Dr. Mónica López on Law and Cinema

Dear all,

the month of May will be devoted, as you know, to “Law and Performance”. The first three classes will introduce us to the “Law and Cinema” strand!

Course descriptionReservoir_dogs_ver1

These three lectures explore the intersection between law and film, focusing in particular on how law and film relate to and/or influence each other and what different theories and methodologies of law and film may teach us about law and justice. In addition to studying the representation of law and justice in several films, we will explore how these representations shape or modify our legal perceptions.

Films analyzed will include: 12 Angry Men, Dirty Harry, Clockwork Orange, Anatomy of a Murder, The Matrix, Reservoir Dogs, High Heels, War Zone.

The lectures will be divided as follows:

Lecture 1: Introduction to Law and Cinema.

Lecture 2: Law, Violence and Cinema.

Lecture 3: Law, Feminism, and Cinema.

In the first class, we will examine the place of the viewer in the construction of meaning both in law and film. How do films persuade us about different ways of understanding law, justice, and the world? The class will introduce students to the main theoretical and methodological issues on law and film scholarship.

The second class will focus on the relationship between law and violence through cinema. How do we watch graphic images of violence? What kind of affective responses do they produce? What kind of judgements do they invite us to make? What sense of (in)justice do they create? Examples will include Abu Ghraib torture pictures and ISIS videos.

The third class will center on issues of gender. We will question how law and film function within broader societal practices concerning gender and sexuality. We will also analyze stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles, femininity and masculinity in both law and film.


Johnson, Rebecca & Ruth Buchanan, “Getting the Insider’s Story Out: What Popular Film Can Tell Us About Legal Method’s Dirty Secrets,” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, vol 20 (2001): 87-110.

Young, Alison, “The Screen of the Crime: Judging the Affect of Cinematic Violence,” Social Legal Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (March 2009): 5-22.

Mónica López’s Short Bio

Mónica López Lerma works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Law of the University of Helsinki. In September, she will be joining the Spanish Department of Reed College (Portland) as a Visiting Assistant Professor, where she will teach courses on film theory and law and violence.

López Lerma received a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Graduate Certificate in Film Studies from the University of Michigan. She is currently writing a monograph entitled “Sensing Justice. Aesthetics, Politics, and Law through Contemporary Spanish Cinema” (Edinburgh) and editing a volume on “Rancière and the Law” (Routledge).  She is co-editor of the journal No Foundations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Law and Justice.

Click HERE to read her personal webpage

15 thoughts on “Dr. Mónica López on Law and Cinema

  1. Martina Diglio says:

    About today’s class I would like to say something about a scene of violence from a recent film, Maps to the stars,by David Cronenberg, which I was really impressed by. The scene takes place in the living room of a rich and frustrated actress, the typical arrogant Hollywoodian star who isn’t very popular and is never going to be so, because she’s getting “old”. This actress has hired as personal assistant, a young problematic and defaced girl, who had set fire to her own family house when she was younger. The actress is always treating her badly, as an inferior person, and to make her fully aware of her inferiority and her nullity, seduces even her boyfriend. So, after another overflowing of insults, the young girl hit the actress with a heavy statuette, a kind of award. We first see her holding the prize and hitting the actress who falls on the sofa, then the camera focuses on the girl, it is just below her face, and then she continues hitting her and is like she’s hitting the spectators because she just in front of the camera and it seems she’s looking to us. The camera then is for a second focusing on the actress covered in blood on the sofa, but then comes back the close-up on the girl, she continues hitting and she seems to be fascinated by what she’s doing, because she tilts for two times the head, as an artist who is admiring her artwork, and hit by hit, or brushstroke by brushstroke, she’s covered in red blood. Besides, every single hit is perceivable, because the sound it’s really clear. I don’t know why but this is the scene that mostly impressed me, and when I watched it I wasn’t thinking about any moral implication of violence, if it was legitimate because the actress deserved it, because she was annoying, or if it was legitimate because the girl had had mental issues, that could have been a sort of moral justification. I only thought that that scene was beautiful, so beautiful that when I went out the cinema I said ” That scene makes me want to kill someone”, because I was in a sort of physical tension. In conclusion, I totally agree with the idea that images can affect us and that we can “feel” viscerally images when they are very powerful.


  2. Gabriella Bizzocchi says:

    Today’s lesson was really interesting and effective.I believe people never really think about the impact images and sounds on human’s mind. We all know that they have some effects but we don’t really reflect about their power beyond our consciousness. We are aware that advertising are shaped and created in order to impact on our perception of products and needs but we never realize how much each field of society continuously ”advertises” certain ideas and values without our mind be conscious of its impact on our thoughts. Today we were able to understand how some cinematographic techniques work and we were also taught how to recognize them once viewed. But I think We keep underestimating their effects on our mind. In fact different studys from neurologists and biologists have shown how our brain perceive images directly before we can think consciously of their meaning and their consequences on our creating thoughts and emotions. The power of repetition of certain kinds of images and words can really shape our brain in particular ways, neurons create connections and with repetition this connections are streghtened. If we are used to violent and aggressive images they create a response in our body that we cannot control consciously. Overmore we get used to some messages we lose the ability to criticize them in a thoughtful way. This is also the way propaganda of any kind works. So I think it is very important, as Professor Gialdroni said today, to keep thinking critically when we encounter certain messages and images in order to understand what it is their real purpose and to shape our opinions without their influences on them.


  3. Chiara Casuccio says:

    I think there is a great connection between these three topics. If it’s true that law creates abstracts that we fill with reality, does cinema : in both of these two particular ways of dealing with the society, we sort of ” create” a new reality selecting (with different tools) what to rule or what to show and what, instead, to ignore. To quote R. West, only the objects “textually (or the cinematically) included in the laws or in the scene will be considered and will form the new reality which could, sometimes, differ from the ” concrete” one.
    This connection between legal world and cinema is more obvius in the trials and in the specific rules of evidence through which you can demonstrate your assumptions: olny the facts you’ll manage to prove trhough the evidences that the law considers suitable for the test will be considered for the final desicion. As you can see the judgement (which will regulate the specific case hereafter) is able to create a totally different reality in relation with what has been proved and what has been not. The “judicial” truth could be different from the real one which will ” disappeare ” because of not being proved ( that’s the reason why the ancients said that “res indicata facit de albo nigrum”).
    In my opinion, the same can be done with a camera, choosing what to show and what not, creating a new, fictional, sometimes utopian, alternative truth and reality. In this sense we can literally use cameras as weapons through which modify ( in a negative or a positive way) the world as we please.


  4. Chiara Casuccio says:

    Another topic that made me think is the one about the feminist movement, and the application for protection of the women. I’d like, in particular, to demonstrate (with an anachronistic example, actually) how something that we always have considered a tool of protection of women, in the past, has been used as a tool of submission of them. I’m speaking about the legislation on the rape of women. NB Although the issue is complicated I will try to make it as simple as possible.
    In 326 d.C emperor Constantine innovated the rules on the rape with a new constitution which punished not only committed, with violence , without the will of the girl but also the one committed without violence and with the “consensus” of her. Another peculiarity is that with the same constitution prohibed the marriage subsequent to the rape, UNLESS, the kidnapper had not previously entered into an agreement with her family. In two articles I read about this, the legal historian Giovanna Mancini tried to explane that the constitution’s aim was to impose a new cultural model in which the will of the woman was flawed by nature and as such unable to express themselves correctly. The exeption of the previous agreement with the family, instead, served to force the girl to marry the man (who was not considered, in this case, a kidnapper) her family chose for her, making her will about the marriage irrelevant again (although till then what was always counted to make a valid marriage was the consent of both the engaged).
    I made this (quite paradoxal nowadays) example to show how the same tool can be used ambiguously to protect or harm the woman. Obviously in our days the level of injury was lowered by far thanks to the feminist movement and the modern constitutions that guarantee equal rights to individuals, but the danger, I think is not yet disappeared completely.


  5. Elena Francis says:

    I was very curious about the lectures on law and cinema, because i’m a fan of movies, and i found the lessons very interesting. I’ve always thought that films have a strong importance and a deep influence on our lives, but through these lessons i understood exactly in which way this thing happens. We have to keep in mind that everybody more or less watch films, fictions or TV programs. So films have a real impact on what we think about something and on our perception of the world, directly or indirectly. Certainly films are a weapon, as we said in class (Camera is a weapon), which can have a positive or a negative influence on the spectators. Everyone heard about the critique that a lot of crimes and violence are carried out because of the examples given in films. Children, in particular, and unstable persons might be influenced and, in a certain way, inspired by what they see in films or in video games. I think that it is in part true and that the most cruel scenes of violence shouldn’t be shown but, at the same time, we analysed that there are different kinds of violence in relation with the fact that the violence represented in films can be legitimate or illegitimate, necessary or unless, right or wrong. In films we can feel an act of violence as a legitimate and right act because it is justified on the basis of human rights or freedom or good of the main character or of mankind. It was very stimulating to analyse the scenes of violence of “The Matrix” and the other films, and also reading the text about violence in cinema i understood the different contexts of violence. I watched the all scenes of violence mentioned in the text and i found very interesting to see the use of different cinematographic techniques, the different characters and to imagine the perception of the spectators. The violence we see in “The Matrix” is legitimate and felt as a pleasure by the spectator. On the contrary, when i was watching “Natural born killers” I felt a different emotion. Here violence is less legitimate, in my opinion, but anyway justified in a certain way and felt not as a disturbing element. Instead, in “Elephant” i perceived violence in a different way: here violence is merely wrong, and the spectator wonders if justice exists and why the two boys started to shoot. Violence is everywhere in the film, and i felt this sense of violence as a disturbing element, not as a pleasure. The spectator doesn’t find neither justification or reason, nor justice in the violence action represented. This is one of the good effects of films on our mind: through the projection of films a lot of questions and doubts rise in our head. Is there a law about this fact? Could have been possible to prevent this crime? is the legal system built in a good way? Is there a justification? Are the human rights respected? These an other questions are the most frequent, at any rate in my head.
    I want to stress another point, that is the fact that today we are used to watch on TV, and not only, acts of violence, which express not only physical but also psychological violence. So, i think that for this reason it could happen that someone doesn’t feel the meaning and the power of images of violence represented in films. The result is to feel violence only as a “divertissement” and not as a means to reflect about justice and law.
    Another good feature of films is that, in comparison with texts, films are more direct and make more understandable social problems and political affair, such as the treatment of women in society and the movement of feminism.


  6. Beatriz Souza says:

    One think I’d like to point about last Friday’s class on Law and Feminism is the absence of men in the class. I counted 4 boys, including one that left earlier. Apparently for men is not interesting to sit and watch women talking about their condition and their experience. Although men cannot appropriate the feminism discourse when expressing their opinions, I still think it would be interesting at least as an empathic experience.


  7. Emanuele Ballabene says:

    Nowadays cinema is an important part in the society:it is a place, where we can spend our free time but, especially, is the most famous modern form of “visual art”. It was interesting to understand how law and cinema embrace.
    Movies can represent every kind of situation:from fantasy to reality, including “the fiction”, which tells imvented stories in the real world.
    Writing a story, it’s simple to invent a flying and speaking donkey but, in my opinion, is very difficoult to represent reality:not many directors are able to do it. Seeing a movie we can better understand reality from an other point of view and, in this case, learn how law enter in our life: I think about “Romanzo Criminale” wich shows us the italian criminal and political situation in the 70’s and 80’s,but also the experience in prison and how the trial works.
    If directors do a good work, we can trust in cinema and approach every topic of reality.


  8. Ada Maria Corrado says:

    Talking about female characters stereotypes in movies reminded me of the recent controversy about the tratment of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in the lates Avengers movie.
    Many feminist critics found the director Joss Whedon at fault for multiple reasons.
    (I hope everyone is familiar with the subject at matter, but if you’re not: we’re dealing with a group of superheroes called The Avengers formed by Tony Stark/Iron Man, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Thor and Black Widow).

    Throughout the movies Natasha, the only woman in the group, flirts with different men and her actions prompted a couple of cast members to crack slut-shaming jokes about her.
    The treatment Natasha gets for her open sexuality (by the way, to be clear: she never hooked up on screen with anyone in any of the movies) is completely different than what happenes to Tony Stark, who’s a famous for his sexual vivacity. He gets to be a fun “playboy” but Black Widow is only a “slut”.

    But what angered feminist viewers the most was the revelation that Black Widow, who’s been trained from young age in order to be a ferocious killer, cannot have children because she was forcibly sterilized. For that reason she describes herself as a “monster”. Natasha’s sterilization it’s not only a horrific violation of personal and bodily boundaries but the narrative constructs it as a particular failure of femininity. Womanhood, being a human woman as opposed to a monster, is equated with one’s capacity for reproduction.

    The movie then focuses on this aspect and fails to tackle other issues, for example how a patriarchal and misogynistic organization manipulated young girls by taking the choice for motherhood from them.
    There are way too many stories where we focus on how trauma makes women monsters, rather than on the monstrous systems that traumatized them.


  9. Flavia Guglielmi says:

    I found these 3 lessons very interesting because I’m a fan of the cinema (I see at least 2 movies in a week and also tv-series), in effect I’ve chosen this topic for my midterm competition. Since the birth of the Cinema, its relationship with the Law has been reciprocal. The Law has always been concerned with the Cinema because It’s an effective instrument to cause to the viewer some emotions.
    Thinking about the relationship between Law, Violence and Cinema I want to talk about a new American tv series. It’s called “How to get away with murder” (produced by Shonda Rhimes who is also the productor of the famous series “Grey’s Anatomy) and talks about an american criminal law professor and lawyer that with the help of five students must solve court cases and murders.
    Another movie that deal with the theme of violence is the famous “A perfect murder” that is a modern remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Dial M for Murder. It talks about a man that organize with a plan the murder of his wife to inherit her personal fortune (roughly 100 million dollars) to maintain that status and lifestyle.


  10. Fabia Palazzi says:

    I think that cinema is for sure a good way to give rise to emotions in spectators but, in my opinion , is also important because in some cases it permits to the audience to take part in very important historical events or situations , movies can cause curiosity for some historical characters in viewers who feel themselves involved in the film ; we all know that usually we study significant historical events in books, especially at school, but I think I managed to comprehend and learn historical passages or particular political relation also due to the cinema.

    Thinking about that, I wanted to remember a film I really like that is called “Amazing Grace”; it’s about a man, William Wilberforce, a Deputy in english Parliament who dedicated his life to the cause of the Abolition of slavery in UK ; of course that film is about his biography and about his fight against the inhuman system of slavery and slavery trade… His battle lasted after more than 30 years when, in 1833, finally slavery was abolished thanks to his tenacity and to the support of other characters as his wife and John Newton , an ex-slave trader who found his redemption in God and who helped Wilberforce during his way.
    But the film is not only about biography and description of a chain of historical events, it describes perfectly the different ideas of that period about slavery, it shows debates and discussions in Parliament between different parties and it explains even the final legal trick used by Wilberforce to reach his goal.. So the spectator can uderstand some aspects of Public Law of that period but also the terrible situation of slaves, the great personality and sense of morality of Wilberforce and his devotion to his aim, the arrogance of coservatives deputies and traders, the regret and the more internal point of view of John Newton.
    But the thing I want to highlight is the useful and the constructive approach of films on these kind of topics.. they create a common social consciousness and they give a global vision of a period referring to characters, their feeligs and opinion and relation between them, but also depicting atmospheres and different locations .
    Moreover in my opinion, movies can create a stronger emphaty and a deeper partecipation with the audience than a book can do , also due to music , sounds and, of course, to specific thecniques in filming with camera!


  11. Jessica Ferrazza says:

    I was thinking about female characters in movies and I started searching on the internet some informations about the distribution of roles between man and women and I’ve discovered that from 1995 to 2005 the most of actresses played the role of the nurse, waitress, teacher,. Only few played the role of doctor, engeneer or soldier. The 25% of them played the role of scientist but they’re frequently subordinated to another scientist, a men, which is the one who makes experiments and discovers things, she’s only there to help him to reach His goals. In 85 years only 7 women producers have won the Best Picture Award, all as co-producers with men. In 73 years only 8 women have won the Academy Award For best original screenplay and only 8 women have won For Best Adapted screenplay in 85 years.
    “Forbes” 2013 list of the top ten highest paied actresses made a collective of 181 million dollars versus the 465 million dollars made by the top ten payed actors; also, Angelina Jolie, the most payed actress, perceived the same amount of the two lowest-ranked male actors. Age is very important for the carreer of an actress, it’s a dominant factor to reach success, while for men it’s not so important. Since 2000 the best average age for Best Actress winners has been 36, compared to 44 with men. The 28,8 of women is supposed to wear sexually revealing clothes, as opposites to the 7,0% of men and 26,2% of women gets partially naked during the film Whole only the 9,4% of men does the same.


  12. Martina Diglio says:

    I would like to recommend you a film I’ve seen recently: it’s about a school course whose topic is “autocracy” and in which the teacher decides to carry out a “funny” experiment to get the students involved… It’s a very interesting and thought-provoking film. Here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9vdfb2f-B0


  13. Gabriella Bizzocchi says:

    Thinking about the role played by Cinema in portraying female character and its power to spread a ceratin image of women’s role in society, I wanted to point out a movie which well demonstrate how cinematic techniques contribute to create a certain reaction in the viewer of the film and how a media portrayal of a social problem can change and influence the approach people have. The movie is North Country directed by Niki Caro inspired by a true story about the case Jenson vs. Eveleth Taconite Co. This case was the first class-action sexual harrassment lawsuit in the United States filed in 1988 by Loise Jenson and other women who worked at the EVTC mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, against the company they were working for, because of the hostile behaviors led by the male workers who were constantly abusing and intimidating their female co-workers. This case was exemplar and changed sexual harrassment law. In the fictional depiction of the story different elements we analyzed with Dr. Lòpez contribute in creating a partcular atmosphere and message. In the trial scene the camera angles are close and frontal to the character speaking. The scene is constantly interrupted by flashbacks increasing the sense of experiencing the particular facts the characters are narrating and in closing sounds and music are chosen in order to give to the spectator a sense of sympathy and pity for the protagonist who had to go through rough life experiences and was unjustly abused and criticized.


  14. Laura Topuzidu says:

    When we discussed law and feminisim with Prof. Mónica López, we also made reference tof other undetrprililiged groups, such as minorities. One of the most shocking and terrifying cases in the last few years in Hungary is about serial murders commited by a criminal gang. Among the 6 victims were also two children. Four men were accused by the state of committing the murderings with racist motivation. The trial begin in March 2011 and ended on 6th of August, 2013. Director Eszter Hajdú recorded every minute of the trial and created a documentaristic film. The film deals with the hope of the three Roma families who trust the judicial system to give them closure. They believe that the murderers – who killed their child, their grandchild, their spouse, their sibling – will be punished. This film is situated in the courtroom for the entire length of it, which creates a claustrophobicatmosphere. The passionate judge plays the most important role, as he had to keep his impartiality all along the complicated and very long trial. The film is about an exemplary trial, and reveals how the the judge, the family of the victims and the accused lived through all of this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s