ITALIAN MALE HEROES IN THE "BLACK CONTINENT"-
COLONIAL NARRATIVES IN ETTORE SCOLA'S
RIUSCIRANNO I NOSTRI EROI A RITROVARE L'AMICO MISTERIOSAMENTE SCOMPARSO IN AFRICA?
BY NOEMI ALFIERI
The 1968 film Riusciranno i nostri eroi a ritrovare l'amico misteriosamente scomparso in Africa? [Will Our Heroes Be Able to Find Their Friend Who Has Mysteriously Disappeared in Africa? ], by Ettore Scola, offers an opportunity to reflect on ways in which the African continent and black African people are represented in Italian popular culture, well after the end of the fascist regime and the formal political decolonization of African territories previously under Italian control. This paper will explore how, despite its underlying purpose to represent the overtaking of Italian colonial past through sarcasm, the plot and the narrative strategies employed by the film end up reproducing colonial stereotypes about Italian relationship with Africa.
In fact, while the Portuguese colonisers are, throughout the entire filmic narration, condemned for their racist attitudes in Angola, the movie lacks any concrete critical reflection about the cultural heritage of Italian colonialism, especially as conceived in fascist propaganda. This aligns with the film's treatment of female characters. Indirect and somehow implicit chauvinism is expressed in the representation of Italian women, who are portrayed as frivolous, worldly oriented, oppressive and obtuse bourgeois-wife figures, whom successful and well-established men are urged to escape from. Whereas black Angolans women are systematically subjected to sexual objectification, tribalization and fictional primitivization; Mucubai women are a mere object of desire, subservient and devoted to the European men they appear to adore like gods. Such representation of the white male subject as object of veneration, fully and immediately welcomed by local tribal communities, is nothing but a mere reiteration of classic colonial and Eurocentric tropes, which, in the Italian perspective, comes to be embedded within the stereotype of the inner and non-conditional goodness of Italian people. This tactic, aiming to purge any trace of moral and historical responsibilities of the Italians towards the colonized, has a stark continuation in Italian collective memory and popular culture long after the end of the colonial project, also within those intellectual circles officially committed to the deconstruction of the colonial and fascist cultural paradigms.
In Scola’s film, Italian well-established men (“our heroes”, as the very title states) travel through a non-defined, fictional “Africa” that is no more than a background of landscapes, a sort of promised land that can guarantee a concrete evasion from the flatness of daily life. For those who were astonished by the deep, radical dialogues and human exchanges between the main characters of Una giornata particolare (1977), this is not the kind of film we would expect from its director: we are far from the harsh criticism of Italian fascism, of its totalitarian essence and inner chauvinistic and homophobic nature. Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni were the main characters of that movie, which was filmed about ten years before Riusciranno…?. Born in Southern Italy, Scola was already a renowned communist at that time, sensitive to the topics of internal immigration and its inequalities. His sharp attack to fascism’s gender policies was, thus, more than expected by him in the late ‘70s. How did he relate, however, to race and colonialism in the middle ’60s?
Mainly filmed in Southern Angola during the so-called Colonial War (for the Angolan, it was and it’s still the Liberation War), under a close regime of censorship and with the active presence of the guerrilla led by the Liberation Movements and the Portuguese political police (PIDE) in the territory, this mainstream production ends up merging classical colonial themes such as navigations, African adventures and the civilising mission. Angola is nor even mentioned in the title: according to the colonial narrative, it is framed just as an African territory of Portugal, this being a transcontinental unique nation. Such rhetoric was widely reproduced in both Italy and Portugal, while its implications are still present in our reckless collective imagination.
Let’s start from some preliminary remarks: defined by Scola himself as a “naïve and honest” movie (Dionisi, De Pascalis, 2016), Riusciranno…? is, in a way, a stereotypical Italian comedy. Openly criticizing the hypocritical mediocrity of the middle class in the Italian capital city, the flat, uninspiring daily life of businessmen in Rome led Oreste Sabatini, nicknamed Titino, to leave his family and “escape” to “Africa”. His brother-in-law, the owner of a publishing house called Di Salvio (played by Alberto Sordi) and his assistant Galeazzi decide to go and look for him.
One might argue, as some academics have already done, that the film is a post-colonial deconstruction of the imperial narrative, which uses the grotesque as an effective tool to unveil Italy's colonial past (Luijnenburg, 2014). Even considering there might be such an implicit intention in the movie, my point here is to try and reflect on which hidden cultural codes, conventions and/or internalised forms or racism stand behind this very critic. Being one of the examples of commedia all’ italiana, the film explores an array of topics through humour and irony: from the nearly-obsessive influence of the US consumerist and popular culture in Italy after WW2 to the hypocrisy of the urban middle class, to the Italians’ tropical and colonial dreams of Africa. In the first minutes, we see Di Salvio daydreaming of the Kalandula Falls, while criticising his wife for her pointless way of living, when he comments on the way she addresses the domestic servant – “John… questo é barese, perchè lo chiami John?” (“John… if he’s from Bari, why do you call him John?”)– and stating that people to be pitied were the ones staying in Italy and not the ones living, like his brother-in-law. Once “our heroes” land in Luanda, the ridiculousness of their imagination of an abstract Africa as a homogeneous territory of wildlife and safaris becomes tangible. The main character, dressed as a colonial hunter, is filmed by a distinguished Angolan man, which makes the Italian publisher feel quite uncomfortable with his clothing, inappropriate for a modern, vibrant city like the Angolan capital. Whereas this might make us breathe for a while, hoping from now on Scola will definitely cut off with stereotypes and colonial representations, the idea of italiani, brava gente (Italians, good people – as for Angelo Del Boca’s provocative definition) remains the leitmotiv of the whole plot.
What is criticised, here, seems to be an abstract idea of “colonialism” with a clear emphasis on Portuguese colonialism, while the representation of Italians is caricatural, but this does not imply a critical perspective on its cultural heritage. Portuguese characters are a sort of archetype of lazy, racist, exploiting, ignorant and dishonest people: for this reason, Di Salvio punches Fernando, a Portuguese settler, following a row they had because of his racist statements about black people, while the residents of a whole Angolan village watch the scene and Fernando’s wife implores him to leave. Before that, the same Di Salvo had fired the guide Durabal as the latter refused to translate to “il nostro primo autentico aborigeno” (our first authentic aboriginal) that they were all brothers and the skins’ colour wasn’t a relevant difference: “Muito prazer. Io, lei, loro, tutti fratelli...hermanos… como se diz... Durabal, glielo dica: Colore pelle no conta nada, está tudo igual.”
If we did or said something wrong, the movie tells us, it was not on purpose: we didn’t know it and, for sure, we can laugh about it. If we didn’t behave properly, it was because we didn’t have the cultural tools to know it or to understand it. We were too focused on our mediocre urban life or too brightened by the “discovery” of a brand-new world that wasn’t the one Di Salvio dreamed of for his whole life, but still was intact and pure. This dynamic is extremely problematic, as it eludes a concrete move or switch from the fascist colonial narration, and it fails in the attempt to a concrete reflection on the cultural aspects and consequences of Italian colonialism itself. Again: it is as if Italian colonialism had never existed. Italian racism is just a misunderstanding.
In this aspect, the narration happens to converge, in a sense, with the Portuguese official colonial propaganda of lusotropicalism. Both the Portuguese and the Italian propagandas insisted, even if under a slightly different perspective, on the idea that “nationals” who were going to colonise Africa would give a contribution to the territories. When we look at colonial propagandas in Southern Europe, we notice that the idea of cultural superiority was almost implicit, sugaring the pill to the masses and almost going along with the notion that the cultural roots of the settlers made it natural either to mix with local people (Portuguese lusotropicalism), to experience an absence of conflict with the locals (Spanish colonial propaganda) or, still, to be well-received by them because of the inner goodness of the colonisers (Italian propaganda). The idea of citizenship was inextricably associated, in the colonial world, to the one of whiteness (Mbembe, 2013) and many European old colonial powers produced and kept on reproducing – long after political decolonisation – wider ideas of “nation” as and homogenous entity or project (Gilroy, 1993). They tended to erase the presence of black people from these narrations and, doing so, they contributed to their racialisation, through the denial of their crucial role as active agents of history and culture. The core problem with Scola’s film is, in this respect , that while it leads the spectator to think the movie may challenge colonialism and its cultural consequences actively, a concrete problematisation of this very heritage in the collective imagination through irony, sarcasm of satire is absent. The film fails to include Angolan people, who are not but the object of sequence shots that aim at humanising them under a Third-Worldist, romantic perspective. Possibly it was enough for the 1960’s, in a territory undergoing a war? To answer this question, we might recall Augusta Conchiglia’s photographic work of 1968 in the Frente Leste (“Eastern Front” of the war) along with the troops of MPLA  as well as Pasolini’s 1961 preface to the Italian edition of the translated anthology Letteratura negra, organised by the anti-colonial militant and Angolan intellectual Mário Pinto de Andrade. These were, for sure, different contexts from the one of the shootings of Riusciranno…?: it would be enlightening to know more about the dynamics of censorship and political pressures experienced by the film crew. Such constraints might have led Scola to focus on the dichotomy between the city and the villages and, in a way, to reproduce the idea of sensuality and sexualization of black women and their bodies. We do find elements counterbalancing the presence of the naked, smiling, available Angolan women.
The only Angolan character concretely speaking in the movie is Maria Carmen, a westernized, straight-hair “converted novice” the editor and his assistant meet in São José’s mission, while looking for their friend Oreste. Even if she refuses Di Salvio’s sexual advances, an element that leads the attentive spectator to assume the film director is deconstructing the sexual fantasies of Italian men about African women, we cannot avoid noticing that Maria Carmen represents the idea of cultural assimilation. We are facing an attempt of deconstruction of a colonial concept – the hyper-sexualisation and sexual objectification of black women – through the reproduction of another colonial concept: the idea that cultural assimilation allows African people to express their potential, hidden or underdeveloped qualities, while reinforcing the supposed moral superiority of the European culture (it is indeed Catholicism to enable Maria Carmen to be strong enough to refuse the temptations of the flesh). What I am trying to demonstrate here is that Scola happens to fail an effective subversion of the colonial pattern , even when using grotesque, and this gets particularly evident when it comes to racialised people, especially women. Once the main characters finally find Sabatini in Southern Angola, the Mucubai women of the village are devoted to him as a sort of God figure. These representations are offensive , not just considering the repeated, conceptual subalternisation symbolically exerted – once again – against women of the Global South (Vergés, 2019), but also to one of the most powerful tribes of the country, widely known and culturally respected for its long-lasting resistance to external threats  . Moreover, these choices show a lack of interest in going further ethnographical representation and a superficial romanisation of Africanity. To paraphrase Amilcar Cabral’s words, cultural resistance is the more effective form of fight against domination. What is the implicit reasoning , then, behind the erasure of , forms of resistance in visual culture? Which are the consequences of this non-critic reproduction of colonial stereotypes for the next generations ? The practice of the Italian director, which reinforces the omission of racial and colonial issues -and lacks the critical overcoming of the brava gente paradigm- has been, after all, already pointed out in regards to Concorrenza Sleale, a 2001 film which tells a story set against the backdrop of the proclamation of 1938 racial Laws, discriminating the Jewish Italian population (Lichtner, 2012).
 Acronym for Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola: People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, one of the liberation movements involved in the guerrilla against the Portuguese army.
 The article «“Um italiano em Angola”, o filme entre o preconceito e a ignorância», published in May 2015, in the magazine Bantumen, mentions the offensiveness of Scola’s representation for black and African people.
 In a 2019 interview with Nicoletta Del Pesco, published in Taccuini del Premio Ilaria Alpi (2009), Scola defined the Mucubais as a “savage tribe”. He used as an argument the fact that “they had never seen trucks or cars, they were terrified by them and they kept on shouting on the first trip”. This is also relevant as the volume included an unpublished work by Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish photojournalist who authored Another day of life ( first published in 1976), about the Angolan Civil War. Part of the interview is available in Italian at https://cinemovel.tv/intervista-a-ettore-scola/
 Italian journalist and historian Indro Montanelli, who enrolled as a volunteer in the Italian fascist army invading Ethiopia in 1935, decided, once in Eritrea, to buy a 12-year-old local girl named Destà, as a “wife”. His description of her is starkly dehumanizing: the girl is a “bell’animaletto” (a nice little animal), lucky to have been sold to the Italian coloniser. At that time, this attitude was socially justified by the practice of madamato, consisting in the “temporary” marriage of Italian soldiers with native women. These women, and the children they came to bear, were destined to be abandoned: the practice of rejection of children born within this kind of unions was maintained also during the Amministrazione Fiduciaria of Somalia (Trust Territory of Somaliland under Italian Administration, from 1950 to 1960). Montanelli never changed his public opinion about what he considered a legitimate act of benevolence and a regular practice, without ever hiding the fact that he would not have behaved the same way in Italy, with a non-African 12-year-old-girl. In the 1969’s TV show L’ora della verità, while confronted in regards to his sexist and colonial attitude by Elvira Banotti, he still rejected criticism about the violence he perpetuated.
 Meaning “It denounces the colonialism of others, without wanting to name his own”.
Recent controversies like the one related to the statue of Indro Montanelli in Milan and the violence he exerted against the 12-year- Destá  show how deeply the colonial rhetoric of the good, saviour Italian man is rooted in Italian culture. Initiatives like the “guerriglia odontomastica”, aiming to change the toponymy of Italian streets following a bottom-up logic, demonstrate, on the other hand, how much work still needs to be done. In Italy, despite the tireless work of a new generation of young women, activists and intellectuals, like Djarah Kan and Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti, it is still difficult to discuss the cultural meaning of whiteness and blackness today, while colonial atrocities, massacres and racial violence still happen to be the main focus of attention in historiographical analysis of colonial past. The dissection and deconstruction of the colonial narratives are as relevant as the discussion on the concrete consequences of these inherited and oblivious ideas, both on racialised and non-racialised people today.
We haven’t been able, as a society, to eradicate the uncritical, atemporal idea of the inner goodness of Italians yet. Riusciranno i nostri eroi a ritrovare l'amico misteriosamente scomparso in Africa? does the same as Italy regarding his colonial, racist past and its consequences in the reckless collective imagination of the present: as Igiaba Scego wrote, it just “dénonce le colonialisme des autres, sans vouloir nommer le sien”  .
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