An examination of the body of films produced in the 1930s and early 1940s suggests that the principle of film as entertainment certainly appeared to be the rule. Italian commercial cinema focused on cinema’s capacity to delight and enthrall. Comedies, melodramas, and literary adaptations dominated feature film production during those years. The film industry’s reliance on cinema’s entertainment value formed the basis for a cultural politics of evasion. What the industry wanted were not feature films that functioned as overt, dogmatic political mouthpieces. The task of the directors, scriptwriters, and performers involved was not to make the spectator think, but rather to induce him or her to forget.
This politic of temporary social amnesia, however, often wound up thwarting its own intentions. In looking for a guaranteed model of financial and artistic success, Italian commercial cinema turned to the United States, and to Hollywood in particular, for industrial and aesthetic inspiration. Seeking in part to exploit Italy’s fascination with the myth of the American dream, these Italian films deliberately relied on the images of pleasure, wealth, beauty, and opportunity that permeated Hollywood imports. The fundamental difference, then, between Hollywood and Cinecittà was not so much textual as contextual. When Italian cinema refashioned these American texts, new models of proper male and female subjectivity appeared on the screen, which contrasted strongly with the masculine and feminine ideals promoted by the regime and propagated in other forms of mass media.
It is my contention that Italian feature film production of the Fascist
period was rife with other conflicts and contradictions which superseded its often self-defeating reliance on American cultural production. These films reflected the greater inconsistencies inherent in Fascist ideology itself. Contradictory and ambiguous visions of “reality” appear in the films, revealing the many cultural and political conflicts which characterized Italian Fascism. Furthermore, the publicity materials created to help promote the films in the marketplace often deliberately made recourse to these conflictual and non-conformist elements in selling the films to the audience. Thus, most feature films produced during the Fascist period wound up publicizing and displaying a picture of life under Fascism in which contrast and contradiction rather than harmony and unity came to dominate.
The aim of this particular essay is thus both theoretical and historical. I will analyze how Italian Fascism in general and its cultural politics in particular (or rather the lack thereof) created conditions of interpretive plurality. My critical examination of the Italian film industry under Fascism follows much the same line of argument: there existed much space for maneuvering in between the lines of government intervention, and the American industrial and artistic models were the means that made these cinematic negotiations possible. As a textual example of this cultural ambiguity, I will examine Luigi Chiarini’s 1942 film Via delle cinque lune (Five Moon Street), a film which draws on both Hollywood and national models in its problematic representation of deviant female subjectivity.
Fascism and Culture
An exploration of various interpretations of Fascism, while it is a “fascinating” subject, is not the purpose of this study.1
Explanations differ in scope from the psychoanalytical, for which Fascism served as the depository of childhood’s ideal self as well as the expression of all that is irrational in human beings; the Marxist, for which Fascism was a defense of the social order by industrialists and landowners against the rising threat of working-class solidarity; the parenthetical, which saw Fascism as an aberration, a parenthesis in Italian history; or the consequential, in which the Fascist rise to power was directly connected to the failures of post-World War I liberalism.2
Historians now tend to agree that Italian Fascism represented not one political ideology but rather a synthesis of various ideological and political positions, implying constant negotiations between political factions, social institutions, and popular support. According to Roland Sarti, the Fascist movement was born out of “competing and often incompatible”
ideologies and philosophies, including liberal capitalism, revolutionary syndicalism, democratic revisionism, and anarchism. Fascism’s roots can be traced, in Zeev Sternhell’s view, to a conglomeration of an anti-materialist and anti-rationalist strain of revisionist Marxism (which in Italy assumed the form of revolutionary syndicalism), tribal nationalism (which contributed the cult of the powerful leader), and Futurism (providing its avant-garde element). Alexander De Grand uses the term “hyphenated Fascism” to denote the ideological fragmentation behind the façade of unity, stressing the fact that much of Fascism’s popular appeal can be attributed to this very plurality: since Italian Fascism, unlike Marxist-Leninism or Nazism, did not limit itself to one coherent ideology, it attracted a broader camp of supporters. Mussolini thus assumed the guise not so much of charismatic leader as that of “charismatic negotiator” who, particularly in Fascism’s early days of consolidation, attempted to reconcile the various factions and not alienate his base of support.3
As a consequence of these ideological and political conflicts characteristic of Italian Fascism, gaps emerged between government self-proclamations of total domination and the actual state of the state. Instances of deviations from the Fascist ideal emerged across a wide variety of cultural practices, including cinema. The relationship between the Fascist regime and culture was constantly in flux, a “negotiated relation” in which intellectuals assumed the role of “brokers” or “mediators” between their own interests and those of the political power.4
These notions of reciprocity, negotiation, and conflict take into consideration the imperfectly totalitarian and fluctuating nature of Fascist power. The mediations between culture and Fascism had the potential to exploit the conflicts in the dominant discourse and to maneuver between its inherent gaps and fissures, often with the effect (if not the explicit intent) of thwarting ideological hegemony.
Facilitating such an interpretation is the fact that Italian Fascism, unlike National Socialism, lacked a clear-cut cultural policy or dominant artistic style with respect to high culture. In the regime’s grandiose plans, art, architecture, literature, and theater would serve to exalt the glory of the third Roman Empire through the propagation of certain myths and images. Certainly there were artists, such as Mario Sironi and Ardengo Soffici, who came to be associated with a Fascist style which in turn corresponded aesthetically with many of the regime’s ideological imperatives: a cultural representation which was cemented in the social and/or political world of Fascism and based on a spectacular and mythic vision of Fascist reality.5
On the whole, however, culture under Fascism can be characterized
by Maria Stone’s pertinent phrase as one of “hegemonic pluralism,” encompassing works from such diverse cultural tendencies as Futurism, modernism, neo-classicism and the Novecento
Although there was censorship with respect to the arts, the Fascist government, particularly during its first decade in power, tended toward inclusivity rather than exclusivity when it came to cultural policy. In fact, there were many such “free zones” in Italian cultural life, some of which were temporary, others of which were permanent, and many of which continued even as the government cracked down on all forms of deviation. Notable instances of cultural tolerance included the contribution of non-Fascist and anti-Fascist scholars to the Enciclopedia italiana
), staged productions of Bertolt Brecht’s plays, and screen distribution of Chaplin’s Modern Times
These vacillations indicate that Fascist cultural policy was far from stable and solid. Instead, it left room for incorporation of a plurality of artistic experimentations and points of view.
Low, or popular, culture attempted to serve more of a propagandistic purpose, with the intent of creating consent through the dissemination of recurring words and images that would serve to glorify the Fascist empire and deify its leader. Organization of cultural activities, often in conjunction with the OND (Opera Nazionale del Dopolavoro), the Fascist organization created to regulate lower-middle-class and working-class leisure time, became the means by which the regime attempted to build consent for its policies among the masses. The idea was to bridge the gap between the state apparatuses and the people through the media, popular literature, theater, and film. The press, along with radio, was the government’s most useful weapon in reaching its audience. The Fascist party directly controlled such newspapers as Il popolo d’Italia
, and its input and influence was felt in other non-government-controlled dailies.8
Just as with high culture, however, the results often did not meet government expectations. Cinema in particular was wrought with contradictory goals that were subject to negotiation among a variety of concerns and, as a result, far from solidly conformist in its production. It constantly had to reconcile and appease the individual interests of hard-line party members, private industrialists, and intellectuals, who all played integral roles in the restructuring and reshaping of the Italian film industry in the 1930s.
Italian Cinema during the Fascist Period
When approaching Italy’s cinematic production between 1922 and 1943, the first issue to confront is one of terminology. In referring to the body
of films as a whole, should one use the term “Fascist cinema,” implying intentional service to and direct correspondence with Fascist ideological and cultural imperatives? Or should the more general and generous phrase “the cinema of the Fascist period” be applied, implying a margin of freedom and independence framed within the confines of Fascist structures and institutions? In order for the first term to be appropriate, cinema as both art form and institution/industry must have a clearly elaborated cultural policy, rigid control over film production, distribution, and exhibition, and a keen eye for deviations from these firmly established boundaries. Although the regime did infiltrate some aspects of the feature film industry, Italian Fascism never had a far-reaching and all-encompassing control over the film industry. The reasons for this lack of total domination are several. First, given the fact that Fascism could not achieve the status of a monolithic totalitarian power, it is not surprising that the various cultural figures involved could neither agree upon nor implement a lucid, fixed cultural program with regard to the propagandistic potential of feature film production.9
Second, the regime was late in realizing the enormous potential of feature film as a capable means of creating cultural consensus. Keen on the ideological use of documentary, the government was quick to generate propagandistic newsreels (cinegiornali
) and educational and/or patriotic short subjects under the auspices of the Istituto LUCE (L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa—the Educational Film Institute), established in 1924.10
Another significant reason for this rather slow start was the state of total economic, technical, and financial disarray in which the feature film industry found itself in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Italian film industry virtually collapsed after its so-called Golden Age before World War I. It was unable to keep pace with foreign (particularly American) competition, it lagged behind technologically, and it faced high exportation tariffs abroad as well as growing production costs and poor management at home.11
To refer to the entire body of feature films produced during the ventennio
—the roughly twenty-year period of Fascist rule—as “Fascist cinema” is clearly erroneous. Nevertheless, to say that it was not politically or ideologically oriented is equally misleading. With its penchant for melodramatic love stories, banal comedies, and costume epics, the ventennio
’s cinematic production did not reflect an open agenda of ideological saturation via cinematic images. The primary modus operandi of the films of this period was entertainment and enjoyment, from the moment the spectator entered the darkness of the movie house or the reader avidly began consuming the pages of numerous fan magazines. Moreover, in projecting this image of “kinder, gentler” Fascism, these
films, as Mino Argentieri and others have noted, reflected a general complicity with the regime: its imperial ambitions, its social values, and even some of its political policies.12
In this cultural gap between collusion and diversion, there arose occasions for deviations and even subversions. In order to best analyze and comprehend this fundamental friction, it is necessary to examine the historical, economic, and social development of the complex and constantly shifting relationship between the state and the film industry during the Fascist period.13
Initially, the regime did not recognize commercial cinema’s potential and advantages as a cultural tool. Before 1930, much of the power and influence over the industry rested in the hands of one man: Stefano Pittaluga. His company, the Società Anonima Stefano Pittaluga (SASP), with the help of capital from the Banca Commerciale Italiana, took control of the government’s flailing production trust, L’Unione Cinematografica Italiana (UCI), and set about rebuilding the industry. In 1929, Pittaluga acquired the Cines studio and officially reopened it in the following year, producing several films, including Italy’s first sound film, Gennaro Righelli’s La canzone dell’amore
(The Song of Love
, 1930). Two important legislative pronouncements concurrently supported Pittaluga’s personal...