In “The March on Rome,” which world premieres in the Venice Days sidebar of Venice Film Festival Wednesday, Northern Irish-Scottish filmmaker Mark Cousins tracks the ascent of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, and its fall-out across 1930s Europe. He also draws a dotted line from those events to the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in January 2021.
The documentary, illustrated with archive footage and Cousins’ characteristic cinematic analysis, starts with Donald Trump defending his decision to retweet a quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Later in the film, Cousins inserts footage of Trump supporters attacking the Capitol, hoping to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
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The issue of the Mussolini quote made a strong impression on Cousins at the time. “I remember seeing that thing on TV and thinking, ‘Wow, he’s actually not denouncing Mussolini,’” he says. Cousins was also shocked by a line in Trump’s inauguration speech: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Cousins says: “I thought, wow, ‘carnage.’ The Obama era was lots of things, but it wasn’t carnage.”
He adds: “The thing about fascism is its direction of travel. It goes further and further, unless it’s stopped, and to use that word ‘carnage’ was a big leap to the right, so I think that was an important moment.”
In the 90s, Cousins had made a film, “Another Journey by Train” for Channel 4, about Neo Nazis and Holocaust Deniers, and he’d gone underground to research it. “I was not unfamiliar with this territory, and when I was approached by the producer Andrea Romeo [to make this film], I jumped at the chance.”
The project had been brought to Romeo by researcher Tony Saccucci, whose work then formed the basis for Cousins’ screenplay. Romeo is credited as a co-producer on the film, which is produced by Carlo Degli Esposti and Nicola Serra for Palomar. The Match Factory is handling world sales.
At the axis of “The March on Rome” is Umberto Paradisi’s film “A Noi!,” which purports to show how a march by fascists on the Italian capital in 1922 was a precursor to Mussolini’s ascent to power. However, Cousins demonstrates how the film delivers a distorted version of events.
But he starts with another film, Elvira Notari’s “E Piccerella,” which shows real-life street scenes in Naples in the 1920s. “I thought: ‘This is going to be a film about how movies can lie, so start with a movie that doesn’t lie,’” he says. “I wanted to show that brilliant, imaginative humane work was being made in 1922, as well as very reductionist material like ‘A Noi!’”
Other films used by Cousins to support his thesis on how cinema can either convey the truth or tells lies include Augusto Tretti’s satire “Il potere,” and Ettore Scola’s drama “A Special Day,” starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
To a certain extent, cinema itself is on trial in “The March on Rome.” “Those of us who love cinema, like you and me, we’d love to think that movies are a force for good in the world. But if you’re really honest, and look at the evidence, you can’t really say in the last 120 years that cinema has been necessarily a force for good,” Cousins says. “Cinema has been great at certain things around desire, pleasure and escape, but it’s also been a regressive force in many ways. It’s been used for propaganda, and for murderous intent, I would say. So ‘A Noi!’ is an example of that.”
He makes other criticisms of films, referring to his series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” in which he argues that “Hollywood was like a test tube, which celebrated youth and beauty, and that’s all.” He adds: “I want to celebrate cinema, but we have to be honest, it’s done terrible things, it has committed crimes.”
He has no issue with cinema tackling political subjects, although he does have a problem when “cinema is under imagined; when it’s just sort of a bit conventional and boring.” He adds: “Even if you look at the role that cinema has played in fascism, for every bad film, there’s an ‘Il Conformista’ of Bertolucci, you know, or an ‘1900.’ Cinema is just part of the way of dramatizing our lives and trying to say to us: Look at what we’ve just lived through or what we’re going to live through, and all of that is great and without it we would be bereft, even though there are shit films, and there are very right-wing films, I’d rather have those than none.”
A major part of the film looks at the backstory of Mussolini’s ascent to power, which includes the part played by the Masons in his elevation. He also looks at the intellectuals whose ideas Il Duce drew on, from Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Futurists, to Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon, in particular his book “Psychology of Crowds.” Mussolini saw himself as an artist working the crowd, and, in common with some other artists, thought of himself as superior to the common man. Fascism’s simplistic view of the world is “like a horror movie,” Cousins says. “It knows what scares you.”
The film also contains sequences in which actor Alba Rohrwacher plays a character called Anna. “I knew I needed to have some foreground. It’s like if you’re doing a painting: sometimes you need a foreground to be aware of the background,” he says.
Cousins’ next feature documentary, “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things,” will focus on Scottish painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. It is produced by Adam Dawtrey and Mary Bell.
Barns-Graham was a leading member of the St. Ives School of artists, and contributed to the development of British abstract art in the 20th century.
Cousins says: “After making a film about fascism and destruction, and the poverty of the imagination, the new film is about a great painter called Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who was neurodiverse. One day in 1949, she climbed a glacier in Switzerland, and it changed her life, and she painted it for 50 years.”
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