The Critical Roots of Cinematic Magic Realism: Franz Roh, Alejo Carpentier, Fredric Jameson

Felicity Gee

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Magic realism, a term built from two seemingly antithetical concepts, has evolved over almost a century into an international, intermedial mode, yet at no point achieved status as a movement. It continues to hold the interest of critics working in literature, art history, film, cultural theory and post colonialism. Conceived by German art historian Franz Roh in 1925 as an alternative to Expressionist painting, magic realism developed alongside the concurrent European movements of Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism. Overshadowed by the greater success and wider dissemination of these two movements, magic realism all but disappeared until its re-emergence in Cuba as a literary mode, defined by Alejo Carpentier’s manifesto of the marvellous in 1949. After a decade working in Surrealist circles in Paris, Carpentier desired to reinvent their merveilleux for his native Latin America.
This thesis proposes a theoretical framework for the relationship of magic realist painting and literature to film. As a hybrid mode of the plastic and the textual, magic realism is constantly evolving, appropriating ‘new’ media to examine the exterior world from unexpected angles, what Roh refers to as a metamorphosis in perception. The marvellous and strange is juxtaposed with the quotidian in experimental, self-referential art in which photography, collage, film, and written word overlap. In 1986, Fredric Jameson deemed the hybridity and indeterminability of magic realism ‘seductive’, penning his first full-length study of cinematic magic realism as an alternative to what he terms ‘nostalgia’ or ‘generation’ films. Tracing magic realism from its emergence as a European modernist mode, through its developments in Latin America, it becomes evident that it has particular value as an ontological framework with which to express and examine points of socio-historical crisis.
Cinematic magic realism can, I argue, be imagined as a visual manifestation of Jameson’s critical theory of the political unconscious, with emphasis not only his geo-political elements but on an aesthetic that took root in Roh and Carpentier’s avant-garde modes.
Taking Roh, Carpentier and Jameson’s ‘manifestos’, this thesis aims to uncover the key historical elements of the theorisation of cinematic magic realism in order to clarify its currency as a contemporary film genre.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Merck, Mandy, Supervisor
  • Townsend, Christopher, Advisor
Award date1 May 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • magic realism
  • Surrealism
  • Fredric Jameson
  • Franz Roh
  • Alejo Carpentier
  • Alexander Sokurov
  • marvellous
  • merveilleux
  • affect theory
  • modernism
  • modernist photography
  • Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Third Cinema
  • cinematic magic realism
  • Film und Foto
  • Foto-Auge
  • F.W. Murnau
  • Expressionism
  • baroque
  • indeterminacy
  • modernist film

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