Goffredo Alessandrini, Abuna Messias (Vendetta Africana) (1939)


Abuna Messias is a film shot mostly in the Horn of Africa during the season of the Africa Orientale Italiana (1936-1941). The plot is based on the story of Cardinal Guglielmo Massaia, an Italian missionary who at the end of the nineteenth century spent two decades in Ethiopia converting people to Catholicism. Massaia’s mission was supported by Ras Menelik, a local king who sought Italian support to modernize its region. The Cardinal’s reputation was growing increasingly throughout Ethiopia, and the mission was frowned upon by the head of the Coptic Church Abuna Attanasio, who wanted Massaia out of Ethiopia. Menelik’s refusal to help Abuna Attanasio eventually ignites a war between the Ethiopian Emperor Johannes IV and his subject Ras Menelik. In order to end the war, the Cardinal decides to leave the Horn of Africa.

Main Principles

  1. The Sacralisation of the New Man’s Total Politics through the Arts

  2. Shaping the New Man’s Reality by Fashioning National Myths

  3. Monumentalism: Visualising Subjectivity and Objectivity


In an age of intense colonial propaganda, Abuna Messias stands out within Fascist cinema projects due to the enormous amount of human and economic resources employed in its production as well as for its contribution in consolidating Fascist imperial momentum. Alessandrini’s film delivers a unique sense of the empire scenario as the promised land in which several dimensions of the Fascist revolution conflate. The film’s narrative celebrates not so much the colonization of Ethiopia but rather the consolidation of the palingenetic effort to build the New Man, as well as cinema itself as the most powerful means of doing so. The individual missionary ethos and the Fascist civilizing mission as a whole are combined in the character of Cardinal Massaia, who embodies this anthropological as well as political revolution: his mission in Ethiopia is a perfect intersection of individual subjectivity and an organic, and even sacred, relationship with the ethical Fascist state.

The film addresses different religious dimensions, offering a largely negative portrayal of both Muslims and the Christian Copts as opposed to a positive interpretation of the Catholic mission. If, on the one hand, Abuna Attanasio epitomises the traditional religious power that keeps Ethiopia in miserable conditions, on the other, Cardinal Massaia’s character embodies the syncretic union of the Catholic and Fascist symbolic universes. Abuna Messias thus locates the Fascist colonial utopia in between traditional religious practices that were in decline and a new understanding of the sacred, which is situated in the political realm. This film is therefore a key representation of the colonial space as a laboratory of construction of the New Man; it offered an eschatological vision of an empire able to sublimate individual lives within the Fascist project.


Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. 2001.Fascist Modernities. Italy, 1922-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burdett, Charles. 2003. ‘Italian Fascism and Utopia.’ History of the Human Sciences 16 (1): 93-108.

Gentile, Emilio. 1993. Il Culto del littorio. La sacralizzazione della politica nell'Italia fascista. Rome-Bari: Laterza.

Tamis-Nasello, Annemarie. 2013. ‘Re-Imagining the Colonial Landscape: Notions of Faith, Healing, and Prestige in Goffredo Alessandrini’s Abuna Messias.’ Italica 90 (3): 473-481.

Gianmarco Mancosu