Mark Cousins told David Hennessy about his new documentary that looks at the rise of fascism in Italy more than 100 years ago but also shows that fascism is on the rise again and has never really gone away.
Mark Cousins’ The March on Rome screens this weekend at the second Italian Docs Season at London’s Bertha DocHouse – a bi-annual season of new Italian documentaries that focus on topics that resonate in Italy and around the world.
Born in Belfast, Mark Cousins’ films have screened at many prestigious film festivals around the world, winning numerous awards and accolades. These include Cannes Film Festival award-winner The Eyes Of Orson Welles.
In The March on Rome, Cousins narrates the ascent of fascism in Italy and its fall-out across 1930s Europe. Cousins brings us back to the grisly founding myth of European fascism: Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922: his march of blackshirts from Naples to the capital.
In the face of the marchers’ supposed fascist might, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III overruled his prime minister Luigi Facta and installed Mussolini instead, so that no actual coup d’état was required.
Cousins contextualises history through a modern landscape with a creeping far right.
Mark Cousins told The Irish World: “I’ve made a film about the far right before (Another Journey by Train). It was about Holocaust deniers and Neo-Nazis, and I lived with them and filmed with them. So I’d been interested in the far right before but I hadn’t thought of making film on this subject. I thought I could make it about visual culture, about cinema and the way that Mussolini and the other fascists in other countries used visual imagery to try to convince people about fascism.”
Cousins discusses the part played by the fledgling artform of cinema, deconstructing A Noi! or Us! by Umberto Paradisi, the propaganda film that created the mythology of the march and exaggerated its size and popular acclaim.
The march on Rome was very much a propaganda exercise as much as anything else, wasn’t it? “Yeah, I think dictators and autocrats often understand the power of imagery and non-verbal storytelling, and they use it for propaganda purposes.
“Hitler did and Donald Trump does. And lots of them really get that, want to tell stories in visual, almost mythic ways. The central message of Mussolini and fascism was to his country, ‘You are on your knees but I can make you rise again’.”
Cousins’s film shows that Mussolini himself was not heroically in the vanguard, but hung back in Milan for some time, ready to flee the country if the march failed – and took a train to Rome when it appeared to be successful.
Was it important to show that Mussolini was actually as cowardly as he was, being nowhere near Rome at the time of the march?
“Yeah, I think so. We see in that footage in A Noi! that not long before he became the Mussolini that we know from the newsreels, he was uncertain about strategy. I think we demonstrate in our film that it was the business people and what we would now call the oligarchs and the masons behind him who gave him this kind of story about himself.
“He certainly wasn’t a courageous man in those early years, I don’t think. He was unsure about how to proceed with his ideas until there was a sort of invisible alignment behind him of other forces in Italian society.”
Very much like Hitler in post- World War I Germany, Mussolini spoke to a sentiment of the time, didn’t he?
“Yes, and he created the sentiment as well. Both I think. If you create a story which is about victimhood. If you say to a country, ‘You have been a victim of history or of these other people’, whether it’s Jews or Muslims or anything, it’s very easy to tell a story of victimhood because a lot of us are receptive to that. And we (Irish) have multiple victim narratives ourselves, and partly they are true.
“So these far right people, and I think sometimes far left but mostly far right people, are good at identifying weaknesses or fears, but then telling a whole story out of those fears.”
Mussolini promised greatness would be restored to Italy by the fascists ‘with love if possible, by force if necessary’.
“Isn’t that incredible? That sums it up. And I think that far right politicians around the world say similar things, ‘I’m a person of love. I’m a man of the people but if you cross me, I’ll get the military’.
“I say Rome’s a kind of stage and on it came these actors, so there is a sense that the fascists, not only in Italy but other countries, were putting on a show. They were theatre people, they put on a show. They used language well, and as we’ve said, image well, to tell a very resonant, very powerful horror story.
“That’s why I end the film by saying, ‘It knows what scares you’, because it is horror story that they tell. And as we know, horror movies are often very compelling and have continued to compel. The fascists are very good at these images and words as a way to tell a story which closes down our natural empathy and humanity, I think.”
The film shows the brutal archive footage of Mussolini’s dead body (and that of his mistress) when he was eventually deposed and turned on by the people.
It was important to show Mussolini’s ending as well,
“They will be defeated. Because you can stretch a lie really far like mozzarella but at the end, it won’t continue stretching.
“Because these people try to hide the murderous aspect of fascism, disguise it in some way. There is that famous phrase, ‘An iron fist in a velvet glove’. But eventually the velvet wears down and we see the iron fist, their murderous intent becomes clear.
“And therefore retribution has to happen. Now it’s often too little too late but they are found out eventually. Unfortunately some of them get away with it. In Chile, they got away with it but most of them are found out.”
Did anything surprise you or particularly horrify you in your research or work on the film?
“I think I knew about the European fascism. I knew about Ethiopia. I don’t think I really knew about some of the Balkan things, and that was pretty terrifying to see some of the footage from the concentration camps in the Balkans like Slovenia.
“I hadn’t seen the footage from Slovenia, there’s one quick shot of a very thin person, and a decapitated head and that kind of imagery I had not seen before. It was not an easy film to make because it was months of looking at archive footage and all the footage was from the authoritarian right.
“Almost none of it was shot by resistance people or partisans because they didn’t have cameras so, day after day, week after week, month after month, watching either boring military marches or dehumanising footage of Africans and Albanians- I cried regularly during the making of this film. It was the only time I’ve ever done that in my life as a filmmaker.”
It affected you much more than anything else you ever made?
“Yeah, I think so because when I was making the Holocaust denial film, I was spending time with actual Auschwitz survivors and so they were so inspiring that it balanced it out but when you’re just looking at this footage and looking at just the numbers of people who died, the numbers are so vast. I mean it’s usually millions in each case.”
The film clearly touched a nerve as the current Italian government tried to stop The March on Rome being shown in schools.
“When the film first premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the right wing press in Italy was very angry because there’s a brief shot of Giorgia Meloni in it, the current Premier of Italy. So they were furious and there was quite a lot of denunciation then. And then some months later, when school teachers decided to use it in the classroom- and it was up to the individual school teachers whether they wanted to use this- Then elements of the current Italian government were outraged and tried to stop it. But quite right, the majority and all the more sane voices in the Italian Parliament said, ‘Look, teachers should decide what they teach, not politicians’.
“I think I was named in the Italian Parliament. In fact, I know I was and they basically were, ‘Who is this foreigner who can tell our story?’ But fascism is partly a global story and if you come from a country like Ireland, which has also been colonised, then you’ve got some sense. And if you come from a city like Belfast which had a pretty disturbing Troubles, then you’ve got some grip on the story, I think.”
When you went to Italy, did you get a sense of how the far right were able to get into power in these day and age?
“In Germany, all the statues of Hitler and the fascist period are gone. The swastikas are gone. No public building contains any of that imagery. But in Italy, a lot of it’s still there. The mosaics about Mussolini are still there. The quotations on the walls of the buildings from the fascist time are still there. So Italy didn’t detox.
“That’s part of the reason, I think, why it’s possible to come back in some form, because it wasn’t a completely taboo subject. The de-fascism-isation of Italy wasn’t complete.
“The second thing is, since Berlusconi in the 1980s, Italy has had some very right wing, very authoritarian, very macho premiers and politicians and they have kind of cheapened the discourse and they’ve removed public belief in things like integrity and decency and accountability in public office. And once that goes, it’s very hard to restore that and so that’s another reason why these Fratelli d’Italia and all these people have got in recently.
“The vast majority of Italians are not nostalgic about fascism, particularly the older people. They’re not at all but these clever politicians of the far right, like Giorgia Meloni are very good at detoxing their brand and saying, ‘We’re not that. We are for jobs and economic protectionism so that China doesn’t take over our economy’ and things like that.
“So they talk about everyday social injustice and employment, which really does chime with the average Italian, especially in the southern half of the country. A lot of that resonates with ordinary people who are worried about money and jobs. Remember, Italy’s been hit very hard by the financial crisis.
“So these politicians are able to separate the messaging which will appeal and sort of disguise or hide the more aggressive or inhuman aspect of their ideology. I think that’s what happens. So a lot of people will say, ‘Yeah, well, I agree with her on employment and, to be honest, also in some social and cultural issues around LGBT as well’. A lot of Italians are quite traditional about that.”
There’s been a narrative in recent years- particularly with Giorgia Meloni rising to power in Italy- that fascism has returned. This film shows it never left.
“It’s never really gone away. When I showed Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) the rough cut of this film, he said, ‘Fascism is always defeated but first, it kills millions’. And that’s the sad truth. Because fascism is broadly a lie, the lie is eventually found out. (But first) it takes down an awful lot of people in its path. So yes, the pendulum is swinging.
“In lots of countries, the pendulum is swinging to the right and that’s because there’s lots of social change and historical change and global change around migration and things. The fascists really are good (at that).
“That’s when they come alive, when there’s a lot of change and migration or economics. Because they say to people, ‘You are at risk. If you don’t vote me, if you don’t vote for excessive power, then you’re vulnerable’. So we can see it in many countries around the world at the moment.
“Not all of them, Spain didn’t go right when we thought it would, Brazil has just kicked out Bolsonaro which was good news. And Poland has just done a reasonably decent thing politically, it’s gone for more tolerance and humanity and acceptance. So there is no need to be totally depressed, but it’ll never be totally defeated.”
Although we’d like to exclude Ireland from this conversation, we had those riots late last year that were put down to rising far right elements…
“Yeah, I think Ireland has been a success story, certainly since I was young. I was brought up in the north but I would look to the south and think, ‘Wow, it’s so conservative down there, theocratic etc’. But then Ireland kind of leapfrogged from the 19th century to the 21st century through its social liberalisation, and we were all moved and impressed by that.
“But of course, there are always pockets of very traditional conservative people who have a sort of mythic idea of what Ireland is, and ‘it’s a place of white people and the Catholic Church, and patriarchy’ and all that sort of stuff. So those people are showing their colours and they’re also stirring the pot.
“So you can only win this by argument and say, ‘Have these new citizens who have come to Ireland made the country worse?’ Answer, no, and so it’s evidence based. These people are integrating, they’re doing jobs, they’re really helping improve Irish society. And therefore, that’s the way we win that argument.”
Cousins juxtaposes the march on Rome with America’s Capitol riots, which did not result in the concession that Donald Trump was hoping to force.
“It was quite similar,” Mark says. I was late to understand Trump, even until he was elected. I was saying, ‘Yes, he’s very far right but he’s not fascist adjacent’. And then in his inauguration when he said, ‘This American carnage’, when he used those three words I remember getting a shiver. If you’re gonna use a word like carnage about a very malfunctioning democracy but nonetheless a democracy that’s just had an African American president, then you’re getting into Mussolini territory. Trump is getting into Mussolini territory, at least the worship of the military, to control the legislature, the attempt to undermine the authority of the media: These are all classic Mussolini ideas.”
Putin’s face is also shown, it was important to make that modern parallel, wasn’t it?
“That’s a complex one because Putin says that he’s fighting Nazism. He says, rather stupidly, that the reason why he invaded Ukraine was because there are Nazis in Ukraine. Now, let’s be honest, there are Nazis in Ukraine but not many and they’re certainly not high up in government. But Putin ticks a lot of the fascist boxes,
“He’s expansionist. He believes his borders are too narrow. He believes that the country has been humiliated by the loss of its empire, the Soviet empire, he controls the media a lot. He worships violence. So I think he ticks most of the boxes and that’s a dangerous one because he’s not a small country.”