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Star-Studded Regime: A Look at Film Celebrity in Fascist Italy

Celebrities today can perform political functions by sponsoring causes, supporting or opposing governments and shaping opinion. In Fascist Italy, celebrities also played an important role and the regime was well aware of the possible uses and dangers of their popularity. This important connection has been overlooked by scholars of both film and of Italian political history. Focusing on a period from the 1920s through 1945, Mussolini’s Dream Factory: Film Stardom in Fascist Italy looks at the star power of these often-overlooked celebrities and the fate of their careers after WWII. Author Stephen Gundle expands on these ideas and shares his thoughts on the subject, below.




Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of film and film stardom in Fascist Italy?


Stephen Gundle: There are lots of books written about fascist Italy and it seems to be a topic that endlessly fascinates.  In the last few years books have appeared on topics such as the police force, diplomacy, road-building, women’s fashions and everyday life. Yet there are few books on fascist cinema – which is largely ignored by historians and neglected by film scholars who tend to concentrate on neorealism or other aspects of postwar cinema.

Once I realized that quite a lot even of specialists of the fascist era had never heard of the major film stars of the period, I knew I had to write this book. My interest first began in the early 1990s when I was spending a few months in Trieste and started reading old film magazines and collecting postcards and other ephemera in second hand shops. It was clear that the stars were hugely popular and that they were not just pale copies of Hollywood stars as has sometimes been claimed.    



BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


SG: When I started to gather materials I held a position teaching political science; later I moved to Italian studies and then to film studies. The book, I think, reflects this disciplinary transition in the sense that it pays more attention to politics and the state than is usual with books about film stars, examines the economic and cultural context through various archival and press sources, and also engages closely with film texts. Had I written the book ten or fifteen years ago, I might not have paid so much attention to the films (also because it was more difficult to access them then). I am glad to have been able to do this though, as I think readers will get a real sense of how the stars worked, lived and performed and why they were significant.



BB: What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


SG: The most challenging part for me was to try and capture the nature of the stars of whom I concentrate in part 2 of the book: Isa Miranda, Vittorio De Sica, Assia Noris, Fosco Giachetti, Amedeo Nazzari and Alida Valli all have dedicated chapters which are written as analytical essays. Someone like Noris, a frothy, blonde girl-next-door of Russian origin, lost all her popularity at the end of the war. So to grasp her particular appeal (that transcended even her foreign accent) involved me in pulling together a lot of different materials. The most rewarding was certainly was discovering some incredibly fresh and well-made films. The quality of films made under fascism was very variable and many are dull, wooden or trite. But some preserve their energy and humour, even if we know that they functioned as distractions under a dictatorship.



BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field? Likewise, do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


SG: A key debate in studies of Italian fascism concerns the supposedly totalitarian nature of the regime. Historians are divided between those, like Emilio Gentile, who argue that fascism was a political religion that enveloped the population in an orchestrated network of rituals, symbols and beliefs, and those, like R.J.B. Bosworth, who point to fascism’s compromises with other power centres, the cynicism, corruption and ambitions of many officials, and the regime’s incomplete control of society. The study of film stars goes right to the heart of this debate because cinema was state-controlled (but not state-owned for the most part) while films competed for audiences and had to take account of audience tastes and expectations. I draw a complex picture which shows how some stars, at times, were fully integrated into fascism’s project while others provided a safety valve or pleasing distraction from propaganda.  



BB: Who is one figure featured in one way or another in your field of research for whom you have particular interest and why?


SG: Mussolini figures prominently in my book and one of the questions I ask is how far the dictator himself shaped the star system. He set up the movie studio Cinecitta’, visited it often, viewed lots of films and occasionally censored them himself. One of my chapters is dedicated to the effort to turn the sister of Mussolini’s lover Claretta into a film star. Many have assumed Mussolini had little to do with this and that the campaign was conducted largely behind his back. I try to show that in fact he is likely to have been implicated in this right from the start.  Given that all this happened in 1942-3, it was too late to have much impact but it is a fascinating example of the way stars could be manufactured from above but not imposed on audiences unless the latter were willing to embrace them.  



BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


SG: I think that the many ways fascism (not only Italian) used and played off the mass cultural appeals of the movies (including stars and glamour) is a topic that many have acknowledged, from the Frankfurt school onwards. But I don’t think it has really been studied fully. To ask a question like: ‘Was Mussolini (or Hitler) glamorous?’ is still in a way scandalous.  I hope to return to this issue in the future. 





Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. His books include Between Hollywood and Moscow: the Italian Communists and the Challenge of Mass Culture, 1943-91 (2000), Bellissima: Feminine Beauty and the Idea of Italy (2007), Mass Culture and Italian Society from Fascism to the Cold War (2008, with David Forgacs), Glamour: A History (2008) and Death and the Dolce Vita: The Dark Side of Rome in the 1950s (2011). He is co-editor, with Christopher Duggan and Giuliana Pieri, of The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians (2013).