Friday, March 19, 2010

Stunning History

Filippo Timi, center, & Giovanna Mezzogiorno in VINCERE (Photo: Daniele Musso/IFC Films)

Filippo Timi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno

Directed by
Marco Bellocchio
Written by Bellocchio & Daniela Ceselli, based on a story idea by Bellocchio

At age 70, Marco Bellocchio—whose highly charged dramas have been taking Italy’s social, political, and moral pulse for 45 years—is showing no signs of slowing down. A master director enjoying a late-career renaissance, Bellocchio populates his unabashedly left-leaning films with equally committed individuals, usually exploring love affairs or other obsessive relationships.

Vincere, his latest film, is yet another stunning re-examination of Italian history. Bellocchio tells the little-known true story of Ida Dalser, a beautiful, intelligent woman who was Mussolini’s lover and bore him a son before he became the fascist leader of Italy, whereupon both she and her son were erased from Il Duce’s life and, consequently, history itself.

Intense, gregarious, and thought-provoking from its opening credits, Vincere finds Bellocchio in his usual expressionist mode, freely intercutting actual newsreel footage of Mussolini alongside this riveting tale of a real-life heroine fighting against all odds for her and her son’s lives. The director also throws up gargantuan title cards that threaten to swallow up the screen as we see words like “VINCERE" (win), “SARAJEVO,” and “GUERRA" (war) functioning as a kind of Greek chorus.

As he did in his 2004 fantasia about the kidnapping and killing of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, Good Morning, Night, Bellocchio boldly transforms historical events into a visual and aural symphony, making many demands on his viewers by deliberately confusing chronology and marrying his odd, acrobatic camera angles and movements to the strains of audaciously chosen musical cues.

In the earlier film, it was Pink Floyd. Here, along with Carlo Crivelli’s original score, Bellocchio utilizes choral passages from Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten. Much of Glass’s music is mind-numbingly repetitive, but an inspired Bellocchio has taken these soaring voices and given his film another layer of irresistible, if reckless, stylization. If it seems strange to describe Vincere as operatic in the Puccini or Verdi mold despite its indelible imagery being accompanied by an early 1980s American opera, well, so be it.

Bellocchio has obviously reached the point in his career where he can make any film he wants, however he wants. His previous film, The Wedding Director, had a willfully illogical and dream-like structure that paid scant attention to characterization and motivation. Vincere takes this to an even greater extreme, with frequent (and jarring) tonal shifts that are reminiscent of another memorable Italian film, Lina Wertmuller’s audacious Seven Beauties (1975), a similarly go-for-baroque masterpiece.

Like Seven Beauties, which was anchored by Giancarlo Giannini’s superlative performance, Vincere works so marvelously well because of Bellocchio’s invaluable casting of Giovanna Mezzogiorno to lead us through Ida’s tragic tale. This fabulously expressive actress—whose face is illuminated by the most dazzling pair of hazel eyes in cinema—is the prime focus of Bellocchio’s camera. Even in a film with so many images that burn themselves onto your retina, the most unforgettable of all is an astonishingly long take of Mezzogiorno’s face as Ida takes her seat in front of a skeptical, inquisitive, and hectoring group of doctors. In this sequence, the actress puts on an initially brave face, then runs through the emotions of befuddlement, sorrow, defiance, surrender, and, finally, resignation. It is a brave, emotionally naked piece of acting in collaboration with Italy’s most fearless and fiery filmmaker.
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