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Eh, Duce: A Review of Vincere

March 31, 2010

Vincere tells the sad story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, C), the woman who claimed to be Mussolini's (Filippo Timi, L) first wife.

I have not seen any of Marco Bellocchio’s previous films, but with Vincere, he can lay claim to being the Italian Oliver Stone. Commence debate over whether that’s an insult or a compliment–and to whom.

Displaying the same stylistic inventiveness and political heavy-handedness that mark Stone’s films, Vincere tells the sad story of Ida Dalser, Benito Mussolini’s first “wife.” I use quotes because a marriage certificate has never been found; whether it was destroyed by Fascists, lost during one of the wars or never existed in the first place is unknown. This should give you some sense of the speculative nature of Bellocchio’s enterprise—linking the film epistemologically, if not politically, with Stone’s JFK, Nixon and W.

Many details of Dalser’s and Mussolini’s relationship are sketchy, but it’s known they met during his days as a young socialist agitator before World War I. Bellocchio imagines them first crossing paths while Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is on the run from the police in Trent in 1907, and then meeting again when Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) spots him leading an antiwar march in Milan in 1914. The context is political, but the attraction is purely sensual. Dalser is turned on by Mussolini’s courage, his danger and his intense eyes, not his ideology. They don’t even speak until after they have sex in Milan.

Just after they reach climax, they hear explosions outside Dalser’s apartment. Chiseled and naked, Mussolini marches to the balcony to revel in the outbreak of war. He imagines crowds of thousands cheering his arrival, black-and-white footage of a real Fascist rally providing materiality to his vision. I’d call it a delusion of grandeur if it weren’t so prophetic.

Seeing the Great War as an opportunity for Italy (and by ontological extension, himself) to ascend to greatness, Mussolini breaks with the socialists. In a clamorous Party meeting—is there any other kind?—he voices a nascent form of his new ideology. It is as incoherent as it is self-serving. “You hate me only because you still love me,” he says as former comrades berate him.

The mood for the film’s opening act is nothing less than a fever dream. Bellocchio films Timi like a horror movie villain, his unblinking eyes staring through Dalser as his chin hovers near his chest, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Mezzogiorno is practically mute, a caricature of possessive and loyal Italian womanhood. While Mussolini describes his ambitions for Italy, Dalser ties his shoe. Eisenstein-ian montages of newsreel footage and animated soldiers describe major historical events. Underlying—or is it overwhelming?–it all is a bombastic opera soundtrack by Carlo Crivelli. Bellocchio’s audacious pastiche of sound and styles is intoxicating, appropriate for a time when Mussolini was as intoxicated with power as Dalser was with Mussolini.

But their affair is not quite what it seems. Dalser sells all her possessions to finance Mussolini’s populist newspaper only to learn that he already has a wife and daughter. Turns out Dalser is pregnant as well. The more his power and reputation increase, the more distance he seeks from Dalser. Fed up with her hysterical attempts to win him back, Mussolini has her thrown into an insane asylum.

Bellocchio’s aim here is not to humanize Mussolini, or Dalser. Rather, he wants to draw an analogy between Dalser’s devotion to her lover and Italy’s embrace of Mussolini. Both relationships, Bellocchio is suggesting, are based in an irrational attraction to power and self-confidence. This is both an indictment of the Italian national character, and an excuse. On the one hand, it suggests the Italian people were bamboozled by Mussolini’s seductive strength; on the other, it effaces the real political and social needs that Mussolini served.

Once Dalser is imprisoned, the tone of the film downshifts from fever dream to mild headache. Dispensing with the operatic flourishes of the opening act, the last two-thirds of the film are a melodramatic account of Dalser’s attempts to win recognition for her and her son. We never see the charismatic Timi play Mussolini again. Instead, Bellocchio includes quite a bit of footage of the real Mussolini. In a bold—if ideologically overbearing—bit of casting, Timi returns late in the film to play a young adult version of Dalser’s and Mussolini’s son. He’s not nearly as fearsome as his father, but he does do a killer impression of Il Duce for his fellow college students. Building on Mussolini’s prophecies of grandeur, the film asks: what are we to make of a society where the “mentally ill” have a clearer picture of reality than their caretakers?

As exciting—and insane—as the first act is, the film’s final two-thirds are equally tedious. Bellocchio’s purposefully one-dimensional portrayal of Dalser in the first act undermines his attempts to garner sympathy for her in the rest of the film. How, or why, are we to identify with a nearly mute, hysterical woman whose obstinance is matched only by her naivety? By the time she climbs the asylum gates to cast letters pleading her case (for the second time), we are supposed to be moved by her resolve in the face of persecution. I was just bored.

Bellocchio might claim that he never really wants the audience to empathize with Dalser, any more than he would want us to empathize with Fascist-era Italy. Fair enough. But if Bellocchio doesn’t want us to identify with Dalser’s suffering, why does he rein in his aesthetic audacity during Dalser’s imprisonment? Moreover, his analogy between Dalser and Italy is convincingly made during the first act—the second and third serve only to weaken the allegory by illustrating specifics of Dalser’s life that can’t be made to correspond to facts of Italian history. Bellocchio might see the film as a Brechtian biopic. I think of it more as failed melodrama.

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