The March on Rome Review: Mark Cousins Takes Aim at Fascism and the Film That Propelled It

Opening with a clip 0f Donald Trump is a rare unwise choice made in “The March on Rome,” the latest film from Irish author and documentarian Mark Cousins. That’s not because Trump isn’t a fascist (where you have been?), it’s just that Cousins can, and will, tell the story of far-right politics’ inherent illusions — spring-boarding off Mussolini’s famous, semi-fictional voyage 100 years ago in October — with a little more grace than that.

Maybe grace isn’t the point. A characteristically thoughtful exploration of fascism told mostly via analysis of the seminal contemporary propaganda film “A Noi!” (“To Us”) made for newsreels nationwide, Cousins entertainingly brings history, cinema, and the manipulative power of the movies together in just the way we’ve come to expect from him. If you’re at all intrigued by a movie called “The March on Rome,” you won’t be disappointed.

But don’t be fooled, either; trust no one, illusions are everywhere. Cousins’ title gives away the game, in the sense that Mussolini never “marched” “on” “Rome.” While his Blackshirt henchmen made the touted trip from fascist heartland Naples to the Eternal City, Il Duce waited at a hotel in Milan, in case he lost the power struggle and was forced to flee to Switzerland. “A Noi!” won’t tell you that. Nor would it tell you that the March was really a set of boardroom discussions involving Mussolini’s fascists, far-right campaigners, and King Victor Emmanuel III. Even the Blackshirts, like Hitler’s clueless and violent Brownshirts, were none the wiser.

Yet Cousins’ skills come across not in telling us these facts (quite literally) via voiceover — though his dulcet County Antrim accent makes that easier — but rather in his forensic takedown of “A Noi!,” and, by extension, Mussolini and fascism’s trademark bravado, altogether. Orson Welles in “F for Fake” probed the world of art forgery with more playful curiosity than condemnation. “The March on Rome” is an assassination. (Another filmmaker might have called it “F for Fascism,” though Cousins — mostly — doesn’t have time for quips.)

Propagandist Umberto Paradisi made “A Noi!” three years before “Battleship Potemkin” wowed the cinematic world with socialist fantasy and 13 years before Leni Riefenstahl broke ugly new ground with “The Triumph of the Will.” By being first, and as a pretty remarkable document of Italy’s interwar upheaval, “A Noi!” has tremendous historical value. It has little else.

Cousins shows us exactly where, when, and how Paradisi lies and conceals in order to tell the Fascist Party’s most desirable version of events. By Cousins’ reckoning, he didn’t do a very good job. But it was good enough for the time, largely because Victor Emmanuel gave in and handed Mussolini power. The center-right and the center didn’t mind. Churchill said Mussolini was “the Roman genius.” Freud wrote him a personal letter of admiration. Ezra Pound adored him. “A Noi!” was the truth now, and doubters could go to hell — metaphorically and, in the concentration camps for political enemies and asylums for “spinster” women built throughout Italy, literally too.

Mussolini’s fiefdom ran for more than 20 years, almost twice as long as Hitler’s. After his capture and killing, his face was trodden on by so many people that he could’ve been anyone. It made Hitler’s death look like a holiday.

What works a little less well in “The March on Rome” are Cousins’ attempts at cinematic flair, which prove a bit of a distraction. “The March on Rome” is better when Cousins tells it straight, and shows us his work. In a series of illustrative fictional monologues, Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher plays a woman who tells us about the day-to-day in fascist Italy. Her performance is sensitive and her stories worthy, but it never ceases feeling like school-trip-to-the-museum material, unfortunately.

Back on the subject of film history, Cousins thrives, as he so often has. By probing the culture-obsessed face of Mussolini’s Italy, a proto-Goebbels focus on propaganda that inspired fellow fascists the world over, “The March on Rome” has some unnerving ideas about why far-right politics is so openly en vogue once again. The cliche about Italians and Mussolini is that, unlike in Germany, where supporting Hitler publicly is beyond the pale, many Neapolitans, Romans, and Milanese still quite like him.

The portrait of Mussolini that hangs above an old lady’s house as she cuts vegetables in “Call Me by Your Name” for example, was already there. Il Duce’s granddaughter is a prominent politician, too. (Thank God Hitler had no children.) The scars of fascism in Italy are clear enough, but drain covers in historic parts of Rome still bear its slogans, Cousins shows us. A century on, Mussolini’s made-up March remains clouded by mystery, misinformation, and an uncomfortable amount of ignorance. It’s just as he’d have wanted it.

Grade: B

“The March on Rome” premiered at the Venice Days sidebar of the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. 

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