Movies and Film: Ringing the White Telephone

Ringing the White Telephone

Over the course of the 1930s, large sectors of the Italian film industry increasingly came to be dominated by the partisans of the Nazi's eventual Fascist ally in Italy, Benito Mussolini. A whole governmental department, called the Direzione Generale per le Cinematografia, was established to regulate content and oversee production. The Mussolini regime founded what would become one of Europe's most influential film schools, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in 1935, and funded construction of the great Cinecitt studios two years later.

Filmophile's Lexicon

White telephone (telefoni bianci) films—glitzy, glossy dramas and comedies dripping with sentiment—were one of the predominant forms of motion picture during the Mussolini regime. The elegance of these films' glamorous settings was embodied in the image of the "white telephone," a symbol of their opulent refusal to comment on contemporary affairs.

Short Cuts

"For us, cinema is the strongest weapon."

—Benito Mussolini

And in perhaps the most direct sign of Fascist domination over Italian film, for a significant period of time between 1938 and 1945, the Duce's son, Vittorio Mussolini, became one of the leading "creative" forces in the peninsula's cinematic culture.

The numerous so-called white telephone films produced during this period—directed by now-forgotten filmmakers like Carlo Bragaglia, Guido Brignone, and Gennaro Righelli (who, interestingly enough, also made Italy's first sound film, La canzone dell'amore [The Love Song, 1930])—projected an image of serene glamour to the viewing public that was rarely sullied by the violent turmoil of the war. Other directors with promising careers—including even such future luminaries as Roberto Rossellini—were recruited by Mussolini's regime to make transparently propagandistic films.

Despite Mussolini's best efforts, though, there were literally hundreds of films only marginally affected by the regime's desires and demands. While most of these were (pardon our French) garbage, a few directors continued to make very good films. Alessandro Blasetti's superb historical drama, 1860 (1934), an important forerunner of neorealism, was followed at the height of World War II by the ominously titled La Corona di Ferro (The Iron Crown, 1941). Mario Camerini's comedies—especially Il signor Max (1937) and Dar un milione (I'll Give a Million, 1935)—rival the best German, French, or American films of the prewar era.

All in all, the Fascist era left a mixed legacy to film history, a strange blend of hateful propaganda, innovation, faux elegance, and unexpected charm that the succeeding generation of Italian filmmakers would voraciously reject.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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