Gianni Amelio’s Chronicle of the Persecution of Aldo Braibanti, Lord of the Ants (Il Signore delle Formiche), doesn’t dodge the tendency of many Italian period dramas for dense verbosity, with characters spouting great blobs of manicured prose. That may be especially true because the main character was a poet, playwright, and philosopher. But Amelio’s classical approach, and the dignified refusal of martyrdom in Luigi Lo Cascio’s lead role, make this account of Braibanti’s controversial prison term for homosexuality in 1968 after a four-year trial a quietly poignant portrait of institutional bigotry.
The Braibanti case attracted international attention in the wake of his conviction due to the number of influential public figures speaking out against the travesty of justice, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Marco Bellocchio and Umberto Eco.
Lord of the Ants
It comes down to
Uneven but involved.
What stands out now about the courtroom drama central to the discursive script by Amelio, Edoardo Petti and Federico Fava is the prosecution’s tactic, both cunning and coy, to sidestep the inconvenient fact that homosexuality was not strictly illegal at the time. When the penal code was revised under fascism, they found creative wording to go after gay Italians so that Mussolini wouldn’t have to admit the existence of homosexuality in the country.
That means Braibanti was tried on the outdated indictment of… plagio – not the literal translation “plagiarism”, but in the legal sense of psychological coercion, effectively brainwashing his partner in a consensual relationship between adults. The melodramatic language used in court, where the accused is “devoting himself to possessing young men in body and soul,” would be comical if it weren’t so entrenched in oppression.
The monolith of the Italian family doesn’t fare too well either, preferring to inflict extreme physical and mental atrocities rather than acknowledging the truth about a strange son. As a bigoted side character puts it bluntly, a “invertito‘ has two choices: ‘You heal yourself or kill yourself’.
The film shows how the erasure extends even to the so-called liberal journalism of the period. Ennio (Elio Germano), a reporter for the Italian Communist Party, daily newspaper L’Unità, unsuccessfully fights with his editor to include the word “homosexuality” in his trial coverage, despite Braibanti being something of a hero of the left because of his reputation as an anti-fascist supporter. “The party paper cannot become a pervert’s paper,” the editor scoffs.
Amelio draws an unspoken line between the period and the prejudices that exist in Italy today. And at a time when U.S. conservatives have been sending clear signals of their intent to move past LGBTQ legislative protections, there is echo in this report of visibility being suppressed on so many levels.
The early action establishes Aldo’s loving relationship with his early twenties partner Ettore (promising newcomer Leonardo Maltese), raised from the bed they share in a Rome boarding house in 1965, and taken to a hospital for barbaric electroshock treatment at the behest of his bitter mother ( Anna Caterina Antonacci, an operatic soprano who has to stick with her day job).
The story then jumps back to the spring of 1959 at the theater-art workshop in rural Emilia-Romagna, where Aldo acts as a teacher and mentor. He also does studies in myrmecology, the life of ant colonies, which gives the title and some pointed metaphors about tight-knit communities in which collective well-being is placed above individual needs and unity excludes betrayal.
One of Aldo’s students is Ettore, who has been forced by his family to pursue a career in medicine, despite being more naturally inclined towards fine arts. The elderly man expands his world and shares his knowledge of art, literature and ants with generosity and passion. Ettore shakes off local gossip about Aldo and travels with him to Rome, but the distance doesn’t stop his enraged family from intervening.
Amelio and his co-writers drew on transcripts for the courtroom scenes, showing how diligently the prosecution tried to discredit Braibanti as a failed intellectual whose books don’t sell, casting suspicion on exactly what he was teaching the impressionable young students. in Emilia Romagna. Everything surrounding the case is fictionalized, including Ettore’s real name and the family dynamics behind his brutalization, but not the horrific electroshock therapy he has to undergo.
A baggy detour covers the efforts of Ennio’s activist cousin Graziella (Sara Serraiocco) to organize protesters demanding Braibanti’s release, but this adds little. The Ennio thread is more useful, even if the drama is unnecessarily evasive about the character’s sexuality; the journalist serves to bring Aldo out of his silence in court, prompting him to speak out against Italy’s retrograde stance.
Lo Cascio has influence in those still somewhat restrained scenes, making Braibanti a thoughtful, self-confident man who feels no shame for his choices or the situation in which they landed him.
But the film’s great emotional charge comes when Ettore takes the stage, feverish and intense, his temples scorched by the electrodes and his face a haunting shadow of the merry young man he was. Though greatly weakened by the trials he’s endured, Ettore is eloquent in disproving the idea of ”unnatural relationships” when any union driven by mutual feeling is inherently natural.
The heartfelt sentiments of that testimonial scene—and a touching interlude that follows years later, in which Aldo and Ettore meet again in Emilia-Romagna—set a belated wave of feeling in a film otherwise too elegantly understated to build lasting strength. . Even the period pop sprinkled in doesn’t do much to shake off the starchiness. But the public interested in LGBTQ history as progress risks being pushed backwards could do worse.