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Marco Bellocchio, Vincere

An operatic look at the largely forgotten life and times of Benito Mussolini’s first wife Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), veteran Italian helmer Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere is a tragedy on scales both intimate and national. Il Duce’s transformation from a anti-war journalist to socialist rebel rouser to brutal fascist dictator is glimpsed through the lens of his misbegotten first marriage to Dalser, a beautiful and politically conscious Milano hair dresser who, enraptured by his charms and ideals, sells off her business and belongings to fund his early publishing efforts. However, in the wake of their marriage and the birth of their first child, Mussolini abandons her and reveals that in fact has another family already in tow. As his political fortunes rose in the wake of World War I, Mussolini stops at nothing to suppress his relationship with Dalser and their son. Following the spirited Dalser’s travails under her power drunk husband’s fascist dictatorship for nearly thirty years, Vincere tells the long suppressed tale of her internment and her interminable love for Italy’s all too flawed leader.

A spry seventy years of age, Marco Bellocchio shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He manages to move with authority from politically charged drama to comedies of manners with ease. Over the four decades since he first burst on the Italian cinema scene with 1965’s Fists in the Pocket he has built a solid if not outsized reputation internationally, but his late period has produced an unusual number of gems. His latest wound its way around the international festival circuit following its Cannes bow in much the same way his fantastic look at the Italy’s Red Brigades, Good Morning, Night did in 2003 and his The Wedding Director did in 2006.

Vincere opens on Friday at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

Director Marco Bellocchio. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Filmmaker: Do you have any memories from early childhood of Mussolini’s influence on Italian life?

Bellocchio: I was born in 1939, so I was too small to actually feel the affects of fascism. I learned about fascism after World War II from my parents and older brothers, through their stories of specific experiences during fascism. I never actually participated in the militarization of Italian youths. I was too young for that in 1943 when fascism fell. Being a small bourgeois family, we didn’t suffer from the violence and the persecutions of fascism. My father was able to become a lawyer and reap some benefits from fascism. He was able to work tranquilly and create his own wealth without becoming an active fascist. He subscribed at the time to fascism because no one dared rebel against the dukes. I could go on and on with stories, but the violent, anti-popular fascism was something that only came out after the wend of World War II, after Italy lost, that’s when we started talking freely about it and I truly learned about it.

Filmmaker: How did you first hear of Ida Dalser and when did it occur to you to tell her story?

Bellocchio: The story of Ida Balser came to the surface fairly recently. I knew about fascism, but I knew little about her, I only discovered she existed fairly recently. She’s a minor character in history books, you only get a couple of lines about her. She’s not as famous as Mussolini’s other mistresses or his wife. I read a few articles on her and some books about her. There was a documentary film as well. She impressed me in a number of ways. I was very impressed by her character. Often in movies we work better with minor characters than major characters because there is room left for imagination and re-elaboration.

It was important for me to express her passion for Mussolini but also her courage and her irreverence toward the prevailing system. In a world where fascism reigned, she was able to rebel against fascism, Mussolini, Italy and that was something that struck me because it was something you didn’t do at the time.

Filmmaker: There’s very little in the historical record about the inter workings of her relationship with Mussolini. With so little to build upon, how did you go about creating a relationship between them on screen that seemed authentic and lived in?

Bellocchio: I based what I was doing on the very few number of true facts available. They actually met in her beauty salon in Milan. In 1914 there were a number of anti-war demonstrations led by Mussolini before he changed and became interventionist. A lot of the information I received in fragments from biographies of Mussolini. There’s not much on both Ida Dalser and Mussolini, but there is a lot about Mussolini from a number of different biographers. For example, in the park Mussolini says to Ida, “I would have liked to have been a musician or a writer, but I would have been mediocre, so I decided to become a journalist and a politician.” This is something I took directly from a number of biographies of Mussolini as a young activist. Many history books have all the information you need on him once he became a dictator to his death and very little on his younger years. A lot is neglected or unknown and so I was interested in putting on screen the transformation of young Mussolini, the socialist revolutionary, to the nationalist, pro-war dictator Mussolini.

Filmmaker: How did you come to settle on Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the lead? She’s tremendously affecting.

Bellocchio: It was a very complicated choice I had to make regarding the actress to play Ida Dalser because the period spanned about 30 years of time, from approximately 1907 to 1937 so it was clear that we had to solve a number of preliminary issues first. I initially thought of using two actresses, one younger and one more mature, but then I realized I needed to preserve a wholeness, and integrity for the entire film so I realized I only wanted to use one actress. I tried different solutions with the actresses before choosing Giovanna: forty year olds, younger actresses, actresses with darker and lighter complexions.

With Giovanna I found that her eyes were so important, they’re tremendously expressive. On one hand they’re beautiful, yet they express a certain harshness and determination. Her mouth, her light complexion expressed something I needed for Ida Dalser. Her personality was also very akin to Ida Dalser’s. She herself during a number of interviews said that through her own experiences and her family experience found a certain kinship with the character, especially the fixation of Ida Dalser on Mussolini. It was not an easy task. It’s not an easy role to play obviously. She very generously found a very private and personal key to reading and interpreting the character.

Filmmaker: You’ve made films of sweeping historical scope like this before as well as chamber dramas that are much more intimate. Was there something particularly exhilarating about making a movie that deals with such an important, iconic historical figure in your countries’ history on such a large scale?

Bellocchio: I did not want to make this film in any way similar to a TV fiction series. So the challenge was to in little over two hours explicate this long page in history and to find images that would incredibly summarize what happened, so I wanted to save on words, explanations and descriptions.

An example would be the very important moment in history, the attack on Sarajevo. We have no documents for that so I had to summarize it with images. I got an old film, we used these black banners, he word Sarajevo was projected, specific music to give you an idea of what was going on. The funerals of the archdukes gave you an idea of the events. So I wanted to tell, in a very private story, an important page of history. It was very difficult, but an exciting challenge because I thought I had to try and invent a new language on the movie screen that could express in an extremely tight nutshell some of the most exciting events in our history.

Filmmaker: You used a lot of archival footage of Mussolini and his inner circle. What compelled you to use that device as opposed to dramatizing those events within the film’s narrative proper?

Bellocchio: It was actually an artistic choice and a natural choice. Before the World War I, we only had a few photos of Mussolini. After fascism broke out we had photos, movies, we were always updated on what was going on with Mussolini and his family. We saw him in parades. It was almost impossible to reconstruct the official story of Mussolini. It was interesting to take these documents of the archives and use them as the offical “newscast” of what was going on and then stay on the face and personal life of Ida as we follow her in her home, the insane asylum and later the life of her son. It was a challenge that characterized the whole style of this movie. In facing this challenge, I wanted to use solutions that were not abstract or cerebral, so I resorted to documents and films. We did a lot of research of these documents but we also, through my imagination and creativity, changed the material that we had, blowing up images and or shortened them because they were different and sometimes they weren’t appealing to the viewer.

Filmmaker: How has the film been received in Italy?

Bellocchio: The film was received very well, with great interest and admiration. What I noticed through the many communications, mostly personal, that I received, was that despite the extremely important historical nature of the film, that there were no longer any real nostalgics of fascism and Mussolini. There are many politicians who have high ranking roles in the Italian government whose formative political ideas were based upon fascism. They now disavow those feelings and Mussolini. Mussolini is seen as very negative, one of the worst evils in Italian history. This is something I believe that they actually feel. There are many politicians who have remained in silence and who did not identify themselves with fascism.

Filmmaker: During the process of researching and making this film, what was the single most striking thing you learned about Italy’s march toward fascism?

Bellochio: This world of fascism exists no longer. In Italy there is no risk that there will be a return of fascism. We can have what we call an authorative democracy, but the violent manifestations of fascism, the killings, the beatings, the rapes, the limitations on personal freedoms, will no longer be a risk for Italy. There is a certain conditioning, as in all countries. The government conditions for example the media. When you have Prime Minister Berlusconi, who owns half the media in the country and conditions the other half as Prime Minister, that is a limitation on our freedoms, even as he claims he’s continuously persecuted by the media as if he were a political refugee.

So the error that Mussolini in some way made that has a reflection in today’s society is the fact that he espoused and established the racial laws for his own politic advantage and to team up with Hitler. It was something that Italy as a people and a nation did not feel and that set up his demise. The persecution of Jews, a very small minority in Italy, was absurd. They were totally integrated with Italians. It makes us think of how racism is gaining ground in Italy. There is a certain amount of racism against minorities, especially toward migrant workers who come in and work. I think it is just so hypocritical, seeing how there are so many people that come in and add wealth to our country. There’s a growing mentality of fear that these people should somehow be hindered from coming into our country. It is also taking on a violent connotation, the attempts to keep these people who are different, these people who are poor, out of out country. So there is an ideological analogy with what’s going on today and fascism. I believe it’s extremely stupid.

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