No Shame Films
Cast: Rod Steiger, Lisa Gastoni, Henry Fonda, Franco Nero
Extras: Interview, Trailer, Still Gallery, Liner Notes
In the past, NoShame Films have proven themselves a little company with a huge dedication to releasing the very best of obscure and worthwhile products of Italian cinema and garnishing them with substantial bonus material. Their latest release, the 1974 biopic "Last Days of Mussolini," is no exception, making a welcome debut on DVD. Drawing from a harrowing page in world history, the film dramatizes the last four days in the life of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as he scurried for safety at the end of World War II while a multinational manhunt ensued. Featuring a cast of top stars, this movie is a great selection for its dramatic offering and historical basis.
It is April, 1945. As the Third Reich is starting to crumble and blame is being passed in every direction, Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) finds himself at the center of his country's wrath and a marked man by the Allied nations. Betrayed by the Germans, wanted by the Americans, and hated by the Italians, "Il Duce" sees no other choice except to escape for Switzerland, accompanied by his loyal mistress (Lisa Gastoni) on his dangerous and, ultimately, fruitless journey. But with blood on his hands and a death sentence on his head, the dictator who once thought of himself as "a new Caesar, a God," is forced to see the harsh reality of his crimes and the price that he will have to pay as his enemies close in on him.
The movie was directed by Carlo Lizzani, who takes a straightforward, no-frills approach to the subject matter that gives it an air of authenticity. Adding to this is the excellent location shooting, utilizing many of the actual areas where the historical events played out. Unlike most other biopics, there is no attempt to either glorify or vilify the figures represented here. Instead, Lizzani presents this as more of a docu-drama, allowing the audience to accept the story as it goes along and interpret the actions as they choose.
Although his voice is dubbed, Rod Steiger gives a commanding performance as the conflicted Duce, playing him not as the monster that we normally envision him as, but as a man who genuinely seems to be horrified by what his decisions have incurred and by the danger he has brought upon the woman that he loves. Many of Steiger's best moments are those without dialogue, in which Mussolini is left to just ponder his actions, sometimes shown in flashback. The contrast between the regality and assuredness of his demeanor in the flashbacks and his visible despair in the present are what truly bring him alive before our eyes, making him a fully fleshed-out human, which actually serves to make his actions all the more heinous.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is the portrayal of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini's long-suffering and faithful mistress. Lisa Gastoni is utterly heartbreaking as the woman who absolutely refuses to see her man lose, throwing herself on the line for his protection, even when her own life is threatened. This intimate and somewhat disturbing relationship gives the film a much deeper level of pathos than most other treatments of the subject.
In what could be called glorified cameo roles, Henry Fonda and Franco Nero offer fine support as men on different sides of the political spectrum. Fonda costars as Cardinal Schuster, a man of the cloth who cares more about seeing Mussolini safely escape than about the Italian people achieving freedom and peace. With his piercing blue eyes and youthful swagger, Nero gives a fiery turn as Colonel Valerio, leader of the Italian partisans who will stop at nothing to see Mussolini dead.
Not surprisingly, "Last Days of Mussolini" stirred up a heap of controversy in its time, causing great debate over the sensitive portrayal of the Duce and the validity of his death sentence. Seen today, Lizzani's apparently neutral attitude and Steiger's earnest performance may indeed still cause some to question their intentions, but that is also what makes the movie so good. History speaks for itself. This movie offers a rare examination of the possible thought process that went through Mussolini's head as he headed for his inevitable doom.
Presented for the first time on DVD, the film can be seen in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. According to NoShame, the print has been taken from original vault materials and remastered in high definition. I'm assuming that the source materials were not in great condition, as the print exhibits considerable grain throughout and some occasional damage marks. Edges appear rather soft except in a few scenes, and there is a reddish tinge to many scenes. Black levels are mostly good, and in some of the early scenes with Fonda's cardinal, reds are brilliantly saturated. On the whole, however, colors lack vibrancy, and the picture is often very dull. After seeing the fine work NoShame has offered in the past, I can honestly say this is not one of their best offerings, but it is probably due to weak source elements.
Oddly, the packaging mistakenly lists both English and Italian mono soundtracks, but all we get is the Italian track. It sounds very clear, with only some minor crackling every now and then. Voices are natural, and the score (by Ennio Morricone) is given proper arrangement and pitch. Optional English subtitles are available.
The main bonus feature on this release is "The Long Way to Freedom," a 16-minute interview with director Carlo Lizzani. He provides some very interesting discussion on the casting, performances, and the controversy surrounding the movie. Lizzani, who received an Oscar nomination along with director Giuseppe De Santis for their screenplay for "Bitter Rice" in 1951, is not extremely well-known or typically visible to American audiences, and his appearance on this DVD is a real treat.
Following this are a theatrical trailer and brief photo gallery, both presented in anamorphic widescreen.
As with NoShame's other releases, an insert with liner notes by the always reliable Richard Harland Smith is included, shedding some light on the historical period covered in the film and a bit about the production. Smith also contributes a biography of Rod Steiger, and we get a biography of Henry Fonda by author Chris D.
NoShame has certainly come through again in providing the best care for an Italian film that few have heard of, but should. "Last Days of Mussolini" contains some truly excellent work from its top-notch cast and offers keen insight on one of the twentieth century's most corrupt world leaders. Through its simplicity and upfront storytelling, the movie invites us to live the man's experiences and take from them what we will. If you have not discovered NoShame yet, then this would be a fine introduction, and I am more than happy to give them the highest recommendation.