Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The NoShame DVD label has another intriguing Italian feature in Last Days of Mussolini. By 1974 at least two major films had been produced about the end of Adolph Hitler, but this is the first full account of Mussolini's ignominious finish. Rod Steiger gives a creditable, low-key performance as the Fascist dictator and Henry Fonda is also on hand to provide international appeal. Director Carlo Lizzani stresses authenticity: All of the events were filmed where they happened, even Il Duce's ignominious demise on a small road above lake Como.
Germany is collapsing as the Allies overrun the last Italian Fascist stronghold in the Po Valley. Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) has little opportunity to escape with his mistress Claretta Petaci (Lisa Gastoni) as both his Fascist supporters and his German 'friends' keep a careful watch on his movements. The pro-Fascist Cardinal Schuster (Henry Fonda) tries to negotiate a surrender, but Il Duce wants none of that: The partisans have already sanctioned Mussolini's execution upon capture, and the Americans want to put him on trial as a war criminal. The German watchdogs prevent Mussolini and Petaci from slipping through a Swiss mountain pass, leading to his capture by some clever partisan chieftains. But they are unclear on what exactly to do with the frightened man. Finally, higher-ranking members of the new provisional government dispatch Colonel Valerio (Franco Nero) to locate and execute Mussolini immediately -- to stem any notion that the Fascists can retain a position in the new government.
Last Days of Mussolini is an exciting story of a dictator's desperate attempts to elude his fate. Mussolini bargains and negotiates, all the while plotting to flee with his mistress and leave his Fascist cronies holding the bag. Benito breaks promises to his aides, to Cardinal Schuster and to the German commander assigned to 'protect' him. His final days are spent leading a ridiculous motorcade around Northern Italy, unable to shake his German monitors. After chaperoning Mussolini for days, the Germans surrender him without a fight to the first partisans they see.
Lizzani's show is politically complex. The few remaining Fascists are fanatics and lickspittles that persist in spinning fantasies about partisan defeats and growing popular support. The new provisional government is an unsteady coalition of socialist, communist and liberal factions. As most of the partisans have only now come out of hiding, no hierarchy of command has been established. The Allies under General Clark would like to capture Mussolini but don't want to offend the partisans, who want the despised dictator dead. Meanwhile, the German commanders have orders to keep Mussolini in power as long as possible.
The film touches on Benito's vain hope of contacting Winston Churchill, with whom he has exchanged letters about the communist threat in Italy. Mussolini seems to think that England will support his staying on as a way of stopping the spread of Bolshevism. Ironically, this detail links up with a relatively recent controversy alleging that Mussolini was executed by Churchill's secret agents, to prevent Il Duce from revealing that Churchill had offered him a separate peace. The agreement at Casablanca had proclaimed that any Axis surrender had to be unconditional. No credible proof of this claim has yet surfaced.
The script by Lizzani and Fabio Ptttorru doesn't excuse Benito Mussolini's record of brutality and war crimes. We see flashbacks to massacres of his political opponents and his foolish choice to align with Germany so that Italy 'won't be left behind.' Benito keeps his temper and throws no tantrums -- he knows that his options are almost all gone. Rod Steiger was reportedly shown films of Il Duce and told that the famous clips of the dictator 'overacting' in public appearances were not typical of his behavior. Steiger plays the man as weary and frustrated, and gives an excellent showing.
Last Days of Mussolini does shy away from inconvenient details. Franco Nero's brash, mission-oriented Colonel is a diversion from the woeful disorganization of the Italian authorities and the sometimes-violent excesses of the partisans. The movie avoids any depiction or mention of the shameful mob action that immediately followed: The bodies of Mussolini and his lover were dragged to a central piazza, hung upside down and mutilated.
In place of photos or news film of the lynching in Lake Como we're given a text scroll naming the signers of death warrant that legitimized the murder of Mussolini. Unlike the suicide of Hitler, Mussolini's messy execution offers an audience the violent closure of a revenge killing.
Henry Fonda's red-robed Cardinal appears only in a few scenes. It's a bit distracting to see a religious leader walk with the exact same halting gait as the gunman Frank of Once Upon a Time in the West. Lisa Gastoni is a standout. Her Claretta begins as a petty nuisance yet shows uncommon loyalty by refusing to desert Benito, even after he has deserted her. Franco Nero makes for a forceful hero; Luciano Pigozzi is a troublesome Fascist supporter. Familiar face Giacomo Rossi-Stuart gives his American commando a good shot, but comes off as an Italian, even when dubbed.
NoShame's DVD of Last Days of Mussolini lavishes excellent resources on a worthy film. The enhanced transfer captures the rainy beauty of northern Italy and the Italian dubbing for Steiger and Fonda is excellent. There is no English dub. A disclaimer card explains that the English track distorted the film's politics; we're guessing that the English translation softened the Allied role in the double-dealing. In any case, as the American version was half an hour shorter, the old dub track is of no use. The American and German characters speak in their proper language. NoShame's intelligent and thought-provoking original version is surely an improvement on the original American release.
Director Lizzani appears in a nicely edited interview to explain how he convinced Rod Steiger to underplay Il Duce. A trailer for the American version allows us to sample the awful original English dubbing job. In the insert liner notes, NoShame's steady contributor Richard Harland Smith contributes thoughtful essays on the film and the film's two American stars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Last Days of Mussolini rates:
Supplements: Interview docu with director Carlo Lizzani, Trailer, insert notes by Richard Harlan Smith
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 7, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson