Propaganda Cinema: 1947-1962. Christian Democrat Party – Italian Communist Party


On the 28 June 1948, seventy days after the 18 April, in Reggio Emilia, Mario Chiodoni, a cinema projectionist, was “assaulted by left wing individuals and robbed of the film Noi vivi with Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi. The film was subsequently burned”. Considering the fact that non-inflammable film was a few years in coming, Chiodoni’s aggressors probably ended up getting quite a fright, if not even a few burns, as the nitrate flame is sudden and devastating. It is also probable that the Reggio Emilia cinema manager who screened Noi vivi, did not screen Addio Kyra, the sequel of the anti-Bolshevik colossal produced by Scalera during the second year of the war.

Film burns.
The police headquarters’ reports of those years are filled with brawls caused by screening propaganda films. This contributed to legitimise the restrictions and vetoes against the importation of Soviet films imposed by the under-secretary for show business to the Italian Communist Party Libertas Film company, with the accusation of threat of public nuisance and incitement to class hatred. Rome’s Libertas Film, via G. Alberoni, 7, with a list of around ten Soviet films per season would have liked to limit and beat back the opiate effects of the four hundred Yankee films (97% and more of the total American film production) that each year flooded our country.
That very young under-secretary was Giulio Andreotti. But there are many more interventions such as these bans if, 57 years on, one still remembers the “powerful intelligent light of the censorship techniques by him invented” (Gian Piero Brunetta), whilst on the other hand there is no trace of the others that followed him: Bubbio, Ermini, Ponti, Magrì, Tupini, Ariosto and Brusasca. In truth there was also Scalfaro, but a biased and hostile historiography remembers him almost exclusively for the fig leaves and the ladies with sundresses. I am sure that we will carry on discussing the role played by that under-secretary for years. What is certain is that he served the government, not the party, and he served it six times, from Alcide De Gasperi’s third to eight government.
The Marxist camp occupied itself more about films, aesthetics and ideology leaving the cinema, industry and apparatus to the Catholics. But the catholic camp was never coherent and unambiguous as the Communist propaganda believed or wanted to make believe. In truth it was only united in the propaganda effort at the height of the dispute, in the spring of 1948, when “everybody’s life and death were on the line”.
Once that crucial moment was passed the divisions prevailed once again and not only in the management and in the intersection of the apparatus of the professional categories but also about the partisan or faction interests. The disagreements over the basic questions and on the “philosophy” of the relationship between State and Cinema returned amongst Catholics: a relationship of attraction and repulsion in which the repulsion tended to prevail amongst all the great Christian Democrat leaders from De Gasperi and Fanfani. The hyper-pragmatic Andreotti no: he loved Marika Rökk, the film about Doctor Jekyll with Fredric March and Duel in the Sun. Fanfani built the houses and Andreotti collaborated discreetly with Ponti to produce Totò cerca casa. This is why Fanfani would have liked to put cinema under the aegis of the Ministry of Industry or even Agriculture. He would have preferred “Less films and more houses”, as the streets chanted. Slogans to which the under- secretary replied: “Whoever still sheds tears over the state allocations for the cinema industry could also achieve oratory success by saying that, rather than giving a few millions to the producers of Totò cerca casa, it would have been better to employ the money for constructing housing for the homeless and the expansion of the sewers, so little developed in many areas of central and southern Italy. If we didn’t have an Italian production we would have to rely on foreign production and this would burden the debt of the Italian commercial balance of a considerable load in favour of the dollar. Not much help for council houses and sewers!”

For the first time the audiovisual archives of the Christian Democrat Party and the Italian Communist Party, with the collaboration of the Italia Taglia project, are jointly opened and a selection of their propaganda films, of the cold war period, are being compared. The majority of these films have not been screened to the public since they were made.

Because no other audiovisual product is more perishable, shortlived and immediate than propaganda films. It can suddenly chemically plummet, acquire the opposite meaning, achieve the opposite effect, become unpresentable and score an own goal. In this first public outing for our project we have selected the films being screened on the basis of four criteria. 1o) An archival/logistical criteria: films that have undergone a first brief identification. Many films, especially in the catholic field, have not completed identification and/or existing copies have to be re- covered and the credits checked. 2o) The variety of the offer and the sources. Depending on the program of an extremely crowded event, a veritable catwalk of international archives, to show a rather rich core sample. 35 films of which only 4 or 5 in a short version, to immediately highlight the vastness of the territory that has to be explored. 3o) Always for program reasons, we have given precedence to the shorter works, sacrificing at this stage longer films.
4o) To numerically favour, in this double comparative selection, the catholic films as they are the least known, scattered, anonymous and indecipherable. A choice that reflects amongst other things the original disparity of forces.

The catholic/government front was very varied. The films of the Istituto Luce, the documents of the Documento Film, the special episodes of the Incom on the occasion of conferences or exceptional news events such as the Polesine, the hard and head-on pamphlets of the Comitati Civici; the films of the Marshall plan (some of American production and distributed by Usis, others by an Anglo-Italian company, Phoenix Film); and then the films by Spes (what is the relationship with Catalucci’s company by the same name?) or the DC Ufficio Stampa e Propaganda (Christian Democrat Press and Propaganda Office)…
…and then the Radiotelevisione Italiana, backed in its second year of transmission, 1955, by a series of Spes newsreels that are fairly curious in their rudimentary nature and progression. In the first of them only Fanfani appears, who in the second is “covered” by repertory wallpaper; only to be joined in the third by Mariano Rumor and someone else of his contingent and to end up, in the following ones, with a small participation, of naturally Tuscan, provincial delegates. Veritable technical trials of government broadcasting and party political broadcast. Technical trials that culminate in a juicy and prophetic documentary: a special episode of the Settimana Incom (of which in actual fact there is a shorter version in the Rizzoli’s Ciak newsreel) directed by the Blasetti sympathiser, Ubaldo Managhi, on the liturgical May first celebrations of the Italian Workers Christian Associations of 1956. It included processions, sermons and a landing of a bronze Christ transported by helicopter live on television between Rome and Milan. For the utter joy of Federico Fellini who three years later, in the opening sequence of La dolce vita, embarked Marcello and Paparazzo on the same helicopter that transports the Christ. Selecting the documents, also due to the vastness of the sources that go beyond the collections preserved by the Istituto Sturzo, means venturing in the terrain of critical taste and variety of opinions. The documentary, in the years of our research, functioned not only as an experimental training ground but also as the government’s carrot and stick for the men of industry. With a policy such as the one of the combination and the refund that allowed – it has been written – documentaries such as Il lago della sete or Terrecotte to collect sums from the state that exceeded those achieved by difficult films such as La terra trema or Umberto D. or La macchina ammazzacattivi. There is no doubt that the substantial documentary production of Luce or of Gianni Hecht Lucari’s Documento Film functioned as megaphones of the Ricostruzione. The main ideological objective of this camouflaged propaganda cinema was to contrast and disassemble the false truths, the so called “national self-denigration” of Neorealist or committed denunciation cinema: south, suburbs, borgate, irrigation, land reclamation, the resumption of public works, the return to work in the fields, the resumption of production in the factories and in the naval yards, the indisputable overall improvement of the living conditions of Italians.

We have said that the strictly catholic propaganda cinema is largely anonymous: who is the director (and here is the first question for the extremely experienced audience of the Cinema Ritrovato) of an unsigned work, with such solid formal values, such as La verità della scomunica?

The historian Gian Piero Brunetta in wanting to quantify, for fun and perhaps not only for fun, the presence of catholic executives in the ranks of the cinema industry, has advanced an estimate of 7%. But perhaps it is only a homage to Billy Wilder’s film about Sherlock Holmes.

We have also imagined that from this sift through “signed” works someone would ask us to make some “discoveries” and to mention some names to be exhibited as jewels.
So if we really have to, also in this circumstance, we propose one: Giorgio Ferroni, whose Luce documentary La scuola dei grandi about the calamity of analphabetic adults will be screened. Ferroni was a documentarist in Spain for Asse (Los novios de la muerte), a filmmaker in the Greek campaign, wounded in the war and crippled, a supporter of the RSI for the cinema and propaganda of the Malasomma minister, purged for six months and then pardoned. Pardoned in the Italian style, that is in record time, as he was already by 1947 directing for the Veneto ANPI a feature about the partisans, Pian delle stelle, written by Indro Montanelli. A Luce documentarist in the first half of the fifties and then a very snubbed director of genre and B movies for the whole decade, until the extremely biased “rediscovery” of cult works such as II mulino delle donne di pietra or of a mini-colossal with Steve Reeves, La guerra di Troia.

A good example of an Italian filmmaker’s long life…
Of the Marshall Plan films, whilst we wait to see the “classics” with American titles betrayed by the filmographies (The Appian Way, Land Redeemed, The Miracle of Cassino, Village without Water, Adventure in Sardinia) only to discover that the only American thing is the title, we are screening a fiction film, Dobbiamo vivere ancora di Vittorio Gallo (1949). In this work of considerable ambition and emotional investment, the grain and coal aid of the Marshall Plan are superimposed and compared (by a sudden voice over) to the plasma of a transfusion that will save the life of a worker, almost certainly communist, of the Piombino steelworks, who has had an accident (but not on the job) coming out of the factory after buying, with the little money he had in his pockets, a simple toy for his child.
But let’s set aside our small perversions of “politiques des auteurs, des petits auteurs”. What counted in these anticommunist pro-government institutional documentaries was the professional quality of the technical contributions that are on the whole anonymous and quickly made (like Marino Girolami, to be clear, and to mention someone that in those years had something to do with this cinema). In the hope of perhaps more important opportunities or of longer and better paid films. Certain stories set in typical summits like a village called Sopradisotto, where just as they are about to go and vote a poor wretch returns from the Russian campaign to tell it like it really is down there (È tornato mio fratello, by anonymous).
Or the contribution of the actors: the voices of Riccardo Billi, Corrado Mantoni, Lauro Gazzolo; the participation of Silvio Bagolini or of Giacomo Furia (in the guise of the gullible comrade Gnocco Allocco who writes on walls slogans exalting pasta with sauce); or a song by Modugno at Cinecittà’s Teatro 5 (Libero, preceded by a joke about Krusciov). Or two jokes by Franchi and Ingrassia in white and with the shield with a cross or a sketch by Aldo Fabrizi that for an election at the Rome council brings out the final wheelchair.
If the majority of Christian Democrat films are biased, supportive and backing all the communist films are rigorously about the party. The Party is the protagonist of all the Italian Communist Party (PCI) propaganda films. The typical communist genres were: funerals, strikes, commemorations, parties and festivals, red aid, anti-government satire…

The most dramatic funeral was naturally the Modena funeral of 1950, filmed by Lizzani in the presence of the workers’ leaders Togliatti and Di Vittorio. Filming of these funerals could not, of course, be banned. But the mechanical reconstruction of the massacre that tended to clarify the police’s responsibility was heavily censored. The parallel inquiry was not authorised and not even a minute survived: breach of the peace and incitement of class hatred. 1956 released the Party men from the oath (which naturally was the title of one of those Russian films that had to be approved), released them from the duty of being Stalinists, from the duty of frequenting the Karlovy Vary festival, from the duty to these pompous, choreographed and funereal propaganda films. Italian style social realists. The most solemn, majestic, successful and unrepeatable example of this cinema was Lizzani’s film about Palmiro Togliatti’s return to public life, in September 1948, two months after the assassination attempt. We can make a rough count; there is no need for detailed figures. It is very probable that this rally filmed by Lizzani (with many cameras, all the cameras that were available) was the largest of its kind in the history of the Italian Republic and the largest parade of a western communist party. A veritable count and recount of votes, with clenched fist, 5 months after the defeat.

Lizzani who at the time of this film had yet to make a feature had already done everything in cinema (critic, organiser, actor, scriptwriter, assistant). These propaganda films confirmed him as an utterly eclectic author: in the best sense of the term. An eclecticism that he confirmed during his long and honoured cinema career (producing films with the cooperatives, like Dino De Laurentiis) and during the course of his life in which he wrote an history of Italian cinema and directed the Venice film festival for four years. Peppe De Santis also appears unequivocally in these pieces for the Party. In the film dedicated to the VIIo PCI congress held in Rome’s Adriano in 1951, De Santis allows Togliatti to pronounce just fifteen seconds of speech and then against all cinema grammar and narrative equilibrium, has him applauded for three minutes straight, in an unrelenting jubilation of ovations, clapping, garlands, flags, rice weeders and delegates. His traits, the fiery and vigorous inspiration, the georgic collectivism of grandiose endings with choreographed proletariat are immediately evident even if his trademark is missing: the dolly that embedded his heroes to the ground and turned them to granite.

Sciopero a rovescia is a rough piece of a few minutes shot in 1951 in the Frusinate, close to De Santis (and Andreotti). A community of villagers during the holidays build themselves with pickaxes and shovels the road that they desperately need and that the government or local authority refuses them. Even if he did not actually shoot it (we don’t know) De Santis acquired these few metres of 16 mm black and white silent film and turned them into the dress rehearsal, the registered screenplay of a film he was to shoot, the story of a “reversed strike”. A film that De Santis insisted on doing and that nobody in Italy would ever let him do and that he, 5 years later, would shoot in a comrade country like Yugoslavia: La strada lunga un anno. A road that doesn’t lead to Rome and that will almost definitively distance him from Italian cinema.

In some of these PCI films we can glimpse an author at work that, whilst he awaits the realisation of socialism, is first of all an Author and thinks like all Authors about his most important film, the Film he has yet to make. Therefore some of these propaganda works became something else against the light: the starting point and the creative anteroom of a film-film. And those three farmers from a southern village that arrive in Rome by train at dawn – oddly enough, the dawn of 14 July 1948 – and go to the Botteghe Oscure to meet comrade Togliatti who has not arrived at the office yet and to whom they have to tell (to him and only him) that down there in the village nothing is going right and are hijacked to the “Unità” editorial offices. But even there nobody has arrived yet as the comrade journalists, unlike the comrade farmers, work until late at night. So the three of them start looking through the bound collections of Gramsci’s paper, whose pages come to life in a brief filmed history of the Party. Until they are reached by the terrible news of the criminal attempt at Togliatti’s life… In the roman adventures of the three farmers of the fairly rough and incomplete Bologna film 14 luglio, by Felice Chilanti, Mario Socrate and Tonino Meluschi we can clearly see the talented hand of Rodolfo Sonego, Alberto Sordi’s alter ego, the “meanest” and most cunning screenwriter of post-war Italian cinema. Coming from Zavattini’s country school (which believed that nothing must be thrown away) he reworked the idea of this film into the script of Una vita difficile.

Not to mention the Taviani brothers who, both in their film on San Miniato (lost, but you never know…), and in the scouting of the native village of the martyred trade uninionist Salvatore Carnevale, prepared La notte di San Lorenzo and Un uomo da bruciare. The Tavianis, organic intellectuals, but irregular and flexible between service training and survival were amongst the first PCI men to understand that the television that occasionally provided them with something to eat, would have irreparably changed and cannibalised everything and everybody and probably there would never be an overtaking. At any rate for the people to listen to them it would not have been enough to print a larger number of copies of old propaganda documentaries that Ingrao continued to produce and that they continued to shoot; some, like Sicilia all’addritta (1958) even in pure Sicilian dialect.

In one of their films in four episodes, Carosello elettorale (1962), a fantasy of parodies of real Rai carousels, the Tavianis even made fun of the famous inspector Rock of the Linetti brilliantine who takes off his hat bowing to the audience and whilst he says “I too committed a mistake”, he reveals a bald and shiny head on which a black marker has written “I voted DC” (I voted Christian Democrat).

And also this short electoral film that made someone wonder if you can work in advertising while carrying a Communist party in your pocket, unavoidably leads us back to Sovversivi. Every little helps and everything can be used for propaganda.
Perhaps we have exaggerated with our wonderings, excuse us. But we are convinced that men of historiography, politics and cinema archives will have much to discover in this newly began research.