Italian cinema isn’t like British or Swedish and American cinema, for example. These countries haven’t had an explicitly fascist government. Fascist films were made in America (DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation) and the Hollywood studios weren’t inured to it (Columbia’s Harry Cohn had a bust of Mussolini on his desk).
But in Italy (and Germany) Fascism was the author of film culture for a while. It established the Venice film festival. Much of the archive footage of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, filmed by personnel from the Instituto Luce, has the fascist gaze—colonial, military, worshipping of Il Duce.
When this authorship came to an end, Italian cinema tried to detox. Directors like Roberto Rossellini, who had made a “Fascist trilogy” had to de-demonise his career in order to make his famous post-war neorealist movies.
These things came to mind recently when I was asked, by producer Andrea Romeo and company Palomar, to direct a film about the rise of Mussolini. The idea was based on the work of researcher Tony Saccucci, who had taken a deep dive into a 1922 propaganda film A Noi!, directed by Umberto Paradisi. A Noi! film portrays Mussolini’s march on Rome, which was a coup d’état, as a popular uprising
This was grist to my mill. A Noi! was early in the history of propaganda cinema—before Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Once before I’d made a film about the far right (Another Journey by Train); this was a way to look at such extremism through the lens of cinema.
We filmed in Rome, on the streets and in Cinecittà. Actor Alba Rohrwacher played the central character. I immediately knew that I’d like to use clips from other films which touched on the subject of fascism. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, about the relationship between sexual conformism and fascism, had to be in my movie. As had Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo. A friend alerted me to Ettore Scola’s beautiful A Special Day, about a woman and a gay man (Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni) who form a friendship as Adolf Hitler visits Rome. Producer Andrea introduced me to Il Potere, Augusto Tretti’s 1972 film which mocks Mussolini and the march on Rome in amusing ways.
So I had the spine of my film: how a propaganda film boosted Mussolini, and how subsequent Italian films unveiled fascism, attacked it, revealed it for what it was and is. Murderous, oppressive, conformist, repressed. As we edited, I realised that my film was also about imagery. In the era of Berlusconi, Italian broadcasting was cheapened. TV was glitzy, retail, redolent of surface. There was a new narrowing of horizons. As with the Fascist times, human richness and complex love were blasted out of the spotlight.
Italian film fell to its knees.
Standing up again has been a complex process.