Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema

Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema

by Ruth Ben-Ghiat


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Ruth Ben-Ghiat provides the first in-depth study of feature and documentary films produced under the auspices of Mussolini’s government that took as their subjects or settings Italy’s African and Balkan colonies. These "empire films" were Italy's entry into an international market for the exotic. The films engaged its most experienced and cosmopolitan directors (Augusto Genina, Mario Camerini) as well as new filmmakers (Roberto Rossellini) who would make their marks in the postwar years. Ben-Ghiat sees these films as part of the aesthetic development that would lead to neo-realism. Shot in Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, these movies reinforced Fascist racial and labor policies and were largely forgotten after the war. Ben-Ghiat restores them to Italian and international film history in this gripping account of empire, war, and the cinema of dictatorship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015525
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/11/2015
Series: New Directions in National Cinemas
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of Italian Studies and History at New York University.

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Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Ruth Ben-Ghiat
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01559-4


Empire Cinema

Frames and Agendas

On October 2, 1935, Benito Mussolini stepped out on the balcony of Rome's Piazza Venezia to address the largest rally in the fourteen years of the Fascist regime. Surrounded by microphones and movie cameras, the Italian leader hailed his audience:

Blackshirts of the Revolution! Men and women of all of Italy! Italians all over the world, beyond the mountains and beyond the seas: listen well! A solemn hour is about to sound in the history of the fatherland. At this moment twenty million men occupy the public squares of all Italy. Never in the history of mankind has there been seen a more gigantic spectacle. Twenty million men: one heart, one will, one decision.

The decision to which Mussolini referred was that of invading Ethiopia, an act that would avenge the Italians' defeat at Adwa by Ethiopian troops almost forty years earlier. The regime had planned the invasion since 1934, and Italian soldiers stood ready at the Ethiopian-Eritrean border even as the Duce told Italians to follow "the wheel of destiny" and avenge their offended honor. The Fascists resembled French and British imperialists in justifying their expansionism with the rhetoric of the civilizing mission, but were perhaps unique in proclaiming the arrogant European, with his history of disregard for Italy, as the enemy along with the African. As Mussolini told his listeners, Ethiopia and the Great Powers conspired to "deprive us of a bit of a place in the sun." The League of Nations sanctions scandalously supported "an African country ... without a shadow of civilization," over "a People of poets, artists, heroes, saints, navigators, and transmigrants (trasmigratori) ... to whom humanity owes some of its greatest achievements." The Italian leader invoked what Avishai Margalit has termed "episodic memory," or the memory of past emotions, such as collective humiliations, as a means of catalyzing Italy: the rationale for aggression rested on the reiteration of a récit of national victimization. "Ora basta! / We've had enough!" roared Mussolini, declaring war not only against Ethiopia but against an entire international system that placed Italy in a subaltern state.

Although the Duce pledged that the war would not escalate into a European conflict, the Ethiopian invasion set into motion a chain of destructive events that contributed to the outbreak of World War II. It weakened the League's authority, destabilized European diplomatic relations, and flaunted state sovereignty and multiple international protocols, including those relating to chemical weapons. These were used in quantities well beyond military necessity; Italy's massive employment of aviation and gas, along with the industrial scale of the mobilization, made Ethiopia an "experimental field of violence" for the next five years. Six months later, the Italians announced victory in Ethiopia and the establishment of the Italian East African Empire. Entrenched Ethiopian resistance made this "conquest" unstable and incomplete, though, and the new military engagements and occupations (Spain, 1937; Albania, 1939) Italy began as part of the Axis alliance strained its resources to the limit even before the outbreak of World War II. Inside Italy the Ethiopian war was also a watershed event. The country's farther extension into sub-Saharan Africa intensified existing anxieties about the safeguarding of racial purity and the production of Italians who were fit for imperial command. After 1935 the regime's military goals increasingly conditioned every aspect of Fascist policy. The imperial years ultimately ended in a spiral of loss, the fall of the colonies (starting in 1941) followed by Fascist Italy's surrender to the Allies on September 8, 1943.


The Mediterranean was the field of action upon which Fascist imperial agendas depended, and it was subject to reinventions and re-imaginings that are visible in the realm of empire film. Control of the Mediterranean, Mia Fuller observes, held the key to achieving Italian autonomy from Europe and to reversing a history of marginalization within the continent by making Italy the vital hinge between Europe and Africa. This notion of Italian influence extending through and beyond the Mediterranean connected to the revival of Rome as a model of imperial power. Rome and the ideology of romanità served the Fascists as a "utopia of the past" that supposedly differentiated Italy's imperial vision from that of contemporary powers while providing a historical justification for Fascist expansion. This Fascist construction of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum, a space "saturated with a timeless Roman and Italian essence," required its elision as a site of "cultural crossovers, contaminations, creolizations, and uneven historical memories." In Fascist propaganda, this meant splitting off of the "Roman" Mediterranean from the "Oriental" Levant. In the case of the Dodecanese Islands, this translated into an intention to "reclaim" Rhodes and other territories from Turkish influences, the Turk standing in for a history of Oriental backwardness and lassitude. Yet this "other" Mediterranean surfaces in Fascism's empire cinema, which is haunted by the basin as a "fluid and unstable archive" of the kinds of wanderings and intercultural fusions the Fascists so feared.

Empire films bear the marks of such tensions, despite the heavy political demands upon them relative to the rest of Fascist-era cinematic production. Designed to placate the international community by highlighting the humanitarian aspects of Italy's colonization, empire films also asserted Italian military strength. They aspired to compete with Hollywood and other foreign productions for the attentions of audiences abroad as part of a strategy of achieving influence through "two peaceful but very potent arms: culture and commerce." By demonstrating the benevolence and the authority of Italian rule, they aimed to convince inhabitants of occupied territories to collaborate with the regime. And they were to mobilize Italians at home and in Italian communities abroad for combat and settlement in the colonies, creating a constituency for empire and expanding the scope of Italians' national allegiances and imaginaries. This was no small matter, considering that in the early 1930s, after ten years of Fascism and forty years of Italian colonialism, fewer than forty-five thousand Italians had settled in the colonies, out of a population of forty million. Although the occupation of Ethiopia and a mass transfer of twenty thousand Italians to Libya in the late 1930s increased these numbers to more than three hundred thousand by the end of the decade, the vast majority of Italians never set foot in Africa. L'Oltremare remained just that, a realm "beyond," even for those who considered the Mediterranean "our sea." This situation, along with the restrictions on movement and the relative provincialism of Italian culture, clarifies the regime's particular investment in film as a window on the colonies and creator of imperial consciousness.

The multiple propagandistic agendas and markets of empire films, their politically sensitive nature, and the substantial capital investment they necessitated meant that most of them took shape at the very vertices of the regime. The Duce's son Vittorio Mussolini, the director of Cinema and a pilot who served in Ethiopia and Greece, played a central role in empire cinema culture. His name appears as producer, screenwriter, supervisor, and investor, and he also acted behind the scenes as an influential liaison with censors and other officials. And empire features benefited lavishly from the new financial incentives and assistance the regime offered filmmakers after 1935: Il grande appello, Lo squadrone bianco, Bengasi, Unpilota ritorna, and Luciano Serra, pilota, all received production advances. Empire productions also could count on state-orchestrated publicity campaigns, including visits by journalists to sets that were celebrated as sites for the reinforcement of martial and authoritarian values. Finally, empire films lay at the heart of the regime's agenda of building a distinctively Italian cinema that would woo Italian and foreign spectators, strengthening national identity at home and exporting national culture and Fascist values abroad.

Market conditions, as well as political fervor, lay behind this financial and symbolic investment. By 1936 cinema accounted for 79 percent of all national spending on spectacle (including music, drama, sport events, exhibitions, and fairs), and this increased to 91 percent by 1941. But American movies accounted for most of that cinematic consumption. In 1927 nearly 80 percent of the films Italians saw came from American studios, and even in 1938, in the full flower of the racial and autarchic campaigns, Hollywood films accounted for 73.6 percent of Italian box-office receipts. Empire films figured heavily in the strategies devised by Fascist officials to remedy this situation. As films of conquest set in exotic locales, they would have the appeal of popular American genres (adventure and war films, Westerns, melodramas) and the allure of Orientalist films. Yet they would tell uniquely Italian stories, publicizing a colonial experience that was little known abroad. They would also draw on the genres that had made Italian production internationally famous since the silent era, such as large-scale costume pictures, while satisfying the regime's desire for features that directly engaged with Fascist imperial campaigns and ideology.

The corpus of empire films reflects this diversified mandate, highlighting the clash between the regime's nationalizing ambitions for film and the cosmopolitan nature of the interwar film industry. Their settings and actors may be "national-imperial," but these movies display influences of and affinities with foreign film traditions. Such cosmopolitanism marked empire films everywhere, and Italian thinking and practice were shaped through an ongoing critique of British, French, and American nonfiction and feature films. Although the regime held up the banner of cinematic autarchy, in practice it continued to tacitly encourage assimilations of foreign styles in the interest of creating compelling spectacles that would please Italian, international, and colonial audiences. The fact that Lo squadrone bianco was based on the French novel L'Escadron blanc by Joseph Peyre did not prevent it from winning the Mussolini Cup at the 1936 Venice Biennale for "best Italian film."


Most Italian empire films are war films: they stage dramas of conquest and occupation and, during World War II, dramas of defeat as well. Battle scenes, sometimes of mammoth scale, figure in all but one of the films discussed in this book, and real military men, rather than actors, make up the rank-and-file combatants seen on-screen. These men utilize weapons and matériel on loan from the armed forces, which also supplied consultants to verify the accuracy and feasibility of the directors' envisioned military maneuvers. Empire films provide a means of investigating the relationship of war and cinema during the later years of the Italian dictatorship. Both feature and documentary films on imperial themes diffused a new mode of seeing, born during World War I, that united the gaze with the potential to inflict violence and positioned the camera operator alongside the bomber and machine gunner as a force for the creation of history. Aerial warfare had great importance in this regard. The prominence given to aviation within many empire films mirrors its importance within Fascist culture as a realm where older fantasies of movement and conquest came together with the new cultures of violence made possible by changes in military technologies. Pavolini was one among many who exalted the creative destruction made possible by the airplane and long-range combat, with the military commander's "clear eye, its precision multiplied by binoculars and calculations" replacing the view of the poet or painter. Empire features and documentaries showcase these strategies of visual domination, celebrating them as the first stage of the conquest and transformation (bonifica) of indigenous peoples and their terrains.

The production process of empire films in the colonies also reinforced cinema's function as a technology of conquest and governance. Shooting on location in the colonies, in close collaboration with the Italian military, offered occasions for film professionals to vaunt their own martial experiences and virile qualities. For directors and their assistants, who often were in charge of hundreds or thousands of Italian and askari soldiers and indigenous extras, it provided a chance to have their own experiences of colonial command. Alessandrini, who utilized twelve thousand Eritreans for battle scenes in his 1939 film Abuna Messias, recalled in the 1970s that the scale of these productions, and the risks involved, often made the production of the film more compelling than the film itself. Comparing his directorial actions to those of a military authority, he mused that it was often "hard to remember that you are there to tell a story." At times, as in the case of Marcellini and other Luce documentarians, filmmaking coincided with and formed a component of their military service in Africa. Michael Geyer's description of the militarized European societies of the interwar period as ones in which "war ascribed status to individuals and lent meaning to the 'work' of those who participated in it" fits the culture and character of the world of Italian empire cinema, with its blurred lines between military and cultural practice.

Filmmaking in Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia also relied on and formed part of larger systems of military governance and colonial labor, with indigenous participation in films subject to the same practices of surveillance and exploitation that marked Fascism's African occupations in general. Askari soldiers were in fact the largest source of film extras and were preferred by directors for the linguistic and obedience training they had received from their military experiences. A chain of service obligations links indigenous participation in real battles, cinematic re-creations, and appearances in parades and colonial exhibitions in the metropole and colonies. On-screen, indigenous characters with speaking parts not only act as "ethnic specimens," broadcasting their colony's human resources and visual attractions, but also advertise Fascism's abilities to domesticate and orchestrate its native populations. Hassan Mohamed, the Somali lead of Sentinelle di bronzo, whose character alternates military service with duties at a colonial exposition in Italy, received prominent billing in the credits and in publicity materials, as did Berclè Zaitù Taclè, the female lead in Abuna Messias. The making of empire films proved difficult and divisive for many tribespeople, though. Transporting entire clans long distances from home disrupted local economies, and large productions sometimes "inundated and occupied an entire indigenous village," in the words of the director of production Franco Cappelletti. Italians' insensitivity to local rivalries often exacerbated bad feelings, especially when warring groups were asked to act as allies, although it was also dangerous to assign warring peoples to act as enemies: Alessandrini had to issue the Galla and Amhara wooden weapons during the making of Abuna Messias after a series of real-life woundings.

Empire film sets were thus shaped not only by Italian production cultures but also by imperial social and economic relations in all their complexity. Sites of exploitation, intimidation, and resistance, these shoots also became spaces of informal socializing, where blacks and whites forged working and other relationships. In their situations of racial imbalance, too (hundreds or sometimes thousands of indigenous men directed by a few whites), they register the colonies' everyday realities. This extends to the question of interracial sex and socializing in the face of the 1937 racial laws. The hyper-masculine production culture of empire films encouraged amorous encounters between black women and white men, even on the sets of movies whose plots warned against such entanglements. Far from forbidding such encounters, colonial officials acted as procurers: the governor of Asmara sent prostitutes for the crew of Sentinelle di bronzo, and the governor of Somalia rounded up local beauties for nude screen tests in front of L'Esclave blancs makers. The journalist Ettore Mattia, who was present on the set of Abuna Messias, which utilized thousands of indigenous men and women, later remembered this production fondly as offering men a respite from racial laws that criminalized their relationships with native women. Fuller's comment that "Italians displayed a partial indifference to difference" certainly holds true for the culture of empire filmmaking.


Excerpted from Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Copyright © 2015 Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Empire Cinema: Frames and Agendas
2. Italian Cinema and the Colonies to 1935
3. Mapping Empire Cinema, 1935-39
4. Coming Home to the Colonies
5. Imperial Bodies I: Italians and Askaris
6. Imperial Bodies II: Slaves of Love, Slaves of Labor
7. Film Policies and Cultures, 1940-1943
8. The End of Empire

What People are Saying About This

University of Michigan - Geoff Eley

This new book splendidly confirms Ruth Ben-Ghiat's standing as the preeminent cultural historian of Italian Fascism in the English-speaking world today. She illuminatesnot onlythe drive for empire, along with the place of violence and history in the associated Fascist imaginary, but also key facets of cinematic modernity, the merging of documentary and fiction in the "empire film" aesthetic, and the antecedents of neo-realism. No one brings greater theoretical acumen, interpretive care, and contextual erudition to writing about film historically.

author of Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule - Ann Laura Stoler

If film is a portal to empire as Ruth Ben-Ghiat claims and so beautifully demonstrates, then her book is that and much more: from a carefully chosen set of vantage points on documentary and feature film genres, screen masculinity, and cinema's mobile technologies, she burrows through the thicket that joins fascist film culture and empire cinemato show their entangled production of theweapons of empire, fascism, and war. Shifting between a close-up and wide-angle lens, Ben-Ghiat unsettles what we think we know about Italian cinema and its racial inscriptions, and not least about the fantasies of mobility and force of restriction that shaped fascist violence and visions of empire.

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