Something of a cross between "Duck Soup" and "The Godfather," NBC's seven-hour dissertation, "Mussolini: The Untold Story" begins with a hardy roar but degenerates quickly to a hardy har-har. You don't know whether to laugh or cry. And then you realize what to do. You sulk, and wish television weren't always so damn dumb.
George C. Scott plays Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in this "Springtime for Duce" production that illustrates to what sloggy depths the mini-series form hath fallen. We learn that the deranged comic-strip fascist loved his children, loved his wife and loved his mistress, but mostly, he love-a himself. Writer Stirling Silliphant apparently feels that simply stringing together contradictory incidents in an infamous man's private and public life will afford scorching insights into the making and unmaking of a monster. The fact is, we really know no more about what made this nut tick at the end of the mini-series than we did at the beginning.
We don't care any more, either. We just want to send out for pizza.
Mussolini's long plod to the firing squad begins with a three-hour chapter at 8 tonight on Channel 4 and continues in two-hour chapters Monday and Tuesday at 9. NBC and the other networks have proven time and again that they can draw sizable audiences with shallow productions that boast handsome foreign locations (Yugoslavia has been cast as Italy) and moderately star-strewn casts; in this case, Scott is obviously the best-strewn star on the premises. In addition, almost anything with Nazis in it lures large numbers of Nielsen families. So "Mussolini," vapid-tepid though it is, may not be the ratings flop it deserves to be.
In truth, and rather deceptively, the big oafish thing gets off to a fairly strong start. As directed by William A. Graham, the opening chapter has a certain brutish energy for an hour or so, and the sillier moments have a farcically Gothic side good for a chuckle. When Lee Grant, in a state of terminal bedragglement as the Duce's wife, says to him, "You go run Italy . . . I run this family," and complains more than once that the job of dictator may not be "permanent," one half-expects her to urge that the two of them take up an Amway distributorship on the side.
Scott doesn't seem to have a concrete concept of a character, a human being, as he heaves his hefty carcass into the role of Il Duce, and he's about as Italianate as "The Seventh Seal," but he does have, to say the least, a commanding stature, and he uses his great eagle beak like a battering ram to demolish resistance. Rising to power in the early and mid-1920s, Mussolini is advised by a barber that shaving his head completely will make him look "younger and even more virile." The rest is tonsorial history.
There's an effective if painfully obvious scene in the first hour or so of Mussolini strutting among busts of illustrious Romans and stopping at one marked "Caesar," for whom Mussolini displays a vainglorious affinity. We're being asked to see a certain pathos in this ridiculous figure, and by introducing that note, Silliphant may feel he is conveying a man's complexity. But it isn't complexity, really, just an amalgam of simplistics, much as the narrative consists of anecdotes trotted along in succession but never quite constituting a vision. Like most mini-series, this one falls back on simple chronology to keep itself moving. It's the "and then" school of docu-dramaturgy.
In the second hour, a particularly notorious occurrence is recreated. A woman journalist has arrived in Mussolini's office looking for gossip. With no warning, Mussolini says, "Let's give your readers something to gossip about," and proceeds to molest her, explaining first that "Women prefer brutality in their men." The sensationalism of this livens up the scenario, but the incident doesn't relate to what follows or precedes it. It's just another log on a sputtering fire.
Mussolini could trill an aria from "Cosi Fan Tutti" and play violin duets with his mistress, we are told; he could be tender and paternal with his offspring and charmingly attentive to his various amoureuses. Apparently he was a beast with a gentle streak -- you know, like King Kong. Silliphant sees him as a comparatively harmless fascist dictator. When in 1934 (and hour three), Il Duce meets A. Hitler, Silliphant has him mutter, "At first sight, I don't like him." That's our signal that Mussolini may have been a thug and a tyrant but, well gee, there've been worse thuggish tyrants than him!
Along this line, it is alleged that Mussolini never really had der Fu hrer's knack, nor zest, for persecuting Jews, although Mussolini manages some persecution nevertheless. Silliphant reportedly based some of his pop biography on talks with Vittorio Mussolini, a son still alive, so it's no surprise that Vittorio gets a scene in which he heatedly objects to the harassment of a Jewish couple at a restaurant. Mussolini does not spew the kind of racist hatred one associates with Nazis, but he does say of Jews, "They are a race of people hungry for power," to which Vittorio replies, "Hungrier than you?"
The attitude of the family toward daddy's politics is never quite clear, nor for that matter are the presumably charismatic qualities that brought him to power. He's always snarling and growling; did the Italians go inconsequentiality, however, and there's little else in "Mussolini" to grab onto. Virginia Madsen has some affectingly tender moments as Mussolini's mistress, who suffers through a momentary spurning and then a reconciliation after she miscarries with Duce's child, but Silliphant never answers one of the movie's most burning questions: What does she see in him? What, for that matter, does Italy see in him? What, to stretch a device, does him see in him?
Gunnar Moeller makes such a tacky looking Hitler you half expect to hear the "Heil myself" line from "To Be or Not to Be." Kenneth Colley, who made so oily an Eichmann in "Wallenberg" last season, can't do much with dull King Victor Emmanuel. Grant is watchable, in a preposterously surly way, but she disappears for long stretches of the film. She's always out buying vegetables; on one trip, she is pelted with them by angry citizens, but Silliphant hasn't laid any groundwork for their anger, so they seem simply wacky.
Two of the funniest recurring bits are Mussolini's mad dashes for the balcony, where he can address the citizenry, and poor Raul Julia's lonely vigil with a movie projector, which he uses to look at newsreels. You think, gee, can't the poor boy rent a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something? Scott, of course, is not addressing throngs of extras in those lame speech scenes but is addressing more newsreels -- old footage of Roman crowds which has been colorized via computer. It looks mildly pretty, except that of course the computer color doesn't at all match with the newly shot stuff.
Sometimes Scott heads for the balcony unexpectedly, like right after a family spat, but fortunately, there's always a cheering mob there ready to respond to his tirades. It begins to seem they are there all the time, night and day, on call. Just once it would have been nice if he'd rushed out to the balcony to find that everybody had finally gone home. Years and years of standing in a piazza to humor a Duce can get wearying.
Now and then Mussolini breaks out of the military wardrobe and gets to wear something as civilized as a three-piece suit. But pleasant as the change may be, it simply adds another note of incongruity to a movie that has been barely credible anyway. Because as one watches the bald-headed old mope stalk around his chambers or stomp about the house, one may find oneself absent-mindedly wondering, "Why is Daddy Warbucks being so mean?