Alex Constantine - March 24, 2010
This is Brand X | Mar 24 2010
Political mudslinging nowadays doesn't get any nastier than when one side calls the other "fascist." But there was a time, not so far in the past, when even fascists called themselves "fascist" -- or more precisely capital-F "Fascist." Welcome to mid-20th-century Italy, under the spell of Benito Mussolini, a.k.a. Il Duce.
It's hard to imagine proudly embracing that label, but Marco Bellocchio's stylistically adventuresome Vincere re-creates Mussolini's seduction of the nation. He views Il Duce's rise through the metaphorical parallel story of Ida Dalser, the dictator's first wife, whose existence was so thoroughly hidden during Mussolini's reign that it became common knowledge only a few years ago.
The opening scenes cut (somewhat confusingly) between 1907 and 1914 to show us the origins of the relationship between Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a beautician, and Mussolini (Filippo Timi), then a socialist firebrand. Her devotion is driven by a consuming sexual passion; his feelings are a bit more opaque. While she gazes at him during the act, his eyes are fixed on something in the dark that only he can see. (The future? A dream of power?)
She bears him a son and sells all her possessions to fund his political rise, but around the time he abandons socialism for fascism, she discovers he has taken a second wife. When he grows powerful enough, he whitewashes his public image by denying their connection. When she refuses to stay silent, he has her put under house arrest, then committed to an asylum. Their son is kidnapped and sent to a boarding school; he too is eventually committed. The more Ida insists that Il Duce is the father of her child and has conspired to lock her up, the more she sounds like a classic paranoid schizophrenic.
Because Bellocchio sticks primarily to her point of view, Timi's portrayal of Mussolini ends only a third of the way through the film. (He does return later, playing Benito Jr. as a young man.) Ida and the audience see Mussolini only in newsreels -- real newsreels. The historical Mussolini looks so little like Timi that the transition is jarring. "He's lost quite a bit of hair," Ida observes -- an inadequate explanation, given that all his facial features have changed as well.
Surely, Bellocchio realized this: He may be deliberately contrasting the historical Mussolini with the handsome idealization that Ida, along with the rest of the nation, perceives. What is startling in the newsreels is what a buffoon he appears to have been. If (like me) your main image of Mussolini is Jack Oakie in "The Great Dictator," it's a shock to realize that Il Duce's posturing was even more comical. His every sentence is followed by an exaggerated pout and squint. (He had to have been the model for the gangster Little Bonaparte in "Some Like It Hot.")
Bellocchio tries to hit all the crucial episodes in Dalser's life, and as a result the film drags a little during the repetitive last third. But for the most part he holds our attention through sheer style. The visuals have a gorgeous, burnished look, in the manner of "The Godfather: Part II" and "The Conformist"; the editing superimposes slogans and newspaper headlines over impressionistic montages. Carlo Crivelli's wonderfully melodramatic score underlines the film's operatic tone, particularly in the early sequences, which seem conceived to echo Dalser's romantic passion.
There is one problem for non-Italian audiences. Aiming at domestic viewers, Bellocchio assumes historical knowledge most Americans, including me, probably don't have. There are a number of hints that Dalser was shunted aside because she was ethnically German, as well as a scene where poor Germans are being burned out of their homes. These are confusing unless you're aware that Trent, where much of the action takes place, was a formerly Italian city -- still overwhelmingly ethnically Italian -- that Mussolini and others were trying to reclaim from enemy Austria-Hungary.
Photo: A scene from "Vincere" by Daniele Musso. Courtesy IFC Films.