Largely positive, at times gushing reviews of Italian director Marco Bellocchio's most recent work, Vincere, a superbly executed and gripping film that tells the story of Ida Dalser, the alleged wife and historically confirmed obscured paramour of Benito Mussolini, have not been, by any means, lacking. It has been lauded for the powerful performances of Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Ida, and Filippo Timi, as both Mussolini and Mussolini's son, Benito; for its effective and at times, admittedly, overwhelmingly moving use of archival footage; for its similarly exasperating score that marches the narrative directly into your acoustic memory; and for Bellocchio's sweepingly rich, meticulous aesthetic by which he both visually romances and trounces his viewers. As for the rapturous beauty of the film, one might say that Bellocchio is here deserving of his namesake, which in English means beautiful eye.
Agreed, that might read like excessive verbiage to say that Vincere is a pretty picture. But rest assured that this picture's various sensory pleasures are indeed boldly robust and pretty aplenty.
On the other hand, somewhat thinly fleshed out in so much generally unanimous praise has been one of the film's most intriguing and relatively transparent metaphors, that of Ida Dalser as symbolic embodiment of the interwar and incipiently at-war Italian populace. This is not to say that critics and reviewers have missed or dismissed this powerful interpretation, nor that Vincere cannot be enjoyed in the absence of such metaphorical regard. Recognition of it, however, does certainly grant viewers a much deeper understanding of the film's broader message, impact and potential import. As such, one might consider it similarly important, or at least narratologically interesting, to note that this metaphor is not without precedent. And it is here where more flesh can be added to the notion of embodiment.
In the history of Italian letters, quite generally, and Italian cinema, more specifically, there is a long tradition of imbuing often strong-willed female figures—by way of various topoi of narrative function, consequence and trickery—with certain characteristics that can be construed, at a remove, as a medium for the metatextual amplification of a singular persona into that of an entire political body. To be sure, this practice is easily traceable in the ever-venerable history of Italian visual arts as well. But to streamline this discussion and come back to Vincere, a limit or two should be set.
As for literature, then, and without delving into too many specifics, one can find such synecdochic tendencies in the verses of Dante, Petrarch and Tasso; in the theatrical works of Goldoni and Metastasio; and in the less temporally distant poetry and prose of Foscolo, Carducci, Pascoli and D'Annunzio. This is but a very short list of writers whose works might be relevant here, and one should note that for most of them, excepting only the latter few, there was not yet any Italian populace proper, at least not as it is understood today, for their female protagonists, real or imagined, to embody. All the same, variably Italianate political bodies—cities, principalities, regions—can be read, through representative females, as manipulable objects of embodiment. In Machiavelli's play La Mandragola (1518), for example, a hilariously salacious and ironic tale of crossed plots and libidinal deceit, the female protagonist, Lucrezia, is pulled in many different directions and violated on many different levels by a host of self-serving plotters and co-conspirators, all of whom—Lucrezia included—get what they want in the end. Read as a political allegory, one whose shrewdly apt vision of power-securing connivances and machinations is readily reflected in The Prince, Lucrezia comes to represent the adroitly manipulated—by the formidable politico-pecuniary powers-that-were—Florentine populace of the early 16th century, essentially the era of Medici rule. And the Medici, employing tactics one would eventually come to call Machiavellian, were hardly, one might say, slack actors in matters of well-wielded might.
Moving on to a few cinematic examples of this tradition, one would do well to begin with Roberto Rossellini's Roma, citta aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), a landmark film of the neorealist era that portrays the struggles of the Italian partisans against the Nazis during the period of German occupation. Here, the character Pina, played by Anna Magnani, is the working-class fiancé of the typesetter-cum-partisan Francesco and the expectant mother of his child. By way of her social class and inherently goodhearted religio-moral makeup, Pina can be seen as not only an idealized Italian mother, but also as an idealized Italy herself whose existence, familial and otherwise, is devastated and imperiled by the various warring factions that both circumscribe and invade her. When she is gunned down by the Nazis, offspring yet in utero, her futile death parallels that of so many other innocents in wartime; that she dies with a child in her womb thus dashes symbolically Italy's hopes for any immediately better future.
In turn, it is precisely this dashed future that Pier Paolo Pasolini depicts in Mamma Roma (1962), in which the title character, a prostitute—also played by Anna Magnani, whom Pasolini chose precisely because of the diametrically opposed role she had played in Citta aperta—is relegated to a life of misery and false hope in the projects outside of Rome, where the forsaken landscape is as strewn with the fallout of boom-time development as it is with the elsewhere-eminent ruins of a distant empire. Mamma Roma's call name could only be more blatantly referential if it were Italia, and her son, the very epically non-heroic Ettore, is as hapless as he is hopeless, a dawdling thug and petty thief whose only calling seems to be that of his absentee father, an abusive pimp. If Magnani-as-Italy was invaded and killed by warring parties in Open City, she is opened further and whored-out by the sorrows of socioeconomic violence in Mamma Roma. Here, however, she does not die. Ettore, rather—the delirious and degenerate issue, as it were, of Rossellini's machine-gunned madre—is destined to perish, in cruciform fashion no less. Instead of moving on, Mamma Roma, Italia, merely continues to live—her desperate state of intractable depravity a fate as traumatic as, if not worse than, death.
There are at least a few other films worthy of brief mention here. Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, dir. Giuseppe De Santis, 1949) is a melodramatic intrigue that commingles neorealist praxis with facets of Hollywoodiana in its portrayal of Silvana, played by the voluptuous blond Silvana Mangano, and her very literal—and nationally symbolic—downfall resulting from an unrequited love affair with American culture. In C'eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much, dir. Ettore Scola, 1974), the female protagonist, Luciana, represents not so much postwar Italy as she does the various faces of postwar Italian cinema itself. And in L'ultimo bacio (The Last Kiss, dir. Gabriele Muccino, 2001), the primary female character, Giulia, a complicated persona though she may be, embodies a somewhat idealized archetype of the contemporary Italian adult woman, daughter, friend, girlfriend, and soon-to-be wife and mother whose life is given meaning, then rendered asunder by her somewhat idealized, archetypal, unfaithful and belligerently contrite boyfriend. At film's end, as Giulia's not-quite-tragically shattered life is pieced together again, the pacifying montage through which this is conveyed bears more than a little resemblance to a standard Italian television commercial for, say, furniture, or breakfast cookies, or appliances. Of additional interest here is that the role of Giulia in this widely lauded film became Giovanna Mezzogiorno's major breakout role.
Returning to Vincere, one might consider that the title means not only "to win," but also, depending on the nature of the direct object, to "beat," "defeat" or "vanquish." It is thus fitting that when the youngish Mussolini and Ida embrace, he crushes her. When they kiss, he asphyxiates her. And when they make love, so to speak, he singularly swarms and smothers her and almost never, for a moment, meets her gaze. Unless they are thusly engaged, in fact, they are rarely in the same room. When they are in public, even early in the film when they are still quite involved, she is sidelined. And in an exquisitely telling moment that might quite easily get lost in translation, Ida, upon giving to her lover her every lira to fund his newspaper, asks of him only one thing in return: "Dimmi che ti amo," "Tell me you love me." He pauses and considers—a pregnant moment in various ways, in fact—before doing as she asks. Yet even this avowal is indirect, perhaps ingenuous, for he says it in German, "Ich liebe dich." This is a minor detail, one might say, until an extensive reel of archival footage later in the film shows the real Mussolini, in full dictatorial form, addressing an audience with great pomp, and great passion, in German. That his gaze is always beyond, that his communication is consistently indirect, that his every mannerism is one of domination, and that his sentiments are never less than steely might achieve here a fine point of grandiloquent culmination. He has no true interlocutors, only ultimately silenced audiences—rapt, raucous and enthralled though they may be. Indeed, his ideal listeners are masses of approving others; his envisioned destinies, truly nationalistic or not, inhabit ever an elsewhere.
The embodiment of the ideal nation in which he purports to believe requires the disembodiment of those who believe in him. And this exploitation of others' bodies, others' means and others' destinies triggers the exploitation of a certain violence of imagery. It is somewhat erroneous, then, though simultaneously fitting that a Biography documentary on Mussolini, as it is currently featured on Hulu, is categorized not under "Political Figures" or "Historical Figures," but under "Performers."
In a recent interview featured on The Huffington Post, Bellocchio claims that he had not initially intended for his film about Mussolini and Ida-cum-Italy to contain any correlative messages, let alone warnings, regarding the relationship between Italy and her current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and that such resemblances became apparent to him only once work was well underway. Yet the parallels, for his viewers, are too striking to disregard, the mediatic mastery too mimetic to overlook.
Should the same critico-cinematic device that links Pasolini's Mamma Roma to Rossellini's Pina be at play here to bind Giulia to Ida, then one might conclude that whether the actress is Anna Magnani or Giovanna Mezzogiorno—or whether the context is distantly literary or contemporarily filmic—the Italian tradition of deploying, at times disembodying female figures to embody the variable sufferings or conquests of the Italian people is yet alive and well, for good or for ill.
Italy's abiding reverence for the Virgin Mary, yet another deep-rooted tradition, is surely not without relevance in all this. But that need not be discussed here.
Suffice it to say that Bellocchio, employing a beautiful eye and certain metaphorical might in the creation of a pretty picture called Vincere, takes this synecdochic tradition a bold step further. And in so doing, Bellocchio vince.