Italian Cinema and Society, 1945–52
Postwar Cinema and the Challenges of Democracy
The period between the liberation of Rome in 1944 and the exclusion of the parties of the left from government in the spring of 1947 witnessed a flowering of cultural initiatives of all sorts. With the anti-fascist political parties having formed a government of national unity, the overriding task was to defeat the Nazis and their Fascist allies in the north of the country and restore democracy. At the same time, artists and intellectuals began to think out ways in which they could contribute to the rebirth of the nation after twenty years of dictatorship. Though cinema was not among the most established of arts, it would emerge as the field in which the boldest and most influential reflections on the situation of the country would take place. Thanks to the resources that Fascism had invested in a range of infrastructures and institutions, and the centralization that it had imposed on film production, there was a significant community of practitioners, writers and critics based in the capital who were involved with the medium. Throughout the country, there was a cinematic culture that had grown steadily in the interwar years. Though the industry remained largely in private hands, the involvement of the state had seen various initiatives flourish. Numerous young intellectuals had been drawn to cinema through magazines and the student activities of the Cineguf (Fascist University Cinema Groups). They had begun to think out the future direction of the country in relation to it. The hostility they felt towards the dominant culture, whether conventional or fascistic, would not only inform and sustain significant innovations in cinematic practice; it would help propel cinema to a position of unprecedented cultural prominence in the postwar years.
While some film-makers simply wanted to get back to work, many were concerned to try to find new ways of making films that reflected the specific conjuncture of the nation. There was clearly a need to rethink cinema’s relationship to society and politics, for not only had the dictatorship fallen but the forms of state
support that had sustained the industry and contributed to the development of a culture of film had disappeared. This meant that new types of political involvement were needed or that film-makers needed to turn to commercial companies or find ways of engaging civil society. However, it was not just a matter of finance. There were also urgent questions of film content and film style. Genre films could still be made, for sure, though some were products of the specific social and cultural situation of the Fascist period, but contemporary drama could not but take account of recent and unfolding events. The war and the experiences of both civilians and military personnel were no longer to be seen through the prism of the regime; rather they needed to be represented in ways that took account of the country’s new alignment, its return to democracy and the collapse of Fascism’s ultranationalism. The first priority was to provide witness to the suffering and sacrifices that war and foreign occupation had entailed. The second was to explore the efforts of the Italians to contribute to the liberation of their country and to face the many problems that war and dictatorship had left behind. These involved decisions about subject matter, storytelling, values and personnel.1
The innovations that occurred in film-making practice would have a lasting impact on Italian film aesthetics, on the relationship of cinema to society and on casting and the performance of actors. The current known as neorealism would become the defining trend within Italian cinema in the years between 1945 and 1952. It would include some of the most important films made in the immediate aftermath of war and would dominate critical discourse at least until the end of the 1950s.2
This chapter will explore the place of new ideas about the role of cinema in the particular situation of the period after the fall of Fascism and the end of the Nazi occupation. This was characterized not only by cultural ambitions but by political conflicts, economic displacement, Allied control over the communications apparatus and efforts to recommence commercial film production.
Fascism, War and Foreign Occupation
The fall of Mussolini in July 1943 marked a watershed in the Italian film industry. The announcement that the man who had led the country for twenty years had been deposed and arrested was confirmed by the news that the Fascist Party had been abolished and that a royal government headed by Marshall Badoglio was now in office.3
These developments came completely out of the blue to many
people in the film industry. The sudden removal of figures and institutions that had been seen as permanent provoked disorientation and even panic.4
While some critics, directors and even actors who had been cultivating opposition to the regime joined ordinary Italians in rejoicing at the fall of dictatorship and what many hoped erroneously would be the end of the war, others looked to the future with trepidation. The film industry had established itself as a zone of privilege with close links to the dictator’s circle. The Duce himself had taken a keen interest in cinema, once he had been persuaded of its usefulness, while his son Vittorio had been involved in film production and had acted as editor of a film magazine, Cinema
Producers and others had become accustomed to calling on officials and the minister in charge at the Ministry of Popular Culture on Rome’s Via Veneto to seek favours. Industry personnel and prominent artists were integrated into the Fascist system and were expected, when required, to don uniforms, attend meetings and rallies, provide lustre to galas and generally provide adornment to the public activities of the regime. Actors and especially actresses were expected to attend diplomatic gatherings and meet foreign officials at the Venice festival, as well as provide comfort to serving soldiers and their wounded counterparts through autographed postcards and hospital visits.6
In the new situation, film production ceased almost immediately, with some films being interrupted before they were completed. The arrest of key officials and uncertainty over financial guarantees and distribution effectively pulled the plug on one of the country’s most florid industries.
Fascism had used state power and resources to stabilize the economy and reinforce Italy’s weaker industries. Cinema was among these as it had declined markedly in the later 1920s and struggled to make an effective transition to the sound era. As a result, it was closely bound up with Fascism or, more precisely, with the state. For both economic reasons and ideological reasons, the regime decided to invest in a medium that had the capacity to communicate the Fascist message, as well as to offer entertainment that was deemed to be compatible with that message, to Italians and to foreigners. After taking over the Luce Institute in 1925 and turning it into the main vehicle of visual propaganda, it created institutions including the Venice film festival in 1932, the Centro sperimentale film school in 1935 and inaugurated the Cinecittà studio complex in 1937. It adopted measures that promoted the growth of larger companies and provided them with financial incentives and support while employing preventive censorship to encourage quality productions and eliminate potentially undesirable works. The
Fascists did not believe in the sort of state-run cinema that existed in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, but the balance between private enterprise and state intervention progressively tilted in favour of the latter. When the state took over the Cines production company and turned it into an instrument for the type of cinema that had long been championed by Luigi Freddi, the key official in the sector,7
it set the tone for the rest of the market. Its output, along with other Italian and foreign films, was handled by the distribution organization ENIC, which was granted a monopoly over the purchase and distribution of foreign films in Italy from 1939. In protest, the major American companies decided to withdraw entirely from the market. In response, Italian film production increased year by year until, by 1942, it was able to cover over 56 per cent of the market.8
The period from July 1943 until the end of the war in April 1945 is one that was marked by a substantial inactivity of the industry. Only a handful of films went into production in this period, most with some form of institutional support. After the Germans freed Mussolini from imprisonment in the Abruzzo region, invaded the country and installed the one-time dictator at the head of a puppet republican regime based in the north of the country, Freddi was given the task of establishing a new film production centre in Venice. Despite heavy inducements, only a small number of directors, actors and technical personnel joined him in this venture, which would see the completion of just sixteen films, none of which would be released before the end of the war.9
In Rome, where the Germans requisitioned much of Cinecittà’s technical equipment, particular pressure was brought to bear on those who had not gone north. Two films that entered production in 1943, La porta del cielo
(The Gates of Heaven, Vittorio De Sica, 1945) and I dieci comandamenti
(The Ten Commandments, Walter Chiti, 1945) were made under the auspices of the Vatican. These productions were a harbinger of greater Vatican involvement in this sector in the postwar years.10
Italians who continued to go to the cinema in this period, despite air raids and curfews, were presented with mixed fare. In the north, under Nazi occupation, German films mingled with recent Italian ones and a few American ones that had not been removed from distribution. The task of the press was ‘to keep up the sense of entertainment as an amusement and to provide support for the production’ that was undergoing relocation and relaunch in Venice.11
Distraction not propaganda was the priority at a time when everyday life was undergoing major disruption. In the south, where the Allies, having landed in Sicily in July 1943, were expanding step-by-step the territory under their control, audiences were presented with a
package of films supportive of the Allied war effort, which were distributed by the Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB).12
Otherwise, cinemas showed Italian films that had been granted the Allied seal of approval and some old films of various provenance that had remained in the hands of distributors and exhibitors. In both the German-occupied north and the Allied-occupied south, the authorities in charge placed great importance on the newsreels that accompanied films.
The liberation of Rome in June 1944 marked a significant step towards the rebirth of film-making. It meant that free discussions could occur, that those who had sought refuge in the countryside could return to the capital and that concrete proposals could begin to be formulated. The critical impulses that had begun to take shape in regime publications in the early 1940s were developed in a range of new publications. Some efforts to start film-making again got underway, all of them outside Cinecittà, which, like the Tirrenia complex near Pisa, had been commandeered by the Allies and turned into a refugee camp.13
The tentative resumption of production did not occur in complete freedom. The Americans asserted control of the communications apparatus and had clear views of their own about Italian cinema. Up until the mid 1930s, Hollywood films had occupied around 75 per cent of Italy’s screens, a position they lost following creation of the monopoly over the purchase of foreign films and the withdrawal in protest of the major companies.14
The Allies were greatly concerned about the way the mass media had been employed to bolster Fascism. There was a strong belief that free trade should be restored and that the return to democracy would be aided by the distribution of films emanating from the democratic nations. Hollywood executives were embedded within the PWB, and their concern to democratize the communications apparatuses was indistinguishable from their desire to re-establish their hold in a lucrative market. The Americans were also perturbed by the reappearance in key roles of the same men who had filled key roles under Fascism.15
They feared that the institutions and laws created by the regime would also survive if swift action was not taken to abolish them.
Neorealism and Film Practice
These fears were not ungrounded, for within the state there were some officials who were pushing for the maintenance of the status quo. But the situation was different in the industry,...