By Damon Smith
Dir. Marco Bellocchio, Italy, IFC Films
Marco Bellocchio sets history a-twirl in the opening minutes of his Cannes-buzzed melodrama Vincere, cutting between set-ups in Trent 1907 and Milan 1914 and back again, tripping the wire on linear narrative with rapid-fire bursts of under-contextualized, nonsynchronous events. We are somewhere in time. A young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), then-editor of Avanti!, addresses a meeting of union representatives by challenging God to strike him dead. He gives the nonexistent deity five minutes to prove he exists. We get far less. Cut. Mussolini evades capture by embracing and passionately kissing a beautiful woman in the street. His blood stains her hand. Cut. Mussolini grinds away at his adoring lover, his ferocious, bulging eyes fixed at a distance far beyond the bedroom. Cut. Black flags unfurl from balcony windows. Cut. War is brewing. Flyers are distributed. Cut to archive. Soldiers march, warplanes roar overhead. Proto-fascist slogans blazon the screen in white scream type. Cut. Cut. Cut.
It’s a whiplash-inducing, noisily theatrical entrance for Il Duce, the full-throttle barrage of images emphasized by Carlo Cavelli’s fittingly bombastic orchestral score. History is thus spread into a thin paste, all the better for Bellocchio to smear it with broad strokes of impasto impressionism. Although Vincere tracks Mussolini’s rise to power, first as a rabble-rousing unionist and newspaper editor who declares that “war will turn the wheel of history with blood,” then as a decorated WWI combat hero, patron of Futurist art, and splenetic Fascist Party demagogue, the true subject of Bellocchio’s heavy-handed, downbeat melodrama is the beatific young woman glimpsed in each of those grandly staged sequences. Behind every great man of the world, as we now know, stands an unheralded gal. But in Vincere, which dramatizes the ignominious trials of Mussolini’s “secret wife,” the screws turn viciously for this sacrificial muse. And the exhilarating pulse of those initial set-ups—a confounding collision of incidents that finds Bellocchio cribbing a bit of stylistic bravado from Il Divo’s Paolo Sorrentino—soon gives way to a study in isolation and mindless masochism which we’re encouraged to read as the ultimate resistance.
Obsessive, impassioned, selfless, and in thrall to Mussolini’s charismatic, uber-masculine aura, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno)—about whom we receive hardly a whisper of biographical information—repeatedly declares her love and fidelity to the budding tyrant, listens adoringly to his public and private rants (“It is my destiny to be different,” he confides), and sells all her worldly possessions when he’s ousted from Avanti! to help underwrite his burgeoning newspaper venture, Il Popolo d’Italia. (Mussolini, ever mindful of socialist duty, insists on writing her an IOU.) They christen their child Benito Albino (Fabrizio Costella), who grows to become the spitting image of Daddy Duce. But in the flood of events that engulf their lives, all presented with the same frenetic, time-hopping technique, Dalser (only reputedly Mussolini’s first wife, since no marriage certificate has ever been found) is spurned by her ambitious lover, who marries Rachele (Michela Cescon) after returning from the front. In one scene, he roars at Dalser from his makeshift hospital bed in a church where a film about the Crucifixion unspools on a gigantic screen overhead. Thus commences Ida’s Passion, as she’s vilified as an enemy of state, then arrested and confined to a nuthouse for eleven years by Fascist authorities, never to see her son again, for declaring with the power of unshakable faith that Mussolini is her husband.
The history of cinema is littered with the corpses of martyred women. None are as iconic, perhaps, as Jeanne d’Arc, whose filmic spirit Bellocchio labors to evoke in close-ups of Mezzogiorno’s pained, Falconetti-like visage, as she squares off against nuns, doctors, and magistrates. These sequences are effective, even moving at times. The question remains whether Dalser is worthy of such canonization or even whether Bellocchio’s conceptual gambit—which parallels her imprisonment and endless sufferings with archival glimpses of Mussolini’s comically grotesque grandstanding—should be read as a trenchant extended metaphor of mass misery under Fascism. (Timi’s Benito eventually disappears from the film, though the actor reappears as the dictator’s illegitimate grown son, who also perished in a sanatorium.) Recall Marx’s famous dictum, coined in the aftermath of despot Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’etat, that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In the ecstatic world of Vincere, about a bourgeois woman’s disastrous, self-destructive unwillingness to let go of the past, tragedy and farce coexist, and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. (The lovemaking scenes alone, enacting some bloodless gesture of “passion” for a few reviewers, played as hoot-inducing demonic pantomime to these eyes.)
Why otherwise sensible critics have seen fit to valorize this unnecessarily obscure, politically unintelligible film as some kind of virtuosic, late-career bellwether of Bellocchio’s mastery is something of a mystery. Auteurist sentiment is partially to blame: his 1965 Fists in the Pocket was a stunning debut, after all, and in the decades since, Bellocchio has taken square aim at bourgeois values with an impressive chain of angry salvos, at times resorting to bald provocation (Devil in the Flesh), at others exhibiting great sensitivity to history’s saints and sinners (My Mother’s Smile, Good Morning, Night). To be sure, the director’s a formidable film artist, technically accomplished and sensationally riveting when working at the top of his game. That’s part of what makes Vincere such a grandiose whiff. A younger filmmaker might be forgiven the flashy, combustive excesses of Vincere’s thunderous march through time, which neither advances a coherent vision of epoch-defining events nor does the hard work of establishing Dalser’s legitimacy as a saintly figure worthy of sustained empathy. It’s best approached as though evaluating a gifted scientist’s failed research experiment: with grade-inflating hope for the future.