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“September 6 was an echo of Mussolini,” Mark Cousins Talks Fascism Documentary ‘March On Rome’ – Venice Q&A + First Clip

Fascism – its roots, legacy and contemporary manifestations – is a leitmotif running throughout the 79th Venice Film Festival as Italy marks the centenary of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fateful power grab in 1922, in an era when totalitarian leaders are once again on the rise.

Northern Irish, Edinburgh-based filmmaker Mark Cousin’s essay documentary March On Rome – which opens parallel section Giornate degli Autori on Wednesday (August 31) – offers an insightful cinematic primer into the events leading up to Mussolini’s forced appointment as Italian prime minister on October 31, 1922.

Opening with an extract of an interview with Donald Trump in which he openly quotes Mussolini, the film also provocatively connects the actions of latter-day populist leaders with the legacy of Italian fascism.

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The infamous 1922 March on Rome grew out of a fascist rally in Naples on October 24 at which Mussolini declared: “Either the government will be given to us, or we will seize it by marching on Rome.” Four days later, thousands of his black shirt supporters set off for the Italian capital in an act that would pave the way for Mussolini’s rise to power.

Based on painstaking research by Italian director Tony Saccucci, who takes a co-writer credit, the documentary takes its cue from Umberto Paradisi’s 1923 propaganda film A Noi, which was made with the support of the Fascist Party.

The work suggests the march was an orderly, triumphant affair that packed out the streets of Rome. With the help of Saccucci’s research, Cousins demonstrates how Paradisi used tight framing to hide the lack of crowds, and re-shot scenes after bad weather washed out the arrival of the marchers in Rome.

Cousins intercuts extracts from other films capturing the era, notably pioneering female filmmaker Elvira Notari’s 1922 Naples-set melodrama E Piccerella as well as Ettore Scola’s 1938-set drama A Special Day. The 1977 production co-stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as a woman and her neighbour, persecuted for his homosexuality, who stay at home the day Adolf Hitler visits Mussolini in Rome.

The essay documentary also features a series of monologues acted out by Alba Rohrwacher in the role of a working-class woman who initially supported Mussolini’s rise to power, but slowly becomes disillusioned by his reign. Cousins wrote the dialogues and shot the scenes in Cinecittà’s historic studio 5 earlier this year.

The documentary is produced by Andrea Romeo at PalomarDOC, who also heads up indie distributor I Wonder Pictures, and Luce Cinecitta, in collaboration with Italian publishing house Il Saggiatore.

Cousins talked to Deadline ahead of the premiere, who also released a short clip of the film:

This is a very Italian subject. How did you come on board the project?

Producer Andrea Romeo, who has distributed some of my films in the past asked me to get involved. Ten years ago, I made a film about far-right Neo Nazis [Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise], so I was not new to the subject. Andrea came on a zoom.  As soon as he told me about the project, I found myself saying “yes”, even though I was busy. It’s such a relevant subject. It’s about visual culture. It’s about masculinity and lots of other areas I could dig into.

Italian filmmaker Tony Saccucci initiated the project. How did you pick up the baton?

Tony had worked on it for some years and done all this brilliant research. Most of that information on A Noi, apart from the filmmaking stuff, comes from Saccucci. He handed over all his research. We spent a day in Rome, a head f**k of a day, I have to say, for hours and hours and hours, watching the film, videoing the film and his conversation. He did a huge info dump. It was really exhausting but exactly what I needed.

What was your thinking behind including extracts from Elvira Notari’s E Piccerella showing real-life street scenes in Naples in the 1920s?

I’ve known about her work for years, As you know, I’m been very interested in women filmmakers for a long time [as evidenced by Cousin’s work Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema]. This was an opportunity to use a bit of her work.

If A Noi is a film that lies and lots of films lie, I thought I should start with a film that isn’t lying. She’s really looking at the reality and the humanity of the market sellers and those people who are celebrating the festival. The film [March On Rome] is saying films often tell lies, but also at the same time, people were using cinema as a truth machine. So, I wanted to start with her as a truth machine.

You also include extracts from Ettore Scola’s 1977 work A Special Day

I was talking to an Italian friend, and he mentioned it to me. I looked at it and said, this is perfect. I wanted March On Rome to be in some way about cinema, even if it’s actually about politics. I wanted to use film in different parts of the film, to sort of colour the picture, to show what the visual imagination was around fascism.

Did you mull including Dino Risi’s comedy March on Rome, which plays in Venice Classics this year?

I didn’t, because it’s better known, and where possible, I wanted to use less well-known material. I also didn’t feel it was valuable to the story that I wanted to tell about image manipulation.

How did Alba Rohrwacher come on board for the monologues?

Alba’s a superstar. I’d admired her for a long time. I emailed her sister [Alice Rohrwacher] and within minutes an email came back from Alba saying, “I’ll do whatever you want.” There was a proper love-in between us. She had followed my career and I had followed her career. It was a really nice creative collaboration and we intend to work with each other more.  The film world’s quite a scary place so when you find a creative collaborator like Alba, these are things that stop you from being buffeted. Alba and I know we are there for each other whatever happens.

The film also features contemporary footage of architectural relics of the fascist era in Rome such as the Palace Of Italian Civilisation and manhole covers still bearing fascist insignia. What was your point in doing this?

As I say in the film, all of that has been removed in Germany. Why is it not removed in Italy? And that’s a question, you know, for Italy. This is not to say that fascist architecture was all bad. Some of it was good. That’s not the point. It’s when you get explicit inscriptions on buildings, which are celebrating power, expansionism or colonialism. Why are they still there, uncommented on?

You provocatively open the film with an excerpt from an interview with Trump in which he openly quotes Mussolini, to the strains of Madame Butterfly.

When I make a film, I remember talking to Terence Davies about this, I can see the film fully formed before I start. In this case, I knew that Trump quote. Because Mussolini had made a speech in a theatre in Milan which was being used that day for a performance of ‘Madame Butterfly’, I thought let’s use ‘Madame Butterfly’ to sweep Donald Trump off the soundtrack.

One of the interesting things for me is that there are a lot of young people, in their early 20s, or late teens who are quite politicised because of Trump and other things within other countries. They are eager to learn the backstory to fascism, or neo-fascism. If you can start with Trump and show this is an explicit use of language from the Mussolini era, that’s a good way to start a film.

I remember watching Trump’s inauguration. When he used the word “carnage”, [in the phrase] “This American carnage”, as somebody who’s made a film about Neo Nazis, I thought, “oh, f**k, ‘carnage’, So the Obama era, of which I had many criticisms, was ‘carnage’. That’s explicit fascist language.”

The film will travel to the U.S. in the near future, do you fear there could be blowback over this opening?

In the end, there are two references to the U.S. I wanted no more than that. I didn’t want to say it was worse in the U.S. than in other countries. I think it’s worse in Brazil, for example, but this is a film where the shadow figure is Trump. We all watched with our eyes wide open and increasing horror,  the slide to the right. Even when he used the word “carnage” on his opening day, I didn’t think it would go as far as that. January 6 was a “March on…”, it was an echo of Mussolini, so it’s relevant to play this film in America today.

What does it mean to you to be showing this film in Venice on the centenary of Mussolini’s rise to power?

It’s a timely film. The reason I did it, is because it’s a timely film. We’ve got far-right leaders, political leaders who aren’t fascists but are opening a space in which fascism can reassert itself.  There’s a direction of travel to the right in a number of countries.

I am pleased that it’s coming out now. Italian political culture is also in a very interesting place. It’s useful to join these dots in a way, you know, and to be historical. Italian fascism was a specific thing but in the 21st century, we’ve had so many technological changes, and we’ve had so many other new visual cultures. It’s interesting to look back at what happened then and see how much of that applies today. And the answer is really quite a lot.

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