Serving two masters: Mussolini’s moviemaker and his red reels of Albanian agitprop
Actor Pietro De Silva portrays the Italian filmmaker Alfredo Cecchetti.

V.I. Lenin proclaimed: “For us, the cinema is the most important of the arts.” The leader of the Russian Revolution said this around 1922, the year Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts rose to power in Italy, and later decreed: “Film work facilitates fascist penetration.” Both polarities of left and right recognized the central role motion pictures could play in propaganda, in reaching the masses with their messages and agitating them to take action. Albanian director Roland Sejko’s The Image Machine of Alfredo C. is about an Italian cameraman who shot newsreel-type footage for Il Duce’s fascists and then for the Communists in Albania.

This hybrid documentary includes some recreations of actor Pietro De Silva portraying Alfredo Cecchetti, with a voiceover supplied by an actor reading what seems to be the cinematographer’s own words. At the same time, it is also a film about filmmaking, in the tradition of Buster Keaton’s 1928 The Cameraman, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with the Movie Camera, Federico Fellini’s 1963 , and François Truffaut’s 1973 Day for Night. The Image Machine is a thought-provoking movie meditation on the nature of the cinematic medium.

Prior to Italy’s 1939 invasion of Albania, Cecchetti shot actuality-type footage of Mussolini, addressing frenetic throngs at Rome’s Piazza Venezia, as the strutting, bombastic dictator exults in the masses’ jubilation and adoration from on high in his balcony. One could almost hear the Italian strongman sigh: “My public! They adore me!” and then directing the cinematographer to shoot from specific camera angles. Indeed, in Cecchetti’s commentary, he notes that the vain fascist did not like to be shot from behind, and during his oration, more cameras were pointed at the fanatical mob than at Mussolini himself.

Mussolini, il Duce, basks in the adoration of the crowd.

Cecchetti further reveals some of the tricks of the trade, belying the notion of documentaries being strictly nonfiction records of reality. After the Italian navy lands troops to invade Albania, Cecchetti confesses that he asked the invaders to stage reenactments once his camera was on land and in position to shoot them with his trusty Parvo Debrie, model L. Cinema vérité it ain’t! Of course, Robert Flaherty, who was long regarded as a father of documentary filmmaking, also staged reenactments when shooting on location in the Great White North and in the South Seas. And John Ford’s much-vaunted Pearl Harbor doc included staged shots, a screen tradition that I believe goes all the way back to the birth of motion pictures, with staged scenes of the Spanish-American War in 1898. So Sejko explores the notion of “fake news,” even as The Image Machine itself also includes reenactments, with that actor depicting Cecchetti at a Moviola, symbolically bleaching celluloid, etc.

Italian children, dressed in fascist youth uniforms, offer the salute to Mussolini for the cameras.

In a moment of drollery, Cecchetti also discloses how Mussolini pulled the wool over his fellow fascist’s eyes when Hitler visited him in Naples. There, Il Duce had his navy sail twice past Der Führer, hoodwinking Hitler into believing that the Italian navy was twice as big as it really was.

The cameraman films the Albanian War and fascist Italy’s conquest of the Eastern European nation, shedding light on a little known and little seen part of the world (at least as far as Americans are concerned). Mussolini invaded Albania in April 1939, months before his Axis crony assaulted Poland in September. Thousands of Italians settle in Albania as it becomes a colony of Mussolini’s empire, in his mad militaristic spree to reform the former “glory” of imperial Rome. After the fall of Mussolini’s regime and the Communist partisans’ seizure of power in Albania by 1944, the repatriation of these Italian settlers becomes a big issue that is also captured by Cecchetti’s probing camera lens.

According to The Image Machine, by that time, Cecchetti, with his rare cinematic skills, was impressed into service by the Reds and started shooting footage for the Communists, in league with a Soviet cameraman. Now the fascist banners and imagery are replaced by posters and placards of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and the “Commandante,” who does not seem to be referred to by name. This is one of the annoying things about The Image Machine, which assumes that audiences will know that this is Enver Hoxha, whose first name is carried on placards in official demonstrations). Similarly, Sejko’s doc uses the term “Dux,” without explaining that Duce is an Italian title, derived from the Latin word dux (“leader”) and a cognate of duke. Audiences aren’t mind readers, and while Italian moviegoers may be familiar with the word “dux,” American ticket buyers aren’t (and may think it’s a hip plural form for “duck”).

It’s interesting to ponder that Cecchetti swung from one political extreme to the other, from far right to far left. What’s the difference in the cinematography? How do the adoring Albanian masses who swarm the presumed Enver Hoxha differ from the Italian mobs who worshiped Mussolini? A discerning eye can find a major difference in how the Albanians appeared under Italian rule and then after the country’s liberation from fascism by the partisans: Once the Communists take power, many more among the Albanian masses wear traditional national costumes. Their ethnicity isn’t suppressed as one supposes it would be under foreign occupation, and Albanians seem freer at least in some ways to be their authentic cultural selves.

How do the adoring Albanian masses who swarm Enver Hoxha differ from the Italian mobs who worshiped Mussolini?

How is the Communist-led government the same or different from fascist rule? In America, Hoxha was depicted as Tirana’s tyrant. Is it true that the Communists were as dictatorial as the fascists? Left-wing critics such as Wilhelm Reich referred to Stalinism as “Red fascism,” while Leon Trotsky described the USSR (and by extension, the Soviet allied states that emerged after Stalin had the former head of the Red Army liquidated) as a “deformed workers’ state” that had certain socialistic features but was ruled by a bureaucratic caste. This is an important question that The Image Machine tantalizes us with, but does not answer, because this is beyond the scope of this 76-minute documentary.

Although The Image Machine leaves us with unanswered questions, it definitely provides fascinating glimpses into Mussolini, arguably the first—exactly one hundred years ago—of the modern “strongmen” on the scene who now rule over or aspire to run authoritarian states. (I’d be shocked if Trump didn’t study Mussolini’s bellicose posture, gestures, poses, etc.) Sejko’s documentary also offers insight into a rarely seen part of the world, remote Albania, and a little known slice of WWII history, a place Americans have had little access to and know little about until very recently, now that “unspoiled” Albania has become an attractive tourist destination. This is the greatest thing about the South East European Film Festival, which brings us films we’d likely never have the opportunity to see on the big screen, expanding audiences’ horizons and the opportunities for films from “far-flung nations” to be distributed by Hollywood and in the U.S. market.

The Image Machine of Alfredo C. is in Italian with English subtitles. It was screened on May Day during the 17th Annual SEEfest. For more background on the film see here. The trailer (in Italian) can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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