While Germany under the Nazis was pursuing a cinematic strategy of escapist comedies, political propaganda, and epic spectacles, combined with liberal doses of “B” grade Hollywood films and Mickey Mouse cartoons (until 1939, when imports from the West were abruptly halted after the start of hostilities in Europe), Italy pursued a slightly different course. Benito Mussolini created the Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografice (ENIC) in 1934 and thus consolidated the production and exhibition of films into one gigantic entity. In 1935, Mussolini began construction of Cinecittà, the vast film studio near Rome that still stands today, and also created a film school for aspiring young directors, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.
The key directors of the early sound period in Italy, Alessandro Blasetti and Mario Camerini, created a serviceable yet unremarkable series of films during this time, such as Blasetti’s dramatic Terra Madre (Motherland, 1931) and Camerini’s comedy Gli Uomini che Mascalzoni! (What Scoundrels Men Are!, 1932), starring a young Vittorio De Sica, who would later become one of Italy’s greatest directors as part of the postwar Neorealist movement. Melodramas were especially popular with Italian audiences, particularly the sub-genre known as telefono bianco, or “white telephone” films, which depicted the emotional turmoil of Italy’s upper classes in the manner of a contemporary nighttime soap opera, as in Guido Brignone’s Paradiso (Paradise, 1932).
As the war approached, Cinecittà, then one of the most modern production facilities in Europe, with sixteen sound stages and generous state subsidies and tax breaks, began churning out a mix of escapist and frankly propagandistic films. These included Carmine Gallone’s Scipione l’Africano (Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal, 1937), a historical drama in the “sword and sandal” mode that sought to capitalize on Italy’s past military glories to galvanize the public, and Gennaro Righelli’s LArmata azzurra (The Blue Fleet, 1932), which glorified the Italian air force.
Blasetti’s 1860 (1934) was another historical epic designed to inspire public support for Mussolini’s regime, while Giovacchino Forzano’s Camicia nera (Black Shirt, 1933) was even more direct in its admiration of Fascist ideology. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Italian wartime cinema, and its greatest legacy, comes from the many young directors who began their cinematic apprenticeship at Mussolini’s state-run film school, including Renato Castel-lani, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Pietro Germi, Giuseppe De Santis, and Michelangelo Antonioni, all of whom would go on to great success in the postwar era. These talented cineastes directed films at Cinecittà before or during the war, some in direct support of Mussolini’s regime, others merely designed as dramatic or comedic entertainment.