Spanish-born actor Antonio Banderas was hot in the mid-1990s, starring in Hollywood films like Philadelphia (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Desperado (1995), Evita, (1996), and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Before his career in the United States took off, however, he starred in a little known Italian miniseries later released as a film about a young, handsome and idealistic Italian socialist who became an influential Italian leader. That Italian leader was Benito Mussolini.
Written by Vincenzo Cerami, et al, and directed by Gianluigi Calderone, Benito (1993) was a 307-minute Italian made-for-TV movie starring then 32-year-old Antonio Banderas in the titular role. It was later released as a film in the U.S. by Lions Gate Entertainment. The movie charts Mussolini’s rise from young laborer to socialist revolutionary leader, ending prior to his creation of the National Fascist Party. The topic of pre-World War I Italian socialism is a little too esoteric for American audiences, so Lions Gate probably released this in the U.S. to capitalize on Antonio Banderas’ popularity.
It seems strange to think of 20th Century Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a left-wing political figure, but if it wasn’t for World War I, that may have been his claim to fame. Mussolini’s father, Alessandro Mussolini, was a socialist who named his son Benito Amilcare Andrea after Mexican president Benito Juárez and Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani. As a young man, Mussolini avoided military service by hiding in Switzerland, where he studied Marxist philosophy, became active in labor unions, and wrote for the socialist newspaper L’Avvenire del Lavoratore. Back in Italy, he joined the Socialist Party and became editor of its newspaper, Avanti.
Prior to the First World War, the socialist movement in Europe aimed to unite all working class people against aristocracy, capitalism, and the nation state. When war broke out, the Socialist International expected the proletariat to rise up in a show of unity and refuse to fight. Instead, millions signed up in a nationalistic fervor to fight for their respective countries. Benito Mussolini, who had opposed Italy’s “imperialist war” in Libya, found himself at odds with his political mentors and began advocating for Italian intervention in WW1. He was kicked out of the Socialist Party and the rest, they say, is history.
Benito portrays Mussolini as an energetic and idealistic young revolutionary–a ladies’ man who fights for the working class and captures the heart of another young socialist, Angelica Balabanoff (Susanne Lothar). For this portrayal, Antonio Banderas is perfect for the role. If you knew nothing about history, you’d probably come away from this film with an overall positive impression of the charismatic Italian. Mussolini, however, is typically thought of as a barking buffoon, an incompetent and egotistical leader who led his country to disaster in World War 2 before being murdered by his own countrymen.
Benito reminds me of two other films that romantically portrayed revolutionary figures: Fidel (2002), a TV miniseries about Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), about Che Guevara as a young man. All three, Mussolini, Castro, and Guevara ran (or helped run) oppressive regimes that severely restricted individual rights and murdered and imprisoned political dissidents. You might as well make a movie glorifying Saddam Hussein’s early years as member of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.
There’s a difference between taking a nuanced view of a historical figure and romanticizing them, and the fact that Antonio Banderas was cast in this role was clearly intended to do the latter. It’s one of the most bizarre political biopics I’ve ever seen, and I guess no one, not even a crazed fascist dictator, is irredeemable in the eyes of some filmmakers.