Oscar Wilde may be the most famous person to face imprisonment for being gay, but he wasn’t the only one to suffer under an archaic legal system. Set in 1960s Italy, Gianni Amelio’s expansive historical drama “Lord of The Ants” uncovers the story of Aldo Braibanti, an Italian playwright, poet, and director who faced imprisonment for a consensual relationship with a younger student. “Lord of The Ants” holds a mirror to this shameful chapter in Italian history, painting an elegant but wrenching portrait of the cruelties gay men faced at the time.
The film opens on an intimate moment between the handsome and dignified Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and beautiful Ettore (Leonardo Maltese). Glowing with adoration, Aldo and Ettore recite poetry to each other in an outdoor Roman movie theater, ensconced in each other’s brilliance. At another table a kind journalist named Ennio (Elio Germano) observes them with sensitivity. “Braibanti, the myrmecologist,” he points out to his cousin Grazie (Sara Serraiocco). “He studies the life of ants. He’s an expert.” Guiding an ant onto his wrist, he blows it into the night air.
Similarly, the fragile ecosystem supporting the lovers soon comes crashing down. The next morning, asleep in each other’s arms, they are interrupted by Ettore’s mother and brother. They drug and drag him away to an asylum, where he undergoes electroshock therapy and his youthful body convulses in crisp white robes.
The film flashes back to six years prior, in the Northern region of Emilia. Here Aldo has an unofficial school on an abandoned villa estate, where he directs plays and doles out precious books to his favorite pupils. He takes an immediate liking to Ettore and the feeling is mutual, despite his brother’s fervent warnings to stay away from the eccentric older writer. Aldo is “a dirty person, who only want to make others dirty,” he says.
Aldo takes Ettore to Rome, where he introduces him to a flamboyant group of bohemian artists. It’s a fun scene — especially when the lesbian gives Aldo a piece of her mind for a negative review of her book — but it’s an unnecessary diversion. Ettore feels out of place, and Aldo feels jealous. Outside, they have their first fight. “I am not like them, but I am also like them,” says Aldo, displaying the age-old signs of homophobic self-loathing.
Flash forward to 1964 and Aldo is arrested under a euphemistic charge of Plagio, which the Italian criminal code defined as “submitting a person to his own power, in order to reduce her to a state of subjection.” (Braibanti was the only person to ever be convicted of the crime.) Aldo’s friends never reappear, and one is left wondering if they were just a fever dream.
Assigned to cover the trial is beat reporter Ennio, whose personal connection to the subject matter slowly reveals itself. He takes a passionate interest in Aldo’s plight, and his writing in the Communist newspaper is the only fair coverage. Aldo is likable and intriguing, but arriving halfway through the film throws the whole thing off kilter, with the story split between the love story and the trial.
Ettore floats in and out, disappearing for long stretches. After his harrowing torture scene, we don’t see him until his testimony. Now gaunt and his flowing locks cropped short, he recounts his love affair with Aldo as mutual, emotional, and human. It’s a poignant scene, with the men exchanging teary looks across the cold courtroom. Ever the intellectual, Aldo remains stoic throughout; he doesn’t show emotion except in the presence of Ettore.
And who could forget the ants? Written by Amelio with Edoardo Petti and Federico Fava, the script is desperate to squeeze meaning and metaphors from the tiny insects that are imprisoned in their terrariums — just like Aldo. The writers also try to eke romantic dialogue from the queen carrying sperm of many males until she buries herself in the ground to lay eggs.
The three leading men give noble performances, and the impressive period costumes and sets give a nostalgic cast to the dour proceedings. Post-Berlusconi Italy has miles to go before dealing with its homophobic past and “Lord of the Ants” may mark an important historical reckoning. There are beautiful elements here, but it’s hard to take them all in.
“Lord of the Ants” premiered at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.