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Dr. Angelo Restivo Masculinity in Italian Cinema: Mussolini to Eastwood

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Tara Thomas

Film 4180

Fall 2006

Dr. Angelo Restivo

Masculinity in Italian Cinema: Mussolini to Eastwood

From its humble beginnings of Thomas Edison’s Black Maria films and the Lumière Brothers actualités to the documentaries of today, film has been used as a medium to take, in the words of André Bazin, an “indexical fingerprint” of our reality. While capturing the “indexical fingerprint” of reality, film also has an effect on how we perceive ourselves and formulate ideals of cultural and societal mores. These cultural and social mores in addition to the political climate affects how sexuality is presented (and received) in cinema. Until recent years, masculinity and male sexuality in cinema has not had the ‘exposure’ or the study that the femininity and female sexuality has undergone. This essay will look at male sexuality and masculinity as it is represented in cinema, from Mussolini’s fascist regime to the post war era of Italian cinema, through different genres of film and ending with a brief discussion of the quintessential Italian man, Marcello Mastroianni

Before the Second World War, Italian cinema was flourishing. During this time Italy was producing approximately one hundred films per year (Verdone 272). A variety of films were produced during this time period, including historical films. Written by Gabriele D’Annunzio and directed by Giovanni Pastrone Cabiria is a historical film that embodies the early ideals of fascist masculinity. D’Annunzio ideals of fascism were a precursor of Mussolini’s fascist government. For D’Annunzio, fascist masculinity was interconnected with female virility - the mother figure (Spackman 18). Cabiria tells the story of Cabiria, a young girl who is kidnapped during the Second Punic War and sold as a slave in Carthage. She is to be sacrificed to Moloch but is rescued by the Roman spy Fulvio Axilla and his slave, Maciste. Cabiria is then placed in the care of Queen Sophonisba and after ten years of conflict and hostilities, the Romans take Carthage and she returns home with Fulvio. In Cabiria, D’Annunzio illustrates how masculinity is vicariously represented by Cabiria, the female protagonist of the film. Fulvio manifests his masculinity by being the hero and saving the female. Fulvio is symbolic of the hegemonic masculinity of dictatorship that will manifest itself during the Second World War and Mussolini’s reign.

With hegemonic masculinity women function as potential sex objects for men in order to provide heterosexual men with validation. In turn, this validation by women negates men as sex objects for men (Donaldson 645). Also, masculinity is constructed in a man’s relation to other men as perceived and represented in everyday life (Ben-Ghiat 338). Hegemonic masculinity has its roots in fascist squadrism of World War I. Fascist squadrism was the fascism movement based upon armed squads and violence (Vacche 131). For the fascist squad, violence was the central means of political struggle (Ben-Ghiat 341). During the Second World War, hegemonic masculinity of dictatorship encompassed both the ‘masculine’ power of aggression and seduction in addition to the rejection of indulgence and complacency. Mussolini was the embodiment of the fascist ideal of masculinity (Ben-Ghiat 341).

Through national modernization, Mussolini wanted to redefine the image of Italy and Italian masculinity through the potential of combat. According to Mussolini, the potential of combat would eliminate national defects, such as sentimentalism, which would allow the Italian man to achieve his full martial and masculine potential as an individual who was naturally a solider (Bottai cited in Ben-Ghiat 2005). This new image of Italian masculinity was presented in the colonial, also known as realistic films. These films portrayed the image of the disciplined soldier who was saved from ruin, both social and sexual, when the soldier accepted his duties within the male community or experienced a rebirth through conflict (Ben-Ghiat 343). A portrayal of the new image of Italian masculinity is depicted the in the 1941 film The White Ship by Roberto Rossellini. Filmed entirely on the hospital navy ship Arno with the actual ship’s crew being used as actors, The White Ship tells the story of doctors who must operate in the midst of a bombing raid. During the attack, the doctors remain calm and determined: a testament to the self-controlled Italian man and the smooth functioning Italian military (Ben-Ghiat 343).

The defeat of Mussolini and the collapse of fascism had a devastating impact on the Italian male psyche and Italian masculinity. Mussolini’s ideal of disciplined, self-controlled masculinity expressed through the combat soldier was destroyed with his defeat and the collapse of fascism at the end of World War II. The Italian soldier (man) had to redefine Italy masculinity during this transitional period after World War II. The violence associated with the fascist ideal of masculinity and the unfulfilled rewards of a defeated regime left many Italian men guilty and ashamed. During this period, the Italian man had to face issues of re-establishing trust in public and private life, redefining ethical and civic codes, rebuilding family ties, redefining masculinity outside the fascist ideal, and redeeming damaged males in order to rebuild society (Ben-Ghiat 2005). In addition, the Italian man has to deal with the anxiety of re-establishing relations with the emancipated Italian female by whom he had be victimized by stray wives, women collaborators, and women profiteers (Ben-Ghiat 338). It was during this period that the first wave of neorealist films appeared.

Neorealism films and their directors gave Italy (and the world) a realistic look at the social and economic issues faced by Italians after World War II. Neorealist films embodied the fragmented spirit of Italy, as result of war and fascism. The male protagonist of these films was usually portrayed as the tragic hero (Verdone 1951).

In order to present Bazin’s indexical fingerprint of Italy during this time, neorealist directors usually used non-professional actor, natural lighting, on location shooting, and long takes that became characteristic of neorealist films. Rossellini’s 1945 Rome, Open City tells the story of Manfredi, a leader in the resistance, who needs to leave town because the Nazis after looking for him. He enlists the help of Francesco, his fiancée, Pina, and Priest Don Pietro in order to obtain a new identity to leave Rome. In the process of obtaining the documents, both he and Francesco are caught by the Germans. While Francesco is being taken away, Pina runs after him. She is shot and killed in the streets by the Germans in front of Francesco, Priest Don, and her family, including her son. As Manfredi is about to be tortured by the Germans, we learn that Manfredi’s lover Marina is the one who betrayed them to the Germans. We learn that Marina is being manipulated by the Germans into helping them by being made into a drug addict and the Germans are her drug supplier. In the end, the Germans kill Pina, Manfredi, and Priest Don. Rome, Open City illustrates the social and political issues facing Italy after World War II. All the men’s masculinity is betrayed in Roma, Open City. Manfredi’s masculinity is threatened not only when Marina betrays him to the Germans but also when he is tortured by the Germans. During his torture, he is helpless and unable to fight back. Priest Don’s masculinity is also threatened during Manfredi’s torture because he is helplessly forced to watch. Also the fact that Marina is helping the Germans is a threat to Italian masculinity as a whole. Francesco’s masculinity is threatened when Pina is killed. It is first threaten by Pina, who’s act of running after him and being shot represents a reversal of gender roles – she as his protector and willing to die for him. Francesco’s masculinity is also threatened in his portrayal as a weakling when he and Manfredi are arrested and Francesco begins to crack without ever being tortured.

Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, tells the story of Antonio who has been out of work for a long time. He is finally offered a job putting up posters but he needs a bicycle to do it. He pawns the only thing the family has of value, their linen, in order to get the bicycle. Unfortunately, on his first day of work his bicycle is stolen. The rest of the film he spends trying to retrieve his bicycle. This film illustrates the emasculation of Antonio. First he is portrayed as a weak family man who can not take care of his family and when he does get a chance to be the patriarch of the family, he is unsuccessful at it. Second, all this action transpires while his son is watching, illustrating that Antonio is unable to teach him how to be the patriarch of the family.

In the post neorealist 1950s, Italian cinema began to produce pink neorealist and commedia al’italiana films. These films were produced within the context of Italy’s reconstruction of ‘economic miracles” following the Second World War. Italy’s economy began to move away from a culture of consumption to a cult of consumerism as the economy became urbanized and industrialized and national income doubled (Gunsberg 60). However, despite the economic reconstruction of Italy, there was still a disparity of social class. There was high unemployment along with a mass migration to the North for work and wages in Italy were the lowest in Western Europe. The lower class was basically excluded from participation in the new consumerism. The commedia al’italiana films focused on the relationships between goods and people and the way goods mediate the relations of gender and race (Gunsberg 61).

In the commedia al’italiana films, masculinity is illustrated by the inetto, the inept bungler, the opposite of the hyper-masculinized heroes of fascist ideals. In Divorce, Italian Style, an Italian nobleman, Ferdinando Cefalù, who is bored with his wife, Rosalia, and has fallen in love with his teen-aged cousin, Angela. Since divorce is forbidden in Italy at this time, he plots to have Rosalia fall in love with another, record their tryst and kill her because this would be considered an honor killing which is acceptable in Italy at this time. Ferdinando hires his wife’s former lover to come to his home to do some work in hopes that a romance will be reignited between them and it does. He records his evidence of the affair and plots to kill them both. However, before he can kill them, they run away together and now he must track them down to complete his plan. Ferdinando is able to find them but before he can kill them, the wife of his wife’s lover kills her husband for his infidelity. Ferdinando is sent to jail for murder and does marry Angela when he is released. While on his honeymoon with Angela, Ferdinando is unaware of his new wife’s attraction for a sailor on the yacht. The absurdity of the premise to kill his wife and to marry his cousin, coupled with the series of unexpected happenings to accomplish he plan illustrates the stereotypical inetto that represents Italy masculinity during this time in cinema. The premise also illustrates how relationships are commodified during the boom of consumerism in 1950 Italy. Ferdinando reduces the women in his life to commodities. He is no longer satisfied with his ‘original product’ and therefore takes steps to upgrade. This is also an example of hegemonic masculinity in the sense that the women in this film are relegated to objects the provide validation for Ferdinando’s existence.

Emerging around the same time as commedia al’italiana, peplum films were being produced in Italy in the late 1950s, mid 1960s. These peplum films were fantasy films that celebrated muscle-bound masculinity in heroic action in settings unidentifiable in time in space (Gunsberg 97). These films provided escapism for Italians who were excluded from participation in the boom of consumerism during the economic reconstruction of Italy (Gunsburg 2005). In these films, masculinity was defined by male prowess and strength, represent by the well-built, muscled body of the male character and the role he played. The main male character in a peplum film was usually a heroic, mythical character of a perfectly built body and inhuman strength. Peplum heroes were first played by American actors which may have attributed to the genre’s popularity, reminiscent of the Allied Forces’ liberation of Europe in World War II (Gunsberg 2005). The peplum hero assurance to the unskilled male spectator validation by promoting muscle power over intellectual and other power (Gunsberg 102). The physical hero offered the disenfranchised male who was excluded from participation in expanding consumerism a place within Italian society. Because the peplum hero represented the Everyman, the disenfranchised Italy male could vicariously participate in the political process. The peplum image of masculinity helped re-established the disenfranchised Italian male as provider and protector of the family and society (Gunsberg 2005).

Violence and masculinity returned to Italians cinema in the form of the spaghetti western. The spaghetti western film era ran from about 1964 – 1978. Just like the peplum films, the main male character was an American – Clint Eastwood. In the United States Eastwood was known for playing the iconic masculine character, Inspector Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry film series. In the spaghetti westerns, Eastwood plays the character commonly refer to as “The Man With No Name”. The masculinity characterized in the spaghetti western is said to be the counterpart to the masculinity characterizes in the peplum films. Whereas the peplum male character representation of masculinity allows the unskilled, disenfranchised Italian male access to society through physicality and strength, the spaghetti western male character representation of masculinity updates and ‘professionalizes’ masculinity with modern technology that fuels fantasies of control over the fast moving industrialization and product development (Gunsberg 181).The excessive use of violence can be related back to fascism and viewed as means by which the disenfranchised Italian male expressing his emotions for his place, or lack thereof, in society and as a means of exacting justice in an unjust system.

No essay on Italian masculinity would be complete without a discussion of Marcello Mastroianni. Often referred to as the epitome of the Latin Lover and the quintessential Italian man, Marcello Mastroianni was born in 1926 and lived through and experienced many of the events that helped shape Italian masculinity in Italian cinema. During World War II, Mastroianni was interned in a Nazi camp but escaped and hid in Venice. He played an extra in two films before he began working at the Italian department of Eagle Lion Films in 1945 and began acting lessons. It was during this time that he met director Luchino Visconti. In 1948, Mastroianni made his official film debut in Riccardo Freda’s I Miserabili. In 1957, Visconti gave him the starring part in his 1957 Fyodor Dostoyevsky adaptation Le Notti bianche and in 1958 he was fine as a little thief in Mario Monicelli's 1958 comedy I Soliti ignoti. In 1960 Mastroianni achieved international stardom when Federico Fellini cast him as an attractive, weary-eyed journalist of the Rome jet-set in La Dolce vita. That film was the beginning of his "Latin lover" (Internet Movie Database). Mastroianni continue to play diverse role such as the sexually impotent protagonist in Mauro Bolognini’s The Bell' Antonio (1960), the gay anti-Fascist radio announcer in Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977) and an older man who marries a young dwarf in María Luisa Bemberg’s I Don't Want to Talk About It (1993) (Reich xii). Mastroianni was nominated for three Best Actor Academy Awards; in 1963 for Divorce, Italian Style, in 1978 for A Special Day, and in 1988 for Dark Eyes. After a long and illustrious career, Mastroianni died in France of pancreatic cancer.

Italy’s masculinity has been closely tied to its social and political transformation. From the violent ideal of Mussolini’s fascist regime, to the reconstruction in neorealist films, to the ‘economic miracle’ of booming consumerism in the 1950 and 1960, to the peplum muscle-bound hero of the peplum genre, to the industrious cowboy of the spaghetti western, all the transformations of Italian masculinity can be seen on screen embodied in the work of Marcello Mastroianni, the quintessential Italian man.


  1. Ben-Ghiat. “Unmaking the fascist man: masculinity, film, and the transition from dictatorship.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 10.3:(2005):336-365. JSTOR. GALILEO. 30 November 2006

  2. Connell, R.W. “The Big Picture: Masculinities in Recent World History.” Theory and Society 2.5:(October 1993):597-623. JSTOR. GALILEO. 30 November 2006

  3. Donaldson, Mike. “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society 22.5 (October 1993):643-657. JSTOR. GALILEO. 30 November 2006

  4. Gunsberg, Maggie. Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre New York City. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

  5. The Internet Movie Database 9 December 2006

  6. Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press, 2004

  7. Spackman, Barbara, Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy Minnesota. University of Minnesota, 1996

  8. Vacche, Angela Dalle. The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 1992

  9. Verdone, Mario. “The Italian Cinema from Its Beginnings to Today.” Hollywood Quarterly 5.3(Spring 1951):270-281. JSTOR.GALILEO.30 November 2006

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