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University of California Press
Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943 / Edition 1

Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943 / Edition 1

by Steven Ricci
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520253568
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/01/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Steven Ricci is the Director of the Moving Image Archive Studies program at University of California, Los Angeles, where he also teaches in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media and the Department of
Information Studies.

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By Steven Ricci
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25356-8


Constructed in this key, fascism is modernization; it represents motion forward along a global continuum rather than an aberrant, ideological regression. But in order to survive under the new rules developed between the two wars, Italy obsessively directed energy toward its own so-called autarchic position in the global economy through a campaign that specifically effaced the international crisis. Thus, producing and consuming bodies represent themselves as specific to an Italian national context even though the graphic design styles may derive from an international, modernist one.

Karen Pinkus, Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism


It is a paradox that the study of Italian cinema from 1922 to 1943 represses historical knowledge of the relationship between that cinema-its texts and institutional practices-and political life. In fact, until the late 1970s, most national film histories conscientiously ignored virtually everything which fell in between the acclaimed international successes of a few Italian silent film epics and the critical esteem afforded to neorealist films after the Second World War. In other words, there was an almost forty-year gap within the body of scholarly writing about the history of Italian films. As a consequence, films which followed Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria (1914) and preceded Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) have received very little critical scrutiny.

The sparse critical attention which actually has been dedicated to this in-between period routinely relegates the period's films to two theoretically simplistic categories, as either escapism or propaganda. Even more telling, the whole of the period's cinematic production presented historians with an epistemological choice between these mutually exclusive categories. Either the films did not overtly articulate the social problems of Italian life during the period (escapist), or they spoke of those problems from the exclusive perspective of the fascist state (propaganda). Thus escapism was seen to preclude oppositional reading and to encourage conformism. Blocked from a film's relationship to other textual sites and to relevant social discourses lying outside the specific fiction or genre, the audience is deprived of the means to effect alternative readings or to derive unexpected pleasures. Propaganda, on the other hand, could only produce hegemonic reading and was seen therefore as a primary tool for the construction of ideological consensus. In these cases, the audience is blocked from the possibility of playful or even disrespectful reading, since in theory the didactic authority for the narrativization of real events would never be called into question. Of course, one of the most serious drawbacks to this particularly harsh either/or is that it is predicated on an idealized notion of the audience as unified, monolithic, and willing. Neither category leaves room for the possibility of the audience's misreading these texts, whether for purposeful, for tactical, or simply for serendipitous reasons.

Pierre Leprohon, whose The Italian Cinema had for many years served as an international standard history of Italian film, for example, accounts for this entire period of cinema history in a singularly brief passage-less than twenty-five pages to sum up close to thirty years of film making. At the same time, Leprohon deploys close to two hundred pages to deal with the immediate postwar period. In addition, the book draws heavily from a group of previous Italian film histories, which similarly dedicate relatively cursory attention to the period. Leprohon depends almost exclusively upon accounts written in the 1950s and eschews consultation of documents, reviews, and historical and critical writing from either before or during the fascist period.

The lack of historiographic rigor in these studies on the cinema during the fascist era stems, in part, from the way these works evaluate that cinema's aesthetic achievements. For example, Leprohon summarily dismisses the entire period in the following manner: "All in all the achievements of the Fascist cinema did not amount to much; though more films were produced, they were mainly trifles in the style invented by Camerini, who continued to lead this field." While Mario Camerini (and Alessandro Blasetti) serve as heavily qualified exceptions to what Leprohon sees as a predominantly insignificant period of cinematic malaise, he goes on to cite Carlo Lizzani as authority on the remainder of the period's filmmakers: "Dutiful camp followers such as Bragaglia, Mattoli, Brignone, Gallone and so on blurred the direct onslaught of out and out propaganda films with a smokescreen of white telephones and mawkish romance.... It seems unbelievable that at a time of worldwide suffering there was such a proliferation of films as non-existent, as empty and as alien to the national identity as our 'commercial' films of those years.... They were full of gesticulating, soulless shadows speaking a language which would be quite incomprehensible today."

Such totalizing negative evaluations are also based upon extremely casual research into the evolution of the film industry and certainly did not involve systematic revisiting of the films. And yet, the cinema experience was extraordinarily vital for Italian audiences and, as we will see later, consistently represented the largest percentage of personal expenditures on culture throughout the period. The descriptions and accounts of individual texts often draw on the historian's recollection of his or her original and long-past viewings. These two decades were famously referred to as the period of the "white telephone" film, yet this dismissive judgment was formed without sustained scrutiny of the films themselves, their textual and ideological complexities. Indeed, the place of the "white telephone" film itself in the period's genre cinema is left almost entirely unexamined. Though this kind of popular genre by no means declares an intention to explicitly address issues of national identity, just how they are embedded within the social and sexual politics of the period has rarely been considered. It is for this reason that the language spoken by these "soulless shadows," as Lizzani put it, remains incomprehensible.

Perhaps even more importantly, most of the standard works on the cinema under fascism also treat the period's films as informed by what is seen as a determining collusion between the single-party state apparatus and the cinema. That is, the films either willingly conformed to or unknowingly reflected the political interests of the fascist regime. Thus, Giuseppe Ferrara, for example, offers the following reductionist historical explanation of the latter half of the period: "In 1934 the Direzione Generale per la Cinematografi a was created, through whose doors passed every film project to be realized. In this way, after the release of Il capello a tre punte, a period of squalid conformism was initiated." The Direzione Generale per la Cinematografi a was a subministerial national agency charged with the development and application of both economic and censorship policies vis-à-vis the cinema. It first came under the purview of the Ministry of Corporations and later under the Ministry of Press and Propaganda. The film referred to, Il capello a tre punte, was directed by Mario Camerini and released in 1935. It starred famed Neapolitan actor Edoardo De Filippo in the role of a governor of Naples under Spanish rule. Among other things, fascist officials were unhappy about its presentation of corruption in local government. After viewing the film, Mussolini himself ordered the cutting out of scenes depicting popular unrest over that corruption.

The unquestioned theoretical basis for this type of account is itself revealing. The oversimplification of the relationship between the state and the cinema hints at the social roots for one form of what could certainly be termed historical amnesia. The majority of the traditional Italian cinema histories were written in the 1950s and 1960s in parallel to the country's precipitous rise in the number of film festivals, cine clubs, and film journals. Throughout these two decades, critical investigations into cinema were dominated largely by discussions of divergent theories for realism in world cinema and by debate on the practices, importance, and future of neorealism in Italian cinema. The debate was carried out in film conferences, newspaper editorials, and political manifestoes and can be clearly resurrected from articles published in the two central film journals: Bianco e Nero and Cinema Nuovo. And early on, the majority of its participants-film critics, political figures, historians, theoreticians, and filmmakers-came to a general agreement on at least one major issue: that neorealism represented a definitive rupture with that soulless and squalid past.

That past was identified, however, not with the experience of World War II and the need for social and economic reconstruction in the postwar years, but with the twenty previous years of fascist rule. Throughout the critical debate in the fifties and sixties, neorealism's past was bracketed not only by the rise and fall of the fascist regime but also by a set of aesthetic practices of a cinema which (it was assumed) must have been controlled by fascism. In this way, the discussions and writings about neorealism themselves attempted to participate in that same cultural break with the past. That is to say, having articulated an evidently fundamental discontinuity between the cinema under fascism and contemporary Italian filmmaking, very few studies ever sought out neorealism's cinematic antecedents. Any possible influence exerted by the "fascist" cinema on subsequent filmmaking practices was to be theoretically excluded from the discussion insofar as it might endanger the cultural and political breaks with fascism. For Lizzani, Ferrara, Leprohon, and many others, Italian cinema of the twenties and thirties had to be ignored since it was a cultural manifestation of a univocal conformity with the ideological identity of fascism, an identity that had been overthrown politically by the war and the resistance movement and culturally by neorealism itself.

While it is clear that their historiographic methodologies are problematic in and of themselves, it is important to note that they also have social roots. Such frameworks are mediated by a nationwide desire in postwar Italian society to overcome the experience of fascism by repressing a memory of it. In other words, in taking a closer second look at films from the ventennio nero, the cultural autonomy and political integrity of the neorealist project itself might be placed at risk. And, in the often partisan political context of cultural debate in postwar Italy, a serious investigation into the specific characteristics of popular culture during fascism could incur the political liabilities of guilt by cultural association. Therefore, in this particular social context, any methodology which could have brought historians to look closely at cultural production during the fascist period would have ironically risked ideological contamination by the very subject of its study.

This particular form of historical amnesia had a very real and significant effect on Italian film culture in the fifties, the sixties, and most of the seventies. By undercutting the potential validity of studying the period's films, these histories were a major factor in repressing general cultural interest in them. In the absence of an overriding mandate to look at the films, the copies languished unpreserved within the vaults of Italian archives. Despite the virtual explosion of film clubs and festivals during the sixties, those films that still existed in relatively good shape were certainly never presented for public consideration.

The nature of Italian cultural studies underwent a major transformation in the early 1970s. A series of new histories began to propose a radical revision of the traditional methodologies and their accepted wisdoms. In cinema studies, the key works for such a revision were Gian Piero Brunetta's Storia del cinema italiano: 1895-1945 and Aldo Bernardini's three-volume Cinema muto italiano: arte, divismo e mercato. Where the previous generations of film scholarship placed severe limits on what could or should be studied, Brunetta and Bernardini dramatically expanded both the scope and the fields of information for Italian cinema study.

By way of simple quantitative comparison to that previous generation: the Storia del cinema dedicates over 250 pages to the cinema in the fascist era alone. As historiography, Brunetta's work is also compelling for its extensive inclusion of heterogeneous cultural sources that were new to the field of Italian film study. Some of Storia del cinema's chapter headings, for example, include "The Star System," "The Origins of Criticism," "The Birth and Development of Narrative," "The Politics of the Institutions," "The Catholics and Cinema," and "The Work of the Literati." And while film texts lie at the center of Brunetta's account, he also traces the evolution of these wider cultural and political contexts in relation to the films themselves. Another way of putting this is that Brunetta's work not only takes into consideration a large number of films ignored by previous Italian film historians, he corrects that historical amnesia by locating them within their specific cultural and historical contexts.

Another key moment in the transformation of Italian cultural studies occurred in 1974 with the tenth Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema. Located in Pesaro, the Nuovo Cinema initiatives have long been an important meeting ground for filmmakers, critical theorists, and historians. This particular edition crystallized a renewed interest in the Italian cinema during the interwar years by presenting films from that period, most of which simply had not been seen in public for the previous three decades. Showing these films signaled a turning point in Italian film culture because it literally made it possible to begin a systematic excavation of an entire generation of films and filmmakers. Since then, there have been dozens of conferences and retrospectives of pre-neorealist sound films in Italy. Renewed efforts at their cataloguing, preservation, and restoration by the five major Italian film archives and, more importantly, the removal of the cultural/political taboo that had surrounded these films, culminated in a 1987 RAI (Italian state television) national broadcast of over forty "fascist" titles. Whereas the 1987 RAI retrospective was surrounded by wraparound panel discussions in which historians and critics emphasized the value of these films as historical documents, today the films are broadcast as entirely unproblematic entertainment. On the rare occasion that additional contextualizing information is still provided, such information ironically constitutes commercial appropriation of a forgotten history. Current interstitial material for this kind of programming speaks of the films as vintage objects from an unspecified past, as objects that have now lost their tainted political charge.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Amnesia and Historical Memory
"Soulless Shadows": The Cinema under Fascism Didn't Exist
Cinema and
Cinema and National Identity

2. The Political Economy of Italian Cinema, 1922-1943
Fascism Makes Cinematic History
The Impact of the Regime's Regulation(s)

3. Leisure Time, Historiography, and Spectatorship
Fascist Sports: Historical Narration and the National Body
Travel, Pleasure, and Class Difference

4. Italy and America: Fascination and (Re)Negotiation
Authorial States: Mussolini and MGM March on Rome
Partnership and Competition with Hollywood

5. The Fascist Codex
Fascist Heuristics: Major Codes of Readership
Dissolution of Fascist Order, Antifascism, and/or Neorealism

Epilogue. Resistance and the Return of the Local

Selected Bibliography


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"Illuminating. . . . Ricci's book offers a significant contribution to a more nuanced and historically specific view of cinema under fascism."—Film Criticism

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