Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Il Duce's heavy hand weighs down 'Scipio'

Propaganda films are less about good moviemaking than the need to persuade; by definition, art takes a back seat to rabble-rousing. It may be a matter of chance, then, that the US War Department was able to tap Frank Capra to make the "Why We Fight" series during World War II or that Hitler could call upon Leni Riefenstahl to make the toweringly scary "Triumph of the Will."

And it may be Italy's lousy luck that Benito Mussolini ordered his untested 21-year-old son Vittorio to produce "Scipio Africanus" and hired the silent-epic hack Carmine Gallone to direct.

The rarely seen results are on view tonight only at the Coolidge Corner Theatre's Video Screening Room, as part of the Channel Zero series of bizarre cinematic effluvia. "Scipio" certainly qualifies. A declamatory swords-and-togas history lesson meant to sway the populace into backing Il Duce's invasion of Abyssinia, the 1937 film was the most expensive Italian film of its time. It won the Mussolini Cup for best Italian film at the 1937 Venice Film Festival -- no surprise -- but was a flop in general release, also no surprise.

"Scipio" plays like a hamhanded Cecil B. DeMille silent spectacle with speeches dropped in like chunks of fascist architecture. Taking place during the Second Punic Wars, it sets up a Rome devastated by Hannibal's victory on the Plains of Canae and a Senate dithering on how to respond. Enter the young general Scipio (Annibale Ninchi) -- greeted by cheers and upraised salutes -- who proclaims, in a dandy bit of ideological subtlety, "There is no other recourse but to invade Africa."

Off Scipio sails to Carthage, while the fat, eye-patched conqueror Hannibal (Camillo Pilotto) hangs back in Italy and paws at local noblewomen. The virgin

/whore dichotomy gets a workout, with Isa Miranda as the lamblike object of the Carthaginian general's lust and Francesca Braggiotti as princess Sofonisba, a scheming enemy vamp who eventually takes her cup of poison as if it were a slipper of champagne. "Scipio" ends up on the plains of Zama, where the Roman general won the day in 202 BC by crippling Hannibal's elephants. The climax is a battle scene that features telephone wires in the background, extras who would soon be drafted to fight in the real Africa, and some of the most agonizing violence to pachyderms ever captured on film. The latter looks hideously real and I don't exactly see any humane societies listed in the credits, so it may be safe to presume that filming was an animal-rights nightmare of the first order.

To paraphrase an old Jack Benny line, what "Scipio" does to elephants, Mussolini would do to Italy. The movie remains a weirdly fascinating example of the propaganda that mostly deludes itself.

Scipio Africanus

Directed by: Carmine Gallone

Screenplay by: Gallone, Camillo Mariani Dell'Anguillara, S.A. Luciani, Silvio Maurano

Starring: Annibale Ninchi, Camillo Pilotto, Isa Miranda, Francesca Braggiotti

At: Coolidge Corner, 7:30 tonight only

Running time: 109 minutes

Unrated (violence against animals)

In Italian, with subtitles

Ty Burr can be reached at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives