restricted access 6. Imperial Bodies, Part II: Slaves of Love, Slaves of Labor
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167 S 6 Imperial Bodies, Part II Slaves of Love, Slaves of Labor Chapter 6 moves from films of military conquest to films of colonization and from bodies bound by martial duty to corporeal encounters occasioned by everyday life on Italian agricultural settlements . Both L’Esclave blanc and Sotto la Croce del Sud make spectacle of the dangerous passions sparked in white Italian men by the proximity to non-­ white women in Somalia and Ethiopia, respectively. Strong father fig­ures in both films anchor the masculine trials and travails of the young male protagonists, which, in Sotto la Croce del Sud, shade into melodrama. Yet the real internal work on these plantation-­ style settings goes beyond resistance to sexual temptation: at stake here is the integrity of “a series of behaviors, practices, and attitudes” designed to reinforce the superi­ ority of white and Italian Fascist civilization. Distance, bolstered by the cultivation of a “colonial disgust” that reacts to the indigenous as dirty and primitive, grounds this imperial culture, yet proves difficult to enforce . The labor needs of colonial capitalism, the interracial intimacies of colonial domestic life, and the inherent cosmopolitanism and mobility of imperial formations all conspire to foster a “carnal knowledge” born of close observation and, of­ten, physical contact, whether of the whip or the fingers.1 Filmed partly on location in Somalia and Ethiopia, the movies examined here build on the image of Africa as sensory paradise. Brignone had a long history of engagement with cine­ matic theatricality, and both he and Paulin play with conflations of Af­ri­can landscapes and bodies, calling 168 Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema attention to the politics and erotics of the gaze. True to the empire film lineage , these works assert a his­tori­cal specificity through realism, as manifested in the prominence of indigenous actors, untranslated language, and exterior scenes. Yet drama prevails over the documentary in these moral parables of the damages wrought by miscegenation to white and indigenous cultures and to the stability of the imperial order. In many empire films, Lo squadrone bianco among them, the Af­ri­can sojourn brought “the experience of new emotions and seductions and perhaps the discovery of oneself.” In these movies, however, the new emotions and seductions lead to a loss of (white) self. In Paulin’s film, Georges becomes not merely the “white slave” of the title, but a décivilisé, cohabitating with the Somali beauty Faye in the bush, while Paolo in Sotto la Croce del Sud becomes obsessed with the exotic Mailù. Both men are temporarily lost for the labors of Italian colonization, until other whites intervene to reclaim them. Such transgressions lay at the core of a colonial nostalgia, of­ten known as mal d’Africa, which was active long before the loss of the colonies. The “colonial situation” also occasioned other kinds of encounters that inflamed the senses. Chapters 4 and 5 raised the issue of the intense male relationships that accompanied military service in Africa, but cohabitations on plantation settings also permitted non-­ heterosexual intimacies of varying duration and degrees of consensuality. I am thinking here of the white master of the house and his diavoletto, or boy, and of the white foreman and the black worker, the latter kind of encounter barely traceable even in private notations but glossed, through the gaze, in Sotto la Croce del Sud. But it was the white man/non-­ white woman model of embodied encounters that colonized the national imagination, starting with its enshrinement in “Faccetta nera.” That song remained an emblem of the Ethiopian war’s conquest fantasies, with its fantasy of an Italian “slavery of love” that would replace Ethiopia’s sys­ tem of indentured service. The reference to labor as well as sexual bondage is telling. The Fascist claim to have abolished slavery in East Africa, announced at the start of the Ethiopian War, hid a history of measures by Ethiopian emperors through Haile Selassie to phase out this ancient institution. In Somalia, where slaves constituted one-­third of Mogadishu’s population in the early 1900s (even nomadic tribes owned them), the liberal government had already banned slaving and had negotiated the free­ dom of thousands of slaves 169 Imperial Bodies, Part II between 1900 and 1914. The persistence of slavery allowed the regime to advance abolitionism as a moral justification for invading Ethiopia, even though propaganda and labor needs rather than any humanitarian values lay behind this stance. Freed slaves served as a...