Gianni Amelio’s chronicle of the persecution of Aldo Braibanti, Lord of the Ants (Il Signore delle Formiche), doesn’t avoid the propensity of many Italian period dramas for dense verbosity, with characters spouting great gobs of manicured prose. That’s perhaps especially the case since the protagonist was a poet, playwright and philosopher. But Amelio’s classical approach, and the dignified refusal of martyrdom in Luigi Lo Cascio’s lead performance, make this account of Braibanti’s controversial imprisonment for homosexuality in 1968 after a four-year trial a quietly stirring portrait of institutional intolerance.
The Braibanti case drew international attention in the wake of his conviction due to the number of influential public figures who spoke out against the travesty of justice — Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Marco Bellocchio and Umberto Eco among them.
Lord of the Ants
The Bottom Line
Uneven but involving.
What’s striking now about the courtroom drama at the center of the discursive script by Amelio, Edoardo Petti and Federico Fava is the prosecution’s tactics, both crafty and coy, sidestepping the inconvenient fact that homosexuality wasn’t strictly illegal then. When the penal code was overhauled 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 antiquated charge of plagio — not the literal translation “plagiarism” but in the legal sense of psychological duress, effectively with brainwashing his partner in a consensual relationship between adults. The melodramatic language used in court, where the accused is said to be “set on possessing young men body and soul,” would be droll if it weren’t so entrenched in oppression.
The monolith of the Italian family doesn’t come off too well either, preferring to inflict extreme physical and mental cruelty rather than acknowledge the truth about a queer son. As one bigoted secondary character bluntly puts it, an “invertito” has two choices: “You either cure yourself or kill yourself.”
The film shows how erasure extends even to supposedly liberal journalism of the period. Ennio (Elio Germano), a reporter on the Italian Communist Party daily L’Unità, battles unsuccessfully with his editor to include the word “homosexuality” in his trial coverage, despite Braibanti being something of a hero to the left for his record as an anti-Fascist partisan. “The paper of the party cannot become the paper of a pervert,” scoffs the editor.
Amelio draws an unspoken line between the period and prejudices that persist in Italy today. And at a time when American conservatives have issued clear signals about their intention to come after LGBTQ legislative protections, there’s resonance in this account of visibility being suppressed at so many levels.
The early action establishes Aldo’s loving relationship with his early-20s partner Ettore (promising newcomer Leonardo Maltese), hauled out of the bed they share at a pensione in Rome in 1965, and carted off to a hospital for barbaric electroshock treatment under instructions from his bitter mother (Anna Caterina Antonacci, an operatic soprano who should stick to her day job).
The story then jumps back to spring 1959 at the theater-arts workshop in rural Emilia-Romagna, where Aldo serves as a teacher and mentor. He also conducts studies in myrmecology, the life of ant colonies, which provides the title and some pointed metaphors about tight-knit communities in which the collective good is placed above individual needs, and unity precludes betrayal.
One of Aldo’s students is Ettore, who has been pushed by his family into pursuing a career in medicine, despite being more naturally inclined toward fine arts. The older man expands his world, sharing his knowledge of art, literature and ants with generosity and passion. Shrugging off local gossip about Aldo, Ettore travels with him to Rome, but distance doesn’t stop his outraged family from intervening.
Amelio and his co-writers drew from transcripts for the courtroom scenes, which show the diligence of the prosecution in attempting to discredit Braibanti as a failed intellectual whose books don’t sell, and casting suspicion on exactly what he was teaching the impressionable young students in Emilia-Romagna. Everything around the case has been fictionalized, including the real name of Ettore and the dynamic of the family behind his brutalization — though not the horrific electroshock therapy he’s forced to undergo.
A baggy plot 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 jolt Aldo out of his silence in court, prompting him to speak out against Italy’s retrograde attitudes.
Lo Cascio is affecting in those still somewhat low-key scenes, making Braibanti a thoughtful, self-possessed man who feels no shame for his choices or the situation in which they have landed him.
But the film’s big emotional charge comes when Ettore takes the stand, febrile and intense, his temples scorched by the electrode pads and his face a haunted shadow of the joyful young man he was. While greatly diminished by the ordeals he’s endured, Ettore is articulate in refuting the notion of “unnatural relations” when any union driven by mutual feeling is inherently natural.
The heartfelt sentiments of that testimony scene — and a moving interlude that follows years later, in which Aldo and Ettore meet once more back in Emilia-Romagna — provide a late surge of feeling in a film that otherwise is too elegantly restrained to build sustained power. Even the period pop sprinkled throughout doesn’t do much to shake off the starchiness. But audiences interested in LGBTQ history as progress risks being pushed backward could do worse.