It is the eve of World War I. Ida Dalser owns a beauty parlor in Milan. She hears a commotion, looks into the street, and sees the man of her dreams. He emerges theatrically from behind a corner, first an angry voice, then an outstretched hand, and now a profile, all Roman nose and furious brow. Backed by his comrades and the red flag of socialism, the pit bull barks: "With the guts of the last pope, we'll strangle the last king!" As the protestors collide against government rifles, Ida rushes into the fray to slip her number to the young Benito Mussolini.
A funny feeling, to find yourself falling for a fascist dictator, but funny feelings are the political point of Marco Bellocchio's movies. From the untold story of Mussolini's mistress, he has conjured up another breathless opera of misplaced devotion. As Benito rejects Ida for a more respectable marriage, she becomes the ex-wife from hell, as crazy about this guy as he is about himself. Giovanna Mezzogiorno plays Ida as a great tragic heroine, which she is, for all the wrong reasons. Those reasons are embodied by the handsome actor Filippo Timi, an Italian stallion for the ages. Who knew Il Duce was once Javier Bardem with a mustache?
The two seem to be made for each other, and their love affair unfolds in the Caravaggio shadows we remember from The Godfather, to the strains of a thrilling musical score. But something is horribly wrong. The shadows are almost too black, the chiaroscuro more oscuro than chiaro. When, 15 minutes in, we get ravaged by the broody Benito, the music stops, and the cock of the walk becomes a mindless bird of prey. He only has eyes for the fatherland.
Director Bellocchio was born at the breakout of World War II, and has been skewering Catholic repression since the sexual revolution. His name is forgotten by the cognoscenti, perhaps because the Criterion DVD company has released only his first feature, Fists in the Pocket. It's the missing link between Psycho and Taxi Driver, and it defined Bellocchio's outrageous style, in which the Italian family is so perverted, you can't decide whether to laugh or call an exorcist.
Here, he goes even further, mixing in vintage propaganda footage and—incredibly—making it work again, today. The title, "VEEN-cheray," is a Fascist slogan meaning "vanquish" or "win," and Bellocchio flashes those giant words as Mussolini rises to power. This filmmaker has no use for period pageantry that flatters our hindsight. You know, stuff like, "This ship will never sink!" or "Kill those Nazis!" Nor does he pull a Scorsese and worship his sociopath as the messiah, which would be tasteless and grim. Bellocchio has created not so much a passion play as a passionate spoof of one, with Mussolini watching a Jesus movie and seeing only his own future. He's watching in a church, but all humility is forgotten. This is the dark power of cinema that everyone kept yammering about in Quentin Tarantino's last production.
The language is simpler and funnier, too. When the Austrian-born Ida begs Mussolini, "Tell me you love me, just once," he capitulates, but only in her native tongue: "Ich liebe dich. " For her it's romance, for him it's a treaty, and by the end of the film, we hear the real Mussolini, in a wartime newsreel, speaking German once more. A political threat, Ida and her son, Benito Jr., are placed under lock and key. Terrified doctors and nuns ignore her claims to importance, but she glimpses her husband in another newsreel. Suddenly he's the Mussolini we know from high school, a burly god on the silver screen. Ida's astonishment matches our own. She doesn't buy the ruse for a second, and neither do we. A new audience can raise arms in fascist salute, but the matinee idol is still our man. That's amore.
is not rated. It opens Friday at Hollywood Theatre.