3 July 2017

Alessandro Blasetti - film director

Reputation tarnished by links with Mussolini

Alessandro Blasetti was one of the first directors to use the techniques of neorealism in his films
Alessandro Blasetti was one of the first directors
to use the techniques of neorealism in his films
Alessandro Blasetti, the film director sometimes referred to as ‘the father of Italian cinema’ for the part he played in reviving the film industry in Italy in the late 1920s and 30s, was born on this day in 1900 in Rome.

In his directing style, Blasetti was seen as ahead of his time, even in his early days.  His films were often shot on location, used many non-professional actors and had the characteristics of the neorealism that would make Italian cinema famous in the post-War years.

Yet he will forever be seen by some critics as an apologist for Fascism, a charge which stems mainly from his support for at least part of the ideology of Benito Mussolini, which led to a number of his films being interpreted as Fascist propaganda, although the evidence in some cases was rather thin.

The son of an oboe professor at Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Blasetti graduated in law from the Sapienza University of Rome.   Married in 1923, his first job was as a bank clerk but after a year he began to work as a journalist and wrote the first film column to appear in an Italian national newspaper.

He used his position to campaign for a revival of film production in Italy, which at that time had largely ground to a halt, despite Rome having been a major hub of the silent movie industry before the First World War.

Adriana Benetti and Gino Cervi in a scene from Blasetti's 1942 film Quattro pasi fra le nuvole
Adriana Benetti and Gino Cervi in a scene from
Blasetti's 1942 film Quattro pasi fra le nuvole 
Blasetti helped begin the resurgence with his first movie, Sole – Sun – in 1929, with a storyline set against the real-life draining of the Pontine Marshes, south of Rome, a project organised by Mussolini.

Mussolini applauded the end result, declaring it to be ‘the dawn of the Fascist film’. Financed through a co-operative, it was not a commercial success yet it was significant in that Mussolini saw film as a way of spreading his message and would later invest much state funding in the Italian film industry.

Blasetti’s early neorealism was clear in 1860, a film made in 1934 about Garibaldi’s campaign to unite Italy as seen through the eyes of two peasants, again with much location filming and imbued with the same kind of visual starkness that would be associated with Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and others in the post-War years.

It can be argued that several of Blasetti’s 1930s films are critical of the Fascist regimes. Vecchio guardia - The Old Guard - recounts Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, which led to his ascension to power. Ironically, it was criticised by some in the Fascist government for having too few scenes of public enthusiasm for Il Duce.

Blasetti pictured in 1965
Blasetti pictured in 1965
Blasetti, however, did not discourage Mussolini’s interest in his work and took every opportunity to lobby for state funding and support. One outcome was the construction of the large, state-of-the-art CinecittĂ  studios in Rome, which would give Italian filmmakers the resources to make a real impact.

A marked shift to neorealism came with Quattro pasi fra le nuvole – Four Steps in the Clouds – his 1942 story of a married salesman who agrees to save the honour of a pregnant girl he meets on a train by presenting himself to her family as her husband.

As well as his films, Blasetti’s notable contribution to Italian cinema was as founder of the school that was to become the Centro Sperimentale, Rome’s noted film study centre archive.  He died in Rome in 1987.

Coastal lakes or lagoons typify the Pontine Marshes
Coastal lakes or lagoons typify the Pontine Marshes
Travel tip:

The Pontine Marshes is a reclaimed area of land south of Rome, bordered roughly by the Alban Hills, the Lepini Mountains, and the Tyrrhenian Sea.  It was a marshy and malarial area that several emperors and popes tried unsuccessfully to drain and until the early part of the 20th century it was inhabited by just a handful of shepherds. However, in 1928 the Fascist government drained the marshes, cleared the vegetation and built new towns, notably Littoria (now Latina) in 1932, Sabaudia in 1934, Pontinis in 1935, Aprilia in 1937, and Pomezia in 1939. By the Second World War the only untouched area was the Monte Circeo National Park. The area is now the most productive agricultural region in in Italy.

Travel tip:

The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia – the Italian national film school - was established in 1935. The oldest film school in Western Europe, it is still financed by the Italian government. It is located near CinecittĂ , about 10km (6 miles) south-east of the centre of Rome along Via Tuscolana.

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