra has been further added to by events outside of the film. One of the central messages of the film, and book, is the infectious dominating control the Camorra has in everyday life from the most basic domestic sphere to the world of industrial waste and fashion design. Recently Bernardino Terracciano, who plays a boss, has been ‘arrested on suspicion of extorting protection money and having ties to the Casalesi clan, part of the Camorra Mafia’. (4.) Two other actors, one a boss and the other a hitman in the film, have also been detained by the police. These facts add to the sense that the non-actors are just playing-out their day to day lives but in front of the camera just this once but it also rams home the central message of the film that you cannot escape the touch of the Camorra.




(1.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ in Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?, California: University of California Press, (1971), pp. 16-40 p. 23.

(2.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.

(3.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.


Discourse Ideology Myth: Hollywood’s Geographical Location

The Hollywood myth is well-known. Hollywood is a place of dreams. Celebrities dine in expensive restaurants. Fashion boutiques reflect the money, effluence and aura in their outrageous designs. Red carpet is always just a barricade away. Your footprints stalk those famous names on the floor. This surgery enhanced smiling glamorous Hollywood myth is sold like sugar sweetening millions worldwide. Yet even this myth seems openly a myth. Quietly, whispering – though sometimes louder – in our ears we hear the resonating truth and we acknowledge that Hollywood & Vine is not Hollywood; it’s up those fair hills. Beverly Hills is the real geographical location; Beverly Hills is that Hollywood myth of fashion boutiques and celebrities. The Hollywood myth exists but is just a few miles away…


This honesty concerning the “truth” of the location of the real Hollywood is an extension of the myth. Hollywood, the proper Hollywood, is in Hollywood. Hollywood isn’t the light, bright, young and beautiful of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is smoke and mirrors which distracts us from concentrating on Hollywood’s real element. Hollywood the place is the proper Hollywood as it’s filled with industrial-like complexes, studios, sound-proof booths, sound stages, offices and all aspects of the real capitalist process of film-making. On contemplation we understand that this is the real Hollywood: an industrial complex. The myth of Hollywood and the smoke and mirrors of Beverly Hills are used so that the real commercial industrial nature of Hollywood isn’t foregrounded. Hollywood is an industrial complex that produces cultural items – a factory of language but still a factory. We wouldn’t argue that an Ironworks is to be found in the dirt and sweat on the worker’s brow or the workers homes – signs of it true but if we asked for directions and were given this answer we would be angry and lost. The Ironworks would be explained as the physical location: the factory floor or site of production. The Hollywood myth like the continuity system attempts to hide or refract the signs of the mechanical production so as to communicate a more financially viable and sustainable magical atmosphere that doesn’t raise questions or at least subdues them.