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Italy’s De Serio Brothers on CineMart Colonial-Era Drama ‘Prince Aden’

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Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, the Italian directing duo best known internationally for their Locarno premiere “Seven Acts of Mercy,” are developing a colonial-era drama that they’re presenting during the Rotterdam Film Festival’s CineMart co-production market.

“Prince Aden” begins in 1935, when a 16-year-old Somali boy passes the test to become a dubat, a soldier in the Italian army that has invaded Ethiopia on the orders of Mussolini. Aden Sicré is sent to the frontlines, but after being injured on his first day of service he’s forced to return home – where he is unexpectedly hailed as a war hero by the Fascist regime.

Five years later, Aden is recruited to take part in a recreation of the daily life of an African village at the newly built Mostra d’Oltremare exhibition center in Naples. But when Italy enters the Second World War, the “human zoo” suddenly closes, stranding Aden and the other African inhabitants for three years as Allied bombs destroy the city around them.

Inspired by the book “Partigiani d’Oltremare,” by the Italian historian Matteo Petracci, the film follows the unexpected turns in the years after, as Aden and other African fighters play a pivotal role in the partisan struggle against fascism in Europe, and the would-be shepherd is hailed as the film’s titular prince.

“Prince Aden” sheds light on an “unknown story” that helped shape the course of Italy in the 20th century, according to Gianluca. Yet it’s a story that’s become increasingly relevant against the backdrop of modern-day Europe.

“We found that this story is not so far from those of thousands of young people who leave their homeland and come to Italy and Europe to find a new life today,” he said. “There is a kind of mirror” with current events.

Massimiliano said that “this story is a contemporary story, not only a story of our recent past,” which reflects how events between the colonial era and the present day are connected.

“We need to talk about not only our origin [as colonizers and fascists], but also we need to talk about the importance of Africa to our story, and also the importance of the Italian story to the African one,” he added. “The film will not only be a film about colonialism, because everything starts from there, but also about post-colonialism.”

The De Serio Bros. addressed similar topics in their 2010 film installation “Stanze” (Rooms) (pictured), which looked at issues of colonialism, post-colonialism and their consequences on the condition of migrants today.

Central to “Prince Aden” will be an interrogation of the ways in which the Fascist regime exploited the image of its young African hero for its own purposes. The brothers will also examine the role played by the Mostra d’Oltremare, as well as the Italian film industry, in promoting the propaganda of the Fascist government, raising questions of how history is staged and narratives framed.

It’s a timely subject in an era when previously marginalized voices across the world are struggling to reclaim their own stories. Massimiliano noted how an increasing number of young Italian writers, artists and musicians with African roots have in recent years begun to produce art that echoes their own experiences as second- and third-generation Italians.

However, he said, “there is not a real debate in Italy’s culture about our colonialism and the ashes of this colonialism after the ‘60s” similar to how the Black Lives Movement has cast fresh light on race history in the U.S.

That lack of accountability or reflection extends to cinema, which “didn’t really face up to colonialism” after the fall of the fascist regime, Massimiliano said. That, in turn, has had a profound effect on Italian culture today.

“Cinema works with images. It gives visibility to something, and it hides something else,” said Gianluca. “For us, cinema is a responsibility…. It’s a choice. It’s close to the work of archaeologists: going under the surface and looking for pieces of our identity that are hidden not only in the past, also in the present.”

The De Serio Brothers’ debut feature, “Seven Acts of Mercy,” made a splash on the festival circuit after premiering in competition in Locarno in 2011. The brothers later premiered in the Venice Film Festival in 2016 with the documentary “River Memories,” about one of the largest shanty towns in Europe. Two years ago, they bowed “The Stonebreaker,” starring “Gomorrah’s” Salvatore Esposito, in the festival’s Venice Days strand.

“Prince Aden” is produced by Alessandro Borrelli for La Sarraz Pictures. As the filmmakers search for potential co-producing partners during CineMart, Massimiliano stressed that their film is inherently a “European project” that is “important for Europe.”

“We are the doors of Europe in the Mediterranean today,” he said, “and I think that this project could be a way for Europe to understand better the European roots that are not only the European, Christian roots, but also the roots of our tragic and somehow also beautiful links [and] violent links with Africa. The film will be violent and tender at the same time.”

The Rotterdam Film Festival’s CineMart co-production market runs Jan. 31-Feb. 2.