CFP for Comparative Cinema 21: Cinematographic Pathologies: Representations and Figurations of the Sick Body

deadline for submissions: 
September 1, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Cinematographic Pathologies: Representations and Figurations of the Sick Body

Guest Editors: Alan Salvadó, Àngel Quintana and Daniel Pérez-Pamies 

The Covid-19 pandemic has established the sick body as one of the main axes of contemporary thought and 21st-century visual culture. There has been a resurgence in the importance of the body and mental health in media perceptions that has changed political, economic and social life at the global level. 

The militaristic declarations of struggle and resistance against the virus (the invisible enemy) in most Western countries masked the impossibility that these states could succeed in managing and safeguarding the welfare of bodies, paralyzing an economic system that, meanwhile, is based on the racialization, exploitation and enslavement of specific bodies (Preciado 2022). A few days after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, Jacques Rancière observed, somewhat perplexed, that the medical debate on the Coronavirus was not concentrated on academic research on the circulation of the virus, instead it was focused on the reception capacity of hospitals (Rancière 2021). The figures, statistics, percentages and ratios associated with the neoliberal imaginary made sick bodies invisible and turned the occupation rate of hospital beds into the focus of attention. But while the quantification of the pandemic dominated the public discourse, how was the sick body being portrayed in 21st-century visual culture?

Going from the iconographic archive images of the Spanish flu from the early 20th century to bodies sick with AIDS in the late 20th century, and onto the recent figurations of the Coronavirus pandemic, the sick body has been a constant in many film poetics. Beyond the figuration of pain and the resulting care, the sick body has enabled filmmakers to both construct discourses on the depiction of sickness and to create a constellation of tales in which pathologies and their consequences have existed at the center of the dramatic and even tragic heart of stories. Within popular culture, classical melodrama and the attendant soap operas have constructed one of the most fertile imaginaries in relation to the sick body and the buildings that provide it with shelter: hospitals, sanatoriums, asylums, medical offices and lounges with couches. Meanwhile, modernity has made the sick body one of its central motifs. Parallel to the rewriting of certain classicist formulas, a large proportion of the corpus of modern cinema is built on an array of characters who express their discontent with society through the performativity of illnesses which, in turn, become a symptom of the impossibility of these people finding their place in the world (Font 2002). From The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955) to The Silence (Tystnaden, Ingmar Bergman, 1963) and Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), on to A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974), we find examples in which the sick body epitomizes this existential unease. Finally, an in-depth study of much of contemporary cinema situates the issue of mental illness as a way of illustrating the bifurcation between the real world and an imagined or virtual one. Amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality and bipolarity are just some of the disorders that are used as a pretext to break new ground in both the spectacle-based aesthetic related to the digital sphere and the “narrative complexification” (Elsaesser 2021) by which the body is transformed into terra incognita (Imbert 2019). And amid the gamut of bodies that have been altered by computer technology, producing an artificial rejuvenation, the sick body becomes a mere vestige of the real. 

However, the sick body has not only been an object of study throughout the history of cinema, the field of medicine and its technological evolution have also enabled us to explore new ways of envisioning it, from radiography to ultrasound and on to microscopy. At the visual crossroads between cinema and medicine, we have witnessed the creation of what we could call “medical films”; a cinematographic subgenre that has become an authentic visual experimental laboratory with regard to the sick body, as we have seen in the films of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (Ruiz 2016). 

In this age of bodily immortality, thanks to digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in light of the still-recent consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, consideration of the sick body in cinema is evolving as a necessary journey that can enable us to critically update some of the issues which until recent years had been the backbone of our visual culture and our approach to the way sickness is portrayed.

Issue 21 of Comparative Cinema is calling for articles of 5,500-7,000 words in length that address these issues, using a comparative approach. Lines of research may include (though are not limited to) the following:

-  Iconography of the sick body in cinema: the existence of a series of visual motifs which, from different artistic disciplines, have built up a certain expressive and recognizable imaginary on the question of how illness is portrayed in cinema. 

- Historiography of the sick body in cinema: from early cinema to contemporary film, the sick body has come to represent a central issue for the evolution of both cinematographic aesthetics and their figuration through cinematographic language. 

- Portrayal of the pandemic in cinema: pandemics have become the universal argument par excellence for viewing illness and our relationship with it from a collective perspective.

- The performativity of the sick body: portraying the disease has often been a real challenge for actors. The need to empathize with others in order to portray the illness is one of the most problematic areas in terms of directing and performative creativity. 

- Biopolitical figurations of the sick body: ways in which the ideas of Michel Foucault are displayed in contemporary film and in light of the ethical and aesthetic consequences of Covid-19.

- Invisibilities of the sick female body: some of the most common diseases in women have frequently been edited out of cinema’s visual discourses. Pioneering experiences and possible breakthroughs.


Deadline for submission of papers (RACO platform): 01/09/2023

Publication: Fall 2023



Elsaesser, Thomas. 2021. The Mind-Game Film. Distributed Agency, Time Travel, and Productive Pathology. New York: Routledge.

Font, Domènec. 2002. Cuerpo a cuerpo. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg.

Imbert, Gérard. 2019. Crisis de valores en el cine posmoderno. Madrid: Cátedra.

Preciado, Paul B. 2022. Dysphoria Mundi. Barcelona: Anagrama.

Rancière, Jacques. 2021. “¿Una buena ocasión?” In Pandémik, edited by Javier Bassas and Laura Llevadot. Barcelona: Ned Ediciones.

Ruiz Rodríguez, Paula Arantzazu. 2016. “Operar el fotograma: intervenciones en el género del cine médico del Novecento y la Primera Guerra Mundial en Oh! Uomo, de Yervant Gianikian y Angela Ricci-Lucchi.” L'Atalante. Revista de estudios cinematográficos, 21: 81−92.