Friday, 4 April 2008
Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943
The cover of the book is from a Maciste film poster, further suggestive of pre- and post-fascist cinema connections, with the character having appeared in films in all three periods
What's the relevance of a book on cinema in fascist Italy to the post-war popular cinema? The answer depends, of course, on how you choose to frame the question. Directly Steven Ricci's Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922-1943 is not immediately, obviously relevant. But indirectly there is a lot of useful information and thought-provoking analysis that helps one think about later filone cinema in a different light.
Much like the recently rediscovered “Italian secret cinema” of the 1960s and 1970s, the films produced in the 21 years of Italian fascism were long ignored, typically summarily dismissed on account of their presumed politics or lack thereof in the wake of post-war re-adjustments and re-alignments: whether the overt propaganda of the “black” film or “white telephone” distractions from political and social realities, fascist films were examples of what cinema should not be.
Ricci notes, for instance, that Pierre Leprohon's oft-cited The Italian Cinema devotes 25 pages to the inter-war era compared to 200 on the post-war years.
While fascist-era cinema was actually already undergoing a process of re-evaluation within Italy at around the same time as books like Leprohon's continued to tell this same old story, these re-evaluations took the form of depoliticised aesthetic and auteurist readings, culminating in the publication of a 1979 volume entitled The Fabulous Thirties.
The task Ricci sets himself is to chart the history of Italian cinema during the fascist period without falling prey to these or any other extreme positions and by paying close attention to the films themselves. There were both continuities and discontinuities between pre-fascist, fascist and post-fascist Italian cinemas. Indeed, part of the picture that emerges is that what you see often depends on where you look.
A good example here is dubbing. The history of Italy as a dubbing country dates to the fascist era, with the passing of a law stipulating that all foreign-language films had to be dubbed into Italian. For the fascist regime, dubbing provided a way of literally rewriting films and of promoting their standard version of the Italian language. Thus, for example, The Adventures of Marco Polo, a 1938 adventure in which Gary Cooper plays the Venetian explorer, could be retitled and recontextualised as Uno scozzese alla corte del Gran Khan – i..e a Scotsman in the Great Khan's Court – because the regime disapproved of the film and the actors' representation of a noted Italian hero. For a neo-realist, meanwhile, using regional dialects and accents was a way of signalling a break from and opposition to this past.
Though Ricci does not bring out the connection with the fast and loose approach to time and place (or “chronotope” in a more theoretical vocabulary) in the peplum and adventure films of the early 1960s, it does leave one wondering about the likes of Riccardo Freda's Maciste all'inferno / The Witch's Curse, in which Maciste – renamed Samson for the international audience unfamiliar with a specifically Italian character – finds himself in 17th century Scotland.
This is all the more so since another of Ricci's major themes, the representation of the (male) body in the silent-era strongman film and later more explicitly propagandistic adventure films, almost cries out for an extended comparison with the peplum, superspy and spaghetti western filone. Is it the case, for instance, that all that really happens is that the poles reverse, insofar as a Maciste performs the same mighty deeds in defence of the people but transforms from a fascist to a anti-fascist hero inasmuch as the villain of the fascist era film is coded as a decadent liberal and his 1960s counterpart as a fascist?
Tellingly in both cases the mythical-historical past seems likely to be an national rather than a pre-national one, whereby ancient Rome represents and resembles nothing so much as it does 20th century Italy.
At the same time, however, if we also consider Mikel Koven's vernacular cinema thesis here, it is clear that national identity was likely not the only issue here either, that the same film would say different things to a terza visione spectator in the south as to a prima visione spectator in the north. (Many of the differences in audience patterns discussed in Koven's La Dolce Morte can also be traced back to the pre- and fascist periods, as Ricci's analysis makes clear.)
This brings us on nicely to the giallo. Given of the fascist regime's attempts to purge foreign influences on the Italian language and their close relationship with publisher Mondadori, one first of all wonders if there's a secret history of the term itself waiting to be brought out. How far, that is, did giallo become the preferred term here because i thriller was an Anglicism and noir a French import? What were the political implications of using one or the other?
Whatever the case, it seems clear that part of the reason for the giallo film's late emergence was fascist regime's distinctive stance on crime literature and film: they were tolerated, even acceptable, so long as they presented events taking place outwith Italy's borders to thereby remind the audience of how bad things were in the non-fascist world and of what the regime was protecting them from. Thus, the Hollywood gangster movie was acceptable precisely because it was American, so long as the criminal was not coded as an Italian-American – which dubbing could sort, at least in part.
And again the picture becomes more complex as one looks further, insofar as the likes of Ossessione and Bitter Rice then represent the (re-)emergence of crime in Italian contexts. Moreover there are also important differences from film to film that need to be taken into account: Despite being an adaptation of Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione presents an essentially indigenous criminality untainted by outside influences and thus implicitly attacks the fascist regime: “This is not Italy,” as Count Ciano famously remarked.
In contrast the post-liberation Bitter Rice presents a criminality influenced by Hollywood gangster movies and US culture and arguably presents an emergent left-wing critique of the new post-war Italian re-alignment: “This is not Italy, or at least the Italy we on the left fought for,” as it were.
Linked in with this, Ricci also provides useful discussions of the role of travel and tourism, hinting that the giallo emphasis on jet planes and in-between places and states noted by Gary Needham in his article on the filone might also be re-read as part of a longer history.
In sum, though the fan may not have the same theoretical or cinematic background as Ricci, he or she may well get a lot more out of this book than might have been thought; certainly there are numerous other little details and spurs to further reflection and research which I'll leave the reader to discover for themselves...