MArk Cousins’ dynamic and utterly gripping documentary essay, with its distinctive collage of photos, clips and narrative voice-overs, takes us back to the macabre founding myth of European fascism on its 100th anniversary: Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922: his ragged march of blackshirts from Naples to the capital.
Upon their arrival, and in the face of the walkers’ alleged fascist power, Italy’s Abyssal King, Victor Emmanuel III, simply outwitted Chamberlain in timidity, overthrew his prime minister Luigi Facta, and installed Mussolini instead, so that no real coup was necessary. It’s on nerve-wracking moments like this that the story revolves, and Cousins aptly juxtaposes it with the US Capitol riots, which didn’t result in the neo-squadron concession that Donald Trump hoped to force.
Cousins also discusses the role played by the nascent art form of cinema in promoting Mussolini’s supposed glamor and prestige, and in aligning his own delirious futuristic excitement with fascism. In particular, Cousins skillfully deconstructs A Noi! or U.S ! by Umberto Paradisi, the propaganda film that created the mythology of the march and exaggerated its size and popular success. In particular, the film erased the fact that Mussolini was not heroically at the forefront, but had remained in Milan for some time, ready to flee the country if the march failed – and took a train to Rome when he seemed to be succeeding. Mussolini first appears in the film as a single portrait study emerging from the darkness like in a horror movie (like a plumper Nosferatu in fact). The film finally shows us the brutal archival footage of Mussolini’s corpse (and that of his mistress) when he was finally laid down and roused by the people. Cousins does not make the comparison, but I thought of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu.
The March on Rome speaks broadly and arguably even whimsically in the personal, subjective style that Cousins has made his own. Using contemporary imagery, he artfully speaks to the barely noticed Italian legacy of Fascist architecture, how these forms and signs were reabsorbed into post-war life mostly without to be destroyed and the cinema buildings were part of this renewal and repurposing. However, Cousins does not mention the Venice Film Festival, a key invention of the Mussolini government – the Casino Palace on the Lido is surely one of the most visibly fascist buildings in Europe.
Pure cinephilia is not the primary focus as has been the case with Cousins’ other works, although in the final segments of the film he talks about fellow 1920s filmmakers Dreyer and Chaplin, people whose genius showed that cinema is vital when it has nothing to do with the coercion of propaganda, when it is fluid, malleable, sensitive, human – and funny. The film’s other notable invention is the periodic appearance of an imaginary working-class woman addressing the camera in chorus: first seduced by fascism and then disenchanted, played by Alba Rohrwacher. It was she who returned again and again to a slogan of Mussolini, that order and greatness would be restored to Italy by the fascists “with love if possible, by force if necessary”. The sheer fatuity and dishonesty of this slogan is certainly on display here. The eloquence of this film is invigorating – and educational.