S Y N O P S I S
Through little-seen archive and his characteristically cinematic analysis, Mark Cousins narrates the ascent of fascism in Italy and its fall-out across 1930s Europe. Both essay film and historical document, Cousins contextualises history through the now, holding a mirror to a political landscape of a creeping far right and manipulated media.
D I R E C T O R ’ S B I O G R A P H Y
MARK COUSINS is an Irish-Scottish director and writer. His films – including The Story of Film: An Odyssey, What is This Film Called Love?, Life May Be, A Story of Children and Film, Atomic, Stockholm My Love, I am Belfast and The Eyes of Orson Welles – have premiered in Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Venice film festivals and have won the Prix Italia, a Peabody, the Stanley Kubrick Award and the European Film Award for Innovative Storytelling. He has filmed in Iraq, Sarajevo during the siege, Iran, Mexico, across Asia and in America in Europe.
Mark’s books include Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary and The Story of Looking. He has collaborated with Tilda Swinton on innovative film events, and tries to find new, filmic ways to explore his themes: looking, cities, cinema, childhood, and recovery.
His 14 hour documentary Women Make Film tries to rethink cinema. His newest films are The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, The Story of Looking and The Story of Film: A New Generation. He has walked across Los Angeles, Belfast, Moscow, Beijing, London, Paris, Berlin, Dakar and Mexico City and likes night swimming.
Selected director's filmography:
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W I T H T H E D I R E C T O R
As an Irish filmmaker based in Scotland, what brought you to engage with this central event in Italian 20th century history?
Far right politics appear in many places. I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s, which was our own anni di piombo, the “leaden years” of political and sectarian unrest. It was a time of a low temperature war – the Troubles – but it was also a time when the UK government operated underground with far right paramilitaries to suppress the civil rights movement. The dangerous right were, therefore, a part of my life. In the early 1990s I co-directed a film in which we tried to expose the far right in France, Scotland, Austria and Germany - Another Journey By Train. So this is a topic I have been interested in for most of my career, and the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome seemed like a good occasion to return to it.
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In approaching a loaded topic such as Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, can you please elaborate about your diverse narrative strategy, from your trademark detailed dissection of film sequences, scenes from Italian film classics, archival footage, images of current-day Italy, and staged readings by the female character played by Alba Rohrwacher?
I wanted to look at this subject from different angles. We of course had to look the archive footage of the time in the eye, and try to show how complicit it was. I also needed to fight against it with scenes which were subjective, about a woman rather than men, and acknowledged the vulnerability of change. The fascists never said that they were wrong.
Anna does. Can you tell us more about Alba Rohrwacher’s character?
She’s like my mum and other people: working class, Catholic, a bit superstitious, not very educated and therefore not defended against Fascist mythology. If you want to understand why fascism came to power, you have to make an effort to understand why it seemed attractive to ordinary people at the time, people who weren’t inherently evil but ended up making terrible political and personal choices.
Architecture plays an outsized role in your film, from the monumental historical architecture of Rome and Naples to fascist buildings and street scenes in Rome’s Olympic Village or the periphery such as Tuffello. What fascinates you about these built environments?
You can see political ideas in buildings: the hope for a better future, or the desire to overwhelm and control. I personally love architecture, but it’s been used for bad as well as good. At its worst, architecture can be a bully. Fascist architecture often bullies. That’s not to say that all the buildings are bad. Some are very good. It’s more the urbanism that is awful. The fascist planners wanted to control how we walk through cities, who we encounter and what we admire.
In the first scenes of March on Rome, you draw clear parallels between the rise of Mussolini and contemporary right-wing populism with, for example, images of Donald Trump, backed up later through your meticulous analysis of the creation of “alternative truths” in fascist films purporting to be documentaries. What do you think are the lessons we can learn from this historical precedent?
Cinema lies. All culture lies. The things that many of us love – art, movies, etc – are also potentially our enemies.
Do you think films such as Paradisi’s A Noi were an intrinsic part of the fascist power grab? How do you think this form of cinematographic propaganda has influenced the way of shaping reality and spreading a certain idea of society from the Second World War to nowadays?
Other people could answer that question better than me, but yes, A Noi! was very much part of the power grab. The people who want to take control will use any means necessary and of course they know that cinema is a remarkable tool – transgressive, immediate and convincing. It hides its mechanisms.
Part of your film deals with the role of artists and the arts in giving rise to fascism, perhaps something especially true in Italy. But you also show the way in which directors such as Pasolini or Scola grapple with the heritage of fascism. Is your film a way of staking your own position of artistic responsibility?
Thank you for this question. Yes. Cinema is morally neutral – it is a force for good or bad. So I knew from the start that if I made a film about A NOI, I wanted to show everything that it wasn’t. I needed to say that, though 1922 was an ideologically controlling time, lots of filmmakers refused those controls – Elvira Notari, Chaplin, Carl Theodor Dreyer, etc. Today, we have the same choice.
M A I N C A S T
is one of the most talented Italian actresses. She has won several awards, the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in Hungry Hearts and the David di Donatello award for best actress in Il papà di Giovanna among the others.
M A I N C R E W