Venice 2022 review: March on Rome (Mark Cousins)

“An urgent and vital film, March on Rome is meticulously researched and imaginatively created, and should probably be required viewing in high schools from Rome to Tokyo and from Washington to Delhi.”

Over the past two decades neo-fascism has been on a steady rise throughout the world. As global insecurity increases and people find it ever more difficult to grasp their place in the world, fascism exploits the things that scare us. This isn’t a new phenomenon, obviously. But where lie its roots? Where does this desire for strongmen find its origins? Mark Cousins’ fascinating essayist documentary March on Rome takes us back to the moment fascism got its first foothold, and explores how fateful events in Italy in late October 1922 have reverberated throughout the 20th century and to our current times. By examining archive material and mixing it with footage of present-day Rome and a representation of the populus through actress Alba Rohrwacher, Cousins doles out a damning warning about a noxious weed that seems to be ineradicable, and ponders how to suppress it. As the film ends on a sombre, almost melancholic rendition of Bella Ciao, the recognizable anti-fascist folk song that finds its roots in the same country that birthed the fascist movement, March on Rome leaves the viewer with much to think about. An urgent and vital film, March on Rome is meticulously researched and imaginatively created, and should probably be required viewing in high schools from Rome to Tokyo and from Washington to Delhi.

Cousins starts his dissection with cinema, by looking at two films from the early 1920s. One is a sceneggiata made by Italy’s premier female filmmaker of the time, Elvira Notari, showing street scenes in Naples’ poorer neighbourhoods. The other is A Noi, a film by Umberto Paradisi that documents the March on Rome, which started on October 24, 1922 with a speech by Benito Mussolini to a gathering of 60,000 fascists in Naples, and ended with Mussolini being handed the state by King Victor Emmanuel III five days later. The film is pure fascist propaganda, produced a year after the fact, and a clear template for the later works of Leni Riefenstahl, although the latter’s films have clearly more artistic merit. Cousins deconstructs the film, showing how through the use of multiple cameras and editing tricks Paradisi manipulated reality to create an image of masculine strength, the image so beloved by fascists the world over.

March on Rome then moves on to look at Mussolini, Il Duce, the demagogue that successfully mystified his adoring crowds, and questions if he truly was the man in power. Rome is a stage, Cousins says, and Mussolini was the actor that stepped onto that stage to play his part. But who were the directors in the wings? The extensive research by co-writer Tony Saccucci, who originated the project, leads to Raoul Vittorio Palermi. An important figure with the Italian freemasons, Palermi met with the King on the eve of Mussolini’s coup d’état, after which Victor Emmanuel refused to sign a state of siege that Prime Minister Luigi Facta had ordered after blackshirts gathered outside Rome. The film also shows the army, landowners, and commerce as the forces behind Mussolini’s grab for power. Were they the puppeteers, and he the puppet? But Mussolini also had support from abroad. Editorials in the US admired his strength, Winston Churchill approved of his actions, Sigmund Freud supported him. Mussolini inspired other fascists around the world, from the Iberian peninsula to Japan.

Continuously Cousins manages to incorporate cinema into his narrative, ranging from Ettore Scola’s Una Giornata Particolare (set on the day of a meeting between Mussolini and Adolf Hitler) to Dreyer, from Bertolucci to Pasolini. Through these examples he shows the power of true cinema, and how a film like A Noi underimagined cinema. Cinema has a real interest in people that fascist propaganda like A Noi by its very nature lacks. Cousins’ calm, almost soothing voice takes the glorifying imagery apart bit by bit, leaving space for wry humour from time to time, as when he notes that all these fascist leaders like to make speeches from balconies, dubbing them ‘the balcony boys’. “Can they see Dachau from up there, or Auschwitz?” he muses.

But what about the common people? What about the folks we see early on in the shots from Notari’s film? Cousins personifies them through Anna, played by Alba Rohrwacher, whose monologues are interspersed throughout the film, embodying the sentiment of the Italian people. Admiration gradually makes place for disillusionment, once the realization comes that the populist message was just a façade. It’s an intriguing way to incorporate the voice of the people into the film, but it doesn’t fully gel with the rest of the material.

March on Rome opens with an interview of Donald Trump as he is questioned about using a quote originally by Mussolini. At the end of the film it comes full circle when we see images of people storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Cousins convincingly connects the dots between the origins of fascism as we know it, which started with the March on Rome, and its direct descendants in our current times. This makes March on Rome at once a timely film and a historical document, yet also an inspiring look at the power of cinema, for good causes, yet unfortunately sometimes also for the bad ones. When the camera turns to the Rome of today we can still see the edifices to Italy’s fascist past. And A Noi also still exists. What to do with this past? Cousins suggests to preserve it, mock it, teach it. And those lessons should start with this magnificent documentary.