Rome — For many in Italy, today will be a day filled with memories both nostalgic and bitter. A hundred years ago, in a village in the Appenines, Benito Mussolini was born.
Those who suffered under his 20-year fascist dictatorship would like to keep his memory buried in the past. But there are those who still dream of the glory Mussolini promised them and want to rehabilitate his memory, if not his ideals.
Mussolini launched his fascist regime with an image of conserving law and order against social subversion and lawlessness. This is attractive to many Italians today.
''All this talk about democracy, what has it brought us?'' asks Filotea Bertoli, a shop-keeper in Umbria. ''We were much better off under Mussolini.''
Many have forgiven or forgotten the harsh repression, ignominious defeat, and painful reaction that accompanied the end of the fascist era.
Alberta Giocamelli from Bologna, an octogenarian and former schoolteacher, says, ''Our government now is run by a bunch of clowns. At least Il Duce was honest. It was his advisers and the people around him who caused his downfall.''
These themes of law and order and honest government have been used by the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) to appeal to an electorate increasingly disil-lusioned and disgruntled with the Italian government of today. In the national elections in June, the MSI picked up 2 percent of the vote, for a total of 7 percent, making it Italy's fourth-largest party in Parliament.
''Our recent success at the polls had nothing to do with the centenary of Musso-lini's birth,'' says Giorgio Almirante, the leader of the MSI. ''People voted for us because we represent a means of restoring order through justice, because our hands are clean of any scandals, and because we propose a reform of the dictatorship of the present parties.''
He is careful to define his party as rightist rather than fascist.
Mauro Strocchi, the youthful communist mayor of Predappio, the town where Mussolini is buried, disagrees. ''The MSI has done everything to promote its links, at least sentimentally, with fascism. They are even ready to do away with personal liberty again in order to bring fascism back to life.''
Many of those responsible for the MSI's growth are young voters. Almirante estimates that at least 60 percent of his audience as he stumped the country this spring were ''clean, short-haired young people.'' According to the MSI, 10 percent of the young Italians voting for the first time cast ballots for the MSI.
''The young people voting for the MSI did not vote ideologically,'' Mr. Strocchi claims. ''It was a protest vote against the fact that the existing government is not dealing with the problems confronting us today.''
Many older Italians worry that the Mussolini centenary, if not handled correctly, could nurture an unrealistic portrait of the fascist era and boost the MSI's popularity. Particularly susceptible would be the youth who did not live through the years of Fascist Party rule and were not taught about that era in school until five or six years ago.
''There is a tremendous amount of historical ignorance of this period,'' says Arrigo Boldrini, the president of the Association of Partisans, who fought Mussolini during the war. ''It must be taught as it was, how much it cost Italy, the lack of liberty, and the human suffering.''
Another former partisan warned, ''Mussolini should be remembered so that we don't commit the same mistakes again.''
Few in Italy believe a true fascist revival is likely or even possible. ''Fascism is over. It belongs to history now,'' said Don Michelangelo, Predappio's parish priest and an avid student of the period.
Others are measuring the strength of the desire to instill order and stability.
''Half of the Italian mentality is in search of a strong authoritarian figure to bring order out of our chaos,'' said Strocchi, who feels another dictatorship is not impossible.
The MSI is pushing to end a different dictatorship - that of the parties, which it blames for the instability of Italian governments. The MSI advocates reducing the size and importance of Parliament and strengthening the powers of the president, who would be elected directly by the people.
As Italy embarks on its 44th government in 37 years, the concept is gaining in appeal.