Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (598)
A 1936 tour of the Italian film industry by an Al-Ahram cinema critic provided insight into the world of Benito Mussolini's propaganda machine. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk ventures into Cine City
Any cinema buff would know that the post-World War II period saw the rise of a new genre known as neo-realism. Italy took the lead in this movement and its films proved so successful that they could vie with the products of American realism, including the cowboy and gangster movies typically associated with the Hollywood studios. Soon such names as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica shone as brightly in the annals of the history of the cinema as Cecil B Demille. Among the trademarks of these Italian directors were the starkness of their films, their preference for live locations, their use of non-professional actors, and the directness with which they probed the human drama in these settings.
Italian realist films proved very successful outside the West as well. They were certainly highly popular in Egypt, perhaps one of the most important reasons for which is the long-standing relations between the Egyptian and Italian peoples. In modern times, the Italian community in Egypt was the second largest foreign community after the Greeks. But of all the expatriate communities, it was by far the most culturally influential, as is evidenced by the linguistic studies that reveal that Egyptian colloquial Arabic has more words that originate from Italian than from any other European language. Italians not only mixed more with Egyptians but were also closer to the Egyptian temperament, which may explain why Egyptian audiences responded more immediately to the new films coming out of Italy than they did to other European or even American films.
The purpose of this rather lengthy introduction was not so much to determine how Italian cinema ranked with Egyptian audiences as it was to lead the way to a discussion of the causes for the revival of the cinema in that country reputed as the "Mother of the Arts". Since the Renaissance, Italy played an integral role in the profound developments in Western painting, sculpture, architecture, music, theatre and photography. Not long after the cinema industry proved its commercial viability did Italy make its mark on the "seventh art".
One of the key figures in Italy to realise the potential that cinema had to offer was Benito Mussolini, head of the Fascist government that ruled Italy from 1922 to 1945. Although a journalist by trade -- he had been editor-in-chief of one of Rome's most popular dailies, Il Popolo d'Italia -- Mussolini saw in the cinema a tool no less important for his purposes than the press. Like Hitler, the head of the Nazi regime in Germany, the Italian dictator needed a powerful propaganda machine. He lavished enormous funds on developing this machine, of which the cinema became a major component. Although Italy entered WWII on the side of the Axis Powers and was eventually defeated, the infrastructure Mussolini had established for the cinema industry remained and this would serve as the platform for the meteoric rise of the Italian cinema in the post-war period.
Mussolini's drive to build an Italian cinema industry drew the attention of all concerned with the arts and with the art of cinema in particular. Among these was the editor of Al- Ahram 's "Cinema and Entertainment" page, Zakariya El- Sherbini, who in the winter of 1936 decided to acquaint himself first hand with the developments that were taking place in that art in the Italian capital. The result was a series of reports appearing in the newspaper under the headline, "Tours of the studios of Rome".
In the first of these reports, El-Sherbini acknowledges the close relationship between the fascist state and the rise of the cinema industry in Italy. He writes, "Senior Mussolini is a firm believer in the power of the cinema, for which reason he always says, 'Film is the most powerful weapon.' During my visit to the Cinema Department in the Ministry of Press and Propaganda in Rome, director of that department kindly gave me a book in Italian on the cinema there. I had but to open the first page to find Mussolini's signature and above it the saying, 'Film is the most powerful weapon.' Later I learned that this dictum has been adopted as the emblem of all the Cinema Department's publications and activities."
The "Cinema and Entertainment" page editor presents the history of the Italian cinema as though it itself were a drama in which "the threads of the narrative interweave and build up to a climax at which point a new insight opens the way to the denouement and the desired end." The narrative begins before World War I, when Italian cinema was striving to walk in the footsteps of the nascent industries in the US, Paris and London. The war put an end to the nascent industry, "apart from a feeble flame that continued to flicker in Rome." Even after the war, efforts to revive the cinema were scattered and intermittent, and so the situation remained until 1933 when the fascist government took matters into its own hands.
After having studied the possibilities with experts, Mussolini drew up a programme for getting the Italian cinema industry back on its feet and mobilising it towards his political ends. Cinema production was placed under tight government control, for which purpose the Cinema Department was founded in the Ministry of Press and Propaganda. This department, in turn, was subdivided into four sections covering film production, the theory and practice of the art, employees in the cinematic arts, and the commercial aspects of the industry. In the course of his visits to these departments, El- Sherbini registered numerous observations among which were that the government was in the process of establishing a single state-supervised film company. He also remarked on the enormous outlays on the development of the film industry, part of which the government hoped to recoup by requiring Italian cinema houses to screen a certain percentage of domestically produced films.
Under this system of tight government controls, the film- making process began by studying a project in terms of its social, political and artistic value and in terms of its financial feasibility and marketing potential. Step two was to assess the artistic and moral qualifications of the producer/director. Then, once the go-ahead was given, the Cinema Department would assign observers to monitor all phases of production. "Once the film is completed, it is screened before a special panel to ascertain its validity, after which the promotional campaign is set into motion in the press and elsewhere."
Already impressed by the cinema establishment Mussolini had created, El-Sherbini's admiration rose to awe following his visit to Cinecitta, the cinema city that was currently under construction on the outskirts of Rome. As grand as that project was, however, it did not diminish his enthusiasm for the many other activities sponsored by the government's cinema authority. It organised a lecture series on the cinema broadcast on national radio, for which it engaged lecturers from various cultural and artistic societies in the country to speak on the art of film, the benefits of this art, and how to become involved in this art. "The lecture series has been highly instrumental in increasing the interest of the Italian people in general in the cinema."
A second activity was the Venice International Film Festival. El-Sherbini reports that 12 countries had participated in the festival including Egypt, which entered with the film Widad, produced by the Egyptian Company for Drama and Cinema. "Our country was represented in this international event by Ahmed Salem, director of the Egypt Cinema Company. Eighty-four films were shown, 66 for the first time. These were seen by an estimated 300,000 people from all parts of the world. About 150 representatives of the world's major newspapers were on hand to cover the event. Al-Ahram was represented by the editor of this page. He was the only Egyptian journalist to have had this unique opportunity."
The cinema authority also founded a new cinematographers department. An experimental school, it offered instruction to talented youths eager to learn the arts of the cinema, from directing, scenario and script writing and photography to soundtrack recording and set design. "Tuition is free on the condition that candidates display a disposition to the art of film and a readiness to work in this field." A similar department was established for film writers and critics. In addition to instruction in the art of the cinema in general, students in this institute were also given a general introduction to the art of directing and photography.
The writer adds that the government had just earmarked 10 million lira a year to promote the Italian cinema industry and that it had pledged to increase this allocation in forthcoming years.
The foregoing, it appears, were only tantalisers for readying readers for that most amazing project of all: Cinecitta. On the way to becoming the largest cinema city in Europe, "it will have nine filming studios, all designed in accordance with the most up-to-date specifications and equipped with the latest cinema technology to produce 100 films a year."
We shall describe El-Sherbini's tour of Cinecitta, on which he was accompanied by a senior technician from the cinema authority: "No sooner had we entered the gateway of the famous studio complex than I found myself walking down streets that intersected with other streets. Workers were coming and going and the entire area was abuzz with activity. The director of the studio complex greeted me warmly and after showing me the administration offices, he took me to see the filming studios, the soundtrack recording booths and all the other production laboratories."
The studio director explained to El-Sherbini that Mussolini's purpose in establishing the cinema city was "to make Italy the producer of the most powerful and most numerous films, using cinema as the vehicle to spread the Italian art and spirit throughout the world." The government had allocated 700,000 square kilometres to the project, of which 220,000 square kilometres were for the construction of the various studio, administration, laboratory and other buildings and the remaining 480,000 square kilometres for the construction of outside sets and for filming scenes in which there were large crowds.
To El-Sherbini's good fortune, the shooting of one of these outside crowd scenes was in progress during his tour. The car that was ferrying him around stopped in order to let him get out and watch, which he did with his mouth agape, so enthralled was he by what he saw. The film was set in the era of Hanibal and El-Sherbini was particularly awestruck by the central feature of the set: an enormous ancient Roman temple. "I was surprised to find that this 450 metre-high structure was constructed of steel and fortified cement, for I had never known of a cinema company in the world that built such realistic sets out of permanent materials," he wrote. So impressed was El-Sherbini that he advised Cinecitta officials to preserve the temple as an historic monument. He was gratified to hear them approve the idea, although it is doubtful that this approval was official for it would be a rare occurrence indeed for a government to adopt such a decision on the basis of a fleeting visit by a foreign journalist.
The buildings and sets that El-Sherbini had seen so far only fed his thirst to see more. That presented a problem, since the city was still under construction. However, his hosts were kind enough to show him the ground plans and enlighten him on some of the considerations that were taken into account in the designs. For example, the studios were located close together so as to enable directors to use two stages at once. Each of the studios had its own complex of workshops for the construction of sets, props and costumes, and of laboratories for the development, mixing and editing of films and soundtracks. The city itself was equipped with modern transport and communications systems and it was powered by a 2,200 horsepower generator.
The Al-Ahram cinema expert was particularly struck by the four sound stages, of which the largest and most important could accommodate a full-sized symphonic orchestra. Another much smaller sound stage was to be used for producing and recording difficult sound effects. The complex also had four screening rooms for directors and their staff to view their films in the making, as well as a laboratory for matching sound to picture before the final product was released to the public.
The Roman temple was not the only outside feature that left El-Sherbini breathless. There was also an artificial lake under construction, one side of which had a glass wall to enable the filming of underwater scenes. He was also impressed by the spacious contemporary garden where hundreds of actors, stagehands and other workers could relax in their off hours, not to mention the modern restaurants and accommodation facilities for the inhabitants of Cinecitta.
While that modern city would physically embody Mussolini's drive to make Rome an international film capital, much other work had to be done to enhance the strength of that "most powerful weapon." The Al-Ahram "Cinema and Entertainment" page editor also explored this aspect of the revival of the Italian cinema industry in depth. One phenomenon that drew his attention was "the wise policy of encouraging locally produced films." The policy manifested itself in a set of decisions handed down by the government, such as that ordaining that every cinema house in the country screen at least one Italian film for every three foreign films. Now that filmmakers had a guaranteed market for their films, they were encouraged to produce enough films for distribution to the many cinema houses throughout the country.
As added incentive, the government fully subsidised the production of local films. This was made possible by levying a 30,000 lira tax on every foreign film distributed in Italy. The government ruled that all foreign films had to be dubbed in Italian at the foreign company's expense but under the supervision of Italians. "If we consider that for every Italian film three foreign films are shown, then the government earns 90,000 liras from this. It therefore loses nothing from this wise decision while simultaneously having performed the praiseworthy duty of stimulating the cinema industry in its own country."
Financial assistance to filmmakers was arranged in two ways: direct government subsidies and government- backed interest-free loans from banks. El-Sherbini relates that Rome had earmarked the equivalent of LE4 million towards this end, of which half would be paid out from the government treasury and the other half pledged by banks. Of course, such financial assistance was linked to a range of conditions. Producers would be subsidised to a ceiling of no more than 60 per cent of the projected cost of producing a film. Funding applications had to be submitted for approval to a special board in the Ministry of Press and Propaganda's Cinema Department, which would study the script and assess the feasibility of the project and also assess the financial circumstances and artistic qualifications of the applicant. Among the other prerequisites were that the story of the film had to be written by an Italian or be adapted from an Italian source and that the majority of the actors and other artists engaged in the film had to be Italian. With rare exception, the film had to be set in Italy.
In El-Sherbini's opinion this "powerful development policy" is what enabled the construction of six film developing laboratories in various Italian cities as well as six dubbing centres. Apparently the Italians excelled at the art of dubbing. The Al-Ahram film critic relates that he personally had the opportunity of hearing Clark Gable, Norma Shepherd, Katherine Hepburn and Laurel and Hardy speaking fluent Italian. "The dubbers were so skilled that they were able to produce a convincing imitation of the voices of those actors and actresses and to produce the tones of voice, articulation and dialects appropriate to the characters and the scenes. In addition, the dubbing itself was highly competent in most of the films I saw. The spoken words were accurately timed to coincide with the movements of the actors' mouths and they were consistent with fluctuations in mood and the various gestures and body movements."
It would have been El-Sherbini's journalistic nose that led him to free himself from the tight schedule of his tour and from his ubiquitous escorts and to embark on his own on an exploration of Italy's movie theatres. The experience afforded him the opportunity to see a number of films that were not on the agenda as well as the opportunity to observe Italian audiences.
He could not conceal his disappointment in the fact that some of the films he saw were not only of a lower standard than those screened in the Venice Film Festival, but also than many Italian silent movies. "Italy used to produce silent films of a far superior quality to their spoken films," he wrote.
He also notes that Italian audiences in the north were less- well behaved than their counterparts in the centre of the country and in the south. "In Venice, Italian spectators showed no restraint as they whistled at some films or expressed their disapproval through an assortment of rude sounds. In Genoa and Rome, by contrast, audiences were calm and composed in most of the theatres I visited, to the degree that I thought that they were insensitive to the events on the screen." However, he reserved his greatest scorn for Roman audiences. Children would be allowed into the cinemas with or without their families and labourers showed up in their work clothes. What surprised him most was not just the fact that cartoons were particularly popular with these audiences but also that they did not seem to understand what they were meant to convey. "The proof of this is that they do not laugh at the funny scenes or feel distressed at the distressful scenes. Rather, they chuckle a bit at situations that would not make Egyptians laugh at all, such as when a man is floundering on top of a tightrope, and they do not laugh at such comical situations as when the thrust and parry of a boxing match turns into an amusing yet artful dance."
He further disapproved of the custom of some Italian cinemas to feature singers or dancers during the intermission. In his opinion, the stage and the screen were two separate artistic realms and should be kept that way. After all, movie- goers did not go to the cinema to see antics on the stage, or at least they took little pleasure in such performances. What most taxed his patience, however, was the custom of every theatre to open its programme with a newsreel. The film was invariably tediously long, taking up almost half the programme, and it consisted of nothing but government propaganda in the form of an endless succession of shots of land and naval military manoeuvres, of Mussolini presiding over various rallies and meetings, of members of the royal family attending various functions, of the accomplishments of Italian sporting teams, and of the activities of Italian regiments in the colonies.
But then it was not the fault of the cinema houses that audiences were subjected to this newsreel. They were doing so by government order, "which is why not a single cinema in Italy dares not show this newsreel, for to do so would court the risk of closure."
As a journalist and film critic, El-Sherbini was naturally keen to discover what Italian periodicals were dedicated to the cinema. Of course there were relevant columns in the dailies -- like his own in Al-Ahram. However, beyond that he counted seven weekly cinema magazines, the most famous of which was Stella, three biweeklies of which the largest was Cine Jornal and four monthlies the most widely distributed of which was Echo di Cinema.
El-Sherbini described the cinema revival in Italy of the 1930s as "Mussolini's cinema". The term is appropriate given the central role the Italian leader played in promoting this art. It appears that this art also played a central role in the dictator's life -- and death. Unlike Hitler, whose death remains a mystery, everyone in the world at the end of August 1945 would have seen that newsreel image of Mussolini suspended from a tree in Milan. It was Il Duce's cinematic curtain call.