September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

HBO (Sun. Sept. 8, 8 p.m. ET)

Here, on the other hand, is something that pay-cable channels still cannot do well: mini-series. The latest evidence is HBO’s Mussolini, more than three hours of badly written history, of good actors tortured with awful lines. Bob (The Cotton Club) Hoskins plays the Duce, but the story is told through the eyes of Susan (Compromising Positions) Sarandon as Mussolini’s daughter and the wife of Italy’s foreign minister, played by Anthony (The Bunker) Hopkins. The mini comes off more like an adaptation of the song Oh, My Papa than of World War II. Sarandon is forced to say things like this about her dictator dad: “He’s easily hurt.” Poor misunderstood Benito. But you shouldn’t get the impression that the mini gives you the human side of Hitler’s henchman. Nobody looks human here; the characterizations are so sketchy, you have no idea whether to hate or to love these people. And history gets equally short shrift. The show begins with Sarandon gushing: “How could I have known then that Hitler’s power would come to devastate the entire world?” So much for the history lesson. You’re given little sense of how Mussolini rose to power or what led to his decline. You don’t see how he ruled Italy; if he didn’t say he was a fascist, you wouldn’t know it. And on top of all that the plot doesn’t make sense. What plot there is centers on diaries that Hopkins keeps, which are supposed to be his life insurance when pop-in-law Benito plans to shoot him as a traitor. Only problem is, you never get a good idea of why those diaries are so valuable. But TV will try again this fall with a seven-hour NBC mini on Mussolini starring George C. Scott. Last season TV went crazy with movies about Hitler and German fascists. This season Italian fascists seem to be the thing to televise. (Part Two airs Monday.)

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