Italian Director Mario Camerini’s legacy has been tainted because he made films under the Mussolini regime. Film director and critic Carlo Lizzani wrote of Camerini as “sweetly slumbering through the 20 years of Fascism.” While Camerini spent much of the later Fascist era directing light, socially conservative comedies, he also made 1928’s Rotaie, one of very few Italian films of the Fascist era to confront the social upheaval then gripping the country. In Rotaie (Rails), Camerini uses the plight of an impoverished, despairing young couple who embark on a train journey after finding a wallet filled with money to explore a society thrown into disarray by a postwar economic crisis, the compression of time and space enabled by rapid train travel, and the rise of Fascism. If Camerini slept through Italy’s Fascist era, Rotaie suggests his slumber was less than peaceful.
Camerini was born in Rome in 1895. Three years later the first film was shot in Italy, a brief sequence of Pope Leo XIII blessing the camera. Although his father was an established official within the Italian Socialist Party, Camerini showed no interest in politics and was drawn instead to the new art of filmmaking. At 18, he received his first credit as a writer for 1913’s Le mani ignote (Unknown Hands), but his career was interrupted when Italy entered the First World War. He served in the army and was captured and imprisoned in Germany. Upon his return to Italy, he immediately resumed writing and directing, and, in 1923, he directed his first film, Jolly, clown da circo (Jolly, the Circus Clown). By 1926, Paramount brought Camerini to its Joinville studios outside Paris, where he learned to make Hollywood-style films for the European market.
Italy after the war was a different country than the one Camerini had left behind. A militant group led by Benito Mussolini had taken control of the government, promising to modernize Italy. Unlike other European nations, Italy had failed to embrace the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, remaining a mostly agrarian economy with pockets of urban industry. Mussolini’s brand of Fascism began as a movement of nationalistic industrialization. (Pressured by the Nazis, Italy later enacted racist policies similar to Germany’s National Socialists.) Central to Mussolini’s propaganda project was a vision of a “regenerated” Italy, with a healthy economy, a united electorate, and a bright future. In practice, his policies caused a deeper economic crisis, increased social turmoil, and created a bleaker future. The destitute couple at the center of Rotaie represent the beleaguered Italian proletariat, struggling with the destruction of rural communities in service of modernization. While Camerini provides them with a moment of good fortune that vaults them into a higher social strata, the Italian working class as a whole was not so lucky. In spite of the failure of his economic agenda, Mussolini maintained his grip on power, thanks in part to the success of the Fascist propaganda machine.
“Cinema is the strongest weapon,” Mussolini famously said when laying the cornerstone for Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1936. His son-in-law and minister of propaganda Galeazzo Ciano wrote that “only by taking inspiration from … the glories of its history … can [cinema] speak of our spirit and document the flowering of a powerful and new civilization.” Even prior to the arrival of Fascism, the earliest popular Italian films celebrated Greek and Roman history, notably Arturo Ambrosio’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1908). Making movies for propagandistic purposes was hardly an innovation of the Fascists. Italy’s first narrative film, Filoteo Alberini’s 1905 The Capture of Rome, portrayed the climactic event of the unification of Italy when the Papal army was overthrown in Rome in 1861. The film was largely funded by the Kingdom of Italy’s Ministry of Defense.
Camerini made several films funded by the Fascist government, including 1928’s Kif tebbi, which depicts heroic Italians liberating a grateful Libyan town from the Ottoman Empire and making it a new colony for Rome. On their surface, Camerini’s films appear to support Lizzani’s claim that the director tiptoed around controversy. The young Camerini seems to be trying to navigate the streams of political, artistic, and technological movements of the Fascist era. In Rotaie, Camerini boldly tackles these crosscurrents by propelling his protagonists across the borders of the working class and the bourgeoisie, his scenes across the borders of the city and country, and his cinematography across the borders of the avant-garde and the mainstream. He makes extensive use of montage, specifically of industrial symbols like train locomotives, which suggests a familiarity with contemporary Russian films like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). He also borrows the chiaroscuro lighting style of German Expressionist films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in Rotaie’s tenebrous urban scenes. He attempts to reconcile the fanatical exaltations of industrial progress promulgated by Italian Futurist artists like Filippo Marinetti who were closely associated with the early days of Italian Fascists, with, as historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written, “the price those machines extract from those who labor to keep them running.” He gives trains a central role, showing both the thrill and splendor of rapid travel as well as the destabilization brought about by linking previously distant cities with the country, the north with the south, and the poor with the rich.
Camerini used inexperienced actors in his films, believing they lent authenticity to the drama. His leading lady, Hungarian Käthe von Nagy, was a relative unknown who had made less than ten films before starring in Rotaie. She would go on to moderate success in the 1930s before moving to Southern California, where she spent the 1950s as a much-beloved French teacher. Rotaie was leading man Maurizio D’Ancora’s first film, and, by the late 1940s, he quit the movies to work as a fashion designer at Gucci.
The legacy of Rotaie is best reflected in the postwar Italian Neorealists, who not only used nonprofessional actors in their films but also embraced the themes of Camerini’s early works. Vittorio De Sica, who had his first leading role in Camerini’s Gli uomini, che mascalzoni! (What Rascals Men Are!, 1932), cited Rotaie’s influence on his own films and said that Camerini taught him to be “truthful and sincere” in his filmmaking. Camerini’s reputation, in the words of Lizzani, as “the great confessor of the Italian lower middle classes” was largely earned directing telefoni bianchi, a genre of bourgeois comedies so-named for its upper-class settings that prominently featured white enamel telephones. Yet even these stories anticipate the dreams of affluence aspired to by the characters in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948)
In the 1920s, a decade of social and political turbulence in Italy, most Italian films consisted of spectacular historical dramas, light comedies, and action-packed historical epics, many of them made by Camerini himself. Rotaie stands out as a notable exception. While it concludes on a note far from open defiance, Rotaie made Camerini one of very few directors at the time willing to acknowledge that Italy, despite Mussolini’s claims, was far from achieving a glorious second Roman Empire.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Stephen Horne