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Lorenzo Fabbri: Investigating Fascism in Italy Through Film

April 6, 2016

Professor Lorenzo Fabbri's research brings together his passionate interest in cinema and the study of Italian history and culture. His current project deals in fact with the role that cinema had in Italy’s path to totalitarianism and in the transition beyond it. Fabbri’s curiosity in the topic was first sparked when he discovered that his grandfather had served in the Italian army during Benito Mussolini's regime. Fabbri was curious about why and how his granddad could buy into Mussolini’s tales of national reclamation and fight Fascism’s colonial wars. Fabbri turned to the cinema of the period both to understand the mindset of his grandfather’s generation but also retrace how Fascism exploited film to harness people’s affects for its own political purposes. With Capturing National Life: Cinema, Governmentality, and Resistance in Fascist Italy, his book in progress, Fabbri is trying to come to terms with his family history as well as with the repressed history of his country. “It hasn’t always been easy,” Fabbri confesses. “A lot of skeletons in the closet to deal with.” Capturing National Life starts with the scene of the 1937 bombastic inauguration of the construction site for Italy’s new film institute building.

On top of the levy, a giant cardboard of Benito Mussolini behind the movie camera. On the slope, the slogan “Cinema is the strongest weapon” (La cinematografia è l’arma piu forte) in block letters followed by Mussolini’s signature. On the ground, Mussolini lays the first stone of the film institute building in front of the camera, addressing the nation directly.

For Professor Fabbri, this scene is a daunting visualization of Fascism’s endeavors to exploit cinema as a tool of political control. Yet, although Mussolini’s memento loomed over the Italian film industry reminding filmmakers and producers what the Regime expected of them, in the early 1940s cinema turned into a battle-zone for Fascism. In his research, Fabbri explores cinema under Mussolini and investigates how State-sponsored cultural forms were hijacked into platforms of civil disobedience. Fabbri explains that Fascism poured resources into developing Italy’s film industry, even creating one of the world’s first and finest film schools, the “Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia” in Rome. Ironically and paradoxically, Mussolini’s investments in cinema soon backfired: through archival research, Fabbri was able to reconstruct how young leftist filmmakers as Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica infiltrated the film industry to broadcast messages that hindered Mussolini’s control over national life. Fabbri uses pre-democratic Italy as a case study to discuss the entanglement between media technologies, social control, and political resistance. He is specifically interested in technology’s failures: the instances in which specific machines fail in the tasks they were built to accomplish and instead are deployed to produce alternative effects. In this regard, Fabbri’s research seeks to contest simplistic opposition between the top-down structure of old, analogic media production and the participatory nature of digital new media. One of the central questions that Fabbri raises is: What do contemporary media activism, hacker culture, and user-generated content teach us about the cinematic resistance against Fascism in early 1940s Italy?

Looking forward, Professor Fabbri intends to focus his research on the portrayal of transgender bodies in new media, focusing on case studies from Italy, France, United States, and Thailand. The idea for this new project emerged from a graduate course on early cinema that Fabbri taught in spring 2015, the period of Caitlyn Jenner’s highly publicized coming out as a transgender woman. In the early phase of the moving image history authors as Muybridge and Méliès focused on the “normal” human body with the intention of both capturing its unnoticed essence and defying the power of the cinematic apparatus vis-à-vis other media. Fabbri’s hypothesis is that current media are invested in the transsexual body insofar as it provides them a venue to dramatize their own capacity to capture and mediate life. Fabbri emphasized that besides from the inspiring conversations with his students, his research has incredibly benefited from the academic freedom and interdisciplinary community of the French and Italian department.

In his free time, Professor Fabbri curates the program for the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Italian Film Festival and plays soccer. To fight the long Minnesota winters, he flies South and indulges in his biggest passion: scuba diving.