I have been following up my last blog on spiritual themes in film by reading  Paolo Pasolini’s paper “The “Cinema of Poetry” (1965), in which he talks about a literary device called ‘free indirect speech’, which, he claims, can add a subjective dimension to film by creating ambiguity around whose cinematic perspective a film is depicting.

Pasolini describes ‘free indirect speech’ as being – “the immersion of the filmmaker in the mind of the character and then the adoption on the part of the filmmaker, not only of the psychology of his character, but also of his language” (2005: 175).

What Pasolini seems to be suggesting here is that the subjectivity of the character in a film is not just given priority, as it is by the use of  ‘voice-over’ –  but that by using ‘free indirect discourse’ the character’s psychology is allowed to extend beyond what he/she says until the images – and ultimately the film itself -has become an extension of the mental projections of the character’s own thinking.

In his analysis of Pasolini’s paper , Heinemann (2012) makes the following observation about the destabilising nature these shifts in perspective can have – “by constantly shifting relationship with the narrative, at one moment encouraging an immersion in the illusionistic unfolding of the plot, the next forcing an awareness of its formal properties, including the partiality and artifice inherent in narrative activity itself.” He goes on to say that, “It is a function of the free indirect speech-act to problematise viewer identification, dividing the impulse between the film’s narration and the character’s narration through generating ambiguity regarding the narrative point of view. Free indirect speech reinforces this ambiguity through the formal opposition it gives rise to – between picture and sound, image and voice – contributing to a polyphonic, multivalent cinema.”

Pasolini talks about this development of a new cinematic language in semiotic terms stating that a  new “technico-stylistic tradition is in the process of being formed: that is, a cinema language of poetry. This language tends to appear henceforth as diachronical in relation to narrative cinema language: a diachronism which is destined to be emphasized increasingly, as happens in literary systems.”

Heinemann describes the way this deliberately disorientating effect is used cinematically  by citing a voice-over narration taken from Rohmer’s film, “Claire’s Knee” (1970) in which the filmmaker uses voiceover to privilege the complexity of the inner life of the film’s character over the certitude of ocular proof provided by the footage. This contrast between twhat the film shows us,  as the protagonist Jerome touches the knee of the girl he desires, and the lengthy account of Jerome’s inner observations, creates a strangely ambiguous mood as the narrator’s subjectivity starts to colour the neutrality of the formerly objective camera’s gaze.

Here is the text from the movie –

She sat facing me, one leg outstretched, the other bent. Her knee was sharp, narrow, smooth, delicate, within reach. Within reach of my hand. My arm was positioned in such a way that I only had to extend it to touch her knee. Touching her knee was the most extravagant thing, the one thing not to do, and at the same time the easiest. Even as I realised how easy, how simple the gesture was, I also felt it was impossible. As if you’re on the edge of a cliff, only one step away, but even if you want to jump, you can’t.

Ghaffary, M., & Nojoumian, A. A. in their journal aritcle,  “A Poetics of Free Indirect Discourse in Narrative Film (2013) go on to state that “where objectivity and subjectivity or narration / external focalisation and internal focalization merge together and the narrative becomes ambiguous from this viewpoint”, that such moments in a film’s construction can best be considered moments of free indirect discourse. They then go on to list devices such as “voice-over narration, sound perspective, sound bridge, music, POV structure, eye-line match, shot / reverse shot, flash frames, freeze or still frames, slow motion, repetition of particular images, flashback, camera movement, superimposition, matte shot, snorri-cam, and double exposure” that can be used as tools to create such ambiguities. By so saying underscoring Pasolini’s notion of free indirect discourse as a tool of cinematic poetry.

Anyway, I am still processing what I have read but have lots of ideas for possible film scenarios popping into my head as a result of reading this interesting paper.

I will sign off with a list of effects that can be achieved by using FREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE which might be useful in my future film (taken from Ghaffary & Nojoumian’s paper – (2013))

8 functions of free indirect discourse in film:

1) it is a device for controlling the degree of distance between the FCD and the character:

2) it can either raise empathy in the reader / FCD for the character or lead to the ironic repudiation of the character by the FCD

3) Dramatic irony –

4) it can cause “irony of register” (McHale, “Free Indirect Discourse” 208) (the association of the objective or formal style of the total narrative and the semi-subjective style of the FID sequences);

5) it represents internal focalization (focus) or the presentation of the focalized from within;

6) it is a good technique for representating stream of consciousness (Banfield 29; McHale, “Free Indirect Discourse” 209 & “Speech Representation” 437; Rimmon-Kenan 115; Jahn, Narratology N8.9.) (Pasolini sees FID as a useful technique for rendering a character’s stream of consciousness in film, though he does not mention the term “stream of consciousness” [554]);

7) it suggests polyvocality or polyphony (the FCD’s and the character’s voices directly interact with each other, without either of them being dominant) (McHale, “Free Indirect Discourse” 212; Rimmon-Kenan 117);

8) it enhances a film’s power of defamiliarization; FID adds to “the semantic density” of the cinematic narrative (Rimmon-Kenan 115).

Here is an example of how free indirect discourse relates to the more typical – direct and indirect literary devices. (see more on FIS here)

Examples of direct, indirect, and free indirect speech:

Quoted or direct speech:
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.

• Reported or normal indirect speech:
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.

• Free indirect speech:
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

The following is a quotation cribbed from James Joyce’s,  “Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.”

The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy. It would be beautiful to die if God so willed. It was beautiful to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others.


Pasolini, P.P. (1965)  ‘The “Cinema of Poetry.”’ Heretical Empiricism. Trans. BenLawton and Louise K. Barnett. Washington: New Academia, 2005. 167-186.

JOYCE, J. (1964). A portrait of the artist as a young man. New York, Viking Press.

Heinemann, D. (2012) ‘The creative voice: Free indirect speech in the cinema of Rohmer and Bresson’, The New Soundtrack, 2(1), pp. 39–49. doi: 10.3366/sound.2012.0024.

Ghaffary, M., & Nojoumian, A. A. (2013). A Poetics of Free Indirect Discourse in Narrative Film. Special Issue on Performance Studies, 269.

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