Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vincere ****

Director: Marco Bellocchio
Cast: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi
Corrado Invernizzi, Michela Cescon, Fausto Russo Alesi

History has a way of forgetting people and events that don't fit into their books. One of these people was Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno) the woman who married and gave birth to Benito Mussolini's (Timi) first son.
She's the subject of Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere", a rousing operatic masterpiece which narrates the story of a country through a single character.
When the film begins Dalser is the wide eyed ingenue who falls in love with Mussolini's enormous presence. She stares at him full of pride as he defies God in front of a Socialist party assembly and then submits to his powerful sexuality which overcomes her body but remains distant from her heart.
He thrusts into her, perhaps thinking of his Napoleonic dreams, while she moans and softly whispers "I love you".
When Dalser sells all her belongings to get him the money to start a newspaper, she clarifies "it's not a sacrifice, it's a joy...I love you".
He takes the money and declares he will pay back, never returning the affection. It's not a surprise then when he marries Rachele Guidi (Cescon) and disowns both Ida and her child who she named after his father.
The surprise, to Ida at least, might be that he also disowns his leftist past and his marriage and new family are his way to try and please the Catholic church which he once repudiated.
She moves to her hometown where she's kept in practical imprisonment by the Fascists who send her to a mental asylum and take her son away from her.
The movie then turns into this woman's quest to regain her child and the sanity she never lost to begin with, but "the Church is the only mother fascism stills fear" she learns as the years go by and her claims are drowned between wars and political upheaval.
Carlo Crivelli's overpowering score serves to give the film a disquieting, haunting mood. Sometimes you're almost expecting Mezzogiorno to burst into a heartbreaking aria as the emotions accumulate.
Her performance of heartbreak and pride are the film's anchor, watching the way she modulates her emotions feels like a privilege.
History made an effort of erasing most proof of Ida's story, but the actress brings her to urgent life; her passion is evident in erotic scenes and in more quiet moments when she sees her whole world crumble within her.
But Mezzogiorno does more than that; she fully embodies both the woman and the symbol as the film offers various readings.
There's the biopic of impotence and sorrow, but there's also the other one in which the actress embodies Italy throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
With a stunning mastery of his craft, Bellochio-who also wrote the screenplay-makes sure that whichever way we watch the movie we will be witnesses of the specific and the general.
During the first hour or so he let's us see why Ida fell in love with Mussolini (Timi's work is majestic) as he presents himself with the charm and tenacity of a hero.
When he speaks of Napoleon we do not see the eventual insanity of the Emperor, but the nationalist idealism which got him started.
Ida, like the rest of the country, falls for Il Duce (although she later reminds us she came first) only to have him become a monster.
Bellochio cleverly makes Timi disappear from the film's latter half, as Mussolini became a figure of power.
When first we saw him in meetings, street protests and intimate encounters, he's later represented as an icon of epic proportions.
"I saw Mussolini today" says Ida to a surprised listener, but she clarifies "on the movie screen, he looks different, like a giant".
How did the man she loved become like a deity is something she asks herself, but also Bellochio's reminder to us that every political current came from a single tiny point.
During the rest of the movie we only see Il Duce through stock footage (although it's a compliment to Timi's splendid work that we might wonder if it's not him under disguise at times) as he addresses Italians and later Nazis.
Bellochio also provides us with a more benevolent look at the Italy that took in the dictator; he asks us if like Ida, in a latter scene, the country wasn't just lying and going with the current to protect itself from Fascism's tortures and horrors?
This also offers an option for what results one of the film's most profound examinations, which is the role of the media in creating history.
This isn't only obvious from the historical footage the director uses, instead it's what we don't see what lingers the most.
Would Italy have welcomed a man who sent his wife to a mental institution, would Mussolini's pact with the Vatican even have happened if this had become a known fact?
Because Mussolini is on film and Ida never was, Il Duce could make up his own public profile as he wished and we are left only with what Bellocchio offers.
No disservice to the director, because his film provokes the audience to look beyond propaganda. It's certainly ironic, or maybe not so much once you think about it, how the filmmaker recurs to violent, clashing images to edit his work.
"Vincere" is comprised of cuts that recall Eisenstein's most powerful work and can also be used as a compendium of how cinema evolved in its earlier ages (from Monumentalism to Chaplin, Bellocchio shapes his film after known works of the era).
Some of the first scenes occur inside theaters where a single piano accompanies the action on the screen. In one of the most striking scenes, the audience begins to react to what's going on in the movie and the room becomes divided into the two predominant political thoughts.
As they go beyond booing and actually begin to fight, cinematographer Daniele Ciprì shoots them against the light and they too become shadows projected in the movie screen.
Notice how the accompanist never stops playing the piano-establishing there might no difference between the reality on the screen and the reality in the movie we're watching- stating that we can never know for sure what will eventually be deemed important enough to become immortal in the medium.

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