The camera pans up. We see a balcony and a piece of window. A voice shouts “Action!” Luca Marinelli appears, dressed as Benito Mussolini. He looks down at the street below. Suddenly he turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience, the picture of charm and seduction: “I’ve always loved dogs,” he jokes.
This scene sums up the essence of M. Son of the Centurythe new eight-episode limited series directed by Joe Wright (Penance, Darkest hour) and produced for Sky Studios by Lorenzo Mieli’s Fremantle-owned The Apartment Pictures, in association with Pathé and Small Forward. The series may be, as Nils Hartmann, executive vp of Sky Studios Italy and Germany repeatedly says, the “biggest and most ambitious” project the Comcast-owned studio is working on, but what stands out is its unique tone and rhythm. the show. The story of the rise of the Italian fascist leader is told from the inside and shows how Mussolini was able to cast a spell over a nation and transform 20th century politics. And by the effortlessly charming Italian star Marinelli (The old guard, The Eight Mountains) as Il Duce, making the audience complicit in that transformation.
“We wanted to create something dangerous and divisive, just like the theme and character in question,” says Mieli. “Mussolini had this incredible ability to charm. He was charismatic. And we decided to focus precisely on this aspect, without beating around the bush. We’re telling a true story. But it was important to us that people understand this character and his could understand charisma. (Mussolini) resembles an actor in a way.”
Instead of the classic biopic approach, Mieli says, M. Son of the Century wants to “be bold and courageous (to) create a series that can be discussed.”
It is, Mieli admits, a risky approach – especially now in Italy, where after last year’s elections the country is ruled by the most far-right government since the fascist era. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni got her start in politics in a far-right party founded by diehard supporters of Mussolini, although her Brothers of Italy movement – the big winners of the 2022 election – emphasizes her democratic credentials.
M. Son of the Century offers an opportunity to examine the current significance of fascism and populism through an honest exploration of their modern origins. But it’s a thin line: trying to get a 21st-century audience to understand Mussolini’s appeal, without portraying the father of fascism as some sort of hero.
“My first reaction (when I was offered this role) was to run away,” says Marinelli. “Before I started (shooting), I was shitting myself. We don’t want to celebrate Mussolini at all; we just want to tell his story and who he was, in our own way, according to Joe’s vision. All the adjectives used to describe Mussolini put a distance between us and him. We must understand that he decided to do what he did, that he followed this path and that he was always aware of what he was doing. (Joe) is a maestro and I learned a lot from him. Like the dedication to this profession. Seeing him at work was like watching an artist at work.”
Wright, for his part, calls Marinelli the “most naturally gifted actor I have ever met” next to his own. Darkest hour star Gary Oldman. “He has always done everything I asked, and sometimes more. I am overwhelmed by what he is doing and I am glued to the screen.”
Placing the story at the beginning of Mussolini’s political career, when he still worked as a reporter and was, in Mieli’s words, “a charmer (with) great charisma”, M. Son of the Century seeks to capture the complicated and ambivalent history of one of the most infamous figures of the 20th century.
M. Son of the Century, based on the first of a series of historical novels by Antonio Scurati about the life of Mussolini, tells the story of Mussolini’s rise, from 1919, when he founded his extreme fascist organization Italian Fasces of Combat, through the 1924 kidnapping and murder of a of his main political opponents, the Italian socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti, by fascist forces. Stefano Bises (Gomorrah – The Series, The new pope) and David Serino (1992, 1993) edited the book for the screen.
“We chose the book about three years ago,” says Mieli, “so we had a long time to shape this project. The book was very important to us as it provided vital information and a detailed documentation of those years. However, it is also a novel that tries to explain what this man did, from creating populism to fascism itself. Something we still deal with today.”
Wright, says Mieli, was a logical choice. Not just because of his work on the Oscar-winning Darkest hourwhich explores the personal struggles of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill prior to his decision to go to war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, but also because, as a Briton, he brings an outsider’s perspective.
“Joe added something an Italian director probably couldn’t,” says Hartmann. And the producers hope that Wright will tell Mussolini’s story in a way that “will appeal not only to an Italian audience, but also to capture the attention of an international audience.”
“I feel I have a responsibility,” says Wright. “I am aware of the scope of this story. Mainly because they are characters that have not been analyzed much. If you’re making a movie about Churchill or Jane Austen (Wright directed the 2005 adaptation of Pride and prejudice), you know there are many other films about Churchill and Jane Austen.”
Fascism, notes Wright, “is not a unique theme in Italy. It’s everywhere, and that’s really terrifying. That is the problem.”
Fremantle, which owns producers The Apartment, has a five-year deal with Cinecittà Studios, but the group says it was Wright’s decision to run the series on the fabled Roman backlot. For example, entire neighborhoods, hotel rooms and newsrooms were recreated for the show in the style of the 1920s. Production designer Mauro Vanzati’s attention to detail is astonishing, almost obsessive. Hotel bedside tables are filled with books from that period. Old newspapers, with authentic headlines from the 1920s, are discarded on desks. It would take an Italian mason to tell if the countertops and immaculate floors of Mussolini’s suite are fake or if they were actually carved from Tuscan marble.
The scope of the project is huge. At the time of our visit, Wright had been shooting for 94 days. “This is the longest I’ve ever shot,” he admits.
While Wright is filming some details, second unit director Sophie Muller and cinematographer Paolo Carnera (Gomorrah, The white tiger) set up on Cinecittà’s high-tech LED wall, the second largest in Europe, and prepares a scene with Paolo Pierobon, who plays Gabriele D’Annunzio, an Italian poet who was an early supporter and inspiration of the fascist movement.
All details – costumes, furniture, architecture – are historically accurate. But, Bises explains, the tone and visual style break “from the traditional path of a costume drama. We spent a long time working on the tone, which is indeed fundamentally dramatic but also contains comedic elements. We decided to have Mussolini talk directly to the camera in some scenes. Because Mussolini used two languages: a public language, where everything was carefully planned, and a private language, where he was clearly more impulsive.
While the screenwriters worked on finding the right tone, Wright worked on the rhythm. On set, he says, he puts on music to “recreate the atmosphere of the scene we’re about to shoot.”
The soundtrack is reportedly for M. Son of the Century will be composed by the legendary English electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers m. won’t be your grandfather’s period drama.
“We wanted to show the grotesque side of this tragedy,” says co-author Serino. “We didn’t want to get on our soap box with this series. The tone will probably surprise you.”
M. Son of the Century is due out next year and will air exclusively on Sky in Italy, the UK, Ireland and German-speaking Europe. Fremantle handles sales for the rest of the world.