|The hero carrying the flag, his buddy carrying the first martyr|
Alessandro Blasetti was a director with remarkable scope. He covered a lot of ground from 1920s experimental realism to 1950s rosy comedies starring Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica, and Marcello Mastroianni.
Blasetti was also a Fascist of primo giorno, one of the original Fascists, and when he made a Fascist propaganda film, it was not sur commande but heartfelt, made with conviction.
Vecchia guardia is one of the few true Italian Fascist propaganda films, and its screen life was short. As a rule, explicit political propaganda films are not popular, and they do not serve their cause. Perhaps on the contrary. I have often thought that one of the reasons why Nazi propaganda films were not released in 1930s Finland was that they functioned rather as counter-propaganda. Finns find images and sounds of yelling and croaking dictators and slavishly adoring masses repellent.
Vecchia guardia is quite similar to the contemporary Nazi propaganda films such as Hitlerjunge Quex. It is well made, it has a lot of realistic aspects, it is not impossibly idealized and one-sided, and the director is top-ranking.
One of the hallmarks of Vecchia guardia is its often stark realism. Another one is the staccato rhythm, the blunt editing with royal disregard for smooth transitions in image or sound. In this sense Vecchia guardia resembles avantgarde cinema and may be felt profoundly alienating in a Brechtian sense. There are, indeed, affinities with Kuhle Wampe. There are also affinities with direct cinema and nouvelle vague.
After the Great War the atrocities of the Socialists are getting intolerable, not only their outright violence towards innocent citizens but also their incessant strikes which are turning society into chaos. The most blatant case is their strike at the mental hospital: the madmen turn loose. Decent citizens have no other alternative than to defend themselves militantly. There is tremendous enthusiasm in the conclusion: "a Roma! a Roma! a Roma!". The joyous crowd reaches the Eternal City in the finale, singing a rousing anthem about the call of Mussolini.
Four men of different ages personify Italy's way to Fascism. There is the hero, the dashing activist of the squadra. There is his buddy, a buffoonish strongman with echoes of Maciste. There is his little brother, a teenager who is a technical wizard, also a humoristic character with touches of Gyro Gearloose (Pelle Peloton / Oppfinnar-Jocke / Archimede Pitagorico) in Walt Disney comics. In the final battle against the socialists the young boy is instantly shot, the first martyr of the Fascists, a bit like Horst Wessel. Having witnessed all this, the father, the old, wise professor, finally must face the truth, and he, too joins the Fascists in their triumphant march to Rome.
Blasetti brings a lot of realistic density and humoristic detail into his yarn. Children are important. The wine harvesting scene is delicious. But even though Vecchia guardia is heartfelt, one never forgets that this is un film à thèse, and it lacks the irrestistible drive of great art.
In these remarks I draw from Peter von Bagh, whose writing we published as our programme note.
It seems that the film or much of it has been shot with direct sound.
The undisputed strength of Vecchia guardia is the brilliant cinematography by Otello Martelli. The sense of immediacy is astonishing. Martelli had started with Roberto Roberti, and he went on with Mario Camerini and became a key cinematographer of Neorealism (Paisà, Caccia tragica, Riso amaro, Stromboli, Luci del varietà, Francesco, giullare di Dio, Roma ore 11, I vitelloni, La strada, L'oro di Napoli, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabiria, La ragazza in vetrina). He also shot Sopralluoghi in Palestina for Pasolini. In short, he became one of the most distinguished and original cinematographers in the history of the cinema. But that distinction is already displayed in Vecchia guardia.
A few weeks before our screening it was found out that the film print is in weak condition, and we had to screen a Betacam SP. It is complete and so well made that even on video it is possible to appreciate the high quality of the cinematography, also in ambitious and challenging night scenes.