THE USIS-TRIESTE COLLECTION AT THE ARCHIVIO CENTRALE DELLO STATO, ROME
Report by D.W.Ellwood
(Dipartimento de Politica, Istituzioni, Storia, University of Bologna)
A new archive source on contemporary Italian history and Italian-American relations
The Central State Archive in Rome is currently making available for general viewing a unique collection of 512 official documentary films dating from the years 1945-1960 ca. The material is what remains of a larger number of films (about 700) deposited in the central archive some years ago, having been collected in Trieste during and after the time of Allied Military Government (1945-54). Although most of the material dates from the AMG phase, TV programmes and semi-official documentaries from later years add to the continuing mystery of how this collection came to be built up, how it was continued and how it eventually made its way in 1987 from Trieste to Rome. Besides its scope for scholars and programme-makers interested in Italy from the time of the reconstruction to the years of the `economic miracle', the material also includes what is probably the largest collection of US propaganda material - including Marshall Plan films - publicly available today in Europe. About half of the total is of American origin (going up to 1954 only however), another 35-40% is domestic Italian, the rest from other European countries or made under pan-European auspices. The vast majority are 16mm black and white productions; a significant minority are in Technicolour, a small minority are in the 35mm format.
A variety of communication strategies is on display. Films from the USIS and Marshall Plan years convey messages on everything from democracy to child-rearing, from education to agriculture. Re-cycled wartime shorts mix randomly with relatively abstract Marshall Plan lessons on productivity and growth. About 30 titles are dedicated to explaining the Piano Marshall to local audiences, and were specially made in Italy for the purpose. Italian cinema and television newsreels are present with the panoramic series (apparently produced in Britain) `Problems and Progress in the New Europe'. Particularly suggestive is the presence of a small series of late 1950's documentaries d'auteur, in which the film-maker - names by now unknown to us - expresses a personal point of view on the changes going on all around.
A catalogue of the films has been prepared under a special contract by the Archivio audiovisivo del Movimento operaio e democratico of Rome, (the Central state archive itself had no previous experience of handling audio-visual materials), where around 40 of the films can be seen in a basic VHS version. The catalogue is due to be published by the Archivio centrale in summer 1999 under the title Il Fondo USIS-Trieste. Prefaced by specially commissioned articles explaining the situation in Trieste in these years, the historical significance of the collection and its filmic content, the catalogue contains detailed information on each item including its origin, a summary of contents, physical characteristics and condition (this varies greatly, the collection having been abandoned for years in traditional archive vaults, with the result that almost 200 items indicated as existing in the original trasmittal records failed to survive). Funding for translation of the catalogue into English is actively being sought.
That Trieste should have been of special concern for American and Italian propagandists comes as no surprise. As a bastion of the West in the Cold War, the city occupied a very special place in the geopolitical concerns of the NATO powers until the 1954 settlement. It was hotly contested by Tito (with Stalin's support until 1948), and remained an ethnic cross-roads throughout the early years of the East-West conflict. As a symbol of wounded pride it was of primary importance to a newly-born Italian Republic struggling to find a respectable place in the world after World War II, and received special attention as the U.S. began to take a more serious interest in Italy as a front-line state after 1948. Uniquely, Trieste had its own Marshall Plan Mission, separate from the large-scale operation mounted in Rome. The 1954 settlement, conducted by the U.S. and Tito largely over the heads of the Italian government, embittered most Italians as it involved surrendering territory and populations in Istria, to the south of Trieste. It also greatly encouraged cynicism about U.S. motives in the Cold War, since an unrepentant Communist, Tito, was now being openly courted, encouraged and subsidised by Washington.
Almost none of this emerges in the films themselves. But since the city was the object of such an intense struggle for hearts and minds, clearly understanding the contextualisation of the films involves the study of their use in this battle (together with all the other forms then available to Italy and her allies). As of now, research has yet to begin on the propaganda strategy of either the Italian or the US governments in Trieste. While something is known of the Marshall Plan years the preceding, and above all the succeeding eras remain unstudied. But this observation is true for Italy as a whole, and for the US intervention even in Europe as a whole, if we consider the post-Korea era.
A reflection on the significance of the films
Taken as a whole the USIS-Trieste material represents a discovery of prime importance for the study of the evolution of Italian national identity, especially in its relationship with the new postwar presence of American power in all its material and symbolic forms. Rarely does such a conspicuous body of visual material appear to add to the history of a nation's idea of itself, or more precisely to the history of that idea in the crucial years 1945-1960. Considered alongside Italian cinema fiction in its most creative and productive period, the over 500 film items in this collection help to understand the evolution in the Italy of what the leading film historian Gian Piero Brunetta has called ` what is potentially visible, what is shown and what is represented.'
The real challenge however is to be found in trying to understand how the relationship between the American and the Italian material might have functioned at the time in terms of production, distribution and consumption. More precisely this means studying comparative propaganda strategies and their evolution, looking at the `interaction of rhetorical postures' (to adapt Ina Bertrand's conception) in the material itself, and getting to know the various forms of cinema-going enjoyed by the local public in those years.
In 1950's Italy cinema - especially the popular film comedy - was one of the most significant mechanisms by which local society coped with the projection of American power in its most salient visual and symbolic currencies, at a time when they were ubiquitous. This meant not just resisting but also taking over and adapting whatever the U.S. was offering, attempting to reconcile American images, products, messages, exhortations etc. with local customs and priorities. The films in the USIS-Trieste collection do not address the question of the American impact on Italy explicitly. With the benefit of hindsight however, the material can be used in the context of today's intense debate on the Americanization of European societies of that epoch. Traditionally Americanization has been taken to mean a form of modernization on American lines projected by such means as USIS propaganda and the Marshall Plan, and absorbed totally and uncritically by the various target groups, societies etc,. at which it was aimed. As such the notion was relegated to the range of crude stereotypes usually associated with arguments about `imperialism'. The rehabilitation of the concept has come about because its newest versions have maintained the idea of an infringed sovereignty, or one surrendered more or less unwillingly to the hegemony of the dominant culture, but have developed a far more dialectical, critical, vision of how European individuals, groups, societies dealt with the various incarnations of American power prresent on their territory. Sometimes rejecting it, but often embracing it, usually demonstrating what the leading European expert Rob Kroes has called the `selective appropriation' of parts of the American presence.
None of the official, non-American films in the collection openly discusses the influence of America on Italy's reconstruction process, in part because the role of the official sponsor/ally was not open to discussion in these the most intense of the Cold War years, in part because it was not considered the role of governmental film to espress any sort of critical view of the country's modernization process as it unfolded. Yet in various parts of the collection doubts can be traced - not on U.S. influence as such, real or imagined, but on the transformations as they were happening, on the version of modernisation which Italy found herself undergoing. Here the films have much to say: on processes, experiences, changing realities, hopes and fears, where moving images supply clues of an intensity and dynamism which no other source can rival. The most significant of the films - those which do not simply celebrate or pontificate or lecture - reflect an anxiety of control, an apprehension about how, in a situation of continuous and tortuous upheaval, society could expect to maintain some sort of order in the balance between tradition and innovation, between the inheritance of the past and the modernity of technology and mass consumption, of ever-expanding mobility.
One of the English-made documentaries - 'Men and Machines' of 1955 - offers an interesting reflection on the problem, highlighting its difficulties but trusting pragmatically in a rational and positive outcome. The film, an 18 minute colour production, takes up the theme, so dear to the Marshall Plan, of productivity and asks why the Europeans can never match the Americans in this area. The case of the Renault factories is cited, where the possibility of turning out a standard car every 85 seconds, as in the best U.S. practice, would have the effect of lowering prices and enlarging the market, as had already happened in the Americanized cement factories in Greece, and in Welsh steel works. The alternative, suggests the visual and spoken text, is not the ways of the public laundry in the piazza, but to find an effective synthesis of the best of Europe's artisan traditions - e.g. Danish goldsmiths, Venice's glassblowers, Swedish furniture-makers - and the development possibilities offered by the latest technologies. This way there would be greater abundance for all, but keeping the beneficial support of the links with the past.
This is a constructive version of the doubts about modernisation. Much more sceptical in contrast, and a much more expressive of the school of doubt, is 'On the Margins of the Metropolis', an 11 minute colour film produced towards the end of the 1950's (no date is indicated in the film or its container), by a long forgotten Italian company, Documento Film. Here a sense of wonder, if not consternation, dominates in front of the uncontrolled urbanisation of Italian society and its devastating effects on the traditional social fabric. In its last gasps of life before being devoured by the ever-advancing concrete tower blocks, an old trattoria is portrayed - "where the wine is more natural" - and an ancient farm, with the washing hanging outside, where it will smell fresher and look cleaner than on any city balcony, suggests the commentary. The clincher is a scene showing a peasant with his small herd of goats under a new cement flyover: images and text are presented to convince us that that the disappearance of such folk is inevitable, and that a net spiritual and moral loss is involved. The usual, typically anti-modern discourse of intellectuals ? A reflection of Pasolini's influence? Perhaps, but in a presumably official film (the origins, production story and distribution of such a product all have to be re-discovered), the argument is surprisingly explicit.
The American material in the collection of course knows no such doubts. That the aims of these `information' products (Marshall Plan terminology) was not simply technical - in spite of the scores of titles dedicated to specific problems of production in industry and agriculture - can be understood from a film such as 'The Mechanic' of 1950. The text is summarised as follows in the catalogue: The importance of the mechanic in modern society is the starting point to show off, through the life of the workshop head, the American way of life. Steady work in the factory and harmony in the family, a sense of financial security, a habit of saving for the purchase of house and car, all these features chacterise life for the average American in the postwar years.
Other titles depict the life of the community, or the functioning of the police, or women at work , even how to play tennis, somewhat in the spirit of the 1960 Clark Gable classic 'It Started in Naples', with its memorable scene of the rich Philadelphia lawyer (Gable) teaching a street urchin what a hamburger is, and how to eat it, (not by chance Gable's efforts to Americanize the little boy and save him from apparent poverty are rebuffed by the boy, his flamboyant folk mother [Sophia Loren] and all the local community).
At the other extreme in the scale of values, both of the documentary cultures in the collection go to some lengths to teach democracy. The American films conceive it as a reality which is simultaneously moral and practical, an ideology and an inheritance (of European origin). Titles such as 'Freedom to Learn' (1944), or 'Village' (1950; both are from the USIS series `Panoramas of America'), take it for granted that `the citizen is King', as is the fact that he can count on equality of access to all levels of education, to genuine freedom of expresssion, and to the awareness that knowledge and a healthy civic life are the keys to liberty. In the Italian products, by way of contrast, democracy still has to prove itself, or as the commentary in From the Tiber to the Liri puts it: "democracy has done a lot for us, but much remains to be done. Faith in demcoracy is faith in ourselves, in liberty, in our constructive capacities, and in this way we will recover". But this is an expression of hope not a certainty. `Self-help' is much talked of and praised, but the very presence at the same time of so much American propaganda makes it clear that a lending hand is still expected from the good version of Big Brother, with his vitamins and his cures for children, for families, for cities and devastated factories (even for chickens and pigs, to judge from the zootechnical films dedicated to them).
In fact technical progress and access to the miracles of production and productivity which came with the American connection turned out to be the true fruits of the new Italian democracy, the foundation of its legitimacy. We too can build the jet engine, the transatlantic liner, the freeways, the gas pipelines, the skyscrapers, television, famed international companies, say countless episodes from the government-produced series 'Today and Tomorrow', or the products of the State cinema bureau, the Istituto Luce. If a fundamental objective of the Marshall Plan was to restore in European peoples their faith in the future, to supply a sort of psychological plasma, then film products such as 'Italy' 1952: synthesis of a year (1953), 'Better than Yesterday' (1955), 'The Miracle of Work' (no date but end 1950's), 'Italy Moves On' (1957/8), or 'The Face of Italy' (1960) , when taken together, demonstrate the success of this effort. A process of ever-greater economic development is highlighted, involving the rapid spread of consumer goods, full employment, the transformation of living standards and all the other features of the epoch of the `economic miracle' (so called because it was in reality so unexpected).
And yet, and yet ... From a very early stage the native film comedy was beginning to talk about the contradictions and gaps, the new forms of alienation, produced by the Italian version of the consumer society, at first in tones of amusement but with ever greater seriousness as the years passed by. The most lasting and admired examples of postwar dramatic film acquired their reputations denouncing the unforeseen costs of the nation's distorted and unstable development experience: Antonioni's `existential' trilogy started with 'The Adventure' in 1959, Visconti's 'Rocco e i suoi fratelli' and Fellini's ' La dolce vita' are both from 1960, Dino Risi's fresco of postwar history 'A difficult life' came out in 1961, Pasolini's film career began in the same year. How then did Italian audiences cope with such outlandishly contrasting visions of contemporary national reality: first the ever-more pompous self-satisfaction of the official cinematography, then the rising tide of damnation coming from film drama. If we add in the contribution of the single television channel from 1954 - and a certain number of the Trieste documentaries were made for Tv if not by the State network itself - then an almost bewildering array of questions arises on the relationships between official representation, artistic vision and the self-portrayal of the Italians in these years. But this is just one of the new and fascinating prospects for research opened up with the availability now of the extraordinary range of material housed in the State Archive's USIS-Trieste collection.