The Cinema Under Mussolini

Films made during the Fascist period, 1922 to 1943 virtually had been pushed aside and written off as meaningless propaganda. However, thanks to the Fascist regime, there is a lot of value and artistic expression to be found within these classics. Mussolini’s dictatorship was an authoritarian style of governing as opposed to Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarian style. In Russia and Germany, the government sought to control not only the public behavior of their people but also their private thoughts and opinions within their homes. For example, a German under Hitler’s rule could not even utter a word against the Führer in the company of his own family for fear that they would report him to the government and be arrested for his opposition. Meanwhile in Italy, Mussolini sought only to control people’s outward behavior to crush any opposition they may have toward the government while giving them a little more room to develop their personal thoughts and opinions. With this style of governing, Mussolini did not deport its intellectuals as Germany did. The government was more tolerant toward them as long as they did not use their opinions to incite the public. These differences between Italy, Germany and Russia also held true in the cinema industry.

Both Russia and Germany worked diligently to consolidate political interests and the cinema into one giant vehicle for propaganda. According to Stalin, 'Film is the strongest art,' and Russian film makers churned out hundreds upon hundreds of blatantly propagandist movies on the greatness of the Russian state and its leaders. Likewise, in Germany, Hitler used films to brainwash people as to the inferiority of certain races as well as embellishing on his right to power. Compared to Stalin and Hitler's film industries, Italian political and cinema groups never were able to work together in perfect unison. Luigi Freddi, who was in charge of Italian cultural control, never united Italy’s political vein with those of the cinema industry and, as a result, its films never achieved the marked propagandist content like those of Russia and Germany. True Fascist propaganda was to be found in “black” films, which championed the Fascist ideology and cause. They often were short newsreels shown in movie theaters before the main film, rather than full length feature films. On the other end of the spectrum, film makers produced "white telephone" films which were made up of melodramatic romances and light-hearted comedies. The majority of the films made under the Fascist era were in fact Fascist films, war-based films with a fictional story line and a heavy dose of propaganda, but usually could be found toward the middle of the Black-White spectrum.

In order to organize the film industry, the Fascist government experimented with political organizations and censor boards. LUCE ( L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa , 1925- 1929) oversaw all cinematic operations in Italy. It’s main goal was to promote the making of educational films and documentaries in order to raise an awareness of the link between film and politics. This organization was concerned mainly with newsreels and not with the commercial film industry (Brunetta 33).

In 1933, the government passed laws to preserve the integrity of Italian films abroad. According to these regulations, Italian films could not be dubbed into foreign languages. In addition, it was obligatory for all foreign films to be dubbed into Italian, the cost of which was covered by the foreign production houses. This tax, collected by the government, was later re-invested into the Italian cinematic endeavors.

In 1934, Luigi Freddi headed the Direzione Generale per la Cinema which was a state funded and controlled censor board made up of Fascists and War Minister officials. Their responsibility was to read and modify scripts, award prizes to film makers who championed the Fascist cause, and monitor the importation of foreign films (Brunetta 45). Quite a number of American films were banned because they could have influenced the Italian population in a negative way. The main goal of this censor board was not to ban Italian films that did not agree with Fascist ideology, but rather to modify them so that they didn’t contradict the government or incite the population to rise up against the government. Any script with pro-Fascist messages originally written in by the screen writer could receive up to 100% funding by the state controlled film section of the Banco di Lavoro . The Direzione could also recommend approved scripts to receive a 60% advance of capital, a hefty sum to come by in a time of war.

In 1935, ENIC or Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche completed the Fascist infiltration of every aspect of the cinematic realm by buying up a movie theater chain. In 1938, the ENIC expanded to regulate the number of foreign films entering the country. It was the only channel in whereby foreign films could be imported, severely limiting the selection of popular American films which could be sold to distributors. Also in this year, Mussolini set up the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia , a professional film school which still functions today. More importantly, Mussolini opened up Italy’s first film studio, Cinecitta in 1937, to help film makers produce movies with Fascist messages. The day of its grand opening, April 21st, was significant in that it was the day believed to be the founding of ancient Rome, thereby drawing a link between the greatness of ancient Rome and that of Italian Cinema. Mussolini named himself the principal orchestrator in Italian Cinema by placing a picture of himself behind a film camera with a spinoff of Lenin's quote , “Film is the most powerful weapon” at the Cinecitta' studios (Films 5).

One aspect of film making that everybody, no matter what their position on the political spectrum, called for was more realism in Italian films . The cinema was following the literary movement's general trend toward realism. Political leaders also encouraged a more realistic cinematic language. Scenes shot in authentic locations, such as one of Italy’s most famous monuments, or documentary aspects fused together with that of fiction would make a film more believable and would surely receive a higher star rating than those produced indoor on constructed sets. Those on the Right, including Vittorio Mussolini, seized this idea for its double effect. Not only would audiences enjoy more authentic films, but the showing of Italian monuments, culture and subject matter would bolster pride and love for their country and raise popular support for the nationalistic actions of the Fascist government, especially during the early stages of World War II.

Rossellini’s Fascist Trilogy