Italian Film Tells of Mussolini’s Mistress
Friday, April 2, 2010
Marco Bellocchio was quoted as saying, “The great advantage of first films is that you're nobody and have no history, you've the freedom to risk everything.” Well he still seems to be risking things. His latest gamble is “Vincere” (opening April 2 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas).
Marco Bellocchio previously directed such films as “Devil in the Flesh” and “Good Morning Night.” For “Vincere” (which is translated rather unsatisfactorily as “Win”), Bellocchio turns to a little known chapter in history in order to comment on the fascist movement in Italy. The case of Ida Dalser may be better known in Italy but her story is not one that I’m familiar with. Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) was at one point the mistress of Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and she bore him an illegitimate son. According to the film, the two met in the early 1900s when Mussolini was a socialist leader and journalist. Dalser supposedly sells everything to help her lover start his own newspaper. But Mussolini soon leaves her, his son, and his political roots behind for a new wife and for fascism. But Dalser is not content to simply fade quietly from the scene. She raises a ruckus that does not sit well with her former lover or with his new political party. So her son is taken away from her and she is institutionalized.
Bellocchio turns this story into a kind of operatic fever dream. He mixes surreal sequences with archival footage and over the top drama that’s matched by an audacious score. The film keeps you off balance as if you are never quite sure how to take what’s coming at you. Initially it’s disconcerting to see Filippo Timi plays Mussolini a charismatic and even oddly sexy figure. But as we see more of him we realize that he is most interested in power and is willing to trade principles and ideals for power and position. In an interesting move, Bellocchio eventually replaces Timi with the real Mussolini, allowing only archival footage of him to appear later in the film while Timi switches over to playing the illegitimate son. So there is a point at which the film decides Mussolini is no longer accessible as a human character, he is simply that iconic image we have come to know.
But we sympathize with the very human character created by Mezzogiorno. Mezzogiorno’s Dalser is something like Angelina Jolie in the recent “Changeling.” Both women are made to appear insane to everyone and are treated as such but the audience sees them as the only ones capable of telling the truth. But unlike Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” Bellocchio’s “Vincere” has more on its mind than a maternal melodrama. Bellocchio’s film is more artistically daring and he not only wants to bring this historical footnote to light but he also wants to comment on how we and history choose to remember or not remember things.
So Bellocchio makes a point of showing that a lot of historical footage of Mussolini exists but none of Dalser. History remembers him but not her and there’s a reason for that. Bellocchio emphasizes this by having many scenes of people watching film and getting their information from those images. These scenes – whether depicting historical newsreels or fiction films -- show the impact images can have in defining history, our memories, and our desires. Then add to this the notion of deliberate attempts to control the message through propaganda or censorship or mere political spin and you have themes that resonate only too well today. But Bellocchio also makes a case for his art and implies that movies like “Vincere” have a power to bring to light a story like Dalser’s and to correct or at least add nuance to the official record.
After seeing so many bland, homogenized films coming from Hollywood this year, “Vincere” (unrated and in Italian with English subtitles) explodes like an audacious experiment on the screen. It’s not always successful, it runs out of steam in the second half, and it sometimes leaves you puzzled yet it has such a bold sensibility and driving passion that you can’t help being fascinated. The reason I said the title of "Win" seems unsatisfying is that it doesn't convey the film's essence. It's too simple and lacks the impact the film has. Apparently "vincere" can translate as "to live is to win" or as "to crush or subjugate or defeat or overwhelm." And any of those reflect the film in a more accurate way. The title can be taken as ironic in defining Mussolini's career or as redefining of Dalser's life. And that's what I like about the film, the more I think about it and about how the pieces fit together the more I find discover. Unlike most of what is in theaters right now, "Vincere" not only holds up upon reflection but demands such contemplation.
Companion viewing: “Good Morning Night,” “Changeling,” “The Last Days of Mussolini”