These have been heady times for fans of motion pictures about overbearing totalitarians.
Recently in cinemas nationwide was Defiance, Edward Zwick's uplifting movie about Jewish partisans battling the Nazis in Belorussia during World War II. Simultaneously, The Reader, an oddly compassionate film about a concentration camp guard who allows 300 inmates to burn alive, won Kate Winslet an Academy Award. Nicely sandwiched between them was Valkyrie, a Yuletide 2008 release about a group of conscience-stricken German officers who belatedly realize that Adolf Hitler is making life miserable for everyone in the civilized world and really just has to go. Throw into the mix the recent Good, a lugubrious Viggo Mortensen affair about a scholarly euthanasia buff who falls in with the wrong crowd in Weimar Germany, and it's safe to say that no one in Hollywood is stinting on Nazi themes these days.
Were murderous henchmen of Der Führer the only implacable enemies of mankind to get treated to the full onscreen treatment, one might argue that no clear artistic or thematic trend can yet be discerned here. But this is not the case. The beloved psychopath Che Guevara is front-and-center in Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic Che, which portrays the feisty, cigar-chomping Cuban revolutionary less as a cunning revolutionary than as an aging matinee idol. Meanwhile, the monsters responsible for the Empire of the Sun have gotten taken to the woodshed in films as varied as Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, James Ivory's The White Countess, and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. And then, coming straight out of left field, the Christian Phalangists of Lebanon got raked right over the coals in the highly regarded animated film Waltz with Bashir, which was up for an Oscar this year.
The fact is, totalitarians of all stripes have been taking it on the chin from filmmakers for several years. East German communists got taken to task in The Lives of Others, a gripping motion picture that won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. That same year, Pan's Labyrinth exposed Franco's Falangists for the pitiless scum they were, just in case anyone had forgotten. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a touching art-house film, laid bare the villainous anti-intellectualism of the Communist party during the Cultural Revolution. Add to that The Motorcycle Diaries, The Good German, Before Night Falls, Downfall, The Pianist, Jakob the Liar, and a host of others, and it is clear that the film industry has not been lying down on the job when it comes to addressing the vexing issue of totalitarianism. Even, as in the case of Che, when it gets the story a teensy-weensy bit wrong.
And yet, in all this, there is one disturbing note. Where, amidst all these top-flight films about Reds, Nazis, and Falangists, are the movies about Mussolini's fascisti? For those of us who grew up being electrified by Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, and Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, it is depressing and deflating to see how cavalierly the Italian Fascists have been snubbed in recent times by the powers-that-be.
Where the depredations of Il Duce and his crew were once on full display in films like Bertolucci's 1900, the Taviani Brothers' Night of the Shooting Stars, and Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and where the dark cloud of Italian Fascism hovered over a group of whacky British ex-pats in Franco Zeffirelli's 1999 Tea With Mussolini, Il Duce and the boys have been ignored in recent cinema. Even La Vita è Bella, the heartwarming 1997 film which both opened and closed the career of the rambunctious Roberto Benigni in this country, gave short shrift to the fascisti, preferring to concentrate on the high-handed concentration camp tactics of the Nazis, as if the Italians were not also responsible for the murder of Italian Jewry.
To those of us who revel in films about the Italian Fascists--a group sometimes referred to as fascistifilmenphiles--the freezing-out of this important segment of the totalitarian community is both perplexing and disheartening. It's not as if the Fascists didn't provide adequate visuals--those snappy black shirts, those Old School Roman Empire salutes, Il Duce's tassled headgear, not to mention his hung-by-the-heels exit--would all seem to make a natural fit for filmmakers everywhere. And since a chippy neofascist movement is alive and well in Italy today, it is not as if Mussolini's legacy is no longer relevant to our times.
Why, then, have the once ubiquitous Fascists been dispatched to the sidelines? Obviously, it didn't help that the Italians never had a Leni Riefenstahl to commit their story to memory. It might also have helped if the Fascists had had a proper air force and participated in the Battle of Britain. They also make crummy subjects for action films because they never won any battles. And because of Hitler's decision to bail out Mussolini during his comical invasion of Greece in 1940, the German invasion of Russia was delayed by weeks, very possibly costing the Thousand Year Reich the war. So there are probably still some bruised feelings about that in certain sectors of the German film industry.
All that said, the deliberate snubbing of Mussolini & Co. does a great disservice to our children. Since kids never learn anything except by watching movies, and since there have been no recent big-budget movies about the inept but peppery Fascists, Il Duce and the boys run the risk of fading out of the pages of history completely. Just as the Jutes got upstaged by the Huns, and the Tatars have historically had to play second fiddle to the Mongols, the Fascists are now in danger of becoming as cinematically obscure and irrelevant as the Picts, the Alani, and various other remorseless enemies of mankind.
And frankly, that's just not right.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.