By TRISHA THOMAS, The Associated Press
ROME — A new documentary about Benito Mussolini examines the near cult-like fascination that many Italians had with the fascist dictator – and how his body became a focus for the fixation.
"Il Corpo Del Duce," ("The Duce's Corpse"), contains some gruesome, never-before-seen images of Mussolini's decayed corpse hanging upside down in a Milan square on April 29, 1945 after he was shot by anti-fascist partisans.
The film, directed by Fabrizio Laurenti, literally follows the path of Mussolini's corpse from a gas station on the square to an anonymous grave and eventually a tomb in Predappio, his birthplace in northern Italy, where thousands of supporters pay homage every year.
"The images I have in my documentary are pretty, pretty strong," Laurenti said in a recent interview. "They're not for everybody."
Some of the shots show the dictator's face grotesquely swollen, unrecognizable after being hung upside down, beaten and stoned.
Others being revealed for the first time show his bullet-ridden body, curled up in a near-fetal position, looking mummified after a decade in a crate in a police warehouse. Police confiscated the corpse after diehard fascists dug up Mussolini's remains from his anonymous Milan grave soon after he was killed.
The government eventually gave in to rightwing pressure and turned the body over to the family for burial in his hometown.
Some of the footage from Piazza Loreto, where he was hanged, was shot by U.S. Army film crews documenting the American liberation of Italy.
Laurenti, whose background is in horror films, has been criticized by the left in Italy for showing the brutal treatment Mussolini was subjected to by Italy's partisans. Laurenti says he is merely being historically accurate, likening the death of Mussolini to the recent killing of Moammar Gadhafi by Libyan rebel forces.
Mussolini was captured near Lake Como by partisans as he and his lover, Clara Petacchi, tried to flee Italy to Switzerland. The partisans executed the couple and their loyalists and then brought them to Milan where they were hanged for public viewing.
Using file footage from Italy's Istituto Luce archive, the film documents how a cult promoting Mussolini as a physically powerful and virile leader sprang up around him during his life.
As Mussolini plays tennis in one clip, a solemn voice declares: "The intense job of il Duce is daily preceded by intense physical exercise, which restores his fresh energy and his physical rigor."
Mussolini still has unabashed fans in Italy.
"Mussolini enters in the category of the 'greats,'" said Pasquale Moretti, owner of a Rome restaurant that features a variety of Mussolini paraphernalia. He said he regularly goes to Predappio to pay his respects to "one of the unique men on the face of the Earth."
The documentary – based on a book by Italian author Sergio Luzzato – was first presented at the Turin Film Festival last month and will be aired on Italian television in 2012.
Italy's left-leaning La Repubblica daily called the film a "horror," noting it included "shocking" new images of the Mussolini body.
It said the editing "revealed the director's proven familiarity with dark movies."
Images may be disturbing to some readers (NSFW):