For a guy who first burst onto the scene in the sixties, Italian director Marco Bellocchio, now 71, has been on quite a tear in recent years, with socially caustic and gripping films such as Good Morning, Night, My Mother’s Smile and The Wedding Director making waves at home, on the festival circuit, and in American art houses. And now there’s Vincere, his ambitious epic about Mussolini’s Italy, which opens today and which David Edelstein calls “a near-masterpiece a monument to intoxication: of sexual conquest, of military conquest, and, most of all, of cinema.” It tells the fascinating story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Benito Mussolini’s mistress and the mother of his child, spurned by Il Duce on his ascent to power, and eventually confined to mental institutions. Bellocchio sat down with us during last fall’s New York Film Festival, as he prepared to present Vincere to American audiences for the first time.
Your film seems to present opposing visions of madness. Here we are watching a character who is supposedly going insane and spending time in asylums, while the world around her, and Italy in particular under Mussolini, is truly going mad.
The tragedy of Ida Dalser is that she favored this kind of self-destruction in order to win back Mussolini. She chose it. In the movie, I didn’t want to depict a specific condition, like hysteria or schizophrenia. I wanted to show a woman who was incarcerated in an institution in order to avoid any leaking of information that might tarnish the image of Mussolini or of fascism. Ida Dalser to me is a rebel, a prisoner who tries to regain her freedom in many ways. I’m not trying to be particularly faithful to the history here. Over the ten years of her incarceration, she underwent a lot of things that were fairly common in insane asylums at the time — electroshock, near-death experiences, extreme violence. But what I wanted to highlight here was the fact that she was detained, and to present one angle on the reasons why she was detained.
There’s a further irony here, though. Your films often tackle the issue of madness, especially as manifested in the social institutions of Italy — be it the government, the church, or the military. But more than any other institution, the family is usually the main source of madness in these films. So here we have a woman going mad while trying to build a family for herself.
That’s a very interesting observation. Ida Dalser is fixated on her marriage with Mussolini. But Mussolini decides to marry a woman who is emblematic of a very conservative tradition. The woman he marries is from his own town, and speaks the same dialect. He uses the family to present an image of himself to the Italian people. For her part, Ida’s vision of the family she wants to build with Mussolini is also a typically bourgeois ideal. But it’s shattered for her. It’s important to remember that her initial relationship with Mussolini happens during a pivotal period in his life: He was a member of the Socialist party, and like all Socialists supported neutrality in World War I. But then he became an interventionist, and this led to a break with the Socialists. He founded his own magazine, and Ida Dalser sold all her possessions to help finance him. So she gave up everything for him, literally.
But she does eventually see Mussolini for what he is.
Yes, but it’s a knowledge that she gains through immense amounts of pain. In the film, and in reality, through the suffering of her later years, she understood the enormous amount of violence perpetrated by Mussolini. She detached from him finally, in the last years of her life. We see this in her letters: She would say things like, “Beware Duce, your victims may take vengeance on you, and you may end up the same way your opponents have.”
To what extent are contemporary Italian audiences familiar with the history you’re depicting here? The broad events of Mussolini’s rise, after the first half of the film, are depicted mostly through brief glimpses of newsreels.
Almost nobody knows about the story of Ida Dalser. Even I didn’t really know anything about her at first. And I would say that although obviously people are familiar with Mussolini, very few young people really understand the history of the twentieth century in Italy. But it was important to me not to get too distracted by the historical events of this period in telling the story of this woman. So, after a certain point, I tried to show the course of events without getting into specific details of the politics of the period.
Your films have always been political, in a sense — they often tackle issues of history, politics, and identity. In a way, you’re one of the few Italian filmmakers who is still making films like this. Is it harder for you to make films in Italy today?
I wouldn’t say it’s harder. The way that we make these films has changed. Politics has changed. In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, politics in Europe expressed a radical vision of Utopia, something that today is unimaginable. The Left no longer expresses such things. The opposition to Berlusconi is very ineffective, and has not been able to express a coherent vision of Italy or standing up for real principles. Paradoxically, even though I’m an atheist, I think the Catholic Church has been much more effective than the political opposition in terms of defending principles of solidarity and justice.
What is your relationship with critics like these days? You’ve always had a kind of contentious relationship with them, particularly in your early years.
In Italy, in general, this film was very well received. There were some exceptions of course, and there always are. The critics have changed over the years, obviously. A lot of the critics who wrote about my early films are dead. A new generation has come, society has changed. So I can only trust in my own abilities to make films that can travel the world. Otherwise I’d either have to retire or switch to television, as many of my colleagues have done. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner in the kinds of films I’ve made. I’m always in a position to do my own thing. I don’t have any political protections, and I don’t work for studios. So I’m free to do what I want.