European social/cultural history?

Chums, I’m teaching a seminar on Modern European Social and Cultural History this Fall. Obviously this is much too broad a topic to achieve comprehensive coverage, so I expect I’ll start with a case in relative depth, do some impressionistic comparisons, and then turn the students loose in the second half to develop research projects suggested by their own interests.

The opening case study will be late 19th-early 20th century southern Italy. The one book I’ve ordered is Gramsci’s short, pithy The Southern Question, which I’ll use to prime the analysis pump. We’ll find some primary sources online and work on critical reading, in the process discovering that language skills can be pretty important…. Then we’ll look at visual sources, in which the ‘language’ issues are more subtle, and quickly start watching movies. The ones I have in mind so far are “Padre Padrone” (Taviani brothers’ gritty collaborative adaptation of linguist Gavino Ledda’s autobiography of growing up as an illiterate Sardinian shepherd); “Kaos” (Taviani brothers’ anthology adaptation of several Pirandello stories); “The Leopard” (Burt Lancaster in classic film adaptation of Lampedusa’s great novel on the decline of the old Southern nobility); and maybe “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (from Carlo Levi’s account of his internal exile in Basilicata). I also thought of showing a spaghetti western (maybe “Fistful of Dollars”) for the fun of it, because of how steeped those are in Italian social history reimagined in the American West, but I doubt we’ll have time and it would probably just confuse the students even more than they’ll already be without a lecture/textbook master narrative to tell them what to think.

I’m open, even eager for other suggestions. I’m also eager for suggestions about films from other parts of Europe to provide the impressionistic comparisons. Do you have any favorites I should look at? Any other thoughts about how to make this class cool for a mixed group of majors and gen ed tourists?

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3 Comments

  1. A classic. But I think Europe is big enough that I’ll try to stay there, even though this rules out the southern Italian diaspora as well (and its rich cinematic legacy) – or rather, rules out the American side of it, from Boston to Buenos Aires….

    What I’m looking for mostly, and I apologize for not being very clear, is films analogous to those I mentioned, for other parts of Europe. And while I’m clarifying I’ll add that while England is in play, my continental training and self-irony about PBS Anglophilia strongly incline me to prefer continental sources.

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