Using extraordinary clips from Rome’s peerless Istituto Luce archive, Marco Bechis constructs a portrait of Italy during the Fascist era in “The Smile of the Leader.” All but the last minute consists of black-and-white footage commissioned by Mussolini to glorify his regime, and Bechis, born of an Italian father in Chile, reveals his personal connection to the voiceover only at the very end. The idea of using Mussolini’s propaganda to define the period is strong, but Bechis casts his net too wide. Intentional parallels with Berlusconi are satisfyingly apposite and will please left-leaning locals mostly on TV and in ancillary.
Returning to his docu roots, the helmer starts with images of the Duce acclaimed by his adoring subjects and then broadens the scope with footage covering a multitude of elements from the period: education, exercise, industry, Ethiopia, journalism. Mussolini wasn’t the first leader to use cinema in this way (Peter Schamoni’s superb “His Majesty Needs Sun” shows how Wilhelm II started the trend), but he certainly put his stamp on every element of society. Adoring crowds of women screaming for their leader, and Mussolini’s careful control of the media, offer unvoiced but deliberate comparisons between the Fascist leader and Italy’s recent premier.
One Mussolini speech, from Turin in 1932, is a recurring element, showing a less bombastic but nonetheless potent dictator whose populism touched a nerve in the Italian psyche that many argue remains to this day. Though the specter of Jack Oakie’s genius in “The Great Dictator” is never far from any Mussolini speech, Bechis ensures the strongman image isn’t a source of dismissive ridicule. Had the helmer concentrated on this element rather than the panoply of Fascist-era society he presents, his message would have been more powerful.
Voiceover is provided by Bechis’ father, Riccardo, who unflinchingly talks of being caught up in the Duce’s vision: “At 18, I was still an idiot.” His reasoned memories of the patriotic hysteria and the way people were enraptured by Mussolini’s showmanship (he’s not the first person to connect fascism with immaturity) ensure the footage isn’t viewed through the distant lens of history. It’s not irrelevant that the director himself fled Chile’s dictatorship, making him doubly familiar with the reality, rather than the specter, of fascism.
Occasionally, match edits are too facile, as when Mussolini addressing Fiat workers is cut with thunderous factory compressors. Music is culled from contemporary recordings though not from the films themselves; the idea is interesting and allows Bechis more control, but he starts off too soon with grandiloquent orchestrations, and there’s nowhere else to go from there.