ROME -- A new film that comically imagines dictator Benito Mussolini returning to present-day Italy and trying to stage a comeback opened Thursday, in the middle of an election campaign that has been dominated by populist and neo-fascist sentiments.
"I'm Back" is an Italian spin on the popular 2015 German film "Look Who's Back," which hypothesized a modern-day resurrection of Adolf Hitler.
The comedy has gotten near-unanimous rave reviews from Italian critics, who have applauded its implicit warning that the Italy of 2018 is susceptible to the same populist messages that brought Mussolini to power nearly a century ago. Its opening coincided with the 80th anniversary of the introduction of Fascist-era racist laws that discriminated against Jews, and comes just days after the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Director Luca Miniero said the movie "touches the belly of the country," saying Italians still harbor a bit of Il Duce in their souls.
He said that while a Mussolini-style dictatorship coming to power is remote, "I see the return of his populism. In fact, we're already there."
Campaigning for March 4 general elections has been dominated by the anti-immigrant sentiment of the center-right coalition that leads the polls, as well as the populist messages of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. In addition, far-right, neo-fascist groups such as Casa Pound have made inroads in local elections, exploiting the migrant influx to rally Italians suffering from years of slow economic growth and high unemployment.
The film, starring Massimo Popolizio as Il Duce, imagines Mussolini literally falling to the ground in one of Rome's most multi-ethnic neighborhoods, and from there embarking on a cross-country road trip with a willing documentary-maker to determine if he can stage a political comeback.
In one scene, Mussolini - still in his military garb - asks a kitchen chef if he'd accept a dictatorship again. The chef responds affirmatively before adding: "but a free dictatorship, not one that's too dictatorial."
Writing in the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, critic Davide Turrini said the film finally confronted the Mussolini taboo by using comedy and political incorrectness, "putting on center stage the surreal and grotesque return of Il Duce mixed in with today's political humors."
At the press screening of the film earlier this week - staged at Mussolini's Roman residence at Villa Torlonia - director Miniero said the film should in no way be seen as an apology for fascism or an ideological judgment of Mussolini, but rather a warning shot.
"Unlike the Germans, Italians haven't completely come to terms with their dictator," he was quoted as saying by La Repubblica. "I'm convinced that if Mussolini were to return today, he'd win the elections, except that he'd see his government fall after two years."
Political analyst Federico Santi said the film was clearly a commercial endeavor using the already-successful German adaptation of the Timur Vermes book about Hitler's imagined return. But Santi told The Associated Press that resurrecting Mussolini now "highlights some of the contradictions that are inherent in today's society, and also I think show the dangers related to basically extreme far right politics that are so resurgent these days."
He warned, though, that it might have the opposite effect in the eyes of some audiences.
"I think it ends up normalizing Mussolini," he added.