Rebecca West was trained as a literary scholar with a specialization in Italian Studies; her major field is modern and contemporary Italian literature, and she has secondary research and teaching interest in medieval studies, specifically Dante and early lyric poetry. As a scholar of contemporary Italian literature and culture, West also focused on cinema, which is one of the most prominent artistic forms of modern Italian culture; she maintains an interest as well in Italian American cinema, which has both deep ties and wide divergences from the Italian film canon. In the field of cinema studies, her research and teaching have concentrated on intersections of literature and film, the role of the screenwriter in the elaboration and production of cinema, feminist and queer film theory, Italian and French classical and contemporary film theory, comparative screen representations of masculinity, and stardom. West has published articles on the Italian American directors Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara, and their collaborations with actor Harvey Keitel, on the Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, on contemporary Italian writer and filmmaker Gianni Celati's video production, on screen versions of Collodi's Pinocchio, on semiotics of the clothing of Cary Grant, and has edited a volume of articles by graduate students in the doctoral program in Italian literature, on the intersections of film and literature entitled Pagina, pellicola, pratica: Studi sul cinema italiano (2000).
West's film courses have included a seminar on modern Italian history and culture since national unification, and on Italian American culture, as seen in films ranging from classics of Neorealism to the Spaghetti Western, and from Scorsese's earliest films to Ferrara's work such as Bad Lieutenant(*CMS 235, ITAL 287/387). She has also taught a course on comparative screen representations of masculinity, in which she concentrated on the work of Harvey Keitel and Marcello Mastroianni, and explored constructions of diverse masculine types from the perspective of gender theory, as well as the phenomenon of stardom and its impact on collective conceptions of the normative and non-normative male in contemporary American and Italian society. As a scholar who is deeply committed to gendered approaches to the study of literature, film, and culture, and as the former Director of the Center for Gender Studies, West has been involved in feminist and queer studies approaches.
Rebecca West has also taught a seminar on the figure of Pinocchio as appropriated by popular and cinematic culture both in Italy and elsewhere. An icon of modern Italy, the puppet was created in the early 1880s, at a time when Italy had only recently (1871) achieved national unification, and he represented the pedagogical fervor that had overtaken Italy as the desire to form the Italian subject and ideal citizen came to the fore. Yet, Pinocchio has escaped the historical limits of the time in which he was "born," and has become a figure that is known world-wide through translations of Collodi's tale, popular culture representations in the form of toys, posters, and many other material sites of reproduction of his image, and through filmic versions of the tale, including, most famously, Walt Disney's classic and Roberto Benigni's recent fiasco. Her interest lies in exploring why and how Pinocchio has become both the deeply Italian and widely universal icon he now is, and to what extent he reflects social, political, and ideological aspects of the cultural and temporal contexts in which he has continued to live over the last century and more, much as vampires (see Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves) or dinosaurs (see Tom Mitchell's work) have done.
Courses taught at the University of Chicago include:
Rome in Film and Literature (CMST 23202 / 33202) and Women Mystery Writers: From Page to Screen (CMST 20101 / 30101)