- Recasting the Liberal-Democratic Male Subject in Mario Monicelli’s La grande guerra
In this essay, I will discuss the complex relationship between historical memory, cinema and masculinity in Mario Monicelli’s classic film La grande guerra (1959), starring Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman. I argue that the film uses the Austrian front of WWI to posit a mode of post-fascist, liberaldemocratic, male subjectivity rooted in the values of rational self-interest, the denigration of institutional authority, and camaraderie. These qualities will become common facets of the male subject during the high period of the commedia all’italiana, which Monicelli’s film immediately precedes. Furthermore, I claim that the film’s effectiveness as a vehicle for the transmission of a post-fascist model of male subjectivity is largely the result of its relationship to a notion of historicity that is central to the narrative. Going back to an historical moment that immediately precedes the fascist symbiosis of masculinity, patriotism, and subjection to the state, Monicelli’s film attempts to both historicize and nationalize values of self-interest, individuality and anti-authoritarian sociality as it produces a model of the post-war, democratic Italian male.
At the outset, it is important to differentiate between the male subject and the masculine subject. The two are almost inextricably bound up together, most notably in terms of sexual identity and the performative functions of the gendered self (Günsberg). The construction of the male subject in cinema as in literature vis-à-vis his social relations with other men and his sexual relations (or lack thereof) with women is predicated upon a set of discursive associations that simultaneously mask and reinforce the structures of domination, production, and exchange underwriting the liberal-democratic social order, in only more oblique ways than they do under fascism. As numerous scholars have already demonstrated, an understanding of the sexual and gender politics of the commedia all’italiana is crucial to an understanding of the relationship [End Page 385] between cinema and society in modern Italian culture (Fullwood; Brizio-Skov; Günsberg; Gundle). Certainly in La grande guerra, the connection between sexual prowess and masculine identity is made, although in such a way as to satirize the foundation of sexual identity upon anything that approaches the notion of virility. Instead, we are left with soldiers who pine over images of women in magazines and who are turned away forcefully by the one prostitute played in a miniscule, but memorable role by Silvana Mangano.
Set on the Austrian front, the film focuses on the misadventures of two soldiers in the Italian Campaign of the First World War. Busacca (Gassman), a Milanese ex-con, and Jacovacci (Sordi), a Roman barber’s assistant, find themselves and their compatriots trapped between the impending doom of the trenches and the total ineptitude of their commanding officers. The actors’ interpretations of the hesitant and bungling duo offer many comedic turns that, as Peter Bondanella points out, evoke the incompetent antiheros of Monicelli’s prior and future films (182–88). Shot on location, and sparing little expense in recreating the effects of trench warfare on the territory, Monicelli realizes a true-to-form blending of the lighthearted and the tragic within the context of a landscape completely disfigured by the war.1
Structurally the film is divided into seven chapters, each beginning with a title screen consisting of a line taken from war songs of the era with the music laid over. The first chapter entitled “Ho lasciato la mamma mia / per venire a fare soldà,” introduces us to the protagonists by way of their inability to escape their roles as soldiers. The final chapter “Di quà, di là dal Piave / ci stava un’osteria” closes the film with the executions of the captured protagonists at the hands of the Austrians. The episodic nature of each chapter is rendered more complex by the subplots of the minor characters, showing the viewer a cross-section of pre-fascist, liberal Italian society that, although requiring a measure of uniformity in the context of the army, was made up of qualitatively different experiences and points of view. Monicelli himself remarked that one of the primary objectives...