Mark Cousins discovers History in The March on Rome. His most cited work concerns the ever-expanding chronology and development of cinema, but I seldom come away from his work with an improved understanding of the milieu from of which our visual lives develop. This turn towards History makes The March on Rome his most Political work. The film opens with a sequence of Donald Trump defending both his ignorance and his ‘retweeting’ of words spoken by Benito Mussolini (a quote which will later also be attributed to Jair Bolsonaro). There is urgency in this political awareness, not least of all given the resurgence of Fascism in Italy, culminating in the election of Fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The extent of Cousins’ engagement, and the efficacy of this film as essay, is limited by his inability to think beyond the confines of the cinematic apparatus.
Cousins largely organises his film around an analysis of A Noi!, a propaganda film produced by the Fascist Party in Italy. This allows an examination of the burgeoning monumentality of far-right iconography, as well as the factual elisions establishing the totalising nature of myth. A Noi! is purported to document the so-called March on Rome of late October 1922, during which the Blackshirts walked from Naples to Rome. The marcher’s itinerary is altered to appear more appropriately monumental. By way of example, Cousins shows that some of the footage presented as being from late October was actually shot in early November. It rained during part of the march; an elemental intrusion not acceptable to the Fascist imaginary. Cousins plays this for laughs, drawing comparisons to a Charlie Chaplin short from the same year, Pay Day, in which a rainy night provides the setting for Chaplin’s signature slapstick. The far-right brooks no laughter.
A Noi! also suggests that the march culminated on 31 October at the Altare della Patria. Cousins shows that the Blackshirts only march to the Altare on the 4th of November, and this not to climb the steps but to disrupt a rally planned by competing ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio. Cousins’ strategy here is to scratch away the myth to reveal the self-serving politics underneath, a theatrical coup by way of the image as proxy. He expands on this with reference to Il Potere (Power), a film directed by Augusto Tretti in 1972. Tretti not only rains on the Blackshirts, but presents Mussolini as a pawn in the vested interest of the military, the banks, and the landowning class. We are again invited to laugh at a Mussolini with an oversized head and the representation of this triumvirate of influence as royally robed big cats (a lion, a tiger, and a leopard, respectively).
Cousins characterises Fascist image making as muscular and phallic, with particular reference to the Obelisco del Foro Italico outside the Olympic Stadium in Rome. However, using a similar strategy as in his I am Belfast and Stockholm, My Love, he casts Alba Rohrwacher as the personification of Fascist supporters in Italy (or perhaps of Italy itself). She charts the slide from the hope promised by the Fascists to the disillusionment generated by its reality, an odd choice in a film so committed to the forensic exploration of images.
The March on Rome most succeeds as a treatise on 1922 as the year zero of the current, global rise of far-right politics. Cousins characterises Mussolini and the March on Rome as inspiration, first, for the Estado Novo of Portugal, Franco’s Spain, Japanese militarism, and, later, on Marine Le Pen, Orbán’s “illiberalism,” Modhi’s Hindu ultra-nationalism, Putin, and the aforementioned Trump, Bolsonaro, and Meloni. Images of Fascist terror are shown alongside images of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol and the devastation of Mariupol. It is not simply that we must “never forget” historical Fascism, but rather that we must never cease smashing the Fascists on our doorsteps.
The March on Rome ultimately frustrates this necessity. 1922, Cousins tells us, also saw the release of Carl Dreyer’s Die Gezeichneten (Love One Another), a film about tolerance, and the births of Ava Gardner and Judy Garland. This latter point is particularly baffling. It is a return to what Cousins calls, in his The Story of Film, the Bauble. We do hear from later Italian films on the matter (Una giornata particolare, Il conformista, Salò) though the post-war, neo-realist period is conspicuously absent. However, Cousins here offers as an alternative not a committed cinema, but a cinema of the dream factory, of the Hollywood starlet. This becomes harder to ignore when Cousins chooses as his final word on re-emergent Fascism that, like horror movies, it knows what scares us. He is here recalling a close-up in A Noi! of a likeness of Mussolini framed and lit very much like a still from a studio horror. A closing reference to cinema appended to a litany of historical atrocities shifts the focus away from what Cousins otherwise does well in The March on Rome.