"Fortunately for me, most of the world's dictators have been short, fat, middle-aged men with a bald head. And apart from Danny DeVito there's only me left. It's done me a right favor."—Bob Hoskins
The first images to come up on each disc of the overlong Italian miniseries Mussolini and I are an announcement that the program is registered with an anti-piracy organization and a Macrovision logo. Then, you are forced to watch a trailer for a patriotic World War II documentary. You cannot skip this trailer or fast-forward through it.
Why do I mention these things? Is it the odd suggestion that anyone would seriously consider pirating an obscure four-hour television production from 1985? Not entirely. For a miniseries sympathetic to the first family of Fascism, there is something deeply ironic about the way Koch Vision forces its audience to acknowledge the state and its power.
Mussolini and I takes a soap opera approach to the trials and tribulations of Benito Mussolini (Bob Hoskins), his daughter Edda (Susan Sarandon), and ambitious son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano (Anthony Hopkins). That is one hell of a cast, I hear you say, for a fairly disposable miniseries. Indeed it is.
Concerned mostly with the latter days of Mussolini's rule, the series plays as a broad soap opera: powerful people driving each other crazy with their sexual affairs, power plays, and backroom conspiracies. Watch Mussolini cheat on his wife. Watch Ciano plot to save Italy by forcing Il Duce from power. Watch Edda make a deal with Hitler (Kurt Raab) to protect the exiled family. Watch Anthony Hopkins chew scenery as he realizes his own father-in-law has betrayed him to save his own skin. If you did not know that this was based on a rather dark period in European history, you might expect Morgan Fairchild or Joan Collins to step out any minute and start trouble.
I suppose we should give Mussolini and I some credit for trying to make these traditionally reviled characters more complex than you usually get from the history books. We respect Ciano's defense of the idealistic side of Italian Fascism, but then we remember the rest of what Fascism stood for. We sympathize with the embittered Mussolini, forced to make tragic sacrifices to save himself and his country, and then we remember that, well, he is Benito Mussolini. The moral ambiguity might work, if Mussolini and I had a tighter script and ran half as long. Curiously, when the series played on American television in 1985, it ran only two hours, half the length of this uncut DVD. I wonder if it worked better without the endless padding.
The lead actors try gamely. Or, at least Anthony Hopkins does. Few actors other than Hopkins could pull off Ciano's combination of heroic ambition and monstrous ego, and only in the final episode of the four-part tale does he lose control of the character. Sarandon and Hoskins are good, but they underplay their parts when the rest of the film keeps tilting toward the histrionic. As I have noted already, Mussolini and I is a soap opera, and most of the supporting cast rips into their parts with all the gravitas of a daytime potboiler. Kurt Raab is almost comically bad as a seething Hitler. And it does not help that most of the Italian cast is overdubbed in post-production, giving their performances (and the tinny soundtrack) a forced quality that clashes with the more moderated performances of Sarandon and Hoskins.
Mussolini and I is only redeemable for an interesting (if inconsistent) performance by Anthony Hopkins. When he is on screen, the story seems to come alive. When he is not, Sarandon and Hoskins can barely maintain our attention as the endless story creeps along, all snappy costumes and plodding melodrama. The print is a rather dark and muddy, and there are no appreciable extras. Fortunately, the double-DVD set has enough chapter stops that you can skip the boring bits, if you are so inclined, and watch Hopkins do his thing. But the truth is, you can probably find something better to do with your time.
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