The war of words (and hacking!) between the Unites States and North Korea sparked by the 2014 film The Interview—itself a kind of update of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 spoof of Adolf Hitler in The Dictator—was only one recent reminder that film can be a powerful political tool. Almost as long as people have been going to the movies, government leaders—and their critics—have turned to the cinema to shape the story a nation tells about itself.

With titles like The Eternal Jew and Triumph of the Will, the Third Reich, of course, became infamous the world over for its chilling use of propaganda films in the years before and during World War II. But less well known are the parallel efforts at that time of its Axis ally Italy.

That’s where NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat comes in. Her new book, Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, examines nine films made about Italy’s African and Balkan occupations during Mussolini’s dictatorship. Influenced by French and British colonial films of the time (as well as Hollywood Westerns!), the propaganda films, made between 1936 and 1943, celebrated the growth of Italy’s burgeoning colonial presence in exotic lands and advertised its modern military might to the world.

The films featured the nation’s biggest stars alongside actual soldiers, who served as extras, and gave many who’d become leading lights of postwar Italian cinema—like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni—their start. But the works became obsolete after Italy lost its colonies, and because of their fascist roots they remain relatively unknown today, “a skeleton in the closet,” as one critic put it, of the Italian film industry.

This Oscar-season, NYU Stories checked in with Ben-Ghiat to shed some light on this forgotten—and unsettling—chapter of film history. 

photo: headshot of professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat

What kind of perception issues did these films attempt to solve for Italy?
By the mid-1930s, Italy had been in Africa for decades, with a presence in Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and the Mediterranean outpost of the Dodecanese Islands. Still, the occupation of Ethiopia in October 1935 was a watershed moment. There was a sense of revenge—Ethiopia had defeated Italy at Adwa in 1896—and also the idea that the country would finally emerge to Great Power status. In practice, though, waging war on a League of Nations member occasioned a global public outcry, Red Cross investigations, and sanctions on Italy. It created image-management problems of a scale the regime had never faced before.

So the goal was to put Italy in a more benevolent light?
Well, partially—the films were designed to placate the international community by highlighting the humanitarian aspects of Italy’s colonization. But they also asserted Italian military strength. They aspired to compete with Hollywood and other foreign productions for the attentions of audiences abroad as part of a strategy to spread Fascist influence. By demonstrating the benevolence and the authority of Italian rule, they aimed to convince inhabitants of occupied territories to collaborate with the regime. And they were to mobilize Italians at home and in Italian communities abroad for combat and settlement in the colonies. 

book cover: "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." Cover features film stills from One is the book's cover, with images from "The White Squadron" (1936)

Are there story themes common to most of these films?
All empire films act as stages for demonstration of Italian modernity to the world. Most give starring roles to Italian technologies—communication, military, agricultural, and medical.

What about their style?
The films I discuss draw on the American Western, French colonial cinema, international Orientalist and desert warfare films, Nazi German war documentaries, and Allied World War II combat movies. They blend melodrama and realism, theatricality and documentary. The Western is particularly influential, influencing plot lines, cinematography, and the treatment of landscape. The American dubbers of The Bronze Sentinels (1937), which was shot in Somalia, unsurprisingly made the Fascist officials into Western sheriffs, speaking about critters and varmint!

If the Fascist officials were like Western sheriffs, in the American imagination, then who in the Italian films was analogous to the sympathetic cowboy hero?
If sheriffs were Fascist officials, then I’d say the cowboys would have been the Somali colonial soldiers working for the Italians—like the Somali protagonist of The Bronze Sentinels. And in this film and others the “evil Indians” were the Ethiopians.  

film still from "The Bronze Sentinels" (1937): a young Somali girl (forced to perform)

And some of these mixed documentary footage with fiction?
Oh yes—African music, untranslated speech, and displays of rituals are part of the genre. Italian Fascist empire films also have this ethnographic use of documentary, as well as focusing on the military—real Italian and colonial soldiers doing their jobs were a feature of these films. I argue in the book that empire films become a site of experimentation with the blending of feature and documentary forms and by the early 1940s, the close relationship between feature and documentary film had become a hallmark of Italian empire cinema culture. In this sense these films influenced the development of Neorealism, which started just after the fall of the regime.

What message did the footage of “exotic” African rituals send to viewers back in Italy?
For all European imperial powers, film was a key means of allowing citizens at home to feel connected to the empire. Showing exotic customs and peoples and landscapes was a kind of virtual travel, but it also made those lands, claimed by their government, more familiar. The inclusion of documentary footage (and re-enactments of rituals made with native inhabitants) played on a tension between the familiar and the strange, which titillated viewers. In Italy, where the settler population in North and East Africa was much smaller than in the British or French empires, film was even more important to make the colonies known. Until the late 1930s, more Italians lived in French colonies than Italian ones (a result of mass emigration at the turn of the century—Italians went not only to North and South America but to the French colonies). So those scenes are there for their value as spectacle but also in accordance with propaganda about how the Italians had been able to conquer and domesticate those peoples.

How was the Italian military involved?
The films were shot in Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, sometimes with thousands of African extras,  many of whom were colonial soldiers serving in the army. Hundreds of Italian military men were involved as well. Often they used military consultants and guides on set, and their productions reinforced Fascist imperial racial and labor policies. But their sets were also sites of violence and resistance to colonial rule—colonial soldiers who refused to act the part of victims, for example.

How did notions of film “stardom” connect to Mussolini's cult of personality?
Male stardom is interesting to study during Fascism because the cult of Mussolini conditioned everything and all male leads were subordinate to it. The Duce— his stage name— was the undisputed divo of the Fascist era. I think that female stars had an easier time.

What should Fellini fans make of his early experiences working on these films?
Well, he was very young and this was one among several projects he was involved with at the start of his career. I imagine it was a big adventure to be going to Africa, and making a film sponsored by Mussolini’s son. It is hard to say if this means he was pro-Fascist, or just wanting to have this experience with a large-budget movie. What is important is that empire films were an important part of the Fascist-era film industry and they have been neglected by film scholars in Italy and abroad since the end of World War Two. My book restores them to their place within the film and political cultures of that time.