In memoriam di Ettore Scola. che conobbi personalmente all’incontro di Gargonza organizzato fra l’Ulivo e gli intellettuali (7-8 marzo 1997), ecco le riflessioni che mi ha suscitato il suo bellissimo film, politicamente molto efficace proprio perché artisticamente straordinario. Come i regimi autoritari penetrano nella vita delle persone e la umiliano.
L’articolo è stato pubblicato con il titolo La vida ordinaria bajo el fascismo, in M. Alcantara e S. Mariani (a cura di), La politica va al cine, Lima, Universidad del Pacifico, pp. 209-221.
On May 8, 1938, the day Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome, Antonietta (Loren) stays home doing some domestic tasks while her fascist husband and six children go to the streets to follow the great meeting and the parade. The building is empty but for a neighbor across the complex (Mastroianni), who seems repulsed by Fascism (a rare attitude in those days) and a janitor.
As this chamber drama progresses, the loneliness of each is revealed. The audience learns that this man is a radio broadcaster who has lost his job and is about to be deported to Sardinia because of his political opinions and his homosexuality. Unaware of this, the housewife flirts with him, as they meet by chance in the empty building. During their conversation, the rather naïve and mainstream woman is surprised by his opinions and is shocked when she realizes his sexual orientation.
Despite their fights and arguments, they are sexually attracted to each other, the woman more than the man, and eventually make love before he is taken away by the police and her family comes back home.
Portugal 1938. Pereira is the editor of the culture section of the Lisboa, an unaffiliated evening paper. There is civil war in Spain and the fascists are in power in Portugal, but he is mainly concerned with himself, writing biographies of famous writers and translating French novels, and trying to ignore what is going on around him. He hires Francesco Monteiro Rossi, an idealistic young man of Italian origins who is in love with a beautiful communist, as an assistant. Pereira reluctantly helps them when they begin to get into trouble due to subversive activities. Eventually events force him to take a stand.
Director Roberto Faenza Protagonist Marcello Mastroianni Duration 104 minutes
Often artists succeed where political and social scientists have been unable or unwilling to go, that is, to explore, reveal, depict emotions leading to unexpected individual behavior. In the two films I am going to analyze, my attention will be focused on life under repressive regimes and its many complex aspects, the individual strategies for survival and their contradictions and the consequences of those strategies. By artists, in this article, I mean above all writers and film-makers. I have been particularly impressed by two Italian movies, not recent, but of enduring quality and significant emotional impact: A special day and Sostiene Pereira (drawn from the famous novel written by the Italian Antonio Tabucchi). I have chosen the former only because in many ways Italian Fascism was by far more important than the Portuguese authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, whenever possible, I will make several, hopefully illuminating, comparative references to Sostiene Pereira.
For a variety of reasons, Italian Fascism has received an impressive amount of scholarly, artistic and literary attention through time (Tarchi 2003). The most recent and excellent collection of essays, edited by Gundle, Duggan and Pieri, has been published in 2013. Seventy years after the demise of its leader, Benito Mussolini (1882-1945), Fascism, the authoritarian regime, and its leader, the Duce, are still the objects of important and revealing studies, many of them making good reading. In all likelihood, these studies easily outnumber the books devoted to any other authoritarian regime. Possibly, they are even more than those devoted, respectively, on the one hand, to the Nazi regime, the organization of the State and daily life, and, on the other, to Communist totalitarian regimes, the USSR and China. There exists almost a fascination with many aspects of the Fascist regime that has led, not to any significant re-assessment of its non-democratic and repressive nature, but to many an analysis of the socio-cultural and political conditions that made possible the conquest of power by the Fascists and of the impact and the consequences of its twenty years authoritarian rule.
It is impossible to summarize the results of these scholarly studies. Most of them are of very high quality. Since the first biography of Mussolini, written by his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti (1925 and 1926), the personality of the Duce has been studied by many capable historians. Within very few years, Sarfatti’s book was translated into several languages and has enjoyed seventeen editions. Mussolini’s standard monumental biography (seven volumes, 1965-1997) has been written by the historian Renzo De Felice. Ever since, other historians have followed through namely, for instance, Pierre Milza (1999), while De Felice’s disciple and successor, Emilio Gentile (2003) has tackled several significant aspects of Fascism, namely, its being a sort of political religion (Gentile 1990), and the institutional nature of the regime. Already De Felice had distinguished between two ‘Fascisms’: Fascimo-Movimento, in the phase of the conquest of power, graphically represented by Mussolini wearing the black shirt and boots, and Fascismo-regime, solidly in control of Italy so much so that Mussolini could appear a statesman wearing a tight and a hat. The central question is whether the Fascist regime was an instance of authoritarianism or, as Gentile continues stressing, a successful totalitarian experiment. I believe that the best definition to be utilized when studying authoritarian regimes continues to be the one formulated fifty years ago by the late Juan Linz (1964, p. 297): ‘Authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism; without elaborate and guiding ideology (but with distinctive mentalities); without intensive nor extensive political mobilization (except some points in their development); and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones’ (italics mine).
In his definition, Linz brilliantly combines institutional elements, pluralism, with political elements, the way power is exercised, and cultural elements, mentalities, with behavioral elements, mobilization. Below, I will have something to say on mobilization, when and how it takes place. Here, I want to devote some attention to the question on which essential components of the mentalities the authoritarian regime is built on, which it tries to encourage, which it even exploits, and finally which it tries to shape. In Catholic countries it has been all too easy for authoritarian regimes to cultivate three aspects: God, family, and fatherland. Opponents of the authoritarian regime in Portugal have, half jokingly, suggested that the mentalities encouraged and utilized by the regime revolved around three ‘F’: Fatima, Fado, Football. In fact, Italian Fascism took great pride from the Football World Cup twice (1934 and 1938) won by the Italian national team. The offering of ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and games) had already been theorized by the ancient Romans and, of course, Mussolini and his collaborators did not refrain from continuing its implementation. My point is that mentalities may pre-exist the appearance and inauguration of an authoritarian regime, but they may also be deliberately shaped and transformed by the regime and, so to speak, by the most conscious among the authoritarians.
Few differences aside, Fascism as a regime fits Linz’s definition of authoritarianism. Notwithstanding Mussolini’s inflated ambitions and exaggerated claims, he never succeeded in acquiring totalitarian control neither over all Italian institutions nor over the daily lives of the Italians. Limited political and institutional pluralism survived. One cannot imagine a Communist totalitarian regime ousted by the monarchy, but this is exactly what occurred to Mussolini after the July 25, 1943 vote against him taken by the Fascist Grand Council. The Italian bureaucracy always remained very conservative and even reactionary. It is doubtful whether it ever was ‘fascistized’. The Armed Forces, especially the top brass, stayed loyal to the Savoy monarchy and to the King. The Catholic Church was powerful enough to bargain with the regime and to thrive after a treaty giving the Vatican and Catholic associations a privileged role in many Italian social (hospitals and medical assistance) and cultural (nursery and elementary schools, but also a University) activities. It is true that Mussolini aimed at acquiring for Fascism the label and the status of a totalitarian regime. He attempted to become totalitarian, but failed. Most scholars would say that the failure became clear when Mussolini was obliged to come to a highly significant agreement with the Catholic Church, gaining in exchange the qualification of uomo della Provvidenza, the man sent by the providence (that is, God). On my part, I would point to an extremely important difference between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes, as the Soviet Union and all but one Eastern European Communist regimes have demonstrated, collapse, while, because of the existence of limited pluralism, authoritarian regimes can, through and thanks to the activities and the transformations of some of the associations, start a transition to a democratic situation. Exactly what took place in post-1943 Italy, in post-1974 Portugal, in post-1975 Spain and, not so surprisingly in post-1989 Poland (which is the exception I was referring to) where the Communist Party had never been strong enough and capable of creating a totalitarian regime.
The Fascist regime was certainly not just a parenthesis in Italian history as has been argued by the famous idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce, but it was never capable of acquiring totalitarian control over the lives of Italian citizens. On the whole, Fascism did not entirely represent the ‘autobiography of the nation’ as famously Piero Gobetti, later (1926) beaten to death by the Fascists, immediately wrote. Gobetti’s collaborators and admirers within the association called ‘Giustizia e Libertà’ firmly believed in this interpretation, but Fascism could not ‘exhaust’ the complexity of the biography of Italy.
One cannot speak of the life of a nation, the macro level, without devoting specific attention to the life conditions of its members, the micro level. Unfortunately, the topic of daily life under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes remains somewhat underexplored. It most certainly deserves to be studied. This is not place to provide an exhausting inventory of what has been written on this very important topic. Also, I absolve myself for not doing it because I am afraid that in any case this worthy goal will remain well beyond the knowledge and the energies of any single scholar. Nevertheless, there are very insightful analyses, for instance, William Sheridan Allen’s book, The Nazi Seizure of Power. Experience of a Single German Town 1930-35 (1965), the widely admired and discussed German movie ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ (2006) on the pervasive intrusion of the DDR Staatssicherheit in the lives of East German actors and playwriters that offers more than a glimpse on the daily life in a Communist regime, and, more germane to my topic here the Italian book (1994) and movie (1995) Sostiene Pereira, describing some aspects of an individual’s life in Salazar’s authoritarian regime in Portugal. Few comments on both this book and the movie made out of it may contribute to illuminate some aspects of A special day as well.
In Sostiene Pereira, the protagonist is also played by Marcello Mastroianni, an ageing somewhat fat indolent and sluggish journalist in charge of the cultural pages of a Lisbon afternoon daily. More than attempting to lose weight, his efforts are focused on avoiding any disturbing information concerning the Portuguese authoritarian regime. Though he is painfully aware of the reality of a regime that relies on police control, selected violence and enforced conformism, Pereira strives to keep the ‘noise’ of the regime deliberately out of his quiet home, his travels, professional and private life. The sudden and unexpected appearance of a young Italian man, Francesco Monteiro Rossi, exposes Pereira to the brutality of the regime and its repressive apparatus. The young man proves to be a capable writer of obituaries which he uses almost as a political weapon. One day Pereira notices that Francesco has been severely beaten, later to be killed, by the policemen. Painfully, the journalist becomes aware that his personal life, that he tried to protect and to hide, is now affected. He feels that he owes something to that courageous student, but he is unable to do more than to publish the last obituary, on the Italian ‘quasi-Fascist’ poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, written by Francesco that also contains highly critical references to the Portuguese authoritarian regime. For Pereira, however, the time of action is too late. He flees the country. There will be no return, no way back to carafes full of iced lemonade and to his beloved herb omelettes.
A Special Day: The Setting
May 8, 1938 is the first and only time Hitler has come to meet Mussolini in Rome. Two years before the Duce had delivered an African empire and the title of Emperor to King Vittorio Emanuele, who appointed him in October 1922 to his formal position: Capo del governo (Head of government). Hitler’s visit is also the recognition that the Italian ally has become more important. All Fascists are asked to mobilize not so much to pay homage to the Führer, but to show that the Duce has gained at least as much support as the one that the cinema news say Hitler enjoys in Germany. The parade in Hitler’s honor will go through those Roman sites (Via dei Fori Imperiali) that ought to remind the Germans that Italy has had a great, unsurpassed, historical past and that Mussolini and his regime are reviving that past. It is imperative that Hitler be impressed also by the Fascist crowds assembled along the streets.
In all likelihood, Mussolini decided to accept the competition in terms of mobilizational capabilities with what Hitler was doing with his Nurnberg mass rallies. Contrary to the two other Southern European dictators, the Portuguese Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) and the Spanish Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (1892-1975), Mussolini not only fond of mobilizing his supporters, but he did so rather frequently in Rome, always filling Piazza Venezia with adoring and cheering crowds. Indeed, there is no way of denying that the Fascist regime had gained (and retained) a fair amount of consensus. One of the volumes written by De Felice does carry the subtitle Gli anni del consenso (1929-1936) referring to the period after the Pacts signed with the Vatican that put an end to the long period, almost 70 years, of non-recognition of the Italian State. Once the Empire had come into being, De Felice believed that there was no longer any opposition to the regime and that Lo Stato totalitario 1936-1940 had been fully achieved. Another scholar, Alberto Acquarone (1965) referred to the totalitarian State, but especially in terms of the organization of the State and not of the control exercised by the Fascists over Italian society in all its ramifications.
In any case, what really counts for the atmosphere of the period is that Mussolini, contrary to the quite secluded Franco and Salazar, used to show himself more than happy to bask in his enthusiastic popular consensus. But all scholars know, Juan Linz better than most, that there is a difference between passive and active consensus, between compulsory mobilization and spontaneous participation. Very intelligently, the film director, Ettore Scola, totally avoids any whatsoever image of what goes on outside the building where the two protagonists live and meet. An informal line is drawn distinguishing between the most important public event of the decade in Italy and what may easily be the most important private/personal events in the lives of the two protagonists of the story. Still, the impact of Fascism, the regime, its celebrations, its rituals, its obligations, its supporters can by no means be neglected, even less avoided. In fact, it is omnipresent. There is a loudspeaker in the building –loudspeakers are also located along the streets to the benefit of those who could not attend personally. It amplifies the minute by minute radio broadcast of the road travelled jointly by Hitler and Mussolini.
The essence of what is beautifully conveyed by the film-maker is that, yes, Fascism was trying to intrude into the lives of the Italians. It had been largely successful in doing so. Nevertheless, in spite of the attempt of the regime to redefine and reshape what is private into something political, there remained some few shrinking niches in which it seemed possible even or especially for persons being usually discriminated against, the homosexuals, or kept in a lower status, to acquire control for an all too brief moment of their feelings and their behavior. In the end, however, no individual freedom is possible in authoritarian regimes.
The loudspeaker in the building reaches the ears of the three persons who, for different reasons, have not gone to the mass demonstration, the apotheosis of the Fascist regime. In a way, they are all justified. Obviously, the inquisitive not good-looking middle-aged lady janitor has a task to perform, perhaps two. First, and foremost, she has been given by Fascist authorities in the neighborhood the duty, probably in exchange for a minor, though useful, sum of money, to monitor the behavior of the tenants and to report on what they do, especially on those occasions considered important by the authorities. Second, she is also supposed to be vigilant against the incursions of thieves and thugs taking advantage of the absence of the tenants attending the parade. No wonder that, even in its triumphant days, the regime relied on a vast networks of informers. It was a relatively unexpensive practice, definitely not restricted to Italy, but that will be extended to all Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, as shown in several movies. It produced positive results and contributed to a climate of lack of trust and reciprocal suspicion that always makes the organization of any kind of opposition to the regime quite risky and difficult.
Lifting her nose up, the janitor makes the spectator aware that two other persons have remained in the building. There is a housewife who is resting after having shined the boots of her temperamentally Fascist and truculent husband, dressed her six children and fixed breakfast for them all. As most Italian women of the time, the housewife is probably not interested in politics though blandly and unconsciously Fascist. She is representative of the large majority of Italian, for that matter, of Southern European women, and not only, whose task was to ‘serve’ their men and whose realm of activities was the kitchen (and perhaps, as we will see, the bed). They were housewives, massaie. They had been socialized to accept and to play a subordinate role in sequence to their fathers, their older brothers, their husbands (and, often the employers and the priests as well). And they, Antonietta included, complied without asking questions. She may have liked to go to the parade too. Indeed, she is shown going through her newspaper and weekly clippings collection of portraits and photos of the Duce. Unfortunately, on the one hand, for her it was not compulsory to go, on the other hand, she would have never made it since she had first to help all seven members of her family to get ready. Her melancholy seems to descend more from the fact of having missed a spectacular event than from politically motivated feelings.
In the building there is just one other person whom the regime, that is, the Fascist authorities have declared persona non grata. He is a gay radio broadcaster. Though not officially a crime, being gay represented enough of a violation of one not minor aspect of the mentality of the Fascist regime which was also based on the cult of virile men. As broadcaster, Gabriele, may have also become somewhat unreliable expressing his opinions, perhaps, only through the tone of his voice. In all likelihood, the radio broadcaster may have also been guilty of some critical remarks on Fascism. No matter what, he had been fired and sent to confinement far from Rome in Sardinia, at the time, not yet discovered as a splendid region for holidays at the seaside, but just a poor and backward area. Sadly, the broadcaster is packing and has to make those most difficult choices concerning which books to leave and which to take with him. The regime could not and did not tolerate effeminate men, even less homosexuals. Deliberately Mussolini almost personified all the qualities that were deemed worthy and indispensable in the Fascist regime. The cult of his personality was also based on physical strength and courage, psychological determination, decision-making capabilities (all depicted in the book Il Duce), none of them, by definition, considered available to homosexuals.
In a way, neither the Fascist ‘ideology’ nor the Fascist regime had to create the cult of the Duce from scratch. They had inherited something that was already part of the culture of most Italians, especially in the South. But the idea that men are men and that they must show to have especially virile qualities was also widespread in Mussolini’s region of birthplace. Paradoxically, however, for a series of reasons, paramount among them, the ‘organization’ of their working activities, in Emilia-Romagna women enjoyed a high degree of personal independence and played a very active role. What one may call either a revelation or a nemesis, women bravely fought during the Resistance not only against the Nazis, but also against the bloody squads organized by the puppet Fascist Republic.
Constantly receiving in their ears the voice of the official radio broadcaster (hence a colleague, someone known by Gabriele and who may have replaced him), immersed in their thoughts and in their activities, respectively packing and putting order in the kitchen and the bedrooms, the two tenants, Antonietta and Gabriele, are unaware of their reciprocal presence until they actually, by chance, see each other. Antonietta is running after her little parrot that has escaped when she was cleaning its cage. Exchanging words over a cup of coffee, they catch more than a glimpse of their personal lives. Both seem to understand how much the Fascist regime or, perhaps, just politics, is responsible not only for their on-going situation and living conditions, but also for their future. Antonietta has probably never even envisaged a different future for herself. Now she comes to understand the difficult plight in which Gabriele finds himself. Sardinia does not represent a bright future. Moreover, confinement is not just a loss of status. It means also the loss of a job entailing some prestige and a good pay. Slowly, though, almost irresistibly, they, in truth Antonietta more than Gabriele, feel attracted to each other. In the end, it is Antonietta, the patient and resigned housewife, who seduces Gabriele. To his own surprise, the gay broadcaster finds himself making love with the wife of a Fascist.
In principle, nobody would believe for a moment that Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni could credibly interpret the roles of housewife and gay. The two outstanding stars succeed in making us forget who they both are, that is, sex symbols in the collective imagination of movie audiences all over the world. Making love for them is a way of forgetting their enduring condition and their imminent destiny. Two solitudes meet and leave the noisy Fascist authoritarian world out. Sadness and preoccupation do not abandon Gabriele’s heart while he is packing the not too many books he is allowed to take with himself to Sardinia. He is lastly seen by Antonietta when two individuals in plainclothes, probably working for the Fascist Secret Police, take him away. As to Antonietta, she is still reliving, perhaps, savoring her moments of intimacy with Gabriele when the bad news comes. His adrenaline running high, very much excited by the Fascist parade, just returned home his husband announces his bellicose Fascist intention. He wants to make love to Antonietta that very night in order to conceive another child to be called Adolfo in honor of the Nazi Führer. One additional child would make them win the prize that the Fascist demographic policy grants to especially numerous families, those having seven children or more. Antonietta buys some time glancing through the pages of Les trois mousquetaires, Gabriele’s parting gift. Politics, authoritarian politics continues to affect the personal lives of the regime subjects. There is no way out. No escape seems to be possible. The movie ends on the sound of a delicate somewhat nostalgic music combining the Nazi anthem Horst Wessel Lied with the very popular Italian song Belle bambine innamorate (beautiful little girls in love).
What have we learned?
My overall interpretation is torn between two poles. On the one hand, I am convinced that Ettore Scola, the film director, was most certainly aware of many of the ‘political’ implications of the story he was telling. On the other hand, however, I also believe that uppermost in his mind were two different preoccupations: first, to suggest that an encounter with love can develop and lovemaking can take place even in the most unlikely circumstances; second, to emphasize that politics is always around us. Politics is the inescapable contextual environment. It encircles both our emotions and our behaviors, even more so when it is politics with an authoritarian face. I am aware that some scholars, namely Theodor Adorno, have written that there can be no authenticity of any kind under a repressive regime. But he was dealing with Nazi totalitarianism. Orwell’s 1984 conveys a different view of the relationship between two lovers. My opinion is that, occasionally and for extremely short periods of time, it is possible to carve personal spaces within the authoritarian wrapping/packaging. In authoritarian regimes, there remains a quite limited freedom from pervasive State control. Only the powerful, the ruling class that during Fascism did not mean only the political office-holders, but also the industrialists, the bishops, the top bureaucrats, have some freedom, that is, they could enjoy some discretionality to be used in order to protect and to promote their interests, preferences, wishes. In a context of ‘limited, not responsible, not competitive pluralism’, the leaders of the surviving associations and of some institutions: the military, the Church, the bureaucracy, enjoyed some restricted autonomy. The only privacy available for individual persons was the by-product of the lack of resources in the hands of the rulers and of the inefficiency of their instruments and their henchmen. No authoritarian, as distinguished from totalitarian, regime, is ever capable of preventing the existence and the persistence of interstices of limited discretionality and, yes, freedom of action. All anti-authoritarian oppositions have built on this possibility. Again, Linz’s essays (especially 1973) are fundamental readings (but several other Italian movies would come to my mind, for instance Il sospetto e Il conformista)
The overall message is political in a high sense. Seen not through the eyes, but through a brief interlude in the otherwise problematic and sad lives of one man and one woman who suddenly discover each other’s existence and who become aware that they will probably not see each other again, the story filmed by Scola is not overtly meant to send a political message. Indeed, it is because it is up to the spectators to decipher and interpret the message that what is learned is all the more powerful. All authoritarian regimes — and Fascism was a forerunner of modern authoritarian regimes– are not simply about the re-distribution and allocation of power, especially, but not only, political power, among a variety, though small (‘limited pluralism’), of political, social, economic actors. Deliberately or not, the actions of authoritarian rulers, all their ceremonies, discriminations, promises (a prize for those who ‘produce’ many children: numbers are power for the Nation, but, also, to some extent, money for the ‘producers’) affect the lives of all their subjects. The illusions of temporary suspensions of interferences and sanctions are possible, through luck. But the noise of authoritarianism will still remain lurking in the background. Its impact is unavoidable. Antonietta will be obliged to ‘satisfy’ the sexual appetite of her husband. Gabriele will have to bury himself in, at the time, inhospitable Sardinia. Caught at its highest moment of success, Fascism appeared unshakable.
Antonietta, Gabriele and Pereira are non-heroes. At the most, Gabriele and Pereira become lukewarm opponents of a regime that is affecting their personal lives, not because of love of freedom for their fellow-citizens. Only the Italian student in Portugal is willing to risk, and lose, his life for the pure love of freedom, for a country not his own. He was implementing the battle cry of the Rosselli brothers and many Italian opponents of the Fascist regime who went to fight side by side with the Republicans in the Spanish civil war: ‘Today in Portugal [the original being, of course ‘in Spain’] tomorrow in Italy. Authoritarian regimes are less pervasive and less repressive than totalitarian regimes, but they too attempt to corrupt the minds and hearts of their ‘subjects’. Not always successfully.
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