Myrmecology is a study of science that looks at the life, society and hierarchy of ants. Early Myrmecologists believed that ant culture was utopian and thought by studying them in encased ant farms, they could find solutions to human problems. However, Gianni Amelio’s Italian post-WWII drama The Lord of the Ants (Il Signore Delle Formiche) flips this idea around. It examines why strict societies foster cultures of oppression where everyone must play their role or be punished.
The screenplay by Amelio, Federico Fava and Edoardo Petti chooses its dialogue with precision. They want us to know they resent post-Mussolini Europe and how not just homosexuals but anyone on the margins is oppressed under fascist rule.
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In 1965 Rome, Aldo Braibanti (Luigi Lo Cascio) is caught sleeping with his young lover Ettore (Leonardo Maltese). Their relationship started a year earlier in small-town Italy, where Aldo was directing a play. This is when he meets Ettore, who shares Aldo’s love for poetry, theater and ants. Ettore’s brother warns him against getting close to the director as he apparently has a tendency to groom barely legal men. However, the attraction is strong between them, and soon a love affair begins. Eventually, the two run away to Rome, and they are caught by his brother and mother and taken away from Aldo.
In the form of conversion therapy, Ettore is institutionalized, where he receives shock treatment and other forms of medical torture. His mother visits frequently, but each time, he is more disconnected from reality. Aldo is sitting in jail awaiting trial. He’s charged with the crime of ‘moral subjugation.’ There is a group of young progressives who believe the man is being mistreated and protest his trial. Ennio (Elio Germano) is a local journalist who takes an interest in the case and visits Aldo to get his side of the story out to the public, even at the risk of his career.
There are several shots of a symbolic ant mound encased in glass. Every ant is born to do a job — nothing more. They take orders from a queen and do what they are assigned. This is a reflection of what Amelio thinks life is like under fascism. Everyone conforms, individuality is discouraged, and you must put society above your own self-interest. Although Mussolini’s reign ended 20 years before the film’s timeline, people still feel his presence. There is no room for homosexuality in that. Ettore often questions Aldo about his friends being too flamboyant because he’s been indoctrinated by his environment.
The film uses Aldo and Ettore’s relationship and the air of grooming to make parallels between what that dynamic looks like on a micro and macro level, but not all is lost. The Lord of the Ants also declares the youth as the heralds of acceptance and change, but that’s how it’s always been. Many life-changing movements are ignited by those who break with tradition, bringing attention to the purists who refuse to accept the future.
The film uses Aldo and Ettore’s relationship and the air of grooming to make parallels between what grooming looks like on a micro and macro level, but not all is lost. The Lord of the Ants also declares the youth as the heralds of acceptance and change, but that’s how it’s always been. Many life-changing movements are ignited by those who break with tradition, bringing attention to the purists who refuse to accept the future.
Amelio is a passionate writer and director who does well to display the frenzied hysteria of a culture still obsessed with consonance. The theme is more relevant than ever, especially with conservatism growing worldwide and holding marginalized communities under dictatorships. The message does become preachy and hyperbolic at times. Still, The Lord of the Ants is a powerful reminder of what happens when people would rather be subordinate than take control of their destiny. As long as fascist mentalities are allowed to thrive, everyone is in danger.
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