Fascism in Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931-1943

Fascism in Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931-1943

by Marcia Landy


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Through her study of the narrative themes and strategies of Italian commercial sound films of the fascist era, Marcia Landy shows that cultural life under fascism was not monopolized by official propaganda.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691610900
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #11
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Fascism in Film

The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931-1943

By Marcia Landy


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05471-1


The Children Are Watching Us

Representations of young people are integral to the Italian cinema, spanning the prewar and postwar eras. Though the emphasis on youth can be linked to fascist ideology, it can also profitably be connected to the cinema of genres, which favors youth in its choice of "stars" and narratives that abolish time and history. In this sense, fascist ideology is erased even where the films appear to be most aligned with the ideals of the movement and the regime. As we shall see in this chapter, stories about young people in film are indeed related to fascist ideology, but they also expose unresolved conflicts as the imagery of youth fuses with older, more traditional ideological structures.

Under fascism, the elevation of youth was in part rhetorical and symbolic, in part, pragmatic. The fascist movement sought to communicate an image of itself as dynamic, new, and revolutionary, committed to social, political, and cultural rejuvenation. In a practical vein, the regime created organizations such as "Fascist University Groups, or GUF, balilla for little boys, Young Italian units for girls, and Wolf Club Circles for the smallest 'new Italians.'" These organizations were, as Victoria de Grazia has indicated, "truly mass organizations, not only because of their several million members, but because they intentionally grouped people by sex, by social group, by age, and by activity to prevent any autonomous expression of class identity or class alliance."

Renzo De Felice discusses this emphasis on mass organization as a major feature of the revolutionary aspect of fascism:

The fascist regime has a central element that distinguishes it from reactionary and conservative regimes: The mobilization and active participation of the masses. That this participation later takes on a demagogical form is another matter; the principle is one of active participation, not exclusion. This is one of the revolutionary elements. Another revolutionary element is that Italian fascism wanted to achieve the transformation of society and the individual in a direction that had never been attempted or realized in the past.

De Felice's discussion challenges conventional notions of fascism as reactionary. This is not to say that he sees the fascist regime as revolutionary in the Marxist sense, as representing the dictatorship of the proletariat, the redistribution of wealth, and the abolition of the state, but that he sees fascism as seeking to modernize society rather than as sustaining conservative forms. Mass organization was thus an important element in mobilizing support, appealing to students, especially to youth, and, through youth, creating an image of progress, opportunity, and common interests. Looking at fascism from a revolutionary perspective, particularly viewing it not only as an economic and political revolution but also as a cultural revolution, helps to identify its goals, its character, and its strategies.

The role of artists and young people in the "new culture" was to create such a revolutionary discourse, and film became increasingly important to this enterprise. The regime's emphasis on youth finds its counterpart in the films of the era that seek to portray appealing images of young people. In its quest for an appropriate film language, the Italian film industry acknowledged the superiority of the Hollywood film in capturing the "myth of youth," which transcended the literal use of young people and came to signify, more broadly, attitudes of energy, pugnaciousness, freshness, and health. The popularity of such figures as Jackie Coogan, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, such films as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer testified to the cinematic potential of the child. The films of Chaplin, Hawks, Ford, and Capra, so popular with Italian audiences, were part of a broader myth of America as young and vital.

The Italian films that feature young people strive to capture the image of youthful innocence, resourcefulness, naturalness, and pragmatism. Young people are the vehicles for exposing unjust familial restraints, moribund social institutions, and uncreative "materialism." These youthful figures dramatize the necessity for change, the demands of nature versus culture, the restraints of "civilization," and the virtues of industriousness. They chastise their elders and generate guilt over existing conditions. Above all, they are a magical force for social transformation.

Young people are present in a variety of film genres: comedies, adventure films, melodramas, and musicals, struggling to define themselves against traditional attitudes and behavior. They are shown as neglected, abandoned, redeemed, as the vanguard of a new political consciousness, and as the hope of the future. Significantly, this practice does not cease after the war as one can see in such neorealist films as Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), Sciuscià (Shoe Shine), and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). The children in the postwar films, too, reproach the adults for indifference, lack of commitment, disloyalty, the breakdown of family relations, the corruption of cohesive political structures, and the general loss of community vitality. The youths' heroic lives or deaths are the means of revitalizing the community and forging new alliances.

While the featuring of young people in the films of the era converged with the fascist regime's practical efforts to mobilize youth and to portray youthful zeal, in reality the situation was more ambiguous and problematic. For example, youth organizations did, indeed, express disaffection with liberal and traditional attitudes and values, but, as Edward R. Tannenbaum asserts, this opposition remained solely on the level of verbalization:

Ostensibly the feeling of community generated by the youth groups was opposed to traditional bourgeois values; in some ways it was a calculated substitute for the values of family and privacy. For the most part young Italians enjoyed getting together in their uniforms, shouting slogans and sharing the prescribed patriotic ritual. The ONB and the GIL [Opera Nazionale Balilla and Gioventù Italiana del Littorio, youth organizations] trained them to respond to the new, popular culture, as opposed to the older bourgeois culture. In effect, however, Fascist Italy was merely catching up with the more modernized countries, particularly the USA, in using its youth organizations and activities to foster feelings of togetherness and enthusiasm — similar to pre-Second-World-War American rallies and organized heckling in connection with 'the big game' — in which verbal assaults were made on the outward manifestations of traditional bourgeois values without endangering their content.

Adrian Lyttelton affirms this position. He finds that "on the one hand, the youth organizations represented an instrument of pressure and surveillance which helped to intimidate the teachers and secure their conformity; on the other, they kept alive resentment against the party and the political ideology which it embodied." The films encode similar contradictory attitudes. One can detect elements of surveillance even in the style and texture of the films as they emphasize looking, but one can also recognize a mistrust and critique of all authority, which intensifies in the films of the early forties.

The young people in the films of the 1930s are often positioned as oppositional figures; their actions portrayed in the language of generational conflict. Yet, while they appear in the vanguard of new values and attitudes, they often articulate the traditional values of nationalism, male comradeship, the importance of competence, virility, leadership, and personal sacrifice. For the young man, the arena of action is the social sphere as he submerges personal desire in the public good; for the young woman, successful competition for the man and the rewards of family service to him and to the family are central.

Young Adventurers

In the films that portray war and political struggle, boys and young men are presented as figures of redemption, innocent and wholesome, righteously crusading for a world purged of decadence and corruption. The son's redemption of the father is a basic narrative paradigm, and the imagery of health and disease quite common. A typical example of this type of film is Mario Camerini's 1936 film, Il grande appello (The Great Call). The film opens with the rubric: "The scenes in Africa were shot entirely in the territory of the Empire with the cooperation of the Ministry of Press and Propaganda, of the Colonies, of War, and of Aeronautics." Made to glorify the war in Ethiopia, the film seems exceptional in the work of Camerini whose predilection was for romantic comedy. Yet, on closer viewing, the film is typical of Camerini's approach, for it is less an epic, a spectacle, and more a treatment of the familial relations. The narrative fuses public and private sectors through identification of the family with the interests of the nation, effected primarily through conflict and reconciliation between the father and son.

The film is set in Italy and in North Africa. In Genoa, a dying woman seeks to send messages to her son and her estranged husband in Ethiopia. The mother becomes the intermediary in the drama of sacrifice and reconciliation. In Djibouti, the father, Bertani, manages the Hotel Orient, a center of international intrigue. Bertani is indifferent to the Italian aspirations in the area, has no sense of commitment to his country's war, preferring to profit by selling arms to the enemy Ethiopians. Furthermore, Bertani is involved in a sordid relationship with a Spanish woman who is his ally in the enterprise of smuggling weapons to the enemies of Italy.

When he receives news of his son, Enrico, Bertani decides to find him. The young Enrico is a radio operator, totally committed to his work. On-location shots show industrious Italians. The dominant images are of movement, collectivity, and affectionate male relationships, in contrast to the "degeneracy of the Ethiopians, Frenchmen, and Spaniards." A series of oppositions defines the film's conflicts and chart its ultimate direction: Djibouti and Addis Ababa, foreigner and Italian, profit and purpose, individualism and collectivity, renegade father and honorable son.

Bertani locates Enrico in Addis Ababa. From his perspective, the camera isolates scenes of group solidarity, men singing, exchanging personal histories, working energetically and willingly. Bertani invites Enrico to live with him in Djibouti, but Enrico, self-righteously and passionately, explains that he cannot do this; his patriotism forbids it. The editing contrasts the obese, unkempt father and the youthful, clean-cut young man. The conflict between the father and son is prologue to the scenes of actual fighting as the Italians rally to respond to a surprise attack by the natives, many of them falling in the melee. Enrico is seriously wounded. Bertani goes to the hospital where Enrico has been taken and learns that his son must have an operation. He tries to talk to Enrico, but his son rejects him.

In Djibouti, where the Ethiopians at the hotel are celebrating their victory, Bertani's mistress is plotting to smuggle more ammunition to the enemy. Bertani no longer wants to be part of this enterprise, but his accomplices coerce him into further cooperation. One of the smugglers threatens him with death if he does not participate, but Bertani is determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his son.

The film culminates in scenes of battle. Bertani, dressed in native garb, turns on his accomplices and shoots them but he is shot. Against the background of Italian men and equipment, he is filmed in close-up looking up to a sky filled with Italian planes as he utters his last word, "Italia," and dies. Thus, the film presents the conversion and redemption of the father, first through the agency of the dying mother who brings father and son together and, especially, through the young man, the son, who symbolizes a new life, the life of total subordination of personal interests to the nation. The conversion strategies involve the drama of corruption, guilt, and penance, transposing religious symbolism onto the drama of war and conquest and endowing the action with a spiritual aura. The role of the son's wounding and potential martyrdom are traced to the father's opportunism, obsession with profit, and family disloyalty, even more specifically by providing the weapons that have wounded his son. The generational conflict is inscribed as a strategy to quell opposition by deflecting attention from the actual motives for the war.

The portrayal of the misguided natives, used as tools by the exploitative Europeans, the equation of sexual licentiousness and greed, provides the legitimation for the struggle. It is a war against immorality, social disintegration, and selfish accumulation. The natives themselves are presented as in need of proper guidance to protect them from adventurers who are responsible for their moral deterioration. But above all, the film's total effect relies on the affective strategies generated by the father-son conflict at the film's center, and especially on the orchestration of images associated with organization and disorganization, innocence and degeneracy, and self-aggrandizement and martyrdom. As is so often the case in such films, the son who redeems the father replaces the conventional romance as the center of narrative interest.

According to Aprà and Pistagnesi, "This film, in the intention of its creators, wanted to show fascism in anti-heroic fashion, as a drama of the conscience, as Oedipal conflict, and it succeeded well enough to the point that it raised the ire of some zealous bureaucrats." In fact the film's discourse blends well with the indirect political discourse so congenial to American (and British) audiences of the time. The personalization of the theme of imperialism by means of the familial and generational conflict overshadows if not suppresses the film's imperial thematics.

One of the most popular and prominent directors of the era, one whose career spans the silent, prewar, and postwar cinema, Alessandro Blasetti was known for his historical epic films celebrating heroic figures and heroic enterprises. His career captures the major tendencies, contradictions, and changing styles and politics of the Italian cinema of the Ventennio. His films of the thirties seem to constitute a strange mixture of Hollywood narrative codes and Soviet montage, of psychological concerns wedded to overt political themes and strategies. To him, Vecchia guardia seemed to be one of the earliest expressions of neorealism. Certainly the film is cast in the mold of the social problem film of the thirties, replete with description and prescription. The characters also seem to follow Hollywood models of romance and community service. The role of the young hero in the film, Mario, as agent of transformation, is also familiar.

Vecchia guardia is an encomium to the squadristi, the vigilantes of the fascist cause. The martyr of the film is little Mario who wants more than anything else to help the fascists defend honest people against the machinations of the socialists. He sacrifices his life to create a society where there will no longer be strikes and strikers to obstruct institutions from doing their proper work of serving the community. Dr. Cardini, the head of the psychiatric hospital, is distraught as he struggles to do what is necessary to help his sick patients. The strikers are portrayed as uninterested in their work, as pawns in the hands of socialists, and as more concerned with their economic well-being than with the helpless patients in the hospital. The mayor and other town officials are presented as inefficient and impotent, the socialists as lazy, belligerent, and rabble-rousing. On the other hand, the fascists have a genuine concern for the people and their needs, serving the crucial function of supplanting the defunct social institutions.


Excerpted from Fascism in Film by Marcia Landy. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. v
  • PREFACE, pg. ix
  • INTRODUCTION. Remembrance of Things Past, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER ONE. The Children Are Watching Us, pg. 33
  • CHAPTER TWO. Women, Penitents, and Performers, pg. 72
  • CHAPTER THREE. A Man for All Seasons, pg. 118
  • CHAPTER FOUR. The Forms of History, pg. 175
  • CHAPTER FIVE. The Comic Vision of Work and Play, pg. 230
  • CHAPTER SIX. The Family Melodrama, pg. 276
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 331
  • INDEX, pg. 339

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