(2009)4Nathan SouthernAs eternally damned as Benito Mussolini's reputation is, and as extensive as his documented list of evils are, one might find it impossible to imagine a contemporary indictment so bitter and heartbreaking that it nearly outstrips everything to precede it. But that's exactly what writer-director Marco Bellocchio attempts with his searing, shocking period drama Vincere. Titled with acidic irony -- it translates literally to "Win" -- the picture travels behind the public curtain of Il Duce's wretched historical image to unearth one of the most outrageous and intimate of his cruelties -- an act long-buried by the tide of Italian history.
The tale opens in the early 20th century, when Mussolini (Filippo Timi), ironically enough, is not an iron-fisted totalitarian demagogue but an ultra-left-wing idealist, intent on rallying the Italian people under the umbrella of socialism. Hugely contemptuous of the Catholic Church, and eager to spread atheism wherever he goes, he rouses a mob of listeners to fury by declaring, "If God exists, let him strike me dead in the next five minutes" -- without, of course, any sort of divine manifestation or response. He draws the eye and the heart of a beautiful young woman named Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who falls helplessly and unquestioningly in love with him. The two marry and conceive a child; meanwhile, Mussolini's political beliefs and allegiances shift dramatically. As the proletariat turns to him as their political savior, he begins to worship his own omnipotence; unveiling a sense of extremist Italian nationalism and coupling it with his prior socialist rhetoric, he evolves into a textbook fascist. Then, without so much as a warning or an explanation, Mussolini has Ida and the child (Benito Albino) literally strong-armed out of his presence, marries another woman, and has his aides and troops do everything in their power to silence the cries of protest from Ida and the young Benito. Unsurprisingly, the more that the disenfranchised mother and son scream out to be heard, the further removed they are from the public eye.
This devastating tale might seem to lend itself automatically to the screen, but Bellocchio's approach is eccentric. He radically aestheticizes much of the first half of the film in the style of old Italian newsreels -- with huge, propagandistic titles and superimposed graphics (such as animated planes flying across the screen, and toy soldiers marching in form) flashing onscreen intermittently, and newsreel shots incorporated into the action. On a conceptual level, the director seems to be suggesting (and not without foundation) that because the public consciousness now filters this period through the prism of old newsreel films, it makes sense to frame the action in this context and ironically contrast it with the intimacy of the onscreen events. That's an intriguing and arresting notion, but the effect feels a little bit overplayed. The propagandistic intertitles drive the point home, but at times the other visual devices seem excessive; the animated planes and soldiers, for instance, strike us as little more than tacky gewgaws designed to visually enliven the screen, and weaken the impact of the events before us. And still, on a few other occasions, Bellocchio's cutaways are so cryptic that we can never quite discern the meaning of the images before us -- as when he repeatedly interpolates close-ups of young women drifting into frame and staring directly into the camera. Despite the occasional visual self-indulgence, though, the director does have an exquisite eye for composition itself, which serves the film well with a series of diverting, almost surrealistic touches -- as in the case of a sequence in a dimly lit Catholic hospital that has Giulio Antamoro's 1916 silent religious drama Christus projected onto the ceiling, or a sequence that finds Mussolini dueling in an orchard, with enormous smoke-belching factories lining the horizon just beyond.
As for the story itself, it feels most fascinating and gripping in the early sequences that dramatize Ida's encounters with Benito Sr. Their relationship is hugely sexual -- with dark, deep-set eyes and an overwhelming intensity, Mussolini projects a brooding eroticism, and we can see how magnetically drawn Ida is to him, how turned on she feels by his lust for power. When he makes love to her, he does so almost in the form of a savage political or national conquest -- he seems intent on seizing her, laying claim to her body. And it also becomes apparent to us -- long before it dawns on Ida -- that she's out of her element, trying to satisfy and emotionally connect with someone who, after he has staked his claim to this woman, will quickly cast her aside and move on to more ambitious and self-aggrandizing conquests.
To some degree, this foreknowledge, as well as our historical knowledge of the impenetrability of Mussolini's minions, hurts the second and third acts of this film. Because we can see how in over her head Ida is long before she does, it drives a wedge in between the young woman and the audience when she continues to believe in Benito Sr. at all costs -- insisting to guards that he will listen to her, embrace her, take her back as his wife, if she can only get through to him. At some point, as her protests build, we start to lose empathy with her, and she risks seeming not simply wronged but pathetic. It isn't difficult to reason, in retrospect, that had Ida simply accepted the injustices at an earlier point instead of continually digging herself in deeper with loud public outcries to Mussolini, she would certainly have experienced a more peaceful outcome in lieu of the heartbreaking events that followed. To put it another way, watching Ida's descent may automatically be emotionally powerful and persuasive, but it isn't always dramatically interesting, for we've ascertained the outcome long before she has.
What compensates for this, to an inestimable degree, is Mezzogiorno's spectacular, four-barreled performance as Ida. Other directors have utilized this gifted young woman to tremendous effect, but perhaps never as effectively as Bellocchio does here. Realizing the broad range of emotion that she is capable of projecting simply with her face, he films her in one powerful close-up after another, and she brings a spectrum of reactions to each scene that are nothing less than astonishing in their depth and complexity. Whatever the movie's excesses and flaws, its lead actress makes the terror of Ida's experiences palpably, horrifyingly real for the audience, and does much to save the film in the process.
This unusual and offbeat historical drama rests on a little-known conceit. Though seldom discussed in history books (and reportedly undisclosed for half a century), fascist dictator Benito Mussolini conceived an illegitimate son by a woman named Ida Dalser -- a son Mussolini allowed to be born, acknowledged, and then promptly denied for the duration of his life. The tale begins in early 20th century Milan, with Benito (Fabrizio Costella) working as the socialist editor of a controversial newspaper called Avanti. His dream in life involves triumphantly leading the Italian masses away from monarchy and toward a "socially emancipated future." He met the young and wealthy Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) once before, in Trento -- where they enjoyed a brief exchange; they re-encounter one another during Mussolini's period at Avanti and it becomes clear that Ida has fallen deeply in love with Benito. She believes wholeheartedly in his ideals and his future as the leader of Italy -- to such an extent that she sells everything she has (her apartment, furniture, jewelry, and the beauty salon she owns) to fuel the development of his newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia.
While the two become romantically entangled, with Ida positively magnetized by Benito's charisma and Benito hooked on a lust for power, Benito quickly switches spiritual and political allegiances overnight, changing from an atheistic socialist to a deeply Catholic fascist -- Catholic, because an allegiance with the Vatican will enable him to wrest and retain control over Italy's government. Benito and Ida marry and parent a son together, Benito Albino Mussolini (circa 1915), but the marriage certificate soon conveniently disappears and Ida learns, to her horror, that Benito has married someone else. She unwisely begins to protest the situation -- so loudly and persistently that she's first forced into house arrest and then shoved permanently into an insane asylum -- raising key questions about the fate and future of her young son. On a stylistic level, director Marco Bellocchio films this historical material with the passion, theatricality, lyricism, and tragedy of a classical Italian opera.