Marco Bellocchio is one of Italy’s great directors. At age 70, he’s a subject of European film-festival tributes and his new films still get treated as the important works of a seasoned auteur. Yet he’s never made an impact in the U.S. to rival his early and controversial Fist in His Pocket (1965), in which an epileptic young man decides to kill his dysfunctional family.
He probably didn’t mind that neglect much — he’s had an active filmmaking career at home and has also long been involved in radical politics. Given those politics, as well as his considerable experience and talent as a filmmaker, it’s right to expect great things from Vincere, his latest film, about Benito Mussolini’s ugly treatment of a secret lover and their child. It’s a chance to show how fascism works on a personal level.
(Cincinnati World Cinema is showing first-run digital projection of Vincere May 19 and 20 at Covington’s Carnegie Arts Center. It debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.)
Given the subject, you’d think maybe Bellocchio would make a grand statement about the tides of Italian history, like Visconti’s The Leopard or Bertolucci’s 1900. And for a while, you feel like you’re getting it. There’s the thrill of excitingly poetic — even operatic — self-assured filmmaking. But then the story starts to sputter and grow narrow and confined rather than epic, and the film’s attempt at grandeur grows hyperbolic and shrill.
As depicted in the film, the love affair between a young Mussolini and a smitten woman, Ida Dalser, is seen as rapturously erotic romance … until it isn’t. As Mussolini chooses another lover — and another mother of his child — to be his wife, he forsakes Dalser. And as he becomes Il Duce, Italy’s fascist leader, in the 1920s, he uses the power of the state to suppress and confine her and her son.
Historically, Dalser maintained she had married Mussolini first and before his other lover, making their son Benito Albino Mussolini a legal heir. The film hedges on that. Both she and her son, who was taken from her, ended up in asylums.
If this isn't a well-known story internationally, it's been the subject of recent Italian scholarship. There has been an Italian documentary and, later, books on it. Bellocchio, working with Daniela Ceselli, wrote this screenplay.
The director, with cinematographer Daniele Cipri and editor Francesca Cavelli, attacks the story with a ferociously energetic, emotional approach that for a stretch is transfixing to watch. Although Vincere is in color, much of that has been drained in the film’s early sections, highlighting an older Italy of contrasting blacks and whites and lurking shadows. When color emerges — on a flag, for instance — it’s so vivid it appears hand-painted.
At the film’s start, set in the town of Trent, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is an idealistic anticlerical socialist union organizer who turns a public meeting into a shoving match by asserting there is no God. His courage and defiance bewitch beauty-salon owner Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno in a focused, disciplined performance) who finds his passion irresistible. And Timi’s Mussolini is indeed that: trim, athletic, handsome and sexy in an alpha way.
Vincere does some wild and weird things to show that passion. In a lovemaking scene, it concentrates on the beyond-steely, animalistic glow in his eyes as Dalser is lost in ecstasy. He seems eerie.
In the early going, as Mussolini moves on to Milan and Dalser supports his ambitions, Bellocchio uses what appear to be archival clips to frame the story. They're presented as movie-theater newsreels with titles and show how Mussolini was shaped and influenced by the coming of World War I in 1914. He turned right-wing and pro-war.
At a movie theater, when Mussolini and his hawks take on an antiwar element on the other side of an aisle, their bodies block the theater’s screen as they shout as if singing to the score. It comes off as both dreamlike and realistic, almost Fellini-esque.
So what goes wrong? I can put my finger on the moment the spell is broken. Historically, Mussolini emerged after World War I as a political force who eventually assumed power in 1922. At that point, Timi disappears from the film as the character Mussolini and instead we see true archival footage of … a balding, glowering, truly ugly middle-aged man.
In Vincere, the character Dalser — who has lost touch with Mussolini but is rearing young Benito — sees that same footage and renews her infatuation. That’s a stretch — most people would probably go, “Egad, thank God I’m not with him any longer; he’s really aged!” This creates a retroactive rupture in our suspension of disbelief. We can’t believe the character that Timi was playing could have turned into this so quickly.
From that point on, Mussolini isn’t really an active character in Vincere. Instead, it becomes a luridly tragic melodrama about Dalser’s fate. She's separated from her son and put in an insane asylum, where naked women run around taunting and being chased by exasperated staff. The scenes are overwrought and corny (except for Mezzogiorno’s performance); even the weather is excessively melodramatic.
Meanwhile, her son grows into a young man — played by Timi — who flips out while imitating one of dad’s speeches and does a bizarre meltdown. It’s showcase acting, but you respond, “Huh? Where did that come from?” By now, Bellocchio has lost touch with whatever he originally had in mind and is just rushing toward an end. Grade: B-
CINCINNATI WORLD CINEMA presents Vincere at 7:30 p.m. May 19-20 at The Carnegie in Covington. A pre-screening social hour and post-screening discussion are held each night. Get details here.