This essay offers a feminist reading of the work of Italian film director Cecilia Mangini. Drawing on an archaeological approach, it focuses on Mangini's experience as a woman in Italian cinema and her contribution to the realization of three movies—To Arms! We're Fascists! (codirected with Lino Del Fra and Lino Micciché, 1961–62), Stalin (directed with Lino Del Fra and Franco Fortini, 1962–63), and Being Women (1963–65)—all clear examples of the counterhegemonic cinema that Mangini developed in the fissures of mainstream, male-dominated practices. In her view, nonfiction film is a tool for cultural and political struggle, and it must affect the present in order to provide democratic access to knowledge. Following the Gramscian notion of the organic intellectual, Mangini has built a specific aesthetic and a personal approach to film direction, which aims to reach the broadest audience possible and, at the same time, to develop a coherent feminist militant discourse.
In this article, I offer a feminist reading of the work of the Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini. I analyze her approach to filmmaking through her practical work with archival and historical images and her theory of film editing. My aim is to stress her extraordinary position within the context of Italy in the 1960s as a woman who worked in the field of documentary and militant cinema. To date, Mangini's work has been mostly studied in light of its relationship with left-wing Italian politics. This was a natural response to her open, libertarian beliefs and Marxist militancy; indeed, she occasionally collaborated with leftist organizations and faced serious issues with censorship due to her ideological leanings. Nevertheless, she has never been affiliated with a specific party but instead pursued her political engagement through an individual and independent path. Her contribution to a militant rewriting of Italian history, as well as her own film aesthetics, were inspired by a modernist notion of the cinematic apparatus, based on a belief in a fertile relationship between images and the “real.”
The prevailing interest in the most explicitly political aspects of her cinema has pushed aside another possible approach, specifically one based on her subjective experience as a woman. This article is an attempt to offer such a feminist reading of Mangini's work in the wake of a new interest in Italian women filmmakers and the methodological issues that are central to women's film history.1 To reframe Mangini's experience, I pick up the call to “reclaim the archive,” adopting an archaeological approach and combining it with a dialogue with the filmmaker.2 The turn to oral history emphasizes Mangini's subjective experience, and consequently reveals a new perspective on her cinema.
CECILIA MANGINI AND THE ITALIAN CONTEXT
Born in Mola di Bari, Italy, in 1927, Cecilia Mangini moved to Florence with her family in 1933. She belongs to the first generation that grew up under the Fascist regime. During her adolescence she nurtured an interest in visual culture, spending time in the Uffizi galleries and attending film screenings at the local Cineguf.3 Like several other Italian directors, Mangini began her career in the early 1950s as a film critic, writing reviews for Cinema Nuovo.4 Until 1958 she also worked as a photographer. Her most significant reportage, a piece on the Vietnam War, appeared in 1965 in L'Espresso (a leftist magazine) and Noi donne (a feminist one).5 Around the mid-1950s she took part in an ethnographic film project supervised by the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino. The most relevant film she made in this early period of her activity was Stendalì – Suonano ancora (Stendalì—Playing On, 1960), a short documentary dealing with funerary rituals in southern Italy. On this occasion, as in the earlier films Ignoti alla città (The City's Unknown, 1958) and La canta delle Marane (The Chant of the Creeks, 1960), she collaborated with Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote the voice-over commentaries. Mangini's early shorts were an important contribution to the construction of a new imaginary of the country, which was in the process of modernization brought about by the “economic miracle.”6 The gradual disappearance of a traditional, rural society produced new configurations of marginality, which Mangini put at the center of her cinema. Indeed, her short films focus on the everyday lives of the urban proletariat, and on marginalized rural groups, that constituted the forgotten faces of the brand-new, wealthy Italy. In this sense her cinema aimed to give visibility to the oppressed and the outcast, and to denounce the controversial aspects of modernization. As we will see in the following paragraphs, Mangini was influenced by Gramscian thought, which shaped her understanding of film direction, particularly her interest in everyday life. In Antonio Gramsci's view, the ideology of a society is rooted in ordinary and daily routines, and thus to understand and analyze this aspect has a specific political aim: that of recognizing the structures of oppression and inequality. This philosophy inspired Mangini to consider her cinema as a practice that could assist the ongoing process of democratization in Italy.
This specific aim can be read in the wider context of the challenges of mass culture that were central to the left-wing Italian political agenda in the postwar period. As Stephen Gundle has shown, the Italian Communist Party and other left-wing forces all developed their own specific cultural policies, which influenced the leftist vision of political engagement.7 Having directed propaganda films for both the Socialist and the Communist Parties, Mangini was well aware of this.8 She can be seen as an ideal embodiment of the Gramscian notion of the “organic intellectual” who is actively involved in contemporary debates on the ideological role of culture, despite the fact that women's participation in the public and cultural sphere was very difficult at the time, even in the left-wing factions. Many feminist scholars have drawn attention to the relationship between Gramsci and feminism.9 This theoretical framework is particularly useful to a reading of Mangini's experience in light of her openly Gramscian stance.
Indeed, in Mangini's writings and declarations, Gramsci is a key reference, grounding her concept of cinema in the notion of the “organic intellectual,” which she assimilated through readings of the Prison Notebooks: “Gramsci provided the ideological background for my documentaries, which are intended as adaptations, explanations, explorations, denunciations, and metaphors of what is really happening to us and around us. And why all this happens.”10 This inspiration could be understood not just as a simple commitment to contemporary Italian left-wing struggles, but also as taking a specifically feminist standpoint. Indeed, the Gramscian understanding of political engagement insists on the potential for individuals to be agents of social change. The function of the “organic intellectual” presumes a clear sense of self-awareness for an individual within her or his social context, and requires strategies of resistance that start with the observation of everyday dynamics of power. By means of her or his cultural function, the “organic intellectual” mobilizes the subaltern classes and becomes a disruptive element in the hegemonic social structure.
From this point of view, Mangini's condition as a woman within a male hegemony—both in militancy and in filmmaking—demonstrates the specificity of her experience in the Italian context. Her counterhegemonic practice can be understood within this dual perspective. The common belief that women are absent in the Italian public sphere has been validated by the lack of scholarly attention paid to women's contributions to cultural policy on the Italian left. Only recently has the existence of a leftist, mass-cultural production conceived by and for women become a subject of research.11 Other than a few scattered examples, however, gender-neutral historical readings still prevail, and experiences such as Mangini's are usually read outside of their gender specificity and inserted in a male-oriented discourse. This absence in Italian historiography underlines the strength of male hegemony in the Italian cultural context, both historically and in the present. Mangini still actively disseminates her work on many different levels, and she has always conceived her cinema as a mass product, aimed, as we will see, at subaltern classes, including women, the urban proletariat, and southern rural workers. Her films were not niche productions; she regularly sought commercial distribution for her major projects so as to improve their chances of influencing an audience. This is why her films often show traces of a negotiation between her “woman's condition as a woman” and the film industry apparatus. The general context of male hegemony in the industry also influenced the development of Mangini's theoretical reflections on film practice. Her counterhegemonic practice, indeed, cannot be read as an autonomous discourse that is detached from conventional modes of production, but should rather be considered an attempt to produce a coherent female and militant discourse in the fissures of mainstream practices in order to trouble the hegemonic structures of Italian political and cultural discourses.
In order to account for the complexity of Mangini's experience as well as her important contribution to Italian nonfiction film generally, I will first analyze her two found-footage projects, All'armi siam fascisti! (To Arms! We're Fascists!, codirected with her husband, Lino Del Fra, and the socialist film critic Lino Micciché, 1961–62) and Stalin (codirected with Lino Del Fra and Franco Fortini, 1962–63). I will then examine aspects of her feminist film aesthetics as they emerge in Essere donne (Being Women, 1963–65) to illustrate the multiplicity of her counterhegemonic practice.
A MILITANT REVIEW OF HISTORY: ARCHIVE AND MONTAGE IN
TO ARMS! WE'RE FASCISTS! AND STALIN
To Arms! We're Fascists! is a powerful antifascist and class-conscious review of what were then the previous fifty years of Italian history, 1911 to 1961. The film was conceived in the wake of political protests that arose against the participation of the post-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano in a government coalition at the time. The voice-over narration, written by Franco Fortini, begins with the first colonial endeavor, the Libyan War, and continues with a critical overview of the Italian role in World War I and a detailed explanation of the rise and fall of the Fascist regime.12 The film met with censorship issues, and it was ultimately released only after many months of controversies. In May 1962, during a screening at Cinema Quattro Fontane in Rome, a group of neofascist militants assaulted the theater. The film nonetheless met with extraordinary success, gaining considerable box-office earnings and wide appreciation for its unquestionable historical value.13
In accordance with its radical antifascist stance, To Arms! We're Fascists! is an attempt to offer democratic access to historical knowledge by means of audiovisual documentation. Mangini has confirmed that this historical concern was central to the project: “For sure the authentic compilation film cannot be a historiographic text, yet it still serves as a pragmatic tool, one that is indispensable, I would say, to historiography (we believe that today a historiographer cannot avoid examining stock footage for her/his work).”14 Furthermore she has stressed the militant goal of the project, whereby it is a “weapon for cultural struggle, in Gramscian terms (which also has a testimonial value).”15 Therefore, cinema actively contributes to the class struggle and disseminates culture among the lower classes in order to fulfill a massively expanded intellectual function.16
Democratic access to historical knowledge demands archival availability. As Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida have pointed out, the archive is an institution in which structures of power, exclusion, and hierarchy are simultaneously at work.17 In the case of To Arms!We're Fascists! the Istituto Luce, Italy's major stock documentary footage archive, initially boycotted the project by precluding the use of its materials. Thus Mangini, Del Fra, and Micciché were forced to turn to foreign archives, in particular in Yugoslavian, British, French, and Swedish institutions.18 By subverting the archive as a monolithic source of knowledge, the process of collecting material became itself a “weapon for cultural struggle.” Indeed, even before the manual work began on the images themselves, the process of their selection and collection produced a new militant archive consisting of scattered documents that could be reappropriated by the audience in the form of a documentary film. In this way, the documentary becomes a fundamental tool in the democratization of culture and a valuable ally in the antifascist struggle, involving its audience in a critical interpretation of the audiovisual sources.
In her recent book on feminist archives, Kate Eichhorn offers an interesting perspective on the militant use of the archive.19 She argues that “archives render visible the ‘past of the present,’ they represent an integral step toward realizing a genealogical politics.”20 The archive therefore represents, in many ways, the possibility to write and experience history from a different point of view, offering a tangible experience of the past that aims to affect the present. In To Arms! We're Fascists! the assemblage of archival documents was intended to “render visible the past present”—to quote Eichhorn again—so as to encourage the generation born after the downfall of the Fascist regime to react to the inequities of their living conditions. Though To Arms! We're Fascists! is neither a product of archive fever nor a feminist film, Eichhorn's reading of the feminist use of archives is analogous to the militant notion of history that informs the film.21 While in this case the work of appropriation is rooted in a modernist constructivist aesthetics, the film's editing style reveals a nonlinear concept of historiography that resonates profoundly with the feminist reuse of archives as described by Eichhorn. Moreover, Mangini's contribution to To Arms! We're Fascists!, the first militant compilation film in the Italian context, can be read in continuity with the matrilineal genealogy of historical compilation films initiated by Esfir Shub's Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927).22 Mangini has argued that compilation films
propose, advance, and conclude a discourse by taking advantage primarily of the power of images and their manipulation (articulation). The ideological discourse is born from images and it already exists within them, in their composition, in their cutting and positioning, following a set logic that does not allow for randomness or digressions. The complexity of the visual rhythm can only be exquisitely rational and articulated in the name of a cultural (ideological-pragmatic) purpose (and please, let us avoid canonical quotations of [Sergei] Eisenstein and, in part of [Vsevolod] Pudovkin, to whom we refer anyone who has not yet read their work).23
A similar view underlies Mangini's and Del Fra's following project, Stalin, which was initially conceived (again with Franco Fortini) as a critical investigation of the Soviet dictator. Quoting Mangini, the project was born “from the faults of To Arms!, from the need to remove from the libraries the historical issue of Stalinism, … which has otherwise been served in the culinary version of the personality cult. … After the success met by To Arms! we wanted to affirm that this particular kind of film could have an audience, and prove popular at the box office.”24
However, excessive interference from the producer, Fulvio Lucisano, caused the project to fail. Lucisano and the film editor, Renato May, made substantial adjustments to the directors' cut in order to obtain an edition suitable for the US market. The most contested part was specifically the final sequence, in which the commentary appealed to the continuity of the proletarian struggles in third-world countries, following Leon Trotsky's notion of permanent revolution. After a legal dispute, Del Fra, Mangini, and Fortini refused to be credited on the film. According to Mangini, “The chance to succeed [with our movie] depended on there being very little compromise with the production; … on the extraordinary nature of the materials and their ‘manipulation’ and presentation; and finally, on its steadfast ideological leaning: these are the few spectacular components of the movie, besides that of the spectator's active participation.”25 In the end, only a few of the original sequences were left untouched. The coherence of Mangini and Del Fra's project was completely shattered in the recut version, released in 1963 by Lucisano under the title Processo a Stalin (The Trial of Stalin). The film was ultimately a commercial flop.
The creative process behind Stalin was extremely difficult, as once again Mangini and Del Fra were forced to find materials abroad.26 Since she did not have an affiliation with any of the left-wing parties, Mangini was able to obtain a visa and travel overseas, while Del Fra (who was member of the Socialist Party) was confined to researching in Europe.27 Most of the footage came from US public institutions such as the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Mangini also acquired footage from the Fox and Paramount libraries and from different private collections.28 Once again, Esfir Shub is pivotal to reinterpreting Mangini's approach to the archive, as well as to the practice of the compilation film. For The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Shub researched and sought out the materials on her own, thus contributing directly to the preservation of precious footage of the prerevolutionary period from otherwise inevitable destruction.29 Thirty-five years later, Mangini did the same with materials of the postrevolutionary period. Working on To Arms! We're Fascists!, Mangini had already found some extremely rare material; for Stalin she found a few little-known fragments from Dziga Vertov's Kino-Pravda series at the Museum of Modern Art archive, and rescued a sequence of Lenin's funeral from a farm in New Jersey.30
Mangini's research experience for Stalin is extensively described in the correspondence she and Del Fra exchanged with Lucisano during her stay in the United States, in July and August of 1962. For about one month she visited New York, Washington, DC, and New Jersey. Through her letters it is possible to experience the “allure of archives” that enlivened her investigation. As Arlette Farge notes in her remarkable study, the pleasure of archival research and its subsequent transcription produces a specific kind of subjectivity.31 In her letters to Lucisano, Mangini describes at length the materials she is finding, discusses technical and economic questions, and describes the pragmatic difficulties she is experiencing in dealing with archival institutions. The correspondence with her husband Del Fra is a great deal more intimate: they plan together a research strategy to obtain more from the producer without losing their independence, and Del Fra insists repeatedly on the importance of finding exclusive material, as different as possible from the footage that is usually seen on television. Furthermore, these letters demonstrate Mangini's horizontal, antihierarchical approach to work. Her negotiations with Lucisano are rooted in the technical knowledge that had helped her to affirm her independence as a professional and, consequently, as a self-confident woman. She was well aware of the extraordinary work she was doing, as her writing attests:
I've realized that the “film-finders” are little professional; they work mostly on what is already known. … Believe me, I can assure you that none of those film finders would ever put in the work that I do. In America there are plenty of valuable compilation films and the “film finders” always pick up the material from there. They never take on the struggle of a thorough research. If you want great footage, I have to look for it myself. It's a huge effort, but it has to be done alone.32
These aspects of Mangini's work for To Arms! We're Fascists! and Stalin highlight her approach to filmmaking. Militancy, ideology, professionalism, and passion were the elements that shaped her specific philosophy of cinema as well as her specific approach to filmmaking as a woman. These elements were also decisive in the construction of her own aesthetics, which provides a further perspective on Mangini's counterhegemonic experience, as is better illustrated by a later example of her cinema.
BEING WOMEN AS COUNTER-CINEMA
In 1963 the Italian leftist association Unione Donne in Italia (Italian Women's Union or UDI) commissioned Mangini to make a medium-length documentary on women's labor, which was intended as a contribution to the electoral campaign of the Italian Communist Party.33 In that period, following five years of remarkable economic growth, women and other vulnerable groups were increasingly penalized as a result of both the inadequacy of welfare support and the persistent underdevelopment of many areas of the Italian peninsula. Mangini's documentary Essere donne (Being Women, 1963–65) portrays women's everyday lives in that difficult context, investigating their labor conditions both in the large factories of the north and in the rural south. As discussed earlier, her focus on everyday life can be read not just as a documentarist approach to the subject, but also as a form of Gramscian analysis of the actual structures of power and oppression that affect a subaltern group of female workers.
Once more Mangini experienced difficulties in dealing with institutions, which culminated in the exclusion of Being Women from the circuit of commercial distribution following the negative judgment of a ministerial committee.34 This severely limited the film's circulation; it was shown only in the Italian Communist Party's community houses, film clubs, and party headquarters. Nevertheless, thanks to its pioneering feminist discourse, it has been widely screened in subsequent decades and was recently restored and made available online.35 Being Women deals specifically with the marginalization of women in the context of left-wing political militancy. Within such circles, the battle for women's rights was still considered a secondary issue compared to class struggle. In accordance with the political agenda of the UDI, the film was addressed specifically to male comrades, and sought to highlight the crucial role played by women within the proletariat, both as workers and as mothers and daughters.
Yet of course in portraying and contextualizing the condition of women, Being Women was addressed to female comrades, too. A clear example of Mangini's personal film aesthetics, it combines the forms of investigation and propaganda and employs found footage, collage, and original interviews. With her use of avant-garde techniques, Mangini provides a compelling case of a counter-cinema that subverts the conventional structure of the political movie and develops an autonomous aesthetic discourse in its fissures that is particularly aimed at women. Following Claire Johnston, I would suggest that this movie offers several examples of a counter-cinema aesthetics, in that it leads to a female reappropriation of the cinematic apparatus through a modernist notion of the relationships among cinema, ideology, and militancy.36 An example of this can be found in the first sequence, where Mangini employs a collage of images from tabloids and women's magazines in order to unmask their ideological falsehood. The rhythm of montage emphasizes their pervasiveness, reading them—to quote the voice-over—as “leading figures of modernization” that take part actively in the shaping of the “feminine mystique,” which pushes aside the reality of women's oppression.37 Cutting and pasting recycled images, according to William Wees, exploits the “self referentiality [of found footage and] encourages a more analytical reading … than the footage originally received.”38 Moreover, as Giuliana Bruno has pointed out, film editing is close to other “female” practices that are traditionally left behind the scenes, and the use of found footage clearly emphasizes analytical, manual work on images.39 Found footage has indeed been a recurrent practice in women's cinema, and Mangini's use of this form emphasizes the pioneering counterhegemonic value of her cinema, produced in a prevalently male context.40
In the final sequence of Being Women she uses collage again. Here, conversely, the images portray women actively involved in demonstrations, strikes, and riots. This counter-imaginary appeals to women's struggles in the present while at the same time producing a link with the past by means of found footage, which suppresses the distance between past and present and opens to “a tactile appropriation of the past, based on montage,” as Monica Dall'Asta puts it.41 This characteristic of found footage returns us to the previous reflections on the militant use of the archive and its underlying notion of history. Indeed, Mangini's emphasis on montage theory coherently entails the use of found footage and its manipulation. In particular, in Being Women the materialist relationship between past and present aims to carve out a space for women in a militant review of history, as a prelude to the writing of a proper Herstory.
Following the UDI's commitment to nuclear disarmament, the first and the final sequences of the film advance a pacifist message that points to the conflict between women struggling for peace on the one hand, and on the other, the warlike imaginary imposed on women by mass consumption and the society of the spectacle. In the initial sequence, the film's pacifist message is underlined by the Brechtian “Alabama Song” while the voice-over defines the tabloid images as “ominous signals, alerts” of nuclear war. A future nuclear conflict is furthermore suggested by a stock footage insert of a mushroom cloud—which immediately recalls the famous ending of Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958)—just at the moment when the song lyrics state: “I tell you, I tell you we must die.” In the final sequence, on the other hand, women are portrayed participating in peace demonstrations in support of the UDI's campaigns for disarmament. Here the sound editing produces a choral effect that contrasts with the singularity of the narration, as the voices of the women previously interviewed at work are assembled in a sort of aural patchwork that stands in for their collective commitment.42 Moreover, this solution highlights the value of self-narration, affirming the specificity of individual experience within the universal cause of class struggle.43
This particular sound editing subverts the conventional synchronism of voice and images while at the same time interrupting the one-directional reading of the commentary. Written by Felice Chilanti, a columnist and a former partisan, the text is in fact addressed specifically to male comrades through recurring expressions such as “us” and “we and our fathers,” not to mention that it is performed by a male voice. In a way, then, Being Women seems to reproduce the oppressive dynamics between male (subject) and female (object). But the choral use of the women's voices throws into crisis the universality of male subjectivity and opposes its monolithic experience of class struggle with the plural perspective of women's everyday lives, by means of self-narration. A distinctly female point of view is built through the editing and manipulation of sound and images, rather than through a conventionally linear development of discourse. Moreover, in the sequences that portray women at work, the editing emphasizes the uniqueness of female gestures through the use of repetition, another typical technique of avant-garde aesthetics.44
Being Women is no doubt the most explicitly feminist entry in Mangini's filmography. At the same time, its pioneering position in the history of Italian women's cinema encourages a reading of its discourse through its counter-cinematic aspects, which highlight both its difficult development and its unusual vividness.
This article has attempted to illustrate the complexity of Cecilia Mangini's filmmaking experience on different levels. First, it illustrated her exceptional position as a woman in the Italian context, both in the cinematic field and in the cultural sphere. It then stressed her specific negotiation of a female space in “conventional” forms—such as the propaganda movie—by means of avant-garde formal techniques, including found footage and repetition, as well as her approach to the archive. Finally it traced her theoretical framework, particularly based on Antonio Gramsci and the theories of the Soviet avant-garde, which confirms her commitment to a revolutionary project. Together, all of these aspects portray a woman filmmaker who was able to develop a counterhegemonic approach to cinema within a prevalently male context. The powerful negotiation offered by Mangini's cinema is one of the most typical traits of her films, which can moreover open further possible readings of her work. In this regard, Mangini's experience suggests new paths of inquiry in the construction of a women's film history that can bring to light the multiplicity of negotiations that, still today, produce a host of feminist discourses on the flaws of the cinematic apparatus. In order to do so, “archaeological” research on the work of female practitioners such as Mangini can productively contribute to the everyday struggles that keep building women's cinema and assist, once again, in the revision of the historiographic patterns that have shaped film history.