In Vincere, veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio has created both a stylish historical drama and a political parable. His crashing and resounding film about images and torrid affairs calls into question our love affair with the image and our weakness for the power of political aesthetic.
Bellocchio films have always dealt with the relationship between the personal and the political. His 1965 Fist in His Pocket imagined a disabled, and deeply dysfunctional, Italian family as a representation of the post-war Italian republic. His follow-up China is Near, a bedroom farce and send-up of the Italian Left, did the same through the story of a working class couple who scheme to marry into an aristocratic family of socialists.
The 70-year old director’s latest explores the rise of fascism through the experience of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a woman who had a passionate affair with a the young Mussolini in the days before World War I. She apparently married the future fascist impresario and had a child with him. He broke contact with her during World War I, remarried, started a new family and quickly rose to power. Vincere chronicles the tragedy of Dalser and her son, both of whom ended up institutionalized.
If you watch Vincere with the idea that you are about to encounter a standard biopic, you will quickly find yourself knocked down and pulled out to sea in the undertow of the cinematography. The pacing of the first half of the film matches Mussolini’s fiery temperament and rapid rise to power. His taking of Ida, including the steamy scenes where he bullies her into orgasm, reflects the passion of political rallies where he seduces and makes Italy his own.
Vincere purposefully forces us to consider the power of aesthetic images in political and personal tragedy, skillfully showing how the two are intertwined. Newsreels at the beginning of World War I lead Mussolini and his supporters to exchange blows with left-wing opponents of Italy’s entrance into the conflict. A beautiful and disturbing scene in a field hospital features a wounded Mussolini somnolently watching a scene of Christ dying on the cross from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Dalser watching Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid offers a clue about her emotional life and its relationship to the screen.
Cinematographer Daniele Cipri attacks us with this welter of imagery, splicing real and fake newsreels, found footage, political slogans and even a few animations into the powerful small scenes between Ida and her charismatic lover. I’m fighting not to employ the much over-used “operatic” as a description, but this is historical drama as Wagner would tell it.
The frenetic assault suddenly slows down in the second half of the film that deals primarily with Ida’s captivity in the asylum. Fillipo Timi as Mussolini disappears and we see the dictator only as his image, in statues, in newsreels and in photographs. This conceit allows the film to fully realize its primary trope, the transfiguration of reality into aesthetic experience. Timi appears as Mussolini’s illegitimate son, Benito Jr., including one masterful scene where he satires his father’s histrionic speechmaking with chin thrusting, eyes bulging, and fists pummeling the air.
Mezzogiorno owns this movie and makes the absent Mussolini, living only as an image, seem increasingly pallid and absurd as the film progresses. The power of her portrayal of Dalser (she was a runner-up at Cannes to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s harrowing performance in Antichrist) has led most critics to see her character a bit more sympathetically than I think Bellocchio would wish. Her obsession with Il Duce has catastrophic consequences for her and her son, a fatal obsession that mirrors Italy’s willingness to give themselves to the dictator’s dreams of glory.
For a number of years, recent Italian cinema simply did not have the cachet among art house-goers as French films. Its worth noting that Vincere is really the first Bellocchio film that has received something resembling wide distribution in the United States, making him perhaps one of the greatest living directors many Americans have never heard of. Bellocchio’s masterpiece and the recent Gomorrah, directed by Matteo Garrone, will hopefully galvanize film lovers to discover that Italian film didn’t end with Fellini and that perhaps a new phase has been heralded with Vincere.