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November 24, 1985|Howard Rosenberg

"MUSSOLINI: THE UNTOLD STORY," 8 p.m. Sunday (4) (36) (39) (Illustrated on the cover)--American TV went years and years without a Mussolini story. Now, in one season, there are two.

First came the uneven, two-part Italian production of "Mussolini: The Decline and Fall of Il Duce" for cable's Home Box Office in September, with Bob Hoskins as the Fascist dictator who led Italy into a disastrous World War II alliance with Hitler.

Now comes George C. Scott as Il Duce in NBC's "Mussolini: The Untold Story," a seven-hour miniseries that begins Sunday and continues at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

Hoskins' Mussolini was a relatively nice tyrant who made some bad moves that got him into major jams. Scott's Duce is much taller, much more romantic and even nicer.

Is this La Dolce Duce?

"I'm not passing through Rome. I'm here to stay," Scott's Mussolini declares upon becoming prime minister in 1922. Later, standing beside a bust of Julius Caesar, he lifts his head and squares his jaw, as if to inflate himself with the empire's former greatness.

"The Untold Story" traces Mussolini's 23-year reign that ended with his execution by Italian partisans, after which his body and that of his longtime mistress, Claretta Petacci, were hung by their feet like meat for 24 hours.

Newsreel footage has been woven into this truly ornate and grand-looking production, which was elegantly staged, wonderfully lit and beautifully shot in Rome and Yugoslavia. If nothing else, it gives you an itch to travel.

Yet it pays to be suspicious of anything titillatingly billed as "The Untold Story."

For one thing, co-producer Sterling Silliphant's script gives no historical context for the emergence of Mussolini. For another, "The Untold Story" reduces turbulent history to a string of romances that add up to "Dynasty," Italian style.

Back and forth we go during the first three hours, a little politics followed by a lot of sloshy love.

Mussolini's eldest daughter, Edda (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), is romanced by her future husband, Count Galeazzo Ciano (Raul Julia). Benito, whose wife, Rachele (Lee Grant), is a homebody, can't stay away from other women. He meets Claretta (Virginia Madsen), who tells the Duce how much she admires him. There is a crescendo of string music.

Flash forward to the back seat of a car, where Mussolini's son, Bruno (Robert Downey), is getting it on with his future wife, who says: "I've never let any man touch me the way you touch me."

Meanwhile, Mussolini's other son, Vittorio (Gabriel Byrne), goes a courting, Edda and the philandering Galeazzo are having marital problems and Rachele is continuing to sew.

Ironically, you're almost thankful when Hitler arrives on the scene, because "The Untold Story" is then forced to confront the world outside the boudoir.

Scott's Mussolini is a man of contrasts who is portrayed far too sympathetically. Accompanied by Godfatherly music, he is defined largely as a tragic and even somewhat heroic figure who sacrifices himself rather than endanger others.

The women are the strongest characters in "The Untold Story," with the best performance delivered by Grant as the spiny Rachele.

Just how much of this is true? Not all of it, to be sure. Maybe not even a lot of it. Did Edda Mussolini really tell off Hitler to his face?

TV history marches on.

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