Postwar neorealism is often and rightfully framed as the cinematic phenomenon that shaped the course of Italian film for the rest of the 20th century; it is not a coincidence that some of the major academic studies of the history of Italy’s cinema, such as Peter Bondanella’s seminal Italian Cinema: from Neorealism to the Present (1) – now updated in A History of Italian Cinema to include the pre-neorealist era (2) – and Millicent Marcus’ insightful Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, (3) focused on it as a pivotal experience that, at least up until the 1980s, Italian filmmakers inevitably had to consider when producing their works.
Although it is now commonly accepted that neorealism was not a uniform artistic movement and that it was as much characterised by innovation as it was informed by continuity with previous cinematic traditions – as aptly demonstrated in Marcia Landy’s article on Roberto Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta (1945) (4) – our understanding of neorealism is still bound to the notion that it emerged in reaction to Fascism, to its rhetoric and, at least to some extent, as a reaction to the limitations of Italian cinema during the ventennio of the Fascist regime. Thus, being the involuntary instigator of such an influential phenomenon in the development of postwar Italian cinema, as well as being the context for the coming-of-age of many influential Italian filmmakers, it is only natural that an understanding of the legacy of Fascism should occupy a privileged position in the study of Italian cinema and its representational trends.
Giacomo Lichtner’s recent publication Fascism in Italian Cinema since 1945: The Politics and Aesthetics of Memory, thus, fills a significant gap in its field, resolving to discuss the representations of Fascism that Italian filmmakers have articulated on screen from neorealism onwards. In this respect, Lichner’s latest work complements his previous analysis of Italian cinema’s treatment of a major historical phenomenon, Film and the Shoah in France and Italy (5). The key finding of Fascism in Italian Cinema since 1945 is that, as much as the Resistance has traditionally been assigned the allegorical role of rebirth of the country (and of its cinema) in Italian film since Roma Città Aperta (Rossellini, 1945), the representation of the Fascist ventennio have been in most cases characterised by restraint and re-signification. This is a fundamental point of Lichtner’s work that can definitely be agreed upon.
This argument is supported by the identification of four stages in Italian cinema’s representation of Fascism: Resistance (comprised of the postwar neorealism images of Fascism and the 1950s satires of the regime by director Luigi Zampa), Reconstruction (as Lichtner labels the re-visitation of the 1922-1945 period in the films produced during Italy’s Economic Miracle), Revolution (the engaged films of the 1970s) and Revisionism. In the latter section Lichtner groups a number of recent films produced either for television or for the silver screen during the age of Berlusconi’s governments which attempted to mitigate Fascism’s negative connotations. Lichtner should be credited for being the first one to discuss these films in an academic context and for doing so without having the political climate that informed their production be the only factor in his assessment – in fact he defines the revisionism carried out in these films as “politicised confusion” (38) rather than propaganda.
As much as it is informed by the right’s position of political predominance in the Italian government in the last fifteen years, the revisionism that characterizes the cinematic representations of Fascism in recent films was ‘allowed’ by the partial image of Fascism that Italian cinema has been happy to limit itself to since neorealism, a point that Lichtner expertly makes by opening his book achronologically with the ‘Revisionism’ section, to then go back to Roma Città Aperta and progress from 1945 onwards.
Throughout this progression, he identifies the different strategies by which Italian cinema has dealt with the memory of Fascism by resorting to the myth of italiani brava gente, in other words by projecting an overall humanist assessment of Italians as good people who had among them very few Fascists (and most of those being clueless, rather than committed). Whereas this narrative of Italians as brava gente was a necessary moral catharsis for the country at the time of neorealism, Litchner argues, had lost its effectiveness by the time of the Economic Miracle. Although more often engaging with Italy’s Fascist past, the Marxism informed engaged filmmaking of the 1970s, in Lichtner’s view, perpetuated this narrative “by narrowing it significantly to include just one social class” (152), the proletariat, downplaying the impact and effectiveness that the Fascist ideology had among the lower strata of society.
The means by which Italian cinema perpetuated the myth of italiani brava gente that Lichtner identifies are threefold: narrowing the representation of World War II mostly to post-armistice settings (54), so that Germans ‘happen’ to be who the partisans are fighting against in the majority of the films; only considering the very early years of the 1920s in the narratives concerning life in Italy under Fascism, so that “even as Fascist violence is acknowledged independently of foreign influences, support for Fascism is neglected and large chunks, at least, of Italian society continue to come across as a victim” (186); and by excluding representations of Italy’s role as an aggressor and its attempts of expansion on foreign soil, particularly in Northern Africa and the Balkans, despite the geopolitical repercussions they kept having long after Fascism was over. To this and other omissions Litchtner dedicates his last chapter, ‘Recurrent Amnesias’.
In Lichtner’s analysis, the main reason why Italian cinema’s representation of Fascism has been restrained by the overall narrative of Italians as brava gente – a narrative founded on Roman pietas and Christian values, the distrust of rulers that characterizes the average Italian and traditional family values (176) – is that “Italian filmmakers, audiences and reviewers, discussing Fascism and anti-Fascism since 1945, have never been able to separate their representation of those historical events from their broader understanding of the Italian people” (99), in other words that they were more preoccupied by carrying out a dialogue concerning ‘Italianness’ and national identity, rather than an accurate historical depiction of the 1922-1945 period.
This analysis is correct, and in fact I would add that it could have not been otherwise. As Lichtner himself points out, Italy represented an exception in the postwar landscape: already under De Gasperi’s first Christian Democrat government former Fascists were re-introduced in administrative chairs supervising the country’s film production (68), while by 1960 the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the neo-Fascist party, had been included in the government coalition. Whilst the protest movements of the 1960s had brought change and reform in other European countries, the Christian Democrats (who had previously accepted the M.S.I. in their coalition) maintained their majority until 1994. Italy’s filmmakers could have not separated the Fascist ventennio from a discourse on national identity because Fascism was still an active threat in their perception, and one that had to be exorcised on screen, rather than a surpassed historical phenomenon that could have been analysed with the necessary detachment.
In addition to these overarching insightful assessments, the book also holds some more circumstantiated merits: such as the intuition with which the author synthetically identifies “the paradox of neorealism”, consisting of the fact that “when their films attacked an imperfect and hypocritical postwar settlement, De Sica, Visconti, De Santis and Rossellini saw and allowed others to see a significant degree of continuity between Fascist and post-Fascist Italy, yet when they tackled the memory of the war the need to celebrate the Resistance struggle led them to belie the fact that Italy had ever been Fascist” (61-62). Also, the reappraisal of the work of Luigi Zampa, to whom a chapter is dedicated, that disenfranchises his film production from the label of qualunquismo, which was actually an aspect of ‘Italianess’ that the director singled out as “the original sin of Italian society” (74). Also significant is the identification of a wave of comedies ‘Italian style’ made between 1959 and 1963 as a “deliberate throwback to neorealism” labelled as “neorealist revival” (89). Or the compelling analysis of Luciano Salce’s Il Federale (1961), finally debunked from the ideologically informed negative light that permeated Lino Micciché’s influential critical reception.
However, there are also points that can be made about what is missing in the book. Lichtner’s background as an historian tends to direct the analysis of films mostly towards the reading of cinema as a response to the geopolitical state of the country, when often a film can be shaped in response (a polemical or an appreciative response) to other inherently cinematic phenomena (other films or the responses other films have received in the public domain). Whereas Lichtner finds the redemptive narratives of the ‘neorealist revival’ comedies of the Economic Miracle hollow in light of the fact that the moral rebirth of 1945 was at this point historically removed, I would argue (and have done so in my own research) that the motivation for re-visiting the Resistance in a neorealist mould was not historical as much as it was an attempt on the part of filmmakers, who had been accused of betraying neorealism by critics for adopting some of its staples in a satirical context, to show that they worked in continuity with postwar neorealism and to show that, if the tone in their films set during the Economic Miracle had shifted to a cynical one, it was because the social setting they were representing had shifted in comparison to the one neorealist directors had depicted in the immediate postwar period; (6) I would argue that the exceptionality in the ‘neorealist revival’ Lichtner identifies in the analysis of Il Federale depends on the fact that this was Luciano Salce’s first Italian feature and that he was thus not operating in response to previous critical feedback.
Lichtner states that “the films of the neorealist revival stay away from commenting, at least explicitly, on the continuities between Fascist and post-Fascist Italy.” (92) This assessment depends on the fact that Lichtner circumstantiates his analysis to representations of Fascism as a political regime, thus omitting the numerous comedies “Italian style” in which we are presented with satirical depictions of characters nostalgic of Fascism during the Economic Miracle period (such as Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo, 1959 or Sergio Corbucci’s 1963 farce Gli Onorevoli, in which Peppino De Filippo played an M.S.I. candidate who is confronted for the atrocities committed by Fascists in Albania and then forcefully dressed up like a woman by a television make-up artist), the comedies in which nostalgics of Fascism are masqueraded as characters nostalgic of the monarchy, coincidentally while the M.S.I. is in the government coalition (as in 1960’s Il Vigile, notably directed by Luigi Zampa), as well as the comedies in which Fascists are shown to occupy positions of power in the industrial, rather than political, hegemony of the Economic Miracle (again, Il Vedovo and Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, 1962) and the ones in which Italian characters who have accepted the continuities between Fascist and post-Fascist Italy with qualunquismo are being morally judged in trials settings (Dino Risi’s In Nome del Popolo Italiano, 1971 and Ettore Scola’s La Più Bella Serata della Mia Vita, 1972).
It could be suggested that, since they do not deal primarily with the ventennio, these films fall outside of the scope of the study, however Lichtner discusses extensively Mario Monicelli’s La Grande Guerra (1959), a film set during World War I and therefore before the Fascists’ rise to power, because its protagonists “are paradigmatic of the anti-heroes that dominate this wave of films” (90). The problem lies in the fact that representations of the present and of the past complemented one another in the complex universe that was the comedy ‘Italian style’ genre as much as they did in “the paradox of neorealism”, as exemplified by two films in which past and present are bridged together such as Dino Risi’s Una Vita Difficile (1961) – in which an anti-Fascist eventually struggles to be employed during the Economic Miracle because he sticks to his political commitment – and Ettore Scola’s C’eravamo Tanto Amati (1974) – in which three anti-Fascist friends end up being separated into different social classes when one ‘sells out’. Finally, Lichtner insightfully identifies Benedetto Croce’s influence in the reading of Fascism as a ‘parenthesis’ in many postwar films (54-55), but this is not matched by a discussion of the Gramscian discourse on the relationship between ‘common sense’ and ‘hegemony’ that transpires in several scenes of La Grande Guerra and Risi’s La Marcia su Roma (1963).
Finally, the omission of Massimo Troisi’s Le Vie del Signore Sono Finite (1987) in a work that states that “the 1980s spelt the demise of Fascism as a popular cinematic theme” (171) and argues that Italian cinema has been traditionally reticent in showing us Fascist society of the ventennio in full swing, is a significant one, as Troisi’s film represents an exception in both these respects.
In conclusion, Fascism in Italian Cinema since 1945 is a compelling work of scholarship and one that is impeccable in the key arguments it puts forward. It represents a valuable resource for both the historian who is interested in the treatment of historical phenomena in popular culture and for the researcher of European cinema who seeks a further understanding of Italy’s contradictory 20th; however, as much as it recognizes the crucial role that comedic genres played in the representation of Fascism in Italian cinema, it does not offer a comprehensive assessment of all of the ramifications of Italian film comedy (nor should it aspire to do so).
Giacomo Lichtner, Fascism in Italian Cinema since 1945: The Politics and Aesthetics of Memory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
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- Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: from Neorealism to the Present, (New York: Continuum, 1997).
- Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema, (New York: Continuum, 2009).
- Marcus, Millicent Joy. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986).
- Landy, Marcia. ‘Diverting Clichés: Femininity, Masculinity, Melodrama and Neorealism in Open City.’ Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City. By Sidney Gottlieb, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).
- Lichtner, Giacomo. Film and the Shoah in France and Italy, (Portland, Oregon: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008).
- Boitani, Giacomo. ‘Revisiting the Past as a Means of Validation: Bridging the Myth of the Resistance and the Satire of the Economic Miracle in Two Comedies “Italian style”’ in Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media. Issue 2, Winter 2011.