The title of Marco Bellocchio's new film translates as "win" onscreen, but it seems like it should be "WIN!" There's an imperative quality to the term that we see incarnated in the movie's two main characters: ambitious socialist agitator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Ida Dalser. Benito will accept nothing short of winning total power; politics is his only alternative to what he knows would be a life of mediocrity in the arts or any other profession. Ida will accept nothing short of Benito's total commitment to her, his reciprocation of her total dedication to him. But it's not going to happen. Despite her sacrifices to support him when he breaks with the Workers' Party and loses his editorial job over his support for Italy's entry into World War I -- she sells most of her possessions to provide him capital for starting his own newspaper -- he starts to cut her off as his rise to power requires him to maintain a respectable image with his jealous wife. But Ida refuses to compromise, even when it would make the difference between freedom and imprisonment in an insane asylum. If anything, she maximizes her demands: she insists on being recognized as Il Duce's wife and the mother of his first-born son. Like her erstwhile lover, she demands all or nothing -- but gets nothing. Bellocchio's suggestion at the end, however, is that all who gamble as big as they did -- all who tempt fate -- lose in the end.
Marco Bellocchio has been directing features in Italy for 45 years now, rising from a wunderkind to one of the Italian film industry's elder statesmen. I haven't seen many of his films, but 2003's Good Morning, Night, his account of the Aldo Moro kidnapping, is one of my favorite movies of the late decade. Vincere takes a drastically different approach to history, though the two films have in common the perspective of a relatively peripheral female character. The new film has the feel of an old-fashioned biopic, enhanced for modern sensibilities by nudity and sex scenes featuring the young, studly mustachioed Mussolini (Fillippo Timi) and the attractive Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). It aspires only occasionally to epic style, albeit on a small scale. There's one well done scene that shows an air raid (?) on Milan; as smoke fills an arcade, you see handfuls of people hurrying and stumbling through in panic as Ida placidly pushes her stroller along. There's a more satiric sequence in which a fight breaks out between anti-war socialists and Mussolini's patriots in a movie theater. Bellocchio shows us the silhouette of a brawl in front of newsreel footage of the war as the theater pianist doggedly plays a martial tune.
This is as good a time as any to mention the role of music and movies in this film. Benito and Ida are operatic in their passion, and the socialists and fascists as a whole seem operatic in their political passion. We hear snippets of opera on the soundtrack and characters sing what I presume to be either opera arias or patriotic songs of the period. Music suffuses most of the movie, but I'm not literate enough in Italian music to tell how much comes from credited composer Carlo Crivelli and how much is classical sampling. It's very florid and feverish to fit the spirit of the time, and Vincere itself is operatic in its subject matter of a spurned lover and her son cast into madhouses. As time marches on, this operatic atmosphere yields to the more modest accompaniment you usually got for silent films, pianos or accordions. The moving image looms large in the film, from newsreels to a Passion Play to Chaplin's The Kid (for which a pianist miraculously approximates the score Chaplin himself would record nearly fifty years later). Most important, eventually, are newsreel images of the real Benito Mussolini, from silent shots of the leader rassling with a lion cub to sound footage of a typical Thirties oration. I'm not sure about this, but my gut feeling is that Bellocchio means to show the extent of Mussolini's totalitarian domination, so that his voice and his image crowd out all the opera and imagery of the past. It may also just illustrate the totality of Ida's obsession with the man.
The use of Mussolini as both fictional and historical character is a challenging aspect of the movie. At a certain point, Fillippo Timi withdraws from the film, and from that point the only Mussolini we see is the real one in newsreel form. It's probably the most drastic way to illustrate the complete break between Benito and Ida, and it forces us to focus on her for the rest of the film as someone cut off from what she thinks is her proper place in history. Bellochio sees no need to have Timi shave his head or put on weight because Mussolini has refused to remain a character in Ida's story. The actor returns in the third act, however, as Ida's college-age son, Benitino. The boy has been raised alone in an orphanage for most of his life but hasn't been broken of his mom's conviction that he's the son of Il Duce. When we see him grown, however, it looks like this claim has become little more than a joke. Benitino's classmates goad him into doing a Mussolini impersonation in public that gets him thrown into a madhouse. He's the most tragic illustration of Mussolini's pervasive imposition of his own will over Italy, as we last see him raving in an imitation of the leader speaking German.
Vincere is the sort of film that I don't feel certain of after one viewing. Bellocchio seems to be aiming for a complex effect, and I'm not really sure if the payoff justifies the effort. I'd say it's worth seeing for the acting by Timi and Mezzogiorno, and for often-eloquent images crafted by the director and cinematographer Daniele Cipri. But if you're looking for the Benito Mussolini story or some explication of Italian fascism, this is the wrong film for you. It's mainly the story of two people caught up in the passions of a cultural moment and the comeuppance that comes eventually to both of them. At the end, Bellocchio returns to the scene that opened the film: Benito is taking part in a public debate on the existence of God. He uses a cheap trick to refute God, challenging the deity to strike him down within five minutes and claiming victory when time runs out as Ida looks on admiringly. I don't think the director is saying that they suffered later for their sacrilege then, but coming back to this implies at least a "don't tempt fate" moral that Bellocchio can't mean -- can he? Maybe he's just trying to be ironic. I invite global film fans to watch and judge for themselves.
But watch the IFC Films trailer first, as uploaded to YouTube by CinemaItaly: