Wednesday 12 May 2010

"Vincere": lust for glory

Here's a new way of getting at a dictator: go through their nearest and dearest. Marco Bellocchio's new historical drama Vincere observes Benito Mussolini's rise to power through the eyes (and other organs) of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Benito groupie turned stalker turned mistress turned spurned lover. The pair first cross paths in Trento in 1907, where Ida shelters Mussolini the aspirant politico (Filippo Timi) from a police baton charge and ends up with his (or somebody else's) blood on her hands. Seven years later, she hastily hands him her number during a demonstration and invites him back to her place. In the resultant tryst - held, with just the right level of symbolic significance, on the night war breaks out in Central Europe - the young Duce appears not to be looking at his lover, but out towards the future: it's the very definition of a powerfuck.

I should point out there is more sex in Vincere than perhaps you'd expect of a political biopic: say what you like about these fascists, they sure were horny. (Maybe it was the uniforms.) Emerging naked onto the balcony following his initial conquest of Ida, imagining the screaming hordes below, the trajectory Mussolini is set to follow becomes nakedly apparent, but there's equally a hint of destructive craziness in his lover's eyes: we see exactly how Ida's attracted to this strutting martinet, and where she's heading, too. Soon, she's selling all her possessions (including most of her clothes, natch) to fund her man's rabble-rousing newspaper. Turned on by reports of Benny's prowess in a duel, she throws himself at him once more - only to be turfed out of his office by Il Duce's associates. His wife and child have turned up at the front door. Uh-oh.

Vincere is operatic farce, played out on an underlit stage: the screen is flooded not with light but pools of darkness, from which the key players emerge - and into which they can, we soon learn, be disappeared. Bellocchio's theme is control: having become a threat to Benito's prospects, Ida is placed under house arrest and obliged to marry an alkaline bank manager, in the hope he will neutralise her more hysterical outpourings; the son she conceived with the leader is packed off to a remote tower (suggesting Mussolini was not so very different from some of the kings he wanted to overthrow), where he's told by one of the nuns "remember, everything we do is for your own good" - the watchwords of the fascist state.

Everything about the film is bold and declamatory, from the title (helpfully translated on screen as "WIN!") down through the fractured editing style that juxtaposes dramatised scenes with original newsreel footage. Bellocchio insists upon a formal violence to match the violence of the times: he pulls no punches. Mezzogiorno, a very beautiful and striking actress, is here shot to look pale and tired, as though - for one reason or another - she hasn't slept for decades; nevertheless, her Ida becomes as heroic as she was tragic: a Sophie Scholl figure, trailing marbles rather than pamphlets, who - during an assassination attempt on Mussolini's life - came this close to altering the course of history forever.

The director's eye for images and imagemaking remains as sharp as ever. That duel takes place against a backdrop of dark, satanic mills belching toxic smoke into the sky; in a military hospital-cum-church-cum-installation space, the wounded Benito projects himself into a silent film version of the Passion; Ida, meanwhile, finds a sorry form of catharsis watching Chaplin being separated from his charge in The Kid. The stylistic boldness isn't so far removed from Paolo Sorrentino's recent Andreotti hypothesis Il Divo, though here - as befits a film about control - it's been applied with far greater shrewdness. However wild its flourishes get, the newsreel grounds Vincere in reality; unlike Sorrentino's film, you couldn't ever mistake it for a pop video.

In this way, the film grasps the centrality of images (and the cinema, in particular) to the fascist project; it takes a propaganda tool, and turns it against those who once wielded it so dramatically. Towards the end, we see footage of the real Mussolini in such pomp - his jutting jaw and puffed-out chest screaming arrogance; the supreme ham, il ultimo windbag - you can't quite believe Bellocchio hasn't staged it himself. (In a further jolting touch, this clip is being watched by Benito Jr., now fully grown and played by the same actor we've watched as Benito - and who appears to be dating a young woman played, in a split-second appearance, by Mezzogiorno: a clever aside on how easily history can come to repeat itself.) Is Italian cinema now ready to address the country's past head-on, as German cinema has done so brilliantly of late? At the very least, Vincere provides us with all the ammunition one might need for a spin-off magazine or television series: anyone for Fascists' Wives?

Vincere opens nationwide from Friday.

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