Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Love and Ideology: Vincere

She loved him as an atheist socialist and she loved him as a militant fascist, but he did her wrong. Though his outward appearance altered considerably, the man—Il Duce himself—remained the basically the same manipulator, at least as represented in Marco Bellocchio’s passionate drama Vincere (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

While it is a generally accepted historical fact that Ida Dalser and Benito Mussolini were lovers, the details of her life are largely shrouded in mystery, just as the Fascist dictator had intended. When she first met him, he was a fervent leftist, rioting on the streets for the cause of Socialism. It was the man that attracted Dasler though, not his ideology.

Though still professing an ardent faith in Socialism, Mussolini breaks with the party over his fiery support for the Italian war effort, which he prophesizes will become an effective vehicle for the workers’ revolution (one could even argue Russia proved his point). Utterly transfixed by his magnetism, Dasler liquidates her fashion emporium to finance Mussolini’s war-mongering Socialist newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, the eventual mouthpiece of the Fascist party.

Not being a hypocrite at least, Mussolini enlists, but was eventually wounded in action. Rushing to visit him in the hospital, Dasler finds another woman claiming to be Mussolini’s wife at his side. At this point, her life got difficult. When Dasler presses her claim on Mussolini, she and Benito Albino, the son he had once acknowledged, find themselves consigned to convents, monasteries, and asylums to protect Il Duce’s reputation, even though Vincere suggests everyone knew everything anyway.

Bold and sweeping, Vincere resembles grand opera with the arresting Giovanna Mezzogiorno singing all the arias as Dalser. We watch in horror as her obsessive love makes her crazy, but not insane. It is a scary, bravura screen performance. Conversely, Filippo Timi is an icy screen presence. His Mussolini is a stone user, regardless which dogma he championed. Indeed, Vincere is a direct challenge to preconceived notions of labels and their efficacy, inviting the question, what really was the difference between Mussolini the socialist and Mussolini the fascist?

Of course, within the context of Vincere, such terms have enormous import. Bellocchio brilliantly transports the audience to an overheated early twentieth century Italy, where every debate could ignite bloody mayhem. It is a hot house world, obsessed with ideology and propaganda, from news reels to underground broadsheets produced in dark, smelly cellars. Ultimately, it is power over the printed word that damns Dalser to obscurity, even though nobody seriously doubts her story.

Daniele Cipri’s stylistically dazzling cinematography combines film noir with Grand Guignol, almost overwhelming viewers with its visual power. Bellocchio also shows a genuine talent for staging a riot, but he does so in service of a story that critiques extremist ideology rather than celebrating it. This is big filmmaking, yet it is a handful of key scenes that burn themselves into one’s memory, like that of the dictator’s shunned son impersonating his father with such intensity he literally froths at the mouth.

A lot of loaded terms could be thrown at Vincere, like proto-feminist or post-ideological, but it is also high drama rendered exquisitely on-screen. Exhausting in a good way, it opens Friday (3/19) in New York at the IFC Center.