A fascist ‘Rocky’ in ‘Harlem’: the most censored work of Italian cinema

The most censored film in Italian cinema is titled “Harlem” (1943) and it was a fascist propaganda piece about an Italian boxer who defeats a black rival. The tape was cut when Mussolini’s regime ended, but eight decades later it has been recovered to reveal the rhetoric that hammered Italians with the illusion of racial superiority.

The film, which is being screened today in its full version, is scrutinized by the documentary filmmaker Luca Martera in his book “Harlem: il film più censoto di semper” (Ed.La Nave di Teseo), incidentally providing more information on the propaganda in the cinema of Italian Fascism.

“There is always talk of what Joseph Goebbels did with Nazi cinema, but how did the fascists use it? (…) The experts maintained that the Catholic values ​​of the Regime prevented attacking minorities, although this was not the case,” the author maintains in a conversation with Efe.

A film in the twilight
“Harlem” was one of the last films of Italy in “black shirt”, since it was released at the end of April 1943, two months before the landing of the allies in Sicily, within the framework of World War II, already three months after the fall of Benito Mussolini.

Directed by Carmine Gallone and inspired by the life of the popular boxer Primo Carnera, world heavyweight champion, it was designed to instruct the masses in “State racism” and proclaim Italian superiority.

A narrative staged on a ring in New York in the 1930s, with the agonizing struggle between an Italian boxer recently landed on Ellis Island, played by Massimo Girotti, against a black one (the mestizo Lodovico Longo).

“Down with Italy! Death to the Italians!” The euphoric shouts of the “Abyssinian” over the ring, almost triumphant in the climax, make the Italian get up and knock him down with a right hand.

In short, it is the allegory of the triumph of one world over another, of Italy against the United States, a country “of blacks and Jews, a disintegrating element of civilization”, in the words of Mussolini.

All this three decades before Rocky Balboa faced the Soviet Iván Drago in times of the Cold War.

And despite the fact that in real life, Carnera was defeated by the Jew Max Baer and the black Joe Louis. But you know, propaganda almost always involves transcending reality.

In this sense, the writer maintains that the fascist dialectic was more subtle than the German Nazi: “They lowered the viewer’s defenses with lighter films,” he points out.

38 minutes of cuts
“Harlem”, financed by the Italian War Film Committee, circulated until the regime was extirpated, but with the arrival of the Americans it suffered all kinds of cuts in its footage until much of the racist insults were eliminated.

At least the ones that suited them, because in the cropped version the blacks were still ridiculed, Martera points out.

The film was seized in 1944 by the Allied Troops Communication and Propaganda Section (PWB) and returned two years later as a simple sports film.

The modifications in its script amount to 38 minutes, which makes it the most censored film in Italian history, according to the archives of the Cineteca Nacional.

But not even censorship reduced the hatred of this film, which in 1947 was burned in the street by communists who stormed the Reggio Emilia movie theater where it was shown.

POWs as extras
Martera, who has researched this work for three years, compiled a dozen fascist war propaganda films, including “L’assedio dell’Alcazar” (1940), set in the Spanish Civil War, as well as ten others with a colonial theme.

But the racism of “Harlem” is not limited to the merely narrative field, but rather reveals an entire system. For example, explains the writer, some extras in the film were African prisoners of war, fallen into the imperial delusions of the “Duce.”

The film, without a single word in English -an allied language-, was shot in the Cinecittá studios, inaugurated during the dictatorship, directed by the fascist Luigi Freddi and which, according to Martera, even had “a work camp for cinematographic purposes.” for prisoners.

In addition, his credits include important authors and intellectuals of the postwar period, such as Sergio Amedei, ultimately the screenwriter of Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1945), the masterpiece of Italian Neorealism.

As a curiosity, some of the Africans who appear in the film joined the partisan resistance in some operations in the regions of Lazio, Mascas and Tuscany (center).

While one of the actors, Osvaldo Valenti, ended up shot in 1945 after enlisting in defense of the Italian Social Republic, Mussolini’s last desperate stronghold.

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A fascist ‘Rocky’ in ‘Harlem’: the most censored work of Italian cinema


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