Winning Is Everything, Isn’t It?
A review of Vincere, written and directed by Marco Bellocchio; produced by Offside and Celluloid Dreams; distributed in America by IFC Films.
Feminists began proclaiming that the personal is the political during those dreamy 70’s of the last century. This, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is a proposition that every sane person must resist. Those who accept it invariably contaminate their relationships—especially intimate ones—with a lethal dose of powermongering. Of course, this obvious consequence of turning individuals into political operatives didn’t deter the truly ideological feminists. More than anything else, they wanted to raise political questions within the precincts of the marriage state: Who’s in charge de facto, and who’s in charge de jure? They were on a campaign to stake their flag on the nuptial continent in order to rescue their male-colonized sisters regardless of whether they needed or wanted rescuing. In the process, they opened up a rich field of resentment to be tilled by spouses—both women and men—with real and imagined grievances. Of course, their ever-vigilant lawyers began staking claims of their own. When the primary nuptial concern is who has the power, you can forget about waiting until death do you part. Splitsville is no farther than the nearest courtroom.
Now consider the near inversion of the feminist proposition: The political can become the personal. It has infinitely more merit than its feminist obverse, for it is a salutary warning. Should you allow politics to invade your personal relations, you can expect trouble. Consider Hillary Clinton. What must her politicized personal life be like? Eros and politics make hideous bedfellows. But I’ll say no more of our favorite Arkansas couple, for I have a more astonishing nuptial specimen to address in Marco Bellocchio’s new film, Vincere, a compelling if not entirely reliable portrait of political power in action.
Bellocchio gives us a highly speculative account of Mussolini’s rise to power as seen through the eyes of his mistress Ida Dalser, who claimed to be the dictator’s wife and the mother of his son. Whatever the truth about Dalser, Bellocchio has made her a victim of politics and, thereby, an early feminist heroine.
The historical record indicates that Dalser began a relationship with Il Duce in 1914, when she was 34, and he 31. Thereafter, little is certain except that Dalser became an annoyance to the great man, so much so that his underlings, at his direction or on their own, sought to keep her away from him and out of the public eye—first, by virtual house arrest at her sister’s home, and then, by institutionalizing her for mental instability. To complete their task, they had one of Mussolini’s henchmen adopt her son, and he put the boy in boarding school out of Dalser’s reach.
Bellocchio has made of his version of Dalser both a prism and a subject. Using her imagined treatment at the hands of the fascist, he has portrayed Mussolini as at once charismatic and vicious, a man willing to use his considerable personal magnetism to seduce those useful to him and then discard them when they became inconvenient. In this account, Dalser becomes a proxy for Italians, the clay Mussolini would mold into his vision of the way things should be—which, of course, was his way.
When Dalser first meets Mussolini on the eve of the Great War, he’s a fiery socialist declaring his resistance to the capitalists and the nationalists he claims are driving all of Europe toward conflagration. He also roundly condemns the Roman Catholic Church for rendering ordinary people spinelessly obedient to the powers that be. At a political meeting in Milan, Dalser watches worshipfully as Mussolini demonstrates the folly of obedience to the ancien régime. When his turn to speak comes, he announces that he intends to challenge no less an authority than God Himself. He then gives the Almighty all of five minutes to strike him dead where he stands. If God doesn’t take this opportunity to rid the world of Mussolini’s magnificent impudence, his listeners will be forced to draw the obvious conclusion: The Old Guy doesn’t exist. Once his audience’s initial expression of outrage settles down, they watch in bemused silence as the minutes tick by. When Mussolini’s pocket watch has measured off the fateful five, the God-challenger still stands. “Time’s up; He doesn’t exist,” he concludes with a reassuring smile that not so subtly suggests that he’s ready to take over for the divine absentee. Bellocchio returns to this scene at the end of his film as if to remind us that God’s time rarely synchronizes with human time and, further, that tempting fate has a way of catching up with one, as Il Duce discovered. It’s a bravura moment in a film filled with them, but I found myself wondering if Mussolini actually pulled this stunt. This is a film of defiantly outsized gestures, but it’s also more than a little fanciful.
Filippo Timi plays the young Mussolini. With his gleaming coal-black eyes and serious mustache, he makes Il Duce a monster of self-regard. He’s a man who is ready to do or say whatever is needed to advance his cause, which is no more and no less than the advancement of himself. He changes his politics as casually as he might change his socks. After he divested himself of his original pacific views, he came to regard war as a grand opportunity to reclaim Italy’s ancient glory. We see him shouting down his former allies, who demand that Italy stay out of the war. This dramatization seems perfectly plausible. But Bellocchio oversteps the bounds of probability when he has Mussolini declare that “war is the health of the state.” Unless he was a clairvoyant as well as a tyrant, it’s unlikely he would have come up with the same apothegm, word for word, written a year later in an essay by the American radical Randolph Bourne. Not only is the chronology off; so is the intent. Bourne was being darkly ironic. His point was that the state often wages war unwarrantably to manipulate its population. Threatened by outside forces, people tend to become more tractable in the hopes that their cooperation with their leaders will fend off the enemy. It’s the weapons-of-mass-destruction syndrome. That Bourne’s jibe perfectly expresses Mussolini’s strategy doesn’t quite excuse Bellocchio’s carelessness with facts.
As Dalser, the delicate-featured Giovanna Mezzogiorno hasn’t the heavy chin and thick body of the real woman, but she is nevertheless impressive, whether robed or, as it often happens, not. Her infatuation with Mussolini is absolute. When he loses his reporter’s position at the socialist newspaper Avanti!, she sells everything she has, including the beauty salon she had owned and run in Milan. She then awaits him, naked next to the pile of money she has raised. Did this happen, or is this Bellocchio’s perfervid imagination at work once more? Their lovemaking is similarly fraught with questions. Did Mussolini really stare into the middle distance as if contemplating his glorious future while he performed conjugally with the adoring Ida underneath him, her eyes soulfully focused on her hero at work? Does it matter? Isn’t it just one more operatic flourish in the cause of the greater truth? Here’s the rub: Bellocchio clearly wants to dismantle Mussolini’s recently rehabilitated reputation. He especially wants to indict him for manipulating the Italian masses. This being the case, wouldn’t it have been better if he had not so brazenly tried to manipulate his own mass audience?
One of the best features of the film is its use of newsreels from the period. Once Mussolini leaves Dalser about a third of the way into the narrative, Timi disappears. In his place, we get the real Duce passing by in motorcades, making speeches from balconies and pacing about at his leisure, chin jutted, lip curled, and chest pumped. What a comic spectacle is the real thing! No one who has seen these newsreels can have avoided the question: How could such a clownish man have compelled fascistic allegiance from the usually individualistic, skeptical Italians? Could it be that the popularity of opera, with its over-the-top histrionics, had prepared Italy to take seriously such a grotesque hero? Whatever the case, the contrast between Timi and the real thing is startling. Timi is quite handsome, his refined features evident despite his scowling, glaring, and mustachioed impersonation of the young Mussolini. This may be deliberate. After all, Bellocchio wants us to be shocked by the disparity between personal and public personae. It’s a way of emphasizing how the introduction of politics into personal life can distort, even maim, the individual. Certainly Dalser was maimed, and as dramatized, her suffering and anger are moving. Yet one cannot help wondering why she didn’t acquiesce to the inevitable. The Leader was never going to do her right. Bellocchio seems to be saying that she was obsessed with the political component of her devotion. The political had so thoroughly colonized her personal life that she couldn’t surrender hope for the power that she would have gained had Mussolini acknowledged her claims.
More affecting than Dalser’s pain is that of her son, Benito. Here Bellocchio has made an interesting choice and created the best moments in the film. He’s had Timi shave his young Mussolini mustache to play the son who was to die at 27 in a mental ward after what has been reported to be suspicious treatments. As Il Duce, Timi is somewhat monochromatic, because he is playing a driven, monomaniacal man whose default attitude is either staring or glaring beyond anyone around him as he contemplates the destiny that awaits him. But as the son, Timi presents us with an unnerving spectacle. In what has to be understood as a defensive tactic, young Benito takes to mocking his father’s oratorical performances. As he and his friends listen to his father’s broadcasts blaring from speakers positioned ubiquitously in parks and on promenades, he begins to imitate the old man, exaggerating but only slightly his inflections, his pauses, his head nodding. He even imitates the cheers of Il Duce’s adoring crowds, opening his mouth as widely as possible and letting out a ghostly, hissing roar. It’s an eerie, dismaying performance; his face is contorted so that we can’t tell whether he is engaging in mockery or about to have a nervous breakdown. It’s instructive that his friends stop paying attention after a minute or two, as if the spectacle is too much to bear—as, indeed, I found it myself. It’s the perfect instance of the political dominating the personal. The result is horrible to behold. Vincere means “to win,” but we’re left to contemplate what’s lost.
This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.