Venice Review: Mark Cousins’ ‘The March On Rome’

·4 min read

Right at the beginning of The March On Rome, a special screening in the Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival, Mark Cousins draws our collective gaze to a piece of graffiti saying that cinema is the most powerful weapon of all. It isn’t clear — to me, anyway — whether that joyful proclamation dates back to 1922, when Benito Mussolini led a Fascist march from Naples to Rome, or to some other eruption of historical optimism. Cinema isn’t as powerful as all that — if it were, Fascism would have been clobbered to a pulp by Chaplin, Lubitsch and all the other filmmakers who lampooned its vainglorious leaders. But images do matter. They certainly mattered to Italian Fascism.

Mussolini was hellbent on taking over Italy “with love if possible, by force if necessary,” a neat phrase much repeated in Cousins’ film essay. He marched on Rome as an invader. Meanwhile, he made sure he got the whole thing on film, courtesy of director Umberto Paradisi. Paradisi’s film A Noi came out the following year. By twisting documentary footage from the march together with grand studio set-ups, faked crowd scenes and other tricks of the propagandist, Paradisi made Il Duce into a movie hero.

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Cousins makes documentaries so distinctive that they constitute a sort of genre. They are made up of archival material spliced together with the director’s observations — a familiar essay format — but their trademark feature is Cousins’ voice. Dreamy and discursive, it falls with the quiet insistence of the gentle rain from heaven, drenching everything we see in his quirky musings. Days after seeing a Cousins film, you may find yourself speaking in a comedy pastiche of his northern Irish brogue. You may also realize you are rolling your eyes.

Cousins’ chosen medium is also his constant subject: film. His Peabody-winning 15-hour documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (2011) is his magnum opus, much admired. Other recent works, however — particularly those tilting more towards personal memoir — have been critically pilloried as indulgent vanity projects. The director’s responses to what he sees are intrinsic to his style, but so much inner monologue wears thin quickly when he is focused on less substantial subjects.

The March on Rome is about the growth of European Fascism. Obviously, it has plenty of substance. It is also admirably disciplined. Co-written with Italian director Tony Saccucci, it begins with a meticulous dissection of A Noi’s narrative and its manipulation of facts. Along with multiplying the crowds with camera tricks, Paradisi excised the days on the march when it rained. “It had to be golden, Virgilian,” says Cousins, whose sometimes florid turn of phrase works very well as a counterpoint to Fascist excess. A Noi also hides the fact that for much of the march, Mussolini wasn’t even there: he was off in back rooms, doing less than heroic deals with kings and prime ministers.

Subsequent chapters deal with those backroom deals, the explicitly masculine Fascist identity and the lionizing of the leader. Mussolini, asserts Cousins, saw himself as an artist conducting his revolution. Italy also had an empire in Africa and annexed territories in the Balkans; there is a subtle depiction of the way the thrusting spirit of Fascism propelled the colonial regimes, “a contagion of crimes” in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s dictatorship collected fans — no less a figure than Churchill described him as “the greatest living legislator” — and imitators. “The story was a lie,” says Cousins, “but it entered the repertoire.”

That’s Cousins at his best, giving us a swath of history, nailing it in place with an aphorism and moving on.

Less successful are the intermittent speeches direct to camera by Alba Rohrwacher, playing the role of a woman initially persuaded by Mussolini’s promise of calm and steadily more aghast at how that calm is achieved. This gesture towards a common touch feels painfully staged, not to mention superfluous. Cousins himself is both author and witness to his material. He may not be on camera, but he speaks directly to us. That voice: he sounds like Northern Ireland’s version of a Hollywood hypnotist. You can’t help but picture him behind the scenes, swinging a watch from side to side as he plots to persuade us that cinema really is the most powerful force in the universe.

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