Monday, April 26, 2010


Vincere is a magnificently melancholy metaphor of a movie. A poetic examination of Italy’s love affair with Benito Mussolini and his brand of Fascism, it refracts that story through the prism of Il Duce’s relationship with the woman who bore his first child and claimed to be his wife – a claim he denied.

As the movie begins, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is a firebrand of a young journalist. He doesn’t quite know what he’s for yet, but he’s against almost everything: the king, the Pope, even God himself. As he mesmerizes the audience at a debate where he’s arguing that there is no God, the camera picks up the rapt face and shining eyes of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno.)

The two are soon locked together like magnets. Ida leans into his kisses as if she’s dying of thirst and his mouth is a fountain, but his interest in her seems to be all about control and domination. Even when he takes to the street with his Socialist comrades to demand peace and justice, he sounds ferocious, bellowing until his neck turns ropy.

Their affair doesn’t last too long (no one knows just why it ended, and the movie leaves the details vague), but Dalser refuses to give up. Even after Mussolini takes up with another woman, eventually marrying her and claiming her publicly as his wife, Dalser insists that she is his wife and their son is his legitimate heir. When she starts writing letters to the pope and all the politicians she can think of, calling on them to pressure Mussolini to do the right thing by herself and her son, she is put under close surveillance and then confined in a mental hospital. Her son is then kidnapped from the sister she had appointed his guardian and given into the care of a Fascist bureaucrat who leaves him in a Catholic boarding school where we see him only on holidays, the only student there.

Mother and son pine away in parallel isolation, forbidden to see one another. (Playing the son as a young man, Timi creates a distorted-mirror image of the father, a discarded and damaged man who’s both pitiful and terrible.) Their very existence is denied by Il Duce, who has by then become the dictator of a mostly all-too-willing Italy. He seduces the populace as confidently as he seduces his women, enveloping them in an orgiastic atmosphere of nationalism and brutality before plunging the country into WWII as Hitler’s ally.

Writer-director Marco Bellocchio, who has served as a member of the Venice Film Festival jury, creates an impressionistic crescendo of emotion by layering together a series of densely textured, often nonlinear moments. He and cinematographer Daniele Ciprì draw us into a scene by focusing on tangible, often sensuous details. In one scene, Balser’s catchlit eyes, marcelled hair, and satin nightdress gleam in a dimly lit room as she succumbs to Mussolini . In another, she strides across a field to press her case with one of Mussolini’s trusted aides, then stops to put on dress shoes with busy, nervous hands.

There are many movies within this movie, attesting to the power of the image and to Mussolini’s canny use of propaganda. In newsreel footage from the time, we see the real Mussolini speechifying and playing with a lion cub, a trick he used to show off his courage. It’s fascinating to see the real Mussolini, but hard to imagine this stiff, obviously self-satisfied bully being as successful as seducer as the much more elastic and charismatic – and much better-looking – Timi.

The beautifully composed green- and blue-tinged images shot for the movie, along with its military score, create a tone of somber significance, while its frequent use of medium and long shots places its characters in context and makes their actions vivid. In one dreamlike setup, gunshots sound and smoke billows into a high-arched ancient walkway as people run first toward the camera and then away from it. Then Dalser emerges from the smoke, walking calmly toward us with her baby carriage. In that scene and several others characters are shown in silhouette or with faces obscured, amping up the drama even further.

We experience everything intensely, but we often don’t know what we’re seeing. In the scene in the arched walkway, for instance, we don’t know who’s running from the cops or just what they’re demanding or protesting.

Rather than detract from the power of the movie, however, that uncertainty enriches it, driving home Vincere’s message by example. Letting their emotions get whipped up for a poorly understood cause was what got Italians in trouble during the Fascist era, and her blind devotion to the lover who seduced and abandoned her was Dalser’s ultimate downfall.

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