From 1922 to 1943, over 700 films were produced, most not really "fascist" films at all but primarily entertainment. Indeed, the fascist regime admired the Hollywood model, not the totalitarian cinemas controlled by dictators in Germany and Russia. When it desired pro-regime propaganda, Mussolini's government relied on radio and short filmed documentaries prepared by LUCE (the Union of Cinematographic Education) and screened with the feature films designed for entertainment. Even in wartime, Italy averaged some 72 films annually between 1939 and 1944, a figure that gives some idea of the large local market for film and its role as popular entertainment. When the Italian industry nearly collapsed after World War I, Italian movie theaters (numbering at one point some 3,000 theaters) were forced to show only foreign films, a situation that was intolerable for the Fascist regime, whose official economic policy was self-sufficiency—that is, autarchy—in all matters economic and cultural. When the Italian government moved to block Hollywood's near monopoly of film distribution within the Italian market, the Hollywood "Big Four" (20th Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros.) withdrew from the Italian market in protest. No longer forced to face overwhelming American economic pressure, the Italian film industry eventually rebounded, filling the void of Hollywood products with nationally produced films.
Outside of Italy, little was known of Italian cinema during the fascist period, and this ignorance encouraged the erroneous idea abroad that the post–World War II Italian cinema had arisen miraculously from the ashes of the war. In retrospect, many important achievements of this era are more clear. Mussolini himself was fond of saying that the cinema was the most powerful art form developed in the modern era. Mussolini's son Vittorio played a major role as the editor of an influential film journal ( Cinema ) that involved such collaborators as the future postwar leftist directors, Luchino Visconti (1906–1976), Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), and Giuseppe De Santis (1917–1997), and it was Vittorio Mussolini's friendship that enabled Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) to begin to work in the industry. The regime founded a major film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (1935); and it built one of the world's great film production complexes, Cinecittà, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1937. Both of these institutions are still in operation, and with their vast archives, they also serve as repositories of Italian cinematic history. Bianco e nero , the official organ of the Centro, and Cinema helped to spread information about foreign theories and techniques through translations and reviews. The regime also sponsored university film clubs (Cinegufs) that helped to create a generation of cinephiles. Most of the great directors, actors, technicians, and scriptwriters of the neorealist period received their training during the fascist period, and some postwar stars made their first films in the service of a regime whose policies they would later repudiate after the fall of Mussolini in 1943.
The first Italian sound film was Canzone dell'amore ( The Song of Love , 1930) by Gennaro Righelli (1886–1949). With the advent of the talkies, Italian cinema was dominated by two important directors: Mario Camerini (1895–1981) and Alessandro Blasetti (1900–1987). Camerini's stylish comedies stressed role playing in society, enjoyed intelligent and lively scripts, and first brought together Vittorio De Sica (1902–1974), as an actor, and Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989), as scriptwriter in a classic comedy, Darò un milione ( I'd Give a Million , 1935). Long before De Sica became identified by his neorealist masterpieces scripted with Zavattini, he was the most popular actor in fascist Italy, playing roles similar to those performed in Hollywood by both Cary Grant and James Stewart. Camerini's most important comedy, Il Signor Max ( Mr. Max , 1937), starring De Sica, established a level of craftsmanship and witty sophistication that rivals the best products of the Hollywood studios during the same period. Blasetti's career represents an entirely different approach to cinema. Frequently abandoning the sound studios at Cinecittà so crucial to Camerini's work, Blasetti created his masterpiece 1860 ( Gesuzza the Garibaldian Wife , 1934), a patriotic film about Garibaldi. In its original uncut edition, he linked Garibaldi's Redshirts to Mussolini's Blackshirts, first made use of nonprofessional actors and on-location shooting, and pursued film realism—all supposedly original features of the immediate postwar period. Blasetti's Vecchia guardia ( The Old Guard , 1935) employs a similar documentary style in portraying Mussolini's rise to power. Yet, Blasetti also made one of the most beautiful and imaginative of all films during this era, La Corona di ferro ( The Iron Crown , 1941), in which ornately stylized studio sets testify to the technical prowess reached at Cinecittà. Its call for universal peace at a time when the entire world (including Italy) was at war demonstrates how fascist censorship was quite loosely applied to the commercial cinema. Moreover, Blasetti's Quattro passi fra le nuvole ( A Stroll in the Clouds , 1942) prefigured the poetic style of De Sica's postwar neorealism in its simple plot and a Zavattini script.
Italian films made during the fascist period were usually not "fascist" in tone, although they were often nationalistic and patriotic, much like their Hollywood counterparts. The search for realism in the Italian cinema thus began not with the postwar period and the neorealists but, rather, with directors working in the 1930s and the 1940s before the end of World War II. In an important manifesto published in 1933 ("The Glass Eye"), pro-Mussolini journalist Leo Longanesi called for Italian directors to take their cameras into the streets and to produce a non-Hollywood version of Italian everyday life, a film realism that was authentically Italian in content. This interest in realism was specifically the goal of the left-wing Italian fascist intellectuals associated with Vittorio Mussolini's journal Cinema , and after the war and the fall of his father's regime, these same individuals continued their interest in film realism but pursued this goal with a Marxist, not a fascist, twist. Not only talented auteurs such as Blasetti, but other directors took up Longanesi's call, and the advent of the war added urgency to a realistic view of Italian life on celluloid. A marriage of fact and fiction, documentary and fantasy, soon became the formula for successful films about the war. Francesco De Robertis (1902–1959), his protégé Rossellini, and Augusto Genina (1892–1957), all contributed to this search for realism while making war films. Genina's Squadrone bianco ( The White Squadron , 1936), a film about Italian colonialism in Libya, was shot on stupendous desert locations; his L'Assedio dell'Alcazar ( The Siege of the Alcazar , 1940), a celebration of the Falangist defense of the Alcazar fortress by Franco's troops during the Spanish Civil War, also employed real locations and documentary footage.
The realistic war films of Genina, De Robertis, and Rossellini adopted the formula of the documentario romanzato (fictional documentary), combining a fictional-emotional-romantic theme (usually the love affair between a soldier and his lady friend) with the documentary-historical-realistic theme (the war film genre, real locations, documentary photography, some nonprofessional actors). De Robertis's Men on the Bottom (1941), made for the Italian navy, employs an editing style indebted to Eisenstein's montage (the Russian's theories had been discussed and partially translated by the film journal Cinema ) and used nonprofessional actors, the men on board an Italian submarine, to great effect. Rossellini actually produced a trilogy of pro-regime films that we label today his "fascist trilogy," which may be contrasted and compared to the more celebrated "war trilogy" he made in the immediate postwar neorealist period. The first of these three works, La Nave bianca ( The White Ship , 1941), the dramatic tale of life on a hospital ship saving brave Italian soldiers, was shot in collaboration with De Robertis; Vittorio Mussolini collaborated on the script. It was followed in short order by two other films supporting the war effort (the soldiers, sailors, and airmen doing the fighting and the dying, not necessarily the fascist regime): Un Pilota ritorna ( A Pilot Returns , 1942) and L'Uomo dalla croce ( The Man With a Cross , 1943). These three nationalistic films shot to support the troops represent important precursors of Italian neorealism, and another appeared in 1943, the year that witnessed the downfall of Mussolini's regime: Ossessione ( Obsession ) by Luchino Visconti (his first feature). Based on a pirated version of James Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Visconti created a truly unusual antiheroic protagonist who can easily be seen as a homosexual. This character was indebted to American hard-boiled novels and was diametrically opposed to the kind of "manly" protagonists fascist censors might have preferred. Visconti's long takes and languorous rhythms reappeared in his postwar work and represented a style that was set apart from the more rapid editing techniques in Rossellini's neorealist classics.