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43 S 3 Mapping Empire Cinema, 1935–1939 “Roads and bridges, hospitals and pharmacies, electricity and­­cinema: all at once Fascism has given the subjugated populations all the bounties and conquests of progress and civilization,” exalted the young militant Giuseppe Lombrassa, writing from the newly conquered town of Adwa. Marveling at the presence of the “white screen and luminous camera in the Adwa piazza” as “the good subjugated Tigryna” watched their first Luce newsreel, he praised the “representational and persuasive powers of the ­ cinema . . . where the word is not enough, the­cinema moves in to hit the target.” Lombrassa’s comments sum up several of the major themes of this chapter: how films were envisioned as “machines of war” and aids to governance, how ­cinema’s particular expressive language could be exploited in imperial propaganda, and ­cinema’s importance in raising the profile of Italian modernity at home, abroad, and in the colonies. An air of optimism pervaded the industry in the wake of the Ethiopian invasion. The Axis alliance increased commercial and production opportunities, and most expatriate film professionals had returned home. Even if the retrospective claim of the screenwriter and director Mario Soldati that “after the [Ethiopian] victory, almost everyone became a Fascist” may be exaggerated, Fascism’s empire inspired amateurs and film professionals. Scripts and story ideas for films on military and colonial themes “flooded in and are still flooding in now, from every part of Italy and even from abroad,” wrote Freddi in June 1936.1 This chapter maps the sites within Fascist film culture that shaped empire ­cinema, in- 44 Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema fluencing its aesthetics, production practices, marketing, and reception. I examine the spaces of opportunity and control created by the increasing militarization of Italian society, the need for more image management and coordination, and a changing international situation. Nonfiction film took on new prominence as an interpreter of a new imperial history in the making, and I examine the closer relationship between documentary and feature film in these years. The spectator of empire film is present through­out this chapter, sometimes as a phantom fig­ ure influencing Fascist film discourse and policy, sometimes as an explicit reference. The declaration of empire not only brought forth debates over the social function of film, but also inaugurated a lively debate about the formation of a national-­ imperial audience that influenced how empire-­themed films were conceived and received. I pay particular attention to the role of film sound in soliciting spectatorial interpretation and affect. The body-­voice connection of cine­matic characters is central to sound’s anchoring function for the viewer, but voices also “inhabit an intersubjective acoustic space” that make the listening context equally important to the process of making meaning from films.2 That context grew more problematic when officials and critics contemplated how to best reach the heterogeneous audiences of the colonies, composed of individuals of very different linguistic abilities and cultural understandings than viewers in the metropole. The Italians did not subtitle the films they showed in the colonies, and the uncomprehending native spectator raised the specter of larger misunderstandings, mockeries, and refusals of Fascist rule. FILM POLICIES AND CULTURES, 1935–1939 The invasion of Ethiopia began a new era of cultural policy making that placed new po­ liti­ cal demands and constraints on the Italian film industry, as well as creating new funding and artistic possibilities. In 1937 the Istituto Luce, together with the General Directorate for Cinema, came under the control of a new Ministry of Popu­lar Culture (MCP), headed by Dino Alfieri, a former journalist and squadrist and an admirer of Goebbels .3 The MCP intervened in every stage of the filmmaking process. It 45 Mapping Empire Cinema, 1935–1939 vetted ideas; offered financial advances; applied preventive censorship that included checking the po­ liti­ cal, national, and racial credentials of cast and crew; and recommended attention to (or neglect of) films in ways that heavily influenced publicity during production and reception upon release. Such state intervention combined with a commercial mandate meant to challenge the hegemony of Ameri­ can films at home and abroad. Freddi, who had remained in charge of the General Directorate of Cinema, discouraged openly propagandistic films as well as openly avant-­ garde or “high art” ones. His openness to Italian adaptations of the Ameri­ can studio model also reflected his desire to steer Italian film culture away from the path of modernist experimentalism to a consistent qualitative and quantitative norm...


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