A couple of years ago, while serving on a jury at a small Italian film festival sponsored by an organization devoted to promoting “spiritual cinema,” I was asked by a couple of eager volunteers to name my favourite living Italian filmmakers. When I responded “Ermanno Olmi,” the choice was met with approving glances and nods. When I followed with “Marco Bellocchio,” a queasy silence fell upon the room, as if I had just uttered the name of the Devil incarnate.
Perhaps I had. Certainly, the only spirits with whom Bellocchio has concerned himself over the course of his long, varied (in subject) but ultimately single-minded (in intent) career have been the ones writhing, bellowing, and otherwise raging against staid bourgeois morality, religious hypocrisy, and other forms of blind ideological obeisance. Nor has Bellocchio ever seemed cheap or opportunistic in his full-frontal assault on everything institutional Italy (and much of the civilized world) holds dear. His torrential angry-young-man debut, Fists in the Pocket (1965), has lost little of its sting or its mordant humour in the decades since Bellocchio made it. And if time has witnessed a gradual shift in Bellocchio’s sensibilities, away from the unbridled anarchy of youth and towards something resembling circumspection—as evidenced by the sympathetic portrait of the kidnapped Aldo Moro in Good Morning, Night (2003) and for the sane brother in My Mother’s Smile (2002)—it has dulled none of his innate distrust of church and , state and family.
Now, at 69, Bellocchio has capped a remarkable, decade-long comeback with Vincere, a historical biography of sorts that traces the rise to power of Benito Mussolini from the perspectives of his first wife, Ida Dalser (played by the excellent Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and their son, Benito Albino Mussolini, both of whom spent much of their respective lives tucked away in asylums after Mussolini (who was on record as being Benito’s father) denied any relation to them. The film, which was one of the freshest and most vital—and certainly the most unjustly neglected (by the jury)—in this year’s Cannes Competition, opens with Mussolini the young socialist denying the existence of God and climaxes two hours later with the 1929 creation of the Papal State, in between touching on all of Bellocchio’s pet themes, including mass media as a propaganda tool, which harks backwhich lends the film a specific kinship to his 1973 newspaper film Slap the Monster on Page One; the idea of a “secret” pregnancy directly recalls the opening shot of Fists.
Formally, the film ranks among his boldest, from the newsreel and propaganda film excerpts that impishly interrupt the narrative to the fascist slogans (of which the title is one) writ large across the screen, Bellocchio revelling in the timeless entanglement of politics, the press, and the madding crowd. Time and again in Vincere, Bellocchio shows us people going to the movies—even the war-wounded, on their backs in a church—leaving us to ponder whether the greater fiction is the one unfolding on the flickering screen or the one they’ve momentarily abandoned in the street. Yet, as in many previous Bellocchios, family is the director’s prism of choice for viewing this stranger-than-fiction tale of life under Il Duce—a typical Bellocchio family, brimming with madness all around. Perhaps most surprising is that the director, who has devoted several films to literal or figurative matricidal fantasies, here embraces his central mother figure as a heroic free thinker deserving of our greatest respect and admiration. Indeed, he gives us a mother you don’t have to be a fascist to love.
Cinema Scope: You’ve talked about being drawn to the story of Ida Dalser because of her uncompromising nature, and I’m wondering if one of the reasons for that affinity is your own five decades as an outsider figure, stoking the ire of the bourgeois ruling class.
Marco Bellocchio: I don’t have such a heroic vision of myself. The thing that fascinated me most was this resistance seen in the body and the mind of a woman. As far as your question is concerned, I can say that in my research as a filmmaker and also as a man, I thought that I should not compromise and that a sort of integrity should be the label of my professional but also personal path. So there was this need for integrity. The difference in Dalser’s case is quite simple: it’s one thing to be the hero, the masculine hero—our Italian history has been disseminated by many martyrs, but they were all men, like Gramsci, the Rosselli brothers, Amendola, Gobetti. They were men who sacrificed their lives to the struggle against Mussolini. In this case, we have a small woman, of the middle class, the middle cultural class, who does not accept being abandoned by Il Duce. She doesn’t submit to the role of a refused woman, and for this she rebels and struggles against him.
Scope: Vincere is your second recent film, following Good Morning, Night in 2003, set during a crucial moment in 20th century Italian political history. Why look back now at these two periods?
Bellocchio: Whereas in Good Morning, Night the kidnapping and the murder of Aldo Moro was something I experienced directly as an Italian, as a spectator, with this story I was emotionally struck by the character of Ida, by the life experiences she had. If you want, she is a minor character in the Italian history of that time, but this woman lived a sort of melodrama life. Her life contains all the melodramatic elements, because she lived such extreme experiences. She was the lover of one of the most powerful Italian men in history. She had a child from him. She was refused. She was neglected. She opposed him. She was put in a mental hospital—her child as well. All the ingredients are there. It’s the typical case in my opinion of what people mean when they say reality goes well beyond imagination.
Scope: The film, in turn, has an operatic, melodramatic style. It’s also a movie in which people are constantly watching movies, communicating through movies. Early on, there is a fight between pro- and anti-fascist partisans in a cinema, the shouting men becoming like a living newsreel in front of the flickering screen. When Ida has been completely cut off from Mussolini, her only interaction with him is through filmed images. And there is a remarkable scene in which the institutionalized Ida watches Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and implicitly relates the Little Tramp’s separation from his “son” to her own predicament.
Bellocchio: Yes, it’s true—it’s a movie about cinema. But in my works, I always try to be faithful to history, and I didn’t want to lose myself by insisting on this element of highlighting cinema. On the contrary, I tried to be very futurist, in the sense that futurism focuses on speed. It’s not such a quick movie, but it has a certain speed in any case. For me, the movie within the movie is a fascinating element, because that was the time of silent movies, the discovery of the cinema, and the cinema was a sort of popular show. The cinema at that time had the power to affect the masses—the same power that nowadays television has. Cinema has now become sort of an aristocratic art devoted to a minority, to an elite. And now, who has the power on TV has the real power.
Scope: Like a certain Italian gentleman whose name we probably don’t even have to mention.
Bellocchio: Yes, but it’s interesting to note that in other countries of the world there have also been TV people who became prime ministers, so this is not only an Italian phenomenon.
Scope: But there is a sense in Vincere that even real life is a kind of cinematic delusion. At one point, Ida’s psychiatrist says to her, “This is the time to be quiet, to be actors.”
Bellocchio: The message that the psychiatrist gives to Ida is a sort of theatrical message, like when Hamlet gives his directions to the actors. He knows that she’s not mentally ill. She’s a clever woman. But she is too much of a rebel, and it is not the right time to behave like this, because fascism is dominating everything. She must understand the extant power relationships. This also is an element of mental health—recognizing what you can and can’t do in a certain situation. So what he says to her is that she has to try to be an actor, because this is the right time to do it, and the time to speak freely will come.
Scope: He also says, “You don’t think fascism will last for ever,” and she doesn’t answer. Has the time to speak freely come yet?
Bellocchio: It’s true that fascism has many facets. In Italy now, we are used to saying that there is a sort of authoritative democracy, which is a contradiction in terms. But we still say that there is democracy, even if it is authoritative.
Scope: Within the film, you constantly reference wartime propaganda, from the title Vincere, which means “Win,” and many other such slogans that appear as onscreen text, often juxtaposed against fragments of period newsreels and propaganda films.
Bellocchio: One point that’s important to highlight about these slogans is that I invented none of them. All of those are actual fascist slogans. And when you see the historical images of the Italian victory in World War I, the writings on the screen are the actual newspaper headlines from that time. Also, at that time, you had the silent movies, and these capital-letter slogans projected on the screen was a way of communicating, since there was no sound. This is why they used such strong expressions, like “Either You Win Or You Die” or “March Or Rot”—that was a futurist slogan. Everything has a historical root. When you see a group of women breast-feeding their children, this is from a fascist documentary, and the slogan is “Towards the People.”
Scope: Like many of your films, this one can also be classified as a family drama—a strange family, admittedly, but perhaps no less functional than the family of epileptics in Fists in the Pocket, the family of atheists and opportunistic believers in My Mother’s Smile, or the family of terrorists in Good Morning, Night.
Bellocchio: We have to say that the family, as an institution, has undergone a serious crisis over the last several decades. At the same time, all the possible alternatives to family as an institution were defeated. So, now we are attempting to restore the family as a basic institution of society and trying to adopt different forms of it. As far as I’m concerned personally, I grew up in a typical Italian, post-fascist, middle-class family with eight kids. In a certain sense, I think I experienced the worst of family life. My family was not completely negative, but I had negative experiences with some advantages—not just material ones, but cultural ones—and I think in my movies this sort of negative background sometimes appears.